On Taking Action for Black Lives

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Protestors react after the killer of Philando Castile is found not guilty. Startribune.com
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Protestors block I-94. startribune.com

This post is not for people who wish to argue about Philando Castile’s death. It’s not for people who are scandalized by the radical notion that black people matter. It’s not for people who consistently impugn and insult black Christians so they can stay on the good side of white conservatives. This post is for white people who want to do the right thing, who want to be useful in the struggle for racial justice and human rights.

After the verdict, a black Christian woman challenged nonblack Christians with this question:

What are you doing (simply talking about it and having the conversation doesn’t count in the context of this question) to correct the systemic injustice and racism/white supremacy that allowed Philando Castile to be murdered in broad daylight and his murderer to be acquitted and freed?

I am challenged and convicted by this question.

In a way, Alicia and I have built our lives around providing an answer to a question similar to this. And yet…In all that we do there is a nagging sense that it is really more useful for us than for oppressed people. You don’t get points for living in a black neighborhood. You don’t get points for good intentions. Our usefulness is measured not by our self-image, but by oppressed people themselves. And by that measure, I wonder if I am failing. In itself, that’s a matter of little public interest. But it matters a great deal if we—the collective us, white people who want to be useful—are failing.

The scale, depth, and intractability of racial injustice in this country call for action on all fronts. White Christians of the left, we dare not call for redistribution in public policy without practicing redistribution in our personal lives. White Christians of the right, we dare not call for redistribution in our personal lives without demanding it of our public policies. If we are one-dimensional we are part of the problem.

If you’re not financially supporting organizations run by people of color, why not?

If you’re not a member of a black activist organization, why not?

If you don’t support reparations, why not?

If you’re not an advocate of life-giving policing policies, why not?

If you aren’t making a ruckus in your church, or starting a reading group, why not?

If you’re not deliberately supporting black businesses, why not?

If you live in a community zoned to keep out the poor, are you working to change the zoning laws? If not, why not?

I need to make this absolutely clear: some of these questions hit me in the gut. I am a convicted fellow traveler.

Are all your relationships with white people comfortable? I don’t believe that is possible if you resist white supremacy. Challenging white supremacy challenges white self-interest. People will protect their interests—including, above all, their self-image—at all costs. If all the white people in your life are comfortable with your views, you need to go back to the drawing board. You’re swimming in sewage and thinking it’s fresh water. Tune in to people of color. Listen, learn, and repent.

If your church, your neighborhood, your kids’ school—or all three—are white, stop pretending you haven’t used the wages whiteness gives you. Take responsibility for your racial decisions. It may be that you should stay in all those white places! Ignorant white people need you. But they certainly don’t need semi-woke white people more preoccupied with claiming innocence than taking responsibility.

And nobody needs guilty white people. Nobody needs White Christians who are suddenly anti-gospel when racism enters the conversation: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” It’s hard to top that as a statement of anti-Christian pride. Scripture tells us different:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

We don’t need guilty white Christians. We need committed white Christians who have enough confidence in the gospel to take responsibility for the sin in and around them.

The Firing of Timothy Loehmann

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Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who killed Tamir Rice in 2014, has been fired. But he was not fired for killing Tamir Rice. Cleveland.com has the story:

Timothy Loehmann, the rookie police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, was fired Tuesday.

His partner, Frank Garmback, who pulled his cruiser within feet of the young boy, was suspended for 10 days without pay.

Loehmann was fired not for shooting Tamir, but for lying on his application with the Cleveland police department. He was also in his probationary period as a Cleveland officer giving the department more flexibility in letting him go, Cleveland Public Safety Director Michael McGrath said…

A review committee comprised of city officials that took the place of a normal internal affairs investigation found that neither officer violated any police policies.

The panel, called the Critical Incident Response Committee, concluded that neither Garmback nor Loehmann violated any police policies at the time of the incident.

This case has been a troublesome one for all the white people who desperately want to appear reasonable and empathetic but also want to continue to support the systemic violence and racism of American policing. It was the kind of bad shooting that made even police supporters say, “Ok, yeah, that wasn’t right.” But then their next move was to claim that it was an isolated incident and Loehmann was one of those famous bad apples we hear so much about.

If the case is not indicative of systemic problems in American policing, then there must be an easy explanation for these questions:

Why didn’t Loehmann face a trial?

Why wasn’t Loehmann fired for the shooting?

Why didn’t the shooting violate police department procedures?

