Tuesday, March 27, 2012

All The Rage

By now much has been said and heard regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin. Add to that the thousands upon thousands of facebook postings and it’s pretty clear that his tragic death has struck a chord with many. But why some may ask? Why the furor and fervor over a single death (as unfortunate as it may be) when as we all know far too many black men die violently in America each and every day?

While I can’t delve into all the issues that surround this incident I did want to help provide at least some insight into why so many feel so strongly about it. To begin with the man (George Zimmerman) who shot Trayvon was not a police officer and though he apparently patrolled this neighborhood on a regular basis he also was not a registered member of the neighborhood watch. He began to follow (in his truck) the teen because in his mind Trayvon was a suspicious character. (we’ll get to that in a bit). According to 911 tapes he called he police to report his activity and was explicitly told to refrain from following Trayvon. Not only did he ignore this but soon afterwards got out of his vehicle, confronted Trayvon and during the confrontation fired the fatal shot into the teens chest.

What has outraged so many is that despite all this Zimmerman was not arrested or apparently even detained for in depth questioning. Nor did it seem that the police department had any intention of so doing. How is it that a police dispatcher could tell him to stop following Trayvon and then after getting a call that a shot had been fired and the boy was now dead not at least tell his parents that they were launching a full investigation?

Why the outrage? I believe there are two main reasons both impacted by the collective history and present experience of most black people in America.

American history is filled with tragedies of black men dying at the hands of white men with impunity. While it certainly doesn’t happen nearly as frequently as it once did, the killing of Trayvon (I can’t say that it was murder yet, since all the pertinent fact aren’t in) brings back all too painful memories for almost every black family in America. Beyond that I must be straightforward and say that there have been so many instances of violence against black men by police that many African-Americans sense that law enforcement is at the least less than enthusiastic when a black person is killed by a white person. Thus when Trayvon was killed and his parents couldn’t seem to get any real answers from the police, their very real grief turned to anger which at first spread through their family and friends and then the wider black community. (Of course this is not to ignore that many, many white were also outraged, I’m just merely trying to explain the core of the outrage expressed by many black based in our historical context) The feeling was ‘here we go again, a black man dies at the hands of a white man who goes scott free and all we’re left with is our grief, pain and anger.

Regarding our present experience once more I must say that all too many blacks (especially black men) have had negative and from our viewpoint unnecessary confrontations with not only the police but other whites because we are black. For example, there was the time from my teens when I along with two other friends were stopped by the police while walking home from a bowling alley. We had chosen that particular venue since it was near my high school and I was familiar with it from intramural bowling. However at that time the neighborhood was almost exclusively Jewish and Italian. So though we weren’t bothering anyone (we had decided to walk home instead of take the bus) the police felt for some reason to pull in front of us, question what we were doing and demand some kind of identification before we were allowed to proceed home. And dear ones this is the type of incident faced by most all African-American men in this country. Now, does this mean that all of my interactions with the police have been negative? No, actually I pleased to say that I’ve had some quite positive interactions with the police and most every white person with whom I come into contact. Yet, with that said I must admit that myself, my son and most all African-American men have had enough negative experiences to prevent us and the wider black community from ruling out completely the reality that race still plays a part in how we’re viewed and treated by some people in America.

In my view, it’s these two factors that sparked the rage and sense of injustice so many feel about this case. Given the historical context and present experience it’s not hard for me to believe that Mr. Zimmerman chose to follow Trayvon because he was a black teenager. Am I absolutely, 100% sure of this? No, I’m not, but as I said previously mine own along with millions of other experiences of black men causes me to arrive at this conclusion. From Mr. Zimmerman’s perspective Trayvon was a suspicious character. And that dear ones is how far, far too many black men still feel and are at times treated in our society. The outrage comes from the belief of the greater African-American community that in too many instances black men are treated with suspicion simply because we are black. In most cases this treatment results in humiliation, a feeling of powerlessness and a real sense that no matter what to some we’ll always be outsiders to be regarded with suspicion and derision. And in a few cases it ends in a tragedy that causes us to immediately think ‘that could have been my son, or nephew, or brother, or father or me.

Finally dear ones as we know these aren’t easy issues to discuss. However, a tragedy like this that has gotten the attention of so many may provide an opportunity for us to witness of the gospel’s power and need in our lives, our communities and our society.

