Tag Archive | Ferguson MO

The Legitimacy Of Violence

While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations.  If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community?  What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power?  In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face? – Me, “Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence'”, No One Special, August 19, 2014

A torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans descended on a Charlottesville, Virginia, park Saturday evening, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

Chanting “All White Lives Matter,” and “No More Brother Wars,” the crowd, which said they were protecting their “white heritage” from the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue in the Virginia town’s park.

They also chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Dozens of protesters also brought bamboo tiki torches to a second rally once it became dark out. . . .

No arrests were made and there were no reports of injuries. – Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protesters Against Removal of Confederate Statue,” nbcnews.com, May 15, 2017

White Supremacist Richard Spencer being punched in the face while giving an on-air interview, January 20, 2017. Spencer was the leader of the “protest” in Charlottesville.

I was surprised the other day to see someone recently read and liked my nearly three-year-old post on Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. Since my usual habit is not to go back and read old posts, and since I’d completely forgotten writing such a thing in the first place, I decided to give it a read. My general opinion is that it was a pretty average contemporary critique of Arendt’s essay. What surprised me, however, was a quite remarkable, not-fleshed-out set of ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence, particularly in regards to the racist structures of violence and repression that are the American norm. In light of the rise of Trumpism and the emboldened racist fringe, it seems more than ever we need to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of violence as a political tactic, whether on the part of the state or of groups protesting violence against them by the state and those supported by the state.

First, I neither know nor care whether Donald Trump is a bigot. While he talks like a pretty typical clueless, privileged white guy; while he took out a full page ad in The New York Times demanding the death penalty for the young men originally arrested in the Central Park jogger assault, a sentence to be carried out absent any trial; while he pretended not to know or care about the support he received – and continues to enjoy – among members of vocally racist groups; none of this interests me in the least.

What is far more fascinating is that, while such groups certainly became far more visible during the years Barack Obama was President, with Trump they obviously feel free to make their presence far more visible. Trump emboldened racists groups from the Klan to the Nazi’s and so-called “alt-Right” (nothing more than Nazi’s who hide their swastikas), for whom they worked during the Presidential campaign. While certainly never hugely numerous and obviously outside the “mainstream” of our public discourse, the rise in the visibility of these groups has posed problems for those who have tried to think clearly regarding protest and resistance to the Trump Administration.

Nothing exemplifies these troubles more than the reaction to the Inauguration Day assault on neo-Nazi Richard Spence while he gave a television interview on the streets of Washington, DC. Many, including me, saw this act of violence as a fitting response to the very presence of Richard Spencer. Indeed, the phrase “Nazi-punching” has entered our current lexicon thanks to this single act of violent defiance. Many liberals, influenced by the constant talk of “non-violent resistance” and the appeal of moral superiority in the face of intransigent resistance, continue to insist that any violence by those opposed to Trump, his supporters, or his policies is illegitimate. I have read more than one commentator insist that violence in the face of “differing political opinions” in unAmerican.

That last is so grotesque it almost defies comprehension. To make the claim that Nazism, gussied up with some other name but the same filth nevertheless, is a political ideology worthy of respect by anyone is both ignorant and disgusting. People like Richard Spencer embrace the idea of the mass murder of minorties – Jews, African-Americans, sexual minorities, Latinos – and they deserve neither our time nor effort at understanding. While verbal rebuke and rejection are always called-for, physical attacks should be considered a rational response, particularly when such attacks come from members of the very minority communities these racists would prefer disappeared. When white liberals insist that such acts of preemptive violence are inherently illegitimate, they are speaking from a place of privilege, removing a rational and viable response from affected groups to very real threats of violence and death.

There are other matters regarding the matter of violence, particularly the question of the state’s monopoly on violence, raised by last night’s protests in Charlottesville. While the linked article does call the group a “mob”, and note that later in the evening as counter-protests arose there were “scuffles” and the police arrived, that not a single person involved was arrested demonstrates the unequal treatment of racial groups by authorities. In my original essay on Arendt, linked above, I noted that the police response in Ferguson, MO to what were largely peaceful protests against a police department with a history of racism; a police department in a predominantly African-American city  made up of white people; and a police department that was defending the shooting of a community member in a questionable act of self-defense; was beyond any rationally considered response. The famous image of a man facing police in military camouflage armed with automatic weapons exemplifies the police overreaction to peaceful, non-violence protests.

