Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,
Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.
Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?
How about this quote? “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?
I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.
So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.
James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?
Dear White People,
We haven’t talked in a while. I think it’s time. I know we are all still digesting the “White People 101” stuff, so I won’t say this is “White People 102” yet, but there are a few more items we need to add to the list so here goes:
- Just in case anyone on the planet is still wondering, and apparently some are, no you don’t get to put on a wig and black face and call it “trans-racial.” Trans-racial is a thing, but it has to do with people of one race who are adopted by people of another race. In other words, it is a genuine lived experience not a form of masquerade. The fact that white people CAN masquerade is a symptom of white privilege, not an answer to it. That is all I am going to say about that because…
- Just because the story I am referring to in #1 is more likely to be turned into a “reality show” does not mean it is more important. Just days before we were all up in it, black children were attacked by white civilians and police at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. If we want to know about the “black experience” we need to put down the spray tan and pay attention to that because that is the real reality of race in this country.
- When a nearby country (like the Dominican Republic) decides to disenfranchise and deport its own citizens because they don’t like what color they are we need to speak up about it.
- When it comes to racist, domestic terrorism like the mass murder of black people in their own church, we need to call it what it is the same way we would call it what it is if the perpetrator was Muslim or black or anything else besides a white American. We also don’t get to play the “I don’t know how this could happen” game because if we have been paying any attention to American history, white attacks on black churches in the form of shooting, bombing, fires etc. is not new and, if we honestly don’t know how it happens, we had better figure it out really fast.
- Whether it is police abusing black kids at a pool party or racist terrorists killing black people in their churches or any other manifestation of racism in our nation, let’s stop playing the “few bad apples” game. Yes, there are bad cops, there are good cops who have bad days, there are white people with psychiatric conditions who kill people and who need our prayers. But there are also longstanding patterns to this violence and we don’t get to ignore those obvious patterns just because we can see the humanity of the perpetrators. In fact, if we find ourselves noticing the humanity of white perpetrators in ways in which we do not notice the humanity of black perpetrators of other crimes we really need to check ourselves out on that.
- As always, dear fellow white people, let’s love ourselves, not with the kind of “love” that needs to hoard privilege and hold onto systems of supremacy, but with a real love of ourselves as fragile, vulnerable humans united with other fragile, vulnerable humans who know we are all ultimately connected, who want to move beyond oppressor and oppressed in a common humanity and who know that we can do better.
It has been fifty years now since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. On some level, we all want to identify with this historic event. Anyone who can remotely claim a connection to it (and some who probably can’t) proudly do so. I have heard it said that if everyone who claims to have been part of the original march actually was on that bridge it would have fallen. This is what happens with history. When it is happening, only a few choose the right side. When it is over, we all claim it. Now MLK has his own holiday and we were all on that bridge marching with him.
Except we weren’t. Look again. There is more to that scene. On the other side of that bridge there were a whole lot of white men, some cops and some deputies. Sheriff Jim Clarke (of KKK fame) ordered all white males in Dallas County over the age of 21 to report to the Court House and be deputized. Many of these deputies then joined other officers under the command of John Cloud and prepared to meet the protesters with force on this “bloody Sunday.” Some of these white men must still be alive today but, as far as I know, none of them have spoken out. They don’t seem eager to admit to being there, let alone to tell their stories. Fifty years later, it seems nobody wants to hear from or speak from the wrong side of history. But the wrong side of history has its truth to tell too.
When I imagine the events of that day I naturally want to identify with the protesters. I would like to believe I would have their kind of courage. I would like to think that I would have been on the right side of history and perhaps I would have been. But, if I am honest, as a white person and as a retired cop, a huge part of my own story is probably closer to those police officers and deputies than it is to Martin King. So I wonder, what were these officers and temporary deputies thinking?
