“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4: 18)
WWJD. I used to make fun of my mom’s key-chain that had these letters on it. It seemed ultra-corny to me, a teenager, to have “What Would Jesus Do?” on a key-chain. But I’ve changed. And though I’m not a weekly church-goer and don’t subscribe to any particular denomination of Christianity, I now think there’s great wisdom in asking ourselves that very question. Because regardless of one’s faith or religion, Jesus was a man who set an example of how we must treat people. All people.
Prostitutes, thieves, lepers. Jesus didn’t judge them. He embraced them, cared for them, served them. And he loved them. In the greatest of gestures of humility, he even washed their feet.
I don’t see a lot of that kind of love around me in recent days. Or weeks. Or even years. Somehow, even some of the most devout Christians and followers of Jesus seem to have decided that certain people’s lives are expendable. They have decided to accept a system in which law enforcement officers are not held accountable when they use excessive force that results in the killing of a black man. And while the coroners’ reports call it what it is — homicide —state laws, juries, and judges refuse to acknowledge that these homicides are unjustified shootings.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown calls for leaders in his position to be willing to put their careers on the line to make sure we do what’s right. And he says this as a black man, 3rd generation Texan, whose own son shot and killed a police officer and then was subsequently shot and killed by police.
“My family has not only lost a son, but a fellow police officer and a private citizen lost their lives at the hands of our son,” Brown told his department, according to The Dallas Morning News. “That hurts so deeply I cannot adequately express the sadness I feel inside my heart.”
White America, of which I am a part, knows that black men are being pulled over, provoked, and dying at a disproportionate rate at the hands of a small percentage of police officers but we have worked hard, either consciously or subconsciously, to convince ourselves that surely the victim must have done something to deserve their fate.
While we get fired up and angry when a teacher or coach commits a wrong against our son or daughter, we immediately look for ways to justify the killing of black men by police. Within minutes of news breaking of yet another police shooting, the litany of “yeah buts” starts on talk radio, social media, and around the water cooler as if shooting an unarmed black man in the back or shooting a young boy playing in the park with a toy gun is somehow acceptable in America.
If the people being shot were white women, there would be a revolution in this country. And spare me the whole “well, white women comply with police.” Spend a few days on spring break with college students and you’ll see, noncompliance is alive and well in white America.
It didn’t take long for folks to send me the rap sheet of Alton Sterling they had looked for online to support their case that this particular man somehow deserved to die at the hands of police. Their message to me was that Sterling’s life was expendable and police were justified in killing him.
But we do not live in a country where we shoot people for traffic violations, selling loose cigarettes, not paying child support, or even sexual misconduct. If we did, a lot more white men would be dead.
In the case of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy gunned down in a park by his home because his toy gun was mistaken for a real one, one thing is crystal clear to me. If that were one of my three white sons playing with the same gun in a public park, they would not have been shot. I am positive of that.
I think of the countless times during my youth that my white friends and I ran from police. Nothing happened. I think of the countless times white men have been pulled over and alerted the police officer that they were carrying a fire-arm. They didn’t get shot. There is video footage that can easily be accessed on the internet of white men pointing guns at law enforcement. The police do not shoot in these videos. Rival biker gangs of white men sat for days, many with firearms out in the open. Police were there. They didn’t shoot anyone.
Perhaps my work with black youth drives me to speak out. I see images of young black men shot by police and always say to myself, that could have been Dashaun, Jimmy, Nick, John, Chris, Shemar, Omar, or Makhi. I used to speak honestly with my students about how they needed to be extra careful when dealing with the police or that a small amount of marijuana on them would be handled differently than it was on my former white and more affluent students, more than a few of whom had marijuana on their person and in their cars every single day. I wasn’t speculating. I knew this to be true from my own experience working with black and white adolescents.
I just wish my own community would engage more. As a white suburban woman, it’s very hard to get people to engage on this topic. While the “likes” come pouring in when I post a photo of my kids or share a funny meme on motherhood, there are crickets when I post about race, police shootings, or even the massacre in Dallas. One of the few who has engaged with me is a former police officer (and local current fire-fighter) and while we disagree often, we have been able to keep a dialogue going. I have learned from him and I hope that he too has learned from me. But he’s one of the few even willing to have the conversation. The hard, uncomfortable, but important conversation that most in my community, and most white communities, are choosing not to have.
Some don’t think this problem touches them. And for many living in highly segregated communities (like mine), it doesn’t, at least not in any personal way. They don’t have black sons. They don’t worry.
Others blame the victim and don’t want to engage in a discussion or disagreement over the possibility that the police in the most public cases have escalated situations that called instead for de-escalation. And that the result of that unnecessary escalation was the unjustified and fatal shooting of a black male.
And while I still hang on to the hope that deep down, everyone cares about what’s happening on the streets of our nation, it seems that far too many of us are scared to care about black lives the way we care about our own. We are concerned about our small corner of the world — back-to-school shopping