The Divided American Crime Scene
As I jumped in my car Sunday morning (7/17/16), headed to preach and teach a word, I turned XM Satellite Radio to CNN or Fox News, hearing the grim report that three additional police officers had been slain in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After spending all day in church services, meetings, and delivering a sermon regarding faith and its necessary role in the face of racism, acts of injustice in America, and the general struggles of life, it was time to trek back home. Once again I turned on Fox News or CNN and two polarizing quotes were being magnified; one from President Barack Obama and the other from Republican Presidential candidate Mr. Donald Trump.
As I drove to church service today, again saddened by yet more death, I listened to a person on Fox News blaming the entire ordeal and assault on the Dallas and Baton Rouge police officers on the “divisive” words and positions of President Barack Obama. So I listened to it being reported that President Obama said in his speech today (toward a push for a peaceful America) and in support for police across America that it is time to “temper our words and open our hearts.” This was soon followed up by Mr. Donald Trump stating that President Obama “doesn’t have a clue” and that America is now a “divided crime scene.” Despite the presidential insults from Mr. Trump, I actually like his depiction of America because for a crime scene to be understood and solved, deep forensics is necessary. Every bullet, footprint, fingerprint, blood spatter-trajectory, weapon, and even motive must be analyzed for impact and intent. The current state of American hostility, violence, rage, hate, racism, activism, white privilege, and protest is in need of honest forensics in its purest form, “reasoned discourse in public life.” The historicity of America is now on trial.
Ironically American violence, unease, and disequilibrium (in hyper fashion) is being exposed as we experience one of the most heated and nationally charged presidential elections in our history. Some scratch their heads to understand what it means, “Let’s Make American Great Again.” If the entire American population is included in that slogan, many groups will ask, at what point was America great? There is no way for us to honestly purport American innocence in its inception that included a sick mentality of manifest destiny, enslavement, terror, torture, rape, and brutalization of Native American, Mexican, and Africans of the Trans-Atlantic Passage. In addition to our inability to declare American innocence we also cannot then attempt to sanitize conversations regarding Americanized unjust and racist interactions. As politically incorrect as it is, America was established under a system of violence and dehumanization.
So in the wake of what has been publicized and witnessed by America in the month of July, we have two dead African American men by police (Alton Sterling & Philando Castile), five murdered Dallas Police Officers (Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith) and three murdered Baton Rouge Police Officers (Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerald and Brad Garafola). These names represent the ten Americans killed over the last twelve days on American soil and does not include the deceased killers of the officers or the officers responsible for the deaths of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile. America is in crisis.
In addition to the deaths stated above, there were other officers killed during the same period of time, as well as Black men killed by police, but the tragedies did not bubble to the top of mainstream media press. Despite it all, America is no stranger to racial tension, struggle, injustice, and death.
As Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered on back-to-back days, with portions of both being caught on camera for America to witness, the nation seemed outraged enough and ready to address the conditions faced daily by the Black male image (something that has been a problem since American beginnings). However, the killings of the five DPD officers placed the nation in an awkward position of equal justice and advocacy. Just how do you advocate for the Black male image/family and those of the African Diaspora, while also calling for police protection and safety? Is it not true that America has painted some to be more important than others? Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter are deemed just and patriotic statements, but now Black Lives Matter is being codified as a group of hate and terror. Aside from their grieving family members, on one level the heinous officer killings moved America into a state of paralysis or shortsightedness. How does America engage in a collective social justice project that de-links herself from all forms of Eurocentric hegemony and structural dominance, launching a righteous motif? America will not find health and equilibrium until we figure that out. Until then, pursuits of justice are still packaged within containers that shows not all are worthy of risky and discomforting advocacy. In Genesis 4:10 God said to Cain after he unjustly killed his brother Abel, “…the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” The unjust bloodshed of hate, fear, racism, greed, pride, and murder must be repented of in America.
Despite the fact that our police force across America is racially diverse, it is still an institution that is governed by the spirit and tone of white supremacy. This does not mean police departments operate under a KKK or white nationalist extremist group mentality, it simply means they fit within a superior paradigm that is deemed right and not to be questioned or critiqued. That is why in the wake of our July 2016 tragedies, even African American officers have stated how when not in uniform they still have a level of fear toward off-duty police interactions. Their stated truth is not to spew divisive rhetoric, it is to make emphatic the American experience through a Black lens. Therefore, as will be discussed shortly, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered, many remained silent after watching both hemorrhage and bleed to death, but spoke loudly and with outrage after the death of the five Dallas officers. I too am outraged, yet, I am outraged and disfigured by the totality of our system (all the killings), refusing to take a piecemeal or victim-blame approach. The reality is, there should be justified outrage and vocal action rooted in a love for humanity, inclusive of the oppressed, vulnerable, marginalized, and dehumanized, toward every type of injustice. Remaining silent in the face of injustice establishes a bleak, unfortunate, underserved, and unwanted stage of more violence. Remember the prophetic words of Amos, “There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground” (Amos 5:7).
A concept that is sweeping across America, through communities, school systems, and prisons is Restorative Practices. One of our Restorative Practices experts and founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (Ted Wachtel) states, “…restorative practices also includes the use of informal and formal processes that precede wrongdoing, those that proactively build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing.” Based upon analysis, reflection, and my personal forensics over that past few days, it is clear to me now that part of the American solution and problem is interlaced with the Restorative Practice and Restorative Justice motif.