Until they do speak out, we don’t know. So I am going to take the liberty of guessing. First of all, I bet they were scared. The fact that so many were forcibly deputized speaks to the deep anxiety white people in Selma must have felt. I imagine some of them were thinking thoughts like “These f—ing n—rs, who do they think they are coming here and causing trouble in this peaceful town? I had way better things to do today than stand here by this damn bridge and do this dirty job. I don’t want to be here.” I bet others were angry at King thinking “That coon King is a damn trouble maker. How does he have the nerve to call himself a Reverend? Ministers are supposed to be about peace and law and order, not politics and protest. We all got along here fine until this outside agitator came into town.” I bet others, standing on the east side of the bridge, focused on their physical discomfort thinking “ My feet are tired. I am hungry. I have to pee. I would rather be home today than doing this.” I bet others were thinking things like “These protesters just want attention. We don’t have a race problem here. White folks and Negroes get along fine with each other. It’s just a matter of everyone knowing their place and staying in it. King is an outside agitator creating problems where there are none. He encourages people to break the law like they are doing today, disobeying a lawful order to disperse. If they don’t turn around they will get what they deserve. All I know is I am coming home safe today and I will do whatever I have to do to make sure I don’t get hurt. I am ready for them. Just let them try.” I wonder if, in the midst of them, there were at least a few who saw something good in King and in the protesters, but were afraid to say so lest their community reject them as n—er lovers. I wonder if there might even have been at least one of two who wondered if what they were doing was right. I am betting, though, that most of them felt like THEY were the good guys, not the protesters. I bet most of them really believed that they were doing the right thing, standing up for law and order and public safety, protecting themselves and their families from something evil and bad. I doubt very many believed on that day that they were on the wrong side of history.
I wonder how, fifty years later, these men feel about what they did. I would love to ask them, if any were willing to speak. But even more, I wonder where I stand today. I would like to believe I am making choices about my life that I will later feel proud of that will put me closer to being on the right side of history. Don’t we all? But the truth is, history is always clearer in hindsight and human beings always make mistakes. Police make mistakes. Protesters make mistakes. Bystanders make mistakes. But there is still, as King often said, a moral arc in the universe. History is going somewhere and it matters where we stand. Even if none of us can know perfectly, we can all get a clue. If the path we have chosen involves beating someone bloody it is likely to be wrong. If the path we have chosen is full of “us versus them” it is worth questioning. If the path we have chosen somehow denies the full humanity of all God’s children, we are likely to be on the wrong side of history. So let’s hear the stories of the past, from both the right side of history and the wrong side of history. Let’s have enough humility that, at least in some ways, we might be wrong and let’s move forward as best as we can in ways that lead us closer to the right because, in the end, God’s justice and God’s peace will prevail and when that moral arc of the universe eventually does bend toward justice, it will matter what side we were on.
So yesterday we received word that there will be no indictment of any police officer in the death of Eric Garner. As one who has already admitted that “it could have been me” meaning I could have been that cop, I am feeling all sorts of conflicted emotions. On the one hand, I feel like it is my duty to say something, to not let “it could have been me” be my last word on this subject in this blog. On the other hand, seeing the deep pain and outrage so many people are feeling I am afraid of saying anything that in any way might rub salt in these open wounds. But I trust God is bigger than this retired white cop trying to be a theologian and that whatever is missing in my words or in my heart God will fill in somehow.
I don’t know why the Grand Jury found “no true bill” in this case. As I said before, I can see the “take down” as legitimate but not the choking on the ground. I have gone into my reasons for taking this position, but I am thinking more discussion about rules and procedures and tactics isn’t going to be very helpful right now. The real question isn’t about that is it? The real question is DO BLACK LIVES MATTER?
It’s easy for me to say “Well of course. All lives matter.” But that doesn’t answer the question. It avoids it. The truth is I really don’t know if black lives matter or not. I mean, I believe they do, but I can’t honestly say I have gotten to a place in my white life where I really, really know it in my bones and that’s after having worked at at least trying to know it for a while now. So no. No cheap answers. I will let the question sit there and take responsibility for my own discomfort and defensiveness and still let the question sit there unanswered.
