If you’re not angry and grieved about what has been going on in Ferguson, then you simply aren’t paying attention.
On Saturday night, I was in the car with two of my best friends. We had just left Barnes and Noble and I pulled out my mobile to scroll through Twitter as we drove home. Immediately, I discovered that two more young unarmed men had been killed by police. I was horrified and sickened, oh, and so angry. Again!
There was 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri who was shot in his neighbourhood, and John Crawford who was shot in a Walmart for holding a toy gun in the toy section. (I’ll let that last one sink in for an extra second – as I hear tell of “American patriots” who wander into grocery stores with assault rifles dangling off their shoulder because it is apparently their constitutional right. Meanwhile, John Crawford apparently does not have a constitutional right to life. Or due process.)
According to witnesses, Mike Brown was unarmed and was surrendering to police when he was shot. Shot multiple times in the middle of the street. And then his body was left in the street, uncovered, uncared for, for hours.
Both of these young men were killed because they are African-American.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This was murder. This was injustice. This was heinous and evil lack of regard for life or the law on the part of the aggressors. And sadly, it is all too common.
This is when the vigils and protests began. People gathered to watch over his broken body, to stand as witness. That is holy work. Then the community began to gather to protest police brutality. And all hell broke loose.
I cannot pretend to know everything about the history and context for Ferguson. I have watched and listened and followed closely over the past four days. Ferguson has turned into a war zone. Tear gas, smoke bombs, rubber bullets, tanks, riot gear. Suppression of information, arrests of reporters and citizen journalists.
Ferguson reminds me of the Arab Spring uprising. The people of Ferguson are rising up against their oppressors and hallelujah for that. I pray for their endurance in the face of state sanctioned violence against their children.
I have hesitated to write about Ferguson because I have preferred to amplify local voices or the voices of those who have been engaged in the real and difficult work of race relations in the United States. After all, Canada has our own issues, particularly with our treatment of First Nations.
But these past four days in Ferguson have broken through my usual resolve: this is absolutely a justice issue. I have waited patiently for more white Christian bloggers to speak up, particularly the Americans, trying to give them precedent to respond, but I have been disheartened by minimal response there. I want to come alongside the African American voices already writing and advocating, even in this small way.
So imperfect as it is – and I am well aware how imperfect – there are a few things I want to bring to our attention:
Black lives matter. I cannot even believe I have to write that sentence but there it is. Black lives matter. These young men matter, their lives are sacred. It doesn’t matter if Mike Brown was on his way to college or on his way to the unemployment line – his life had value and purpose. He was loved. His life mattered. Every single black life matters. If your pro-life ethic doesn’t include black lives, then your pro-life ethic is useless.
White privilege is real and it’s time we acknowledged it. White privilege is being told that the police will help you and protect you. White privilege is being able to lawyer up when arrested by the police. White privilege is being able to say things like “due process of the law” or “wait for the facts to emerge.”
We need to be listening to African-Americans and other minorities – in our lives, on Twitter, in the news, in education, in poetry, in art, in literature, in politics. Listen. When people tell me that America is not for black people, I want to listen to why. When people tell me that there is a case for reparations, I want to listen to why. When First Nations tell me that they will be Idle No More, well, then me, too.
Watch the narrative. The news media is notorious for this – it’s only by listening to voices on the crowd and on the front lines that you see it though. For instance, NBC went to Mike Brown’s Facebook page and pulled a photo of him for their broadcasts. They chose a photo of him flashing a peace sign with a stern look on his face over any of the other photos he had there, including one of him in his cap and gown. They changed the narrative of the story by how they characterized Mike Brown in the minds of their viewers. Another example is the image of a young man throwing a smoke bomb. It’s probably the defining image of the protests so far. But what most news media outlets aren’t clarifying is this key face: that young man was throwing that smoke bomb BACK at the police who threw it at him. Another example: is it an “angry mob” or is it a “community protest”.
This has also given rise to the powerful images of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown which also show how the media portrays young black men who are victims – victims! – in the media. Most of us have photos of ourselves that are ridiculous or terrible or in compromising situations but by fixing a victim in the mind of the public as a menace, they change the narrative on a subconscious level. “He’s a thug, he was probably doing something wrong.” Here’s an example image:
Don’t shoot. One of the defining protest images so far will haunt me for a long time. The people of Ferguson – and all protesters who gather in cities and colleges and communities around the world – are doing one thing: they are standing with their hands up and their faces blank. That is the posture. Don’t shoot: I’m unarmed: my hands are up. This image of the student body at Howard is unforgettable. This is powerful prophetic witness.
This is also about the militarization of police. This is not proportionate response but it is not surprising. When we sow to the wind, we reap a whirlwind. When we outfit police like the military instead of as officers of the peace, they will treat the citizens as enemies and engage in war tactics. It’s time to ask some serious questions and make changes here.
This is NOT about looting. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare bring up looting in the face of this situation. There was minor looting on one night of violence AFTER police brutality. Looting is not the point. People talk about looting because they cannot bear to face the truth of what is happening and why it is happening, it is a distraction. Same thing with folks who want to debate black-on-black violence right now. This is not that and this is not the time.
Twitter is the place to be right now for news. Main stream news outlets are turning a blind eye to Ferguson. But on Twitter, #Ferguson is hopping. Next time someone makes fun of Twitter as a place where “people tell you what they had for breakfast” I’m just going to say one word: #Ferguson. The people I follow on Twitter are the only reason I heard about Ferguson and it is the only reason why we know the truth of what is happening there. They might be able to arrest reporters and shut down the airspace and try to suppress information but the freedom of the people is happening in that medium, much like most uprisings around the world.
In particular, check out Alderman Antonio French who has been present from the beginning. (He’s currently being held in police custody – Lord help us.) If you don’t know about Ferguson, it’s because you’re not paying attention, because your circle of news and information is too small. But go back through his timeline to see what has been going on in great detail. And pray for him.
Churches and people of faith need to rise up together with the oppressed by the state in small ways and in big ways, in policy and in prophetic witness. David Henson, a friend and an Episcopal priest, has challenged other pastors to simply stand in their pulpits on Sunday, silent, with their hands up as a witness.
Or this image below…. This is another example of powerful goodness that needs to happen on our part. Can we make space for the lament and for the grief, for the anger and the fear?
These women offer a place where Ferguson youth could come & scream & cry & be held & heard in love. Mighty work. pic.twitter.com/WrVSbR6Ui0
— dream hampton (@dreamhampton) August 13, 2014
Other churches are marching, organizing protests, standing with the powerless, lobbying their governments, speaking up and using their voices to amplify the oppressed.
And pray. Pray. Pray. With your voice, when your spirit, with groans and tears, with your hands and your ears, with your mind and your feet.
Let justice roll down.