Both the shooting that prompted the protests and the reaction to the protests themselves, not to mention a long history of police harassment of the African-American population of Ferguson, exemplify “systemic racism” in America. It is the archetype of what people mean when discussing the matter of systemic racism in America. While the police in Ferguson outfitted themselves for urban combat, the police in Charlottesville did not. Numerous people were arrested in Ferguson. None were arrested in Charlottesville, despite the protests in Charlottesville being violent and those in Ferguson remaining peaceful.

For people, particularly those not living, say, in Ferguson, MO to speak about the illegitimacy of violence without qualifying that to be the illegitimacy of state violence is to ignore the very real situation our minority communities face on a daily basis. To insist on greater police presence in the face of racist protests and violence in Charlottesville is to demand the state stop deploying its police power only against groups from minority communities while leaving racist whites unbothered by the presence of armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and automatic weapons pointed in their faces. The systemic racism endemic to America, part and parcel of who we are as a country, is riven with violence, both state imposed and state sanctioned. When private groups whose very ideology is violence are not met with the same kind of armed response as peaceful groups of ordinary citizens demanding real justice for their communities, we are confronted with the reality both of systemic racism as well as the reality of state-perpetrated violence to enforce the racist status quo.

While non-violent confrontation with state actors certainly remains a live option for any group, to artificially limit such confrontation in such a way without taking into consideration the uses to which the state puts its monopoly on violence is to ignore the realities many communities face each and every day. As with everything, a consideration of the whole context is necessary, including the already-existing place of violence as a method of social control, before making any judgments regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of violence as a tactic in social protet.


Ferguson Is America

Sondra Fifer defines courage, confronting a rally of whites supporting Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson

Sondra Fifer defines courage, confronting a rally of whites supporting Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson

As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, MO, it becomes ever more clear how the violence, the anger, the resentment, the fear, and most of all the division between African-Americans and whites show us who we are as a people.  It would be wonderful to believe we are our best selves.  It would be even better if we lived our best selves.  The facts of the matter, however, demonstrate not only the systemic violence that continues unabated against minority communities, but the lack of any desire by whites to take a stand against injustice, oppression, and a death penalty meted out not by judges and juries but police officers in the course of their duties.

I’m writing this Sunday morning, August 24.  I’m writing this before I head off to church, to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, the Father of Jesus Christ who died and rose to deliver us from slavery to sin and death.  I’m writing this before I join millions of American Christians in what continues to be the most segregated hour of our weekly lives.  We live in separate worlds.  We experience the world in different ways.  We come to understand who we are in our relationships to society at large and the power structure through different historical lenses and different – vastly different – experiences.  And we continue to worship as if our Gods were different beings.  We say the same words, we sing the same hymns, we pray the same prayers.  The words, however, mean something very different because we in white America continue to pretend that our experiences and definitions and history define a norm to which all others must give credence.

In a Reuters article carried on Yahoo News today, authors Nick Carey and Edward McAllister paint a picture of Ferguson divided by race, by sympathy, and by whether support is offered to the existing power structure or the very legitimacy of that power structure is called to question.  One of a group of whites gathered in a bar in support of Ofc. Darren Wilson says, without understand the way her words indict Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department, and the United States:  “It’s not about black or white, it’s about rule of law.”  The insistence on color-blindness and the rule of law give away the game.  As long as we refuse to recognize the reality of race, and how it impacts how the law is upheld, Fergusons will continue to happen.  As long as “the rule of law” means police impunity in minority communities, Fergusons will continue to occur.  As long as white people refuse to stand with our fellow African-American sisters and brothers and demand accountability from those in authority, Fergsuons will continue to occur.

On a side note, I do wish people would stop saying things like, “He/She’s been tried and convicted in the press!”  Because that is precisely why we have a free press: so we the people can be exposed the abuses of power and demand change.  The standards of evidence for public discourse are not the same as those in a court of law, nor should they be.  For example, years ago I was chastised for calling Mark Foley a pederast.  I had, as the cliche says, tried and convicted him.  I made the point there was enough evidence in the public record to insist my description of Foley’s unsavory sexual predilections was both warranted and fair.  Whether or not he had ever committed an actual crime was irrelevant.  I would say the same about Ofc. Wilson.  Whether or not he committed a crime under the statutes of the state of Missouri or the United States is irrelevant.  That he killed an unarmed young man, a young man who carried no weapon, had committed no crime, and represented no threat other than being a young African-American male is the single, indisputable fact of this entire on-going story.  Whether or not Wilson was an upstanding police officer, personally harbored neither hatred in his heart nor fear in his soul for African-Americans, or the Ferguson PD had a history of racial tolerance that was exemplary, above board, and transparent are neither here nor there.  The long history of sanctioned violence against African-Americans determines the narrative focus, not Wilson’s personal morality.