One of the first of many black people to die during my own police career under tragic circumstances was Eleanor Bumpers. Do you remember her? She was an emotionally disturbed black woman who was killed by police in 1984 as they tried to evict her from her apartment. At the time, I was a rookie with two years on the job. I remember talking with a black cop, citing all the reasons why this was a justified or “clean” shooting, going right by the book, showing how she might have been a threat etc. I was adamant that “It wasn’t about race” and I really believed that. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. He said “Yes, it is about race because the officers were too quick to shoot her because she didn’t look like THEIR grandmother.”
Those words stuck with me. I wondered if he might be right. Do black lives really matter? I mean, beyond just thinking that they ought to matter. Do they? More to the point, do they matter to me? Yes, I have black friends and yes I love them and all that, but that isn’t the question is it? The question is, everything else being equal, would I shoot someone who looked like someone else’s grandmother faster than I would shoot my own? Would I choke someone who looked like someone else’s father or brother faster than I would choke my own? The defensive part of me wants to deny such a thing, but the more honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t know if black lives really matter in the way they need to matter to me.
Getting back to Eric Garner and my previous blog posts, when I say “It could have been me” meaning the cop in this scenario, what about the other question underneath it? As a good friend pointed out to me, others look at that video and see Eric Garner and think the same thing – “It could have been me” meaning Eric Garner. Am I seeing that side as clearly as my own? I don’t know yet.
Someday these two kinds of “It could have been me” might come together, but that day has not yet come and pretending it is here is just another form of cheap grace, a peace without justice that is no peace at all. So, for now, I do my work. I ask myself DO black lives matter to ME? At this point, all I can honestly say is I know they OUGHT to and I know it’s up to me to get to that place where they do.
Let us pray for one another on this journey. Amen.
It is November now, the month in which trees let go of their leaves and appear to die, a month that begins with the remembrance of the dead that Christians call All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving tables that sometimes have empty chairs. So I am fixin to blog about what else? Death – specifically good death – not painless death, not griefless death, not easy death but good death and, yes, good death is political and it is about social justice and it does call for faith.
In the past few years I had the profound privilege of walking with both of my parents as they journeyed from this life to the next. They both suffered greatly on the way but, at the end, they both died well. These were good deaths.
My mother went first. We didn’t expect it. Dad was in much worse health and she was his caregiver but, as often happens, the caregiver is the first to tire out. After ongoing complications following heart surgery the day came when Mom just said “enough.” She chose to refuse all medical treatment and, as she put it “just close my eyes and go be with God.” I was with her in her hospital room during her last night of consciousness. Unlike the weeks before when she was so miserable, this last night was neither sad nor difficult for either one of us. Like my dad, mom was a world traveler so we talked about what was about to happen as one more trip, more marvelous than anything that came before, going all the way from earth to heaven where she would finally see God face to face. She asked “Are you happy for me?” I told her yes, yes I was happy that she would soon see God. Then she told me something I will always treasure in my heart “You will see God too some day because you are a very good person.” Not long afterwards she slipped into a coma. By the next night her journey was complete. It was a good death.
My father, who suffered from dementia, was just not ready to go on living without his partner of sixty years. He really couldn’t even process it and sadly sunk into a world of frightening delusions full of loneliness and the deep pain of loss. It was a horrible time for me and for my brothers, but it was not without love. There were moments of grace and connection, even as the disease took over and destroyed what was once a brilliant mind. When death came to dad fourteen months after mom’s passing, it came as a mercy. I even remember it as a kind of joy. You see dad was a musician, an accomplished tenor. Even after his mental faculties had eroded, he could still connect in song, particularly when it came to songs he once had sung. Years earlier, when he was still singing in his church choir, he told me that he wanted the song “And The Father Will Dance” by Mark Hayes to be played at his funeral. I asked him why and he told me “All my life I have struggled with a judging and punishing God. I need to know an affirming God, one who loves me without conditions, one who will dance when He sees me.” So I got the sheet music and learned the song – just in case. On the day dad died, we all waited around his bed for hours as he lay there unresponsive not opening his eyes, not squeezing anyone’s hand until the very end. All day I envisioned God dancing and prayed that soon dad would see that image. When his legs began to mottle, indicating that transition was happening, I sang a piece of the song. Dad squeezed my hand when he heard it, opened his eyes, and let go. Dad saw God dance just for him. It was a good death.
