“I Can’t Breathe”: A White Man’s Thoughts on Eric Garner, Ferguson and the Specter of Racial Injustice

“For me, this is a very religious thing. I don’t believe you can love your neighbor as yourself and then kill them. Police officers have to learn to love their neighbors as themselves. If we continue a situation where cops are allowed to continuously resort to lethal force, the cycle of violence will continue and death will continue to beget death. I think people of faith need to demonstrate. We have a fundamental responsibility to be in the streets, to be creating coalitions, to be building change.

I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, ‘I can’t breathe.- It made me think — that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I think the church should be saying the same thing — that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society.”

— Rev. Jeff Hood

I normally try to keep these blog posts confined to religious topics, and I do my best to avoid specifically political issues. I have not been perfect in this regard, because there are times when the weight of political/social events becomes so heavy that the religious community can no longer afford to sit back and try to be peacemakers.

This is one of those times.

As I sit here, my head is still reeling from the grand jury verdict of “no true bill” for Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr.. I have struggled since the announcement of the verdict to understand how we have come here, to this place in America where a professional with a firearm can be reasonably threatened by an unarmed civilian – at least to the point where lethal force is appropriate. That goes against my beliefs on non-violence, but it also goes against my training in escalation of force and rules of engagement. The addition of the fact that the officer in question was white and the victim/perpetrator was black, and the case takes a new dimension. Suddenly, we’re thrust into the world of racial injustice. We suddenly have to consider that a young black man is 21 times more likely (http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white) to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts (this study includes both white and non-white police officers.) We have to consider the racial injustice of the courtroom and prison, the fact that there are more black Americans in prison or on probation or parole than were enslaved in the year 1850 (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/locked-up-in-america/michelle-alexander-a-system-of-racial-and-social-control/).

These are uncomfortable statistics for white Americans, because they indicate an institutional racism that we have become complicit in. We are not racists on an interpersonal level, yet we continue to live in a privileged state compared to our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. Our sons are far less likely to be shot dead by police, or tried and imprisoned, for often minor crimes. We are not feared in large numbers. We are not a targeted population for stop and frisk laws. We are not as likely to lose our voting rights as a result of felony incarceration.

We are privileged, but we don’t want to admit that. We don’t want to acknowledge that America is an easier place to live when you’re white, because it would challenge the false narrative of racial harmony that we’ve been building for at least the last 40 years. White Americans now quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on non-violence (while conveniently ignoring his pleas for racial justice.) We lionize a dead civil rights champion, while we simultaneously demonize living ones (see: Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton). We point to a black president as “proof” that we’re living in a “post-racial” society, yet we fail to see that the same President has been subject to racist campaigns to discredit his citizenship and a level of vitriol unheard of in my lifetime.

I have family and friends that feel strongly that the case of Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown, Jr. is a case of “race-bating” and “fanning the flames” of racial division. But, they fail to see that we, as white Americans, have already done that. We have fanned these flames into a raging inferno, and then stood back and complained that it’s too hot. How have we done this? We have done this by ignoring a system of institutional racism that has existed, in some form, since the foundation of this country.

We owned slaves for 245 years in this country, from the first landing in 1620 until 1865. After the practice of slavery was abolished, we continued a system of legal segregation and discrimination for another century (the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.) So, for 344 years, black Americans were either owned or legally prevented from going to the same schools as white Americans, working at the same jobs, living in the same neighborhoods, shopping at the same stores, eating from the same restaurants, etc. To put this into a different perspective: my father was born in 1962. He is now 52 years old. That means that the first black Americans to be born into a world without legal segregation and discrimination are just hitting what we would call “middle age.”

Is 50 years long enough, in the scope of cultural and institutional trends, to make up for three and a half centuries of hideous racial injustice?

Is 50 years long enough for the memory of those crimes to fade?

Is 50 years long enough for the children and grandchildren of slaves – the children and grandchildren of the legally disenfranchised, segregated and discriminated against – to “pull themselves up” out of the hole that white Americans dug for them and threw them in?

I’m using strong language for a reason. It’s time for us to acknowledge that we created the very cycles of crime that we turn our nose up at. We created the urban neighborhoods that we don’t feel safe driving through. We created the generational problems of incarceration that leave so many young black men fatherless. We created the poverty that forces so many black families onto federal assistance.

We created these problems, as a society and a culture, and now we wash our hands of it, we shake our heads disapprovingly, we protest innocence and say, “I didn’t do any of those things.”

Protestations of innocence do nothing to solve the problem of racial injustice.

Disapproval makes it worse.

Denial of privilege makes it worse.

This morning, I watched the video of Eric Garner being murdered by a NYC police officer. I listened as he cried out, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” over and over again. Unlike the tragic story of Michael Brown, Jr., there was on question of whether or not Eric Garner was an aggressor. He was well within his rights to tell police officers to leave him alone. He was committing no crime at the time of his arrest. From the words he said, this was not the first time he had been unjustly confronted by officers.

And they still confronted him.

They tackled him.

They choked him.

They killed him.

A grand jury failed – not refused, but failed – to bring back justice for Eric Garner. A police officer is clearly shown on video as an aggressor, is clearly shown to ignore the cries of a man who is in pain, and yet a grand jury said to the people of that neighborhood in New York City, “Eric Garner doesn’t matter.

Does this cast a different light on the “situation” in Ferguson, Missouri? Does this make riots and looting understandable? MLK Jr. referred to rioting as “the voice of the unheard.”

Can you hear that voice? Are you even listening? Do you even care?

That voice is the cry of the oppressed, the cry of the needy, and we are instructed clearly in the words of Jesus about what to do when we hear those cries. Those cries are His cries.

Where was Jesus in Ferguson, Missouri? He was bent and weeping over the slain body of Michael Brown.

Where was Jesus in NYC? He was crying out with Eric Garner.

Where is Jesus every day when another young black boy loses his life to police bullets? Where is He when another black man is sent away from his community to rot in a for-profit prison system?

Jesus is always at the side of the oppressed.

But, that’s cold comfort to a community of people who are losing their sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and friends to a system that doesn’t care about them enough to stop it. They don’t need Jesus standing by their side.

They need us.

This isn’t a narrative about white superheroes and saviors swooping down to save poor black people. This is a narrative about average, everyday white Americans admitting their privilege and consciously ignoring it in favor of solidarity with the oppressed.

This is a narrative about white Americans speaking out in defense of the victims, rather than the aggressors.

This is a narrative about white Americans understanding, rather than judging.

This is a narrative about white Americans refusing to support acts of violence against the black community, regardless of who perpetrates it.

Finally, this is a narrative about white Americans recognizing that we exist in an unbalanced state of racial relations. It does no good to talk about how “colorblind” you are, while simultaneously benefiting from systems and institutions that favor one color of skin over another.

*************************************************************************

I wanted so badly to be a peacemaker. I wanted my first blog post-Ferguson to be about our need for reconciliation, the need for both parties – offended and offender – to come together in unity. But, I no longer believe that this is anything but a white American problem. We have greatly wronged our brothers and sisters of color for centuries, and it is neither Christian nor American to expect them to come up with a solution. We have the only solution.

The only solution is justice.

And only we can deliver that.

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