And here we are on Sunday morning.  I’m going to go to a predominantly white Church and worship a God that I hope will hear pleas for racial justice. I hope the Holy Spirit rips the scales from our eyes so that we can see the hurt, pain, rage, and fear among communities of color. I hope we are able to see in the shot and bleeding bodies of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell the broken body of Christ.  I pray that we are willing to demand justice for their deaths, demand an end to racially-motivated official violence.  Most of all, I pray that as we as a congregation gather around the communion table, we remember all our fellow Christians not only of other faith traditions and confessions, but other races, nationalities, languages, and histories are gathered with us because it is God who calls us to God’s table.  I believe the sacrament is the first place for healing to begin.  Let it be so in all our churches today and in the days and weeks to come.


Courtesy of the Reconciling Ministries Network, Phillip Agnew of Dream Defenders speaks to the Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey of Boston University School of Theology about a raid by Ferguson Police on a church providing help to peaceful protesters.  Every time another person or group steps in and it seems calm is being restored, the Ferguson PD does something immensely stupid like this, making me wonder if they have any idea the whole world is watching them right now.

Sanctuary of First UMC, Chicago Temple.

Sanctuary of First UMC, Chicago Temple

Tuesday I was in Chicago and had the privilege of spending some time in quiet prayer and contemplation here in this place.  A sanctuary is called that because it is that: a place of safety and seclusion from the world and it’s turmoil.  Churches have been honored as safe havens around the world, except in rare instances, for centuries.  Invading armies may have plundered, but destroying a church was a violation of holy ground, sacred space where God’s people gather.

People in Ferguson, MO protesting the murder of Michael Brown and years of police harassment, abuse, and officially tolerated low-level violence thought a church sanctuary would be honored, even in the midst of the racially and socially tense situation there.  That proved not to be the case, however.  Each step the Ferguson, PD take is actually two steps backward, as it seems officials there keep trying to defend their actions in the shooting death of Michael Brown.  They do have that right.  What they do not have is the ability to release a stream of falsehoods, from photos of Brown allegedly flashing gang signs to a photo of a completely different person holding a gun and claiming it was Brown to the claim the officer who shot Brown was injured in an assault to, now, raiding a church that was only doing what churches do: providing sanctuary to those in need, and offering a space of safety for those in danger.

It seems to me bland statements of support by the UM Bishop in Missouri are no longer enough.  He needs to get there, be on the ground, and become a part of the solution.  He and other UM clergy need to be there, on the ground, demanding an end to this war on the people of Ferguson.  United Methodists all around the country need to stand with the people of Ferguson, demand action that removes not only the Chief of Police, but any authority local officials have to act.  Their actions over the past two weeks clearly demonstrate they are incapable of acting in the best interests not only of the African-American population of the town, but of everyone in the town, as well as the town’s image to the rest of the country and world.

AME Rev. Renita Lamkin shows her wound from a police rubber bullet

AME Rev. Renita Lamkin shows her wound from a police rubber bullet

And now, it seems, the police are shooting clergy who are trying to mediate between the protesters and the police.

There is no safe place.  There are no people safe.  It is up to people of faith to demand action, to defend places of safety and sanctuary, to insist that people acting peacefully are not to be targeted for shooting.  If we do not do it, no one will.


The Churches & Ferguson MO

There’s a lot I could say.  There’s a lot I really want to say.  It has already been said better, with more passion, more truth, more anger, and more sadness by W. E. B. Dubois in his Litany of Atlanta.

A Litany Of Atlanta

O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears
an-hungered in these fearful days–
_Hear us, good Lord!_

Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery
in Thy sanctuary. With uplifted hands we front Thy heaven, O God, crying:
_We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_

We are not better than our fellows, Lord, we are but weak and human men.
When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed: curse them
as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done to
innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.
_Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners!_

And yet whose is the deeper guilt? Who made these devils? Who nursed them
in crime and fed them on injustice? Who ravished and debauched their
mothers and their grandmothers? Who bought and sold their crime, and waxed
fat and rich on public iniquity?
_Thou knowest, good God!_

Is this Thy justice, O Father, that guile be easier than innocence, and
the innocent crucified for the guilt of the untouched guilty?
_Justice, O judge of men!_