Seeing my parents have good deaths not only gave me a sense of peace about my relationship with them and with God, it also helped to heal me from some of the trauma I felt from having experienced so much violent, or not so good, death during my police years. But I also realized all over again how death, like life, is political. Not everyone has the chance to die a good death. Impoverished people, people of color, mentally ill people, incarcerated or otherwise socially marginalized people are all more likely than others to die violently or die needlessly before their time or to die alone with no one there to love them and hold their hand as they cross over.
Good death is often more a matter of social privilege, something that happens to people who are able to live a long life and not be shot down on the streets, who have access to the best medical care when they are sick and don’t get neglected, and who have the kind of social support that ensures someone will be there in the end. Good death is a privilege, but it needs to be a right, the right to die with dignity, surrounded by love, the right to be buried or cremated with dignity, the right to be remembered, the right to be mourned, the right to have a name, the right to have mattered to someone as a human being, the right to go in peace, the right to go in justice.
That’s what I want my life to be about, working to create a world where all people have the chance to live good lives and die good deaths.
First let me say, once again, that I am very supportive of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and nationwide against police brutality and racism. I want it to end too and I am very thankful it is happening and very prayerful that this movement will lead us toward a more just way of being a nation. But, in order for that to happen, I also think it is important that these protests lead to concrete ACTION plans that stand a chance of going somewhere and that is going to take a lot of education. Knowing something about the history and roots of systemic racism is obviously important. But it is also important to know something about the nuts and bolts of policing. That is where I think I might be able to help and why I am blogging about it, trying to answer questions that activists ask me.
Yesterday, I tried to answer the question “Why don’t ‘good cops’ turn ‘bad cops’ in.” Today I am going to try to answer another question that keeps coming up, “Why don’t police shoot people in the legs?” Here is why:
1. It is virtually impossible to do. Police receive firearms training that is much more extensive than that most civilian gun owners receive. In addition, they are required to demonstrate proficiency with firearms at least once a year at the firing range. As a result, most cops can hit a paper target with much greater accuracy than most. Many probably could deliberately hit something smaller than a human chest, like a human leg – at the range that is. But the range isn’t the streets. Firing at a paper target, under optimal lighting conditions, where the target doesn’t move and no one is shooting back at you is way different than shooting a person who is moving when you feel your life is threatened. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers on this. (Firearms instructors may correct me here.) but I think the average “hit ratio” in a street gun battle is about one in ten for police and one in twenty for civilians. That means, on the average, if a cop fires ten rounds, only one is likely to hit the suspect anywhere on the body. That is why police are trained to aim for “center mass” or the chest and not even try to aim for a leg or other smaller target.
2. There is no such thing as “shoot to kill” versus “shoot to injure.” That only happens on TV. In real life, there is only shoot to stop.
3. Shooting is deadly physical force. Period. Police are not legally justified in using a gun unless they are in a situation where deadly physical force is justified, such as they have good reason to believe that there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to them or someone else and there is no other way of stopping the threat than to shoot. Asking them to use guns as “less than lethal” weapons – or any other way – is asking for more trouble, not less.
So what DOES make sense? In my opinion, it makes sense to demand that police stay within the current legal and department guidelines for the use of deadly physical force, that police-involved shooting investigations be thorough and transparent, that black and brown suspects be treated the same way white suspects are treated, that police receive more and better training in all areas including firearms training and not just the paper target kind, but also the “shoot – don’t shoot” kind, such as what is available via the FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) where they have to make simulated judgment calls about when to shoot and when to hold their fire, where the race of the suspect can be controlled for and things like a tendency to shoot black people more than white people can come to light and corrected.
Those kind of reforms stand a chance of actually being implemented and, more importantly, actually saving lives.
Saying “they should shoot people in the legs” while totally understandable, isn’t.