Restorative Justice is designed to create exceptionally strong communities, so all members within a family, organization, school, classroom, church, city, or even nation feel appreciated, connected, and part of the community. The processes of Restorative Justice are designed to address harm when the community or things within are violated. However, repairing harm through a victim-centered process when the harmer never felt part of the community poses a toxic reality, despite actions of harm never being justified. With all of this in mind, America faces a glaring indictment. Not all of America feels connected to the American community ethos, because continual acts of injustice reminds people that they are not fully members with equal value. America needs work in the area of Restorative Practices so it can holistically engage in the healing efforts of Restorative Justice. You might ask why some can destroy their communities, but what needs to be understood is that because of unspoken, unacknowledged, and normalized oppressive practices, some American citizens do not feel connected to or embraced by true community space.
Silence in the face of injustice is harming America. Until we figure out how to speak up for and unapologetically love all of humanity, we will continue to endure senseless and unnecessary hardships and tragedies. When America remains silent in the face of injustice, it prevents the people from generating hope toward ideas and solutions. As long as people (including the dominant power structure) are discussing, acknowledging, strategizing, self-actualizing, and working toward solutions, the public and ill-impacted can remain hopeful that restoration is possible. It is when America goes silent toward clear and visible injustice that people on the edge can act out of fear, rage, and misunderstanding. The efforts of justice must also be applied with a righteous balance so injustice toward the oppressed is not ignored. Again Amos said, “…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
Because of Americas blatantly oppressive history toward the Native American, Mexican, and African, some have failed to realize that silence impacts all. As a Black man, injustice should not have to happen to me or my family for injustice to be addressed by me. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He understood that a failure to address injustice, regardless of its target would and could result in injustice showing up on the doorstep of anyone. It would behoove all of America to become social justice conscious, with a race sensitive lens, because it is the one problem that continues to simmer, boil, and explode on American soil.
Dr. Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, quoted Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois when he said 100 years ago “the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs” (p. 217). Although tragedies such as the police slayings of the Dallas and Baton Rouge officers cannot be emphatically linked to causal stimuli, it is clear that a vociferous fight for social justice across all color lines is the most important American project. And this is true across all American systems, because racial disproportionality surfaces in the rates of our schools, adult and juvenile penal systems, employment, housing, etc. There are literally no crevices or cracks in America where the cancer of institutional racism is not a statistical fact.
On February 26, 2016, at Union Theological Seminary, Dr. James Cone delivered one of the most soul-stirring lectures to ever traverse by mind. The lecture was entitled “The Cry of Black Blood: The Rise of Black Liberation Theology.” His discourse focused on the necessary thrust of addressing Black injustice and American silence (particularly white) in both society and theology. Through his powerful engagement of the dialectic, he emptied his soul, scholarship, passion, and love, unleashing sixty minutes of pure passion and transcendent intellectualism. At the end of his talk he opened for questions and after his clear message of racial unity, love, and justice, one white participant in the audience said with disdain “How much longer will your Black blood cry out from the ground? What will it take to satisfy this Black blood?” He went on to say “I feel a lot of talk on this subject is needlessly divisive.” He said, the talk would have been fine in the 1960s “But today things have turned around almost diametrically. A white person would not be able to come up there and talk about racism against Black people, the same way you are able to talk about whites. I find your talk needlessly divisive.” The multiracial crowed was clearly shocked by the comments. He concluded by saying “I wonder also about this institution that gives audience or gives stage to these types of talks.”
Dr. Cone stood for the entire time it took the man to phrase his questions and make his statements. At the conclusion of his discourse and thorny inquiry, the moderator addressed the audience about the need to present respectful questions. In response to pontification from the man, Dr. Cone paced a bit on the stage, gathered himself and simply looked up at the man out in the audience and said, “You know… we live in different worlds” and the crowd erupted in applause. This is the American chasm that is leaving our nation with missed opportunities for authentic engagement and collaborative action. From which base do you view America and her deeds? Is it from a position of privilege and power or is it through the lens of the marginalized and oppressed? The prism and lens with which you glare and gaze, determines how you see and position compassion toward the other.
This interaction of Cone is at the center of the issue. As Dr. Cone addressed conditions of injustice he was basically told that expressing the truth of his Black reality, experience, and worldview is problematic, divisive, and inciting. Until all of America can come to the table of dialogue and collaboration as equals, without passion being contorted or perceived as anger and rage, a just and righteous America will continue to be an elusive reality. America must find its way out of the trap of injustice and focus on justice and love for all, refusing to only address the elite and privileged fragments. Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23).
As solutions become a critical mandate, authentic, bold, and vulnerable conversations, rooted in love and action about racial injustice with a push toward righteous justice must commence in our governmental systems, police stations, churches, pulpits, synagogues, mosques, schools, classrooms, universities, communities, homes, families, and more. If we continue to fail, our missing of the mark will be clearly seen as our inability and unwillingness to love the human creation of God. Let the racial forensics begin as this divided American crime scene is dissected, tried, and justly made whole.
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mathew 12:31).
Dr. Ammar Saheli