Sincerely in Christ
Pastor Lance

Thursday, March 22, 2012


[Warning: there is at least one cuss word in this article]  
 As with many people I have been both reacting to and watching the reactions of others to recent violent events, and noticing the reactions of some to the reactions of others.  It is as if on this dramatic stage of global life, where news of violence in one community seems to become our common concern, we judge not only the events but also the response of our neighbors, friends, and those we suppose are our enemies or at least  those we have chosen to despise.
    There are three specific events or tragedies on my mind as I write this essay.  The first is to the recent shooting of a 13 year old girl in my own city of Chattanooga.  Miss Keoshia Ford, who was impacted by our sports ministry last summer and sent off for a few days of Christian camp.  A few days ago she was hanging out at a neighborhood block party and a couple of cars showed up with guys displaying gang signs.  Word had gotten out that this might happen and kids started to disperse to go home.  Evidently she didn't leave fast enough and as she tried to make her way home one of the cars seemed to follow her and shots were fired.  She was shot in the head and lies up in the intensive care ward in a coma, where they wait to take out the bullets.  Keoshia is African American and she was evidently shot be an African American 17 year old young man for no apparent personal reason at all.  Just trying to get his street cred with his gang, maybe paying back another neighborhood for something that went down in his neighborhood.  There have been no protests, there have been no marches, and Al Sharpton is not coming to our city to say anything about it.
    The other event, which has received much more response is the shooting of  17 year old Trayvon Martin, an African American young man in Florida, by a white man, who was evidently engaged in some self generated vigilante work in his own neighborhood.  On the face of it it appears that this was a racist act by a person who seems somewhat paranoid of black folks in his neighborhood, and in the name of "protecting" his community did commit murder.  What made the crime more heinous was that he was not immediately arrested by the police, who evidently seem caught between the shooters claims to be a neighborhood watch person claiming self defense with a legal gun, and no ready proof of why he would shoot this young man.  The case is now with the Grand Jury, which in some places of the country is a fairly unknown concept, but is a means to finally get to justice when facts don't seem apparent on the surface.
    The reaction to this event, especially in the young African American community has been instant and intense, and in my opinion entirely out of proportion.  It is an event that confirms so much of what is supposed happens everywhere, and is tied up with all kinds of fears, resentments, and even aspirations.  If what I have said is true, that it was a racist act and was murder, then surely the event should make all of us furious and demanding of the proper and full measure of justice to be imposed.  I will return to this discussion in a moment, but there is still a third story.
    The third story has to do with the recent effort by some folks to call attention to Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army and its horrific impact on the children of Uganda especially, and those in Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic.  What has generated all the buzz is the recent distribution and viral effect of a short video about the history of the conflict, done in the context of a white American entitled young adult culture.
    As someone who has lived and worked in Africa, and is a fairly frequent visitor to East Africa, the LRA has been something I have known about for a long time, and as with many others have felt very frustrated that such an evil man has been allowed to continue his reign of terror for so long.  Despite some pundits ideas that there must be a legitimate reason behind such long lasting and tenacious "rebellion" the reality that almost anyone in East Africa will relate to you is that there is no legitimacy to it at all.  It is just plain evil, and maintained by one particular evil man, and one that governments seem to have been unable to bring to a stop.
    So here comes this group of young Americans, not even old "Africa hands" as some State Department and NGOs and missionaries might be, but idealistic, technologically savvy, and energetic.  Their amazing efforts and impact to raise the awareness of millions in a very short time, put pressure on politicians and thereby sway government and military policy, seems to have actually pissed some people off.  I don't know these folk at Invisible Children, but others seemed to have judged their motives, mock them, and seem to resent them.  The filmmakers may have no awareness of what cultural offense they may have caused, but there is cultural offense, even as they have meant to do good.
    The reasons behind the shooting of a young girl by gang members in a drive by, the reasons for little response by the nation to that story, the reasons behind the paranoia of the white shooter of a young black man, the reasons for such visceral anger at the event by a national black audience, the reasons for the audacity of young white adults to think they can change reality by their activism, and the resentment they have caused in Africans, African Americans and old "Africa hands" are unfortunately pretty predictable.  The historic and cultural realities in which we live make them so, and if all of us don't get a better hand on these cultural dynamics we are doomed to continue to say, do, and think irresponsible things and perpetuate them.
    I said earlier that I thought the national reaction to the shooting in Florida was out of proportion but I did not mean that it is unreasonable.  The nation ought to be angry, but it is out of proportion because it is an isolated incident though it resonates with the racial history of our country, the history of police injustice, and the history of the stereotyping of young black men, and even what I would call racial myth.  The white community doesn't respond because culturally it has inherent faith in the justice system, and the black community doesn't.
