Several days after news broke that Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown, my shipping container from the Cayman Islands arrived. We’d been about two months without any of our possessions, “camping” in our new home, and adjusting to life in DC. The arrival of our container meant hours of unpacking and reassembly. As I began putting together what would become my home office, assembling bookshelves, unpacking and ordering books, I tuned into a Spotify channel that had escaped my notice. It was a channel dedicated to the sermons and addresses of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spent the entire Saturday driving nails into shelves while Dr. King drove the message of the Civil Rights Movement into my mind and heart.
One thing in particular stood out to me in light of the then-recent events of Ferguson, Missouri: Dr. King often mentioned police brutality. In all my reading and years of listening to Civil Rights speeches and addresses, the theme of police brutality had somehow escaped my notice. Perhaps the symbolic value of the right to vote and the massive social rearrangement of integration had overshadowed it. But with re-tuned ears, I could hear Dr. King ringing that bell over and over again.
So for the last couple of months I’ve had this thought: The ending of police brutality is the final civil rights battle.
Our televisions broadcast to us stunning and haunting scenes straight out of the 60s. Homemade placards announcing “Black Lives Matter” is today’s version of “Ain’t I A Man.” This generation holds “die ins,” while their grandparents held sit-ins. And the recrimination of lawful protestors and the opposition to justice remind us of those entrenched immoral attitudes and perceptions that arrayed itself against the marchers and freedom riders calling for justice.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s achieved almost unthinkable success in ending segregation in public facilities, overturning housing and employment discrimination, and in time changing American attitudes. But reforming police practice had not been codified in legislation and continues with us today. We have the painful reminder in the unjustifiable deaths of so many unarmed African-American children, women and men along with the inexplicable grand jury inaction in many of the cases. Add to it the systematic over-policing, arresting and incarceration of African Americans and we see how pressing a civil rights issue reforming police and criminal justice agencies is.
Why Ending Police Brutality Is a Civil Rights Issue
What is a “civil right”? A civil right is a class of rights that protect the individual’s freedom from being infringed upon, taken or denied by government, social organizations or other individuals. Civil rights protect our ability to participate fully in society. These civil rights are, in fact, human rights protected by government, not in the first place conferred by government.
When we speak of ending police brutality as a civil rights issue we’re speaking of ending the ways that law enforcement infringe upon the legal movements, freedoms and rights of all citizens—but in this case the disproportionate way this affects African Americans. We are declaring that certain practices and policies like profiling, “stop and frisk,” “verticaling” in apartment buildings, “curbing,” chokeholds, unlawful searches and seizures and the criminal proceedings that assign more severe punishments to African American defendants when compared to other groups.
I take it for granted that a reasonable person understands that in calling for criminal justice and law enforcement reform I am not suggesting that all officers and staff involved in this system are racists or wicked or anything like that. The people who work in these systems have the most difficult jobs, often without the best resources and with little thanks. This is not a screed against those persons in uniform who put it on the line day-in and day-out for our collective well-being. This post is a jeremiad against those officers and practices that betray the many good women and men who serve in Law Enforcement and who rob the service of its dignity and respect by their corruption. It’s those unfaithful officers and administrators who make this a pressing and lethal civil rights issue.
The debate about police brutality and law enforcement gets complicated for some people because we must all acknowledge that criminals exist and should be punished to the appropriate extent of the law. It gets further complicated in our perception because while segregation and the denial of voting rights were once universal and easily recognized, police brutality appears to us episodic and difficult to ferret out case-by case. But the truth is police brutality can only occur in a culture that at least permits it and perhaps even has ways of sanctioning it. The infringement of civil rights occurs in a general context of disproportionate arrests, searches, and punishments based upon the widespread suspicion of African-American criminality.
Right now the country debates how significant and widespread these issues are. But we need to be reminded that this same country debated whether or not segregation was a problem. The country debated whether or not women should be enfranchised. The powerful and unaffected have a long history of debating injustice and they look with suspicion on the Department of Justice’s investigations of civil rights abuses. They tend to think that an over-reach of Federal power and a kind of “double jeopardy” loophole when you “lose” the criminal trial. While they carry on their debates, the affected must protest and mount sustained efforts to create a more just society. And we must keep in mind that we wouldn’t need the intervention of the DOJ if justice were a more stout reality in our local interactions and laws.
Talking About All of This
If we are going to have a sustained movement toward justice and the protection of civil rights, then there are some ways of speaking and thinking that we must all abandon. For example, it’s often said that African Americans and white Americans “live in different worlds” when it comes to this issue. I know what’s meant by the phrase. We have very different experiences with police officers. That’s a well-intended sentiment, but it blunts the reality that we do in fact inhabit the same world and sometimes the forces one group lauds work unspeakable pain and suffering in another group. We won’t effect the kinds of coalitions and collaboration we need if we go on thinking our worlds are different. Our worlds are the same and your world has a lot to do with my enjoyment of the same world.
