Keep the Focus on George Floyd

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune

The police killed George Floyd and are not being held accountable for their actions. The core fact from which all events flow is George Floyd’s precious life senselessly snuffed out on the pavement. It is a galling and egregious example of the world African Americans live in every day under the suspicion of the militarized state. Black communities face a policing system utterly unlike the one most white Americans experience. It is punitive, intrusive, and harsh; yet for all that, does not protect.

The death of George Floyd once again raises in the national consciousness the urgency of black liberation and the need for wholesale policing reform. The abolitionists, too, must be heard. They expand our imaginations and help us think anew about the restorative communities and systems we might build together.

But now we’re in a cycle we’ve seen many times before. Police violence, with almost inexorable logic, produces a community response. When that white moderate slips into our newsfeed and says, “Sadly, all this rioting and looting is undercutting the legitimate concerns people have,” what should we do?

Don’t get upset with them or get sucked into a big argument. If you’re debating the merits of rioting, you’re losing.

Instead, shift the focus to George Floyd’s invaluable life and the injustice his death exposes. The state started this, and only the state can stop it. Indeed, the DA has it within his power to deescalate the situation whenever he chooses. He only needs to do the right thing and arrest the officers. But even if and when that happens, we will see the same cycles of violence play out in the future unless this country gets serious about changing its whole idea of policing. This is urgent.

If you’re a black resident of Minneapolis and you want to burn some shit down—especially a police station!—I’m not here to quibble with you. But if, like me, you’re a random white person watching events unfold from the comfort of your living room, I implore you to resist the urge to treat the life and death struggle of black liberation as an abstract moral debate. We need to speak and act strategically. This uprising is not here to serve your emotional catharsis or sense of moral superiority.

I’m seeing lots of people on social media resorting to this familiar brand of commentary: “If you’re more concerned about looting of property than the murder of a person then…” This line of argument is obviously correct. It rightly points out the racism, dehumanization, double standards, and hypocrisy in American ideas of violence, national myth, capitalism, and so on. But here’s the thing: if you’re debating the merits of rioting you’re losing.

You’ve no doubt also seen the famous Dr. King quote about riots being the language of the unheard. Even more provocatively, Dr. King said on another occasion that he was “not sad that black Americans are rebelling.” Why, then, did he work so tirelessly to prevent riots? Why did he meet with gang leaders, coerce and cajole and constantly seek to defuse violence? Because he understood that the uprisings harmed the cause more than they helped.

During the civil rights movement, the side perceived as being more violent was invariably losing. This was such common knowledge that it was bedrock strategy for the movement. Why did smart racists, from police chief Pritchett in Albany to Mayor Daley in Chicago, seek to hide the violence of white supremacy? Because they well understood the same calculus.

Anyone who has read movement speeches and writings knows that activists were constantly exposing the double standards of American life, including around questions of violence. But most of them also possessed a hard-headed sense of strategic purpose. Unless your plan was a pie in the sky vision of an armed revolution and black separatist republic, you needed to take actions that enhanced your movement’s political power, not weakened it.

The urgent necessity today is black liberation. What if, in fact, violent uprisings are harmful to that cause? There is strong evidence that they are. The self-satisfaction of being in the right and knowing white Americans are hypocrites is little consolation then. Omar Wasow has done important work showing that in the 1960s, nonviolent protest activity was associated with increases in Democratic vote share, while violent protest activity correlated with increasing support for law and order politics.

One way white people can be productive on social media in these days is to resist the urge to follow every rabbit trail in the predictable cycle of argument and recrimination that follows in the wake of state violence. We want justice for George Floyd. We want to change American policing. We want black freedom. That’s the message to hammer home again and again.

On Taking Action for Black Lives

anthony soufle star tribune
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.

Black Lives Matter

jordan edwards
Jordan Edwards, child of God.

“And then they killed Tamir Rice
And they just go on with they life…
I’m glad that Jesus ain’t American
And that’s the reason why I care again…
And even though we get killed
I know that God got a greater plan
For the death and blood that we spill…”

“I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.”

howard thurman
“By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight, the slave undertook the redemption of the religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Howard Thurman

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“How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?”  James Cone

Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag
Is wrapped and dragged with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!

–Kendrick Lamar

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.

Department of Injustice

sessionsWhile the daily news cycle features a deluge of political controversies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quietly setting out to implement the racist agenda he has advocated throughout his career. Adam Serwer gets us up to speed:

On March 31, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was cynically sold by his defenders as a champion of civil rights, ordered a review of the Justice Department’s approach to policing, asserting that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said federal investigations of police departments were bad for “morale,” and waved away the idea that police abuses could be systemic, rather than the actions of a few bad apples.

As attorney general, Sessions said he read a summary, but not the full Ferguson report, which found that “95% of Manner of Walking charges; 94% of all Fail to Comply charges; 92% of all Resisting Arrest charges; 92% of all Peace Disturbance charges; and 89% of all Failure to Obey charges” were filed against black residents. But on the basis of the summary alone, Sessions concluded that the report was “pretty anecdotal” and “not scientifically based.”

The refusal to believe police abuse could be systemic rather than individual is, in the aftermath of all the data collected by the very agency Sessions now leads, a form of denial. Nor can Sessions’s decision be justified by the familiar excuse that police reforms lead to higher crime rates—the notion that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” is a normative standard that would eschew federal oversight of local police regardless of the crime rate or the gravity of any abuse that might occur.

Sessions is an advocate of an old false choice: some Americans have to choose between safety and the protections of the Constitution. You can have one or the other, but not both. Systemic police brutality is merely the price black neighborhoods have to pay for safety.

Serwer continues:

Sessions’s memo reads as an announcement that it is no longer the business of the federal government if American citizens’ rights are violated by those sworn to protect them and empowered with lethal force to do so. When local governments violate the basic constitutional rights of citizens, Americans are supposed to be able to look to the federal government to protect those rights. Sessions has made clear that when it comes to police abuses, they’re now on their own. This is the principle at the heart of “law and order” rhetoric: The authorities themselves are bound by neither.

Sessions says American policing doesn’t have systemic problems. This is the language of the uninformed, but Sessions can’t plead ignorance. In his case, it’s the language of cowardice, a man unwilling to admit that he supports racism.

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.