    It is out of proportion because the shooting of Miss Ford is a far more prevalent event, in almost every inner city neighborhood in our country.  It is a story that seems to be on a loop, just different days, different cities, different names.  It is far easier to demand the freedom to walk in any neighborhood wearing a hoodie without being prejudged or shot down (which is certainly a reasonable hope), than it is to demand that the illegitimate pregnancy rate be ended, that men who beget children should actually father them by marrying their mamas, that parents should always know where their children are and prevent them from getting involved in violent or dangerous behavior.
     Freedom is something we all want.  The former desire to not be suspected or shot while black is the hope of freedom while the second issue mentioned here is the corruption of it.   Freedom of sex, freedom of behavior without constraint or control, and now the freedom from censor for living that way is indeed a corruption of freedom.  The idol of freedom has engendered our immorality, our immorality has destroyed our families and our communities, and the destruction of our families has increased our violence.  A black man can't seem to walk in a neighborhood without suspicion, but far more often the violence is not happening to him by white people, it is happening to black girls and boys (sometimes very young ones) in black neighborhoods by young black men, and since it happens so often it doesn't really seem like anybody gives a damn.
    One of the problems here is that in the issue of a white man shooting a black man we think freedom is the solution,; freedom from racial violence, freedom to go where we want and dress like we want.  We also seem to think the broader community should take action to make sure such violence will not be tolerated so freedom might be maintained.  In the issue of black on black crime in the urban areas of our country constraint is the solution (or a self denial of freedom) and that is much harder to effect, or even to recognize and for which to take ownership.  At the same time there is a resistance to the idea that the black community is at fault for the violence within itself, but that outside forces create and maintain the problem.
    Some may be angry with me because they think I am blaming the black community for the violence in its midst and for a pattern of irresponsible behavior in creating children who are not parented.  Maybe my reader desires someone else to be blamed. I think to some degree that is an attack on the dignity of black folk. There can be a long list of potential scapegoats; slavery, share cropping, the history of Jim Crow and segregation, the days of lynching, police brutality, stereotyping and profiling, redlining neighborhoods, institutional racism, economic exploitation; even theories of CIA programs to spread crack cocaine.  I guess at this point in my life I don't really care who gets blamed, and much of that blame I will confess to believe is nothing but denial and passing the buck.  I do care that few seem to be getting mad enough, often enough, and especially in enough places  where it counts.
    The issue in Florida, even if covered by dozens of media outlets, spoken against by hundreds of pundits, marched against by thousands of protesters, and watched by millions will not make much difference except possibly in the prosecution of one man.  Maybe it will raise our collective consciousness about how we let our prejudices lead to such injustice.  What will make a difference in the lives of thousands of children who will be shot down, not by paranoid white men or cops, but by other children in their same neighborhood is the intervention of caring adults who will come into mentoring relationships with these children.  The absence of a father, and therefore by default the limited emotional, physical, and financial involvement of the mother, cannot be made  up by any one single adult investing one hour a month, a week, or even a class day in school, though every little bit helps.  It will take many caring adults for each child.  One reason for that is that abandonment, divorce, and poverty means there are many deficits in a child's life that must be faced, dealt with, and healed.
    As a Christian I know the power of faith, the belief in a loving and caring Heavenly Father who takes you on when your parents fail you, and the power of a new identity in the love of God.  This is my experience from the projects of Newark, New Jersey.  I also know that this love came to me in the form of caring, involved, and activist adults who sacrificed their time, money, and own family life to become involved with me.
    This leads me to the last of the three issues.  I am a bit appalled, but not surprised, when I see the attempts of some well meaning folks to do something about poverty, evil, or trouble in the world be mocked and disparaged.  This is especially so when it is cross cultural.  "Do-gooders", "well-meaners", the Americans who think they can do anything. the affluent, the mercy tourists, the dabblers in justice who can leave and forget anytime they want to do so; these people can really irritate us.  They especially bother us when they seem to be so casual about it, and get all kinds of press and glory.  It took me some years to realize how powerful the forces of envy, jealousy, and the resentment they produce can be.  There are real cultural and historical reasons for those feelings, even some deep racist ones, and we ignore them to our peril if we seek to work cross culturally.  They can jump up in our hearts, and can jump out from other people in ways that will surprise us.
    Nevertheless we need to separate the wheat from the chaff here, the bullshit from the prophetic utterance, and not despise something good even if it came about from folks we are ready not to like.  Let me state it bluntly; if the work of Invisible Children gives glory to some glory seekers who might be self-seeking ( I said, "might"), and might be done by culturally insensitive people, and makes us resent affluent, perky, white kids yet stops the killing and gets villagers in Uganda tools to fight Kony, and results in U.S. Special Forces going to help African governments so that it finally puts an and to the murderous beast, then I am grateful and won't mind a bit if from now on they are famous for it and drive around in a Bentley.
    My point, small though it might be, is to discern what really are the big problems, and to take real effective action to solve them.  That I believe will take up most of our time for what we each have left.