We can’t bring Tamir back, but we can change what comes next. We can elect good prosecutors. McGinty, the cowardly prosecutor in Cleveland, lost his reelection bid. In Philadelphia we just elected a reformist District Attorney who opposes police brutality and mass incarceration. We also need to pressure Democrats at the local level. This is a bipartisan problem, and body cameras are not a cure-all. We need everything from increased citizen oversight and control of police to better police training and more humane policies (astonishingly, deescalation is still a novel tactic in many police departments).

And since this is a blog about evangelicalism and I am a white evangelical, I’ll conclude with a note for us. We can do more to make our fellow Christians squirm. The selfishness and racism of white evangelicals is a major contributor to racial injustice in the United States. Let those status-quo supporting Christians know that we’re not asking them to debate a political point with us. We’re asking them to repent of their sin.

Opposing Police Violence Should Not Be Controversial

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Two “bad apples” the rest of the police department mysteriously failed to smell for years.

Conor Friedersdorf watches a new cell phone video of police brutality and comments:

What do you think is more likely, that this traffic stop just happened to bring together the only two bad apples on the Gwinnett County police force? Or that there is a larger problem in its culture, illustrated by the fact that a young officer hired four years ago expected no consequences for needlessly kicking a handcuffed guy in the head in front of a sergeant? If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d dispatch someone to study whether civil rights are routinely violated in Gwinnett County.

The actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is aggressively ratcheting down federal oversight of local police departments, even as President Donald Trump leads a coalition that is actively hostile to Black Lives Matter, the policing reform movement.

I support praising good cops for the dangerous, sometimes heroic work that they do; and I acknowledge that they are frequently put in almost impossible situations, only to be second-guessed by legions if anything goes wrong, even when they are not to blame, or error in a way that millions would. What’s more, I don’t always agree with the tactics or the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, a diverse movement that attracts both impressive, sensible reformers and less responsible fringe elements.

But the Black Lives Matter movement is portrayed wildly inaccurately in conservative media outlets, which focus on the most extreme, unrepresentative rhetoric from the coalition, and all but ignores the actual policy demands that it has put forth.

That reform agenda doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as I’ve noted before.

Dubbed Campaign Zero, it draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies that it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” wrote Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, concluded in his assessment that, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts … And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

Read the whole thing. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have always tried to obscure the basic decency and reasonableness of black demands. They must do so, because admitting the reality of racial oppression raises too many questions about how they see the world and their place in it. Among those generally opposing BLM are white evangelicals, because in this, as in so many other ways, being white is more important to us than being evangelical.

The Absurd Violence of American Policing

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The aftermath of a no-knock raid in Cornelia, Georgia.

The New York Times today has a great investigation of the dangerous “no-knock” SWAT raids that occur all over the country. The article begins like this:

CORNELIA, Ga. — This town on the edge of the Appalachians has fewer than 5,000 residents, but the SWAT team was outfitted for war.

At 2:15 a.m. on a moonless night in May 2014, 10 officers rolled up a driveway in an armored Humvee, three of them poised to leap off the running boards. They carried Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearms. Many wore green body armor and Kevlar helmets. They had a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, a ballistic shield and a potent flash-bang grenade.

The target was a single-story ranch-style house about 50 yards off Lakeview Heights Circle. Not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard. That was enough to persuade the county’s chief magistrate to approve a no-knock search warrant authorizing the SWAT operators to storm the house without warning.

The point man on the entry team found the side door locked, and nodded to Deputy Jason Stribling, who took two swings with the metal battering ram. As the door splintered near the deadbolt, he yelled, “Sheriff’s department, search warrant!” Another deputy, Charles Long, had already pulled the pin on the flash-bang. He placed his left hand on Deputy Stribling’s back for stability, peered quickly into the dark and tossed the armed explosive about three feet inside the door.

It landed in a portable playpen.

It’s a long piece but worth the read. Policing is the most pervasive and intimate way in which Americans face real oppression at the hands of their government. But because this oppression is directed disproportionally at people of color and the poor, people who claim to be skeptical of government power are usually happy to support this kind of government overreach.

How can we stop these immoral and counterproductive uses of state violence? Attention to the issue has definitely waned as the 2016 campaign and now the Trump presidency have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. We need to continue to draw attention to police misconduct and promote the goals of Black Lives Matter. One of the reasons Black Lives Matter is such a noble movement is that its solutions would both improve the lives of people affected by systemic racism and make police officers safer. But too many people refuse to see how violent policing produces toxic feedback loops of distrust and danger for police and residents alike. Indeed, in our gun-obsessed culture, many Americans seem to think safety is achieved through violence. God help us.