Wherefore do we pray? Is not the God of the fathers dead? Have not seers
seen in Heaven’s halls Thine hearsed and lifeless form stark amidst the
black and rolling smoke of sin, where all along bow bitter forms of
endless dead?
_Awake, Thou that sleepest!_

Thou art not dead, but flown afar, up hills of endless light, thru blazing
corridors of suns, where worlds do swing of good and gentle men, of women
strong and free–far from the cozenage, black hypocrisy and chaste
prostitution of this shameful speck of dust!
_Turn again, O Lord, leave us not to perish in our sin!_

From lust of body and lust of blood
_Great God, deliver us!_

From lust of power and lust of gold,
_Great God, deliver us!_

From the leagued lying of despot and of brute,
_Great God, deliver us!_

A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder
and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and
fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires
pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men
who hide behind the veil of vengeance!
_Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!_

In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed. We stopped our ears
and held our leaping hands, but they–did they not wag their heads and
leer and cry with bloody jaws: _Cease from Crime_! The word was
mockery, for thus they train a hundred crimes while we do cure one.
_Turn again our captivity, O Lord!_

Behold this maimed and broken thing; dear God, it was an humble black man
who toiled and sweat to save a bit from the pittance paid him. They told
him: _Work and Rise_. He worked. Did this man sin? Nay, but some one
told how some one said another did–one whom he had never seen nor known.
Yet for that man’s crime this man lieth maimed and murdered, his wife
naked to shame, his children, to poverty and evil.
_Hear us, O Heavenly Father!_

Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God? How long shall
the mounting flood of innocent blood roar in Thine ears and pound in our
hearts for vengeance? Pile the pale frenzy of blood-crazed brutes who do
such deeds high on Thine altar, Jehovah Jireh, and burn it in hell forever
and forever!
_Forgive us, good Lord; we know not what we say!_

Bewildered we are, and passion-tost, mad with the madness of a mobbed and
mocked and murdered people; straining at the armposts of Thy Throne, we
raise our shackled hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen
fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of Thy
crucified Christ: _What meaneth this?_ Tell us the Plan; give us the
_Keep not thou silence, O God!_

Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb
suffering. Surely Thou too art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless,
heartless thing?
_Ah! Christ of all the Pities!_

Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words. Thou art still
the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul’s soul sit some soft
darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

But whisper–speak–call, great God, for Thy silence is white terror to
our hearts! The way, O God, show us the way and point us the path.

Whither? North is greed and South is blood; within, the coward, and
without, the liar. Whither? To death?
_Amen! Welcome dark sleep!_

Whither? To life? But not this life, dear God, not this. Let the cup pass
from us, tempt us not beyond our strength, for there is that clamoring and
clawing within, to whose voice we would not listen, yet shudder lest we
must, and it is red, Ah! God! It is a red and awful shape.

In yonder East trembles a star.
_Vengeance is mine; I mill repay, saith the Lord!_

Thy will, O Lord, be done!
_Kyrie Eleison!_

Lord, we have done these pleading, wavering words.
_We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_

We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of women and little
_We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_

Our voices sink in silence and in night.
_Hear us, good Lord!_

In night, O God of a godless land!

In silence, O Silent God.

A Question

With thanks to Bob Cesca at The Daily BanterI would like to know why for some people it is perfectly appropriate for a police officer to shoot an unarmed man running away from him, even if the young man is a possible suspect?  Remember now, he isn’t guilty of anything, he’s might be a suspect, although the officer doing the shooting admits he was unaware the person he shot was a possible suspect in a robbery.

Are these same people as angry that Bureau of Land Management officials, including officers, had weapons pointed at them as they went to enforce a court order either to receive payment of confiscate the cattle of an individual convicted of having repeatedly violated federal law by refusing to pay grazing fees?

Some of the same people who cheer on the cops in Ferguson, MO cheer on the folks at the Bundy Ranch for threatening to kill federal law enforcement officers.

It wouldn’t have anything to do with race, would it?  Because nothing is ever about race unless liberals mention it, which makes us the real racists.

The Week In Scary Black People

A Riot Brewing!

A Riot Brewing!

The Template For Scary Black Men Everywhere

The Template For Scary Black Men Everywhere














Scary Black People Carry Scary Diseases!

Scary Black People Carry Scary Diseases!

Events in recent days and weeks has offered an opportunity for all of us to sit and watch the unbridled id of some of our commentariat demonstrate just how odd and repulsive it can be.  And not just our commentariat, but some of us regular folk responding on social media as well.  Even as the Governor of Missouri finally stepped in, removing the over-armed and over-eager county police from Ferguson, we continue to see the posthumous character assassination of Michael Brown as well as the same done to residents of his hometown.