We probably should stop saying and thinking, “I can never understand what it’s like to be African American.” Yes you can. It only requires some imagination. I understand that if you’re not an African-American that there’s a depth of understanding and experience that’s simply not yours. But that’s true of any African American trying to understand white Americans. It’s true any time we try to cross an ethnic barrier. But this sentiment disenfranchises people. It places empathy and understanding beyond the reach of even the most sincere conversation partner. And that’s bad for people who want to see reconciliation spread more broadly. It’s bad for churches that want to see the reconciliation of the cross lived out more faithfully. We need to do a lot of listening and imagining so that we can benefit from entering one another’s circumstances. And, just to be clear, African Americans need to work just as much and just as hard and just as honestly and humbly to understand white Americans as white Americans need to do so to understand African Americans. This cannot be a one-sided empathy or a one-sided conversation.
And there is a sense in which we need to stop basing our discussions and work on the statement, “I’m hurting.” That’s not to deny serious and deep hurt. It exists. But we can’t build a movement on woundedness. We have to build it on a deeper appeal to biblical understandings of justice and mercy, compassion and truth. Saying “this hurts” gets a conversation started and ought to illicit attention, but it doesn’t fix the fundamental problem of rights being violated. And saying “We should listen to our hurting brothers and sisters” poses a curious problem of its own. It allows the listener (usually white) to feel as if he/she has done their duty simply by listening and requires them to do little else. It also allows for a sneaky pride, a condescending assumption that African Americans are “so emotional” and we are the enlightened, reasonable ones who listen patiently though it’s all really an “emotional fuss,” a “bother.” No, beloved, when people are hurt—in some cases in physical and life-ending ways—it’s no time to feel good about listening. It’s time to turn listening into sustained, passionate action on behalf of the oppressed.
We’re going to have to learn to “talk better” if we’re going to be better.
The Need for a Broad Coalition
As I watch events unfold, I’m struck by the power and enthusiasm manifested. I’m also struck and encouraged by the broad multi-ethnic concern and action demonstrated in die-ins and traffic disruptions. Look the Civil Rights Movement in its heyday, there’s a broad concern for justice. The faces are red, yellow, black and white—and I believe it’s precious in God’s sight and in mine.
We need this coalition to correct injustice. And we need this coalition to escape the circular blame game that erupts in discussions of criminality and injustice. These issues can reduce us to school children circling one another on the playground, trying to look tough while fearing a fight may be necessary, but inside hoping the bell rings to end recess before it does. That constant circling and biding of time may prevent another flare up of violence, but it does not reconcile people or cure the problem that began the war dance.
Some people mocked the near universal condemnation of the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case. They tell us it will be short-lived. They tell us it’s a faux unity. They may be correct—unless people of good conscience can build a foundation for common cause deeper than our shared sense that one decision was morally grotesque. We need each other for that. We need this to be a movement that’s sustainable, focused and principled—something that can be shared by everyone of good conscience.
This needs to be a Federal level agenda. I mentioned this in a previous post and someone chided me for my “big government” ideas. But they certainly didn’t hate big government in the 1980s when Clinton and others promised more funding to put more officers on the street or when mandatory sentencing was passed and now leaves us with over-incarceration.
And they seemed totally unaware that every right that African Americans possess has come at the intervention of the Federal Government. Not a single civil right has effectively been protected by a movement of state governments leading to the universal protection of that right across the country. Not one! Slavery was ended by Federal intervention. Reconstruction began by Federal intervention. The passage of the Voting Rights Act and the ruling of Brown v. Board were federal-level interventions. The ending of housing discrimination and employment discrimination came as a result of federal legislation. When states rights prevailed Black rights failed. Every civil right we have and it seems likely that every civil right we protect will come as a matter of Federal intervention. Understand: African Americans don’t love “big government” as a political philosophy. We simply know that historically the lever of political change and protection has been at the Federal level, not the state.
The Need for Local and National Action
We need the movement to have a national agenda with local implications. I don’t speak for this movement, but if I were king for a day, here’s the four-point plan I’d begin with:
- Call for Federal legislation requiring body cameras for all local police officers. Recently the Brown family started a petition for just such a bill.
- Call for a national review of grand jury procedure, especially a review of the role of prosecutors in hearings involving police officers.
- Call for a national review of policing procedures that appear to infringe upon the civil rights of citizens policed, including a review of acceptable uses of lethal force.
- Immediately end the militarization of local police departments and identify appropriate resources and armaments necessary for local policing.
While we’re at it, we should not forget the specific cases of injustice like the choking death of Eric Garner. We should call the Governor of NY to convene a new grand jury with a special prosecutor. He has the statutory authority to do that and should show the moral courage by doing it.