Along with this particular bit of ugliness, the spreading Ebola plague in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone is also starting to register among the rank-and-file, especially as some health care workers have been transported to CDC facilities here in the United States.  Nothing is more frightening than a disease Americans have no experience with, that sounds very scary, and (like AIDS when it first emerged in Africa and Haiti) spreads among people of a different skin color.

Racism can be funny, even as it turns your stomach.  Consider a dispatch from the National Review’s Kevin Williamson, quoted at The Reality-Based Community:

East St. Louis, Ill. — ‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka!White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom — I assume she’s his mom — is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: “Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?” It’s not the last challenge like this I’ll get here where the sidewalk ends, or the most serious one.
I get yelled at by a racially aggrieved tyke with more carefully coiffed hair than your average Miss America contestant.

Rather than call crap on the scene, let us consider the whole thing carefully.  While obviously the creation of a mind unfamiliar with any person of color walking the earth today, isn’t it fascinating that Williamson wrote this and his editors allowed it to be published?  Isn’t it fascinating there are people in America who will read this and say, “Yup!”?  I mean, who talks like this alleged 9-year-old?  “White devil”?  Really, Kevin?  And the scariest scary black man his mind can conjure is Snoop Dogg, a persona who is the creation of a record company, receives corporate sponsorship and support for his tours, and supports his children with the meager proceeds he receives from his record company contract.  Not only that, it’s a bit, I don’t know, dated a reference, isn’t it?  I mean there’s Li’l Wayne, and Fifty Cent, and Xzibit and even Nicki Minaj with her penchant for showing off her body and reputation for enjoying a good party.  Can’t Williamson even get current in his fears?  So while this surely is an entirely imaginary event, I have little doubt that Williamson believes it to be real.  The opening paragraph says far more about Kevin Williamson than the entire story he wrote says about East. St. Louis, IL.

As for the Ebola outbreak, it continues apace as every resource is strained in an attempt to get some kind of handle  and control on the situation.  With the announcement that two aid workers who had contracted the disease were being flown to the United States, it seems some people don’t quite understand how diseases like Ebola are spread.  The mere presence within our borders of people with Ebola is enough to cause some people to be terrified, refusing to accept the disease cannot be spread either by air or just being in the same country as someone who has it.  Like AIDS when it first emerged, Ebola carries the additional stigma of existing almost exclusively on the African continent.  That is enough to have a few too many people worried that scary black people will now infect white people with their scary hemorrhagic fever.

The nice thing is that despite the best efforts of some to lengthen the life of horrid racist tropes and stereotypes, far more people are horrified by the photos of heavily armed police officers facing down peaceful protesters.  While Michael Brown’s reputation, and by extension the town of Ferguson, MO, is having his reputation besmirched after he’s dead, based on photographs that are either misunderstood or void any context whatsoever, few people believe that it is necessary to shoot an unarmed person in the back while he’s running away from you.  Even if Brown was a criminal – and nothing has emerged that I’ve seen to make me believe that’s the case – does that mean, in this instance, he deserved to be shot to death for jaywalking?

Just because the residents of Ferguson are angry, and tired of being angry, and demanding representation and justice and fairness for their community, does the mere presence of large groups of black people automatically constitute a riot in need of militarized police?

Just because Ebola, a tropical disease that, while virulent and deadly, is difficult to contract unless exposed to blood and bodily fluids of those who are already symptomatic does not mean it is some strange thing that might well wipe out whole swaths of the United States.  Nor does it mean we should withhold aid and assistance because it is scary and far away and happening to people living in countries in West Africa.  Nor does it mean that bringing infected persons here is some kind of threat to American residents.

People reacting out of fear do crazy things sometimes.  They might concoct a scenario in which they are confronted by their own worst imaginings of some terrifying “Other”, believe it so much they tell this same story to others, creating Truth where none exists.  Others might insist that an unarmed man shot in the back while running from an armed police officer deserved what he received because a photograph they saw on the Internet demonstrates that man was a thug and a criminal.  Finally, many who have only heard the words “Ebola” and “hemorrhagic” in passing suddenly fear a terrible plague striking us here in the West because we had the audacity to try and care for people who had the disease.  The realities of these events and situations is far more complex than cartoonish descriptions and too often ignorant ramblings even among journalists would make them out.  We can set aside our fear of scary black people only when we realize they are just people.  Maybe then, rather than concocting nonsense fables and demeaning dead young men and allowing thousands to die will no longer be acceptable.

We still have a long way to go.

A Statistical Tragedy

One death is a tragedy.  A million deaths is a statistic. – Josef Stalin

As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, MO,  much of the online discussion focuses on the excessive firepower of police departments, no only there but around the country.  This is a good discussion, and needs to take place in precisely the way it is unfolding: focusing on the extreme imbalance in firepower, with local police departments purchasing surplus military equipment, including planes, helicopters, drones, recoiless rifles, and automatic weapons.  More and more police departments have trained SWAT personnel being used for routine actions such as serving warrants.  Even as the crime rate has fallen precipitously, police continue to arm ever more heavily, now dressing in full combat gear to deal with peaceful protesters.  How anyone in a position of authority thinks this is either a good idea or is going to end well for anyone involved is beyond my comprehension.

The real story, however, is the freedom, even impunity, with which police seem to operate in African-American communities and neighborhoods.  If the death of Michael Brown were a single instance of a police officer reacting out of fear or anger, it might well be that there would be no need for all the talk about peripheral issues such as the hyper-militarization of our municipal police forces.  The fact is, however, that Michael Brown is both a tragedy and a statistic.  He is a single victim of excess police violence; whatever happened that day, both the police report and witnesses agree Brown was shot in the back while fleeing the scene.  At the same time, his death is yet another depressing statistic in our long national narrative of state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans, particularly young African-American men who have always been viewed as posing the threat of violence against whites.

At some point, the discussion needs to return to the reality that we as a society tolerate far too much official violence aimed at minority communities.  When people talk about “racism”, this is precisely what is at issue.  The term has been overused to the point where its real meaning has become shrouded in images of the Klan burning crosses on lawns, or historic photographs of lynchings turned into community events.  That such is no longer part of our life, at least on a daily basis, we console ourselves that ours is no longer a racist society.  That, however is not what I, for one, mean when I say ours is a racist society.  Nor am I that concerned with whether or not this or that white person harbors fear or hatred of minorities in his or her heart.  That is the question of bigotry, and for now is a separate issue.

American history, viewed from the perspective of African-Americans, is two centuries of keeping 13% of the population under control by any means necessary. From slavery to Jim Crow to mob violence to official violence to the War On Crime, the War on Drugs, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, white flight and the abandonment of our urban centers, we continue to construct policies and practices that limit the freedom of African-Americans.  This creates situations in which police and courts feel free to act both arbitrarily and with impunity when the subject is black.  Whether or not any particular police officer, or police force, has or doesn’t have a history of racial animus, the reality is that ours is a society in which official violence against minorities, particularly minority youth, is not only tolerated but encouraged.  The result is not only the death toll of African-Americans at the hands of police; it is also the disproportionate response when African-American communities rise up and demand accountability for those who terrorize their homes and neighborhoods.  No amount of explanation and context-setting makes the photographs coming from Ferguson make any more sense.  On the one hand there are men and women marching in the street, insisting the police be held to account for Michael Brown’s death.  On the other are the police with dogs, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, mine resistant vehicles, and full body camouflage body armor.  At what point does it not become obvious this is not only morally wrong, but can only result in more violence and possibly more death?

For people of faith, following these events should be painful.  We should recognize our complicity, as fellow Americans who support local police forces, including providing the money for purchasing the weapons on display not only in Ferguson, MO but around the country, through our taxes.  We should repent of our silence in the face of the daily reality of official oppression that all too often erupts in the violent death of African-American, Latino, and other minorities, particularly youth.  We should be a voice not only for peace, but for justice.  Part of acting out our faith must be the demand that our police forces return to their essential function: helping neighborhoods and people, rather than arming themselves against the people they are supposed to protect.  We should demand legal accountability for any act of violence against any civilian, including civilian oversight boards for each and every case where a defendant is injured or killed.  The police need to be accountable, not to themselves, but to the law through people who are charged with holding them accountable.  It is long past time to rein in the threat of violence too many people face from cops.  Our churches should be the loudest voices calling for justice, peace, accountability, and the imposition of the rule of law over police forces around the country.

We need to make sure Michael Brown’s death means something, instead of becoming yet another check mark in our too-long history of a racist power structure murdering a young person of color.  We can do that if we live out our call to be people of peace who serve a God of justice.  My prayer is we might begin to travel this road, and soon.  The cost in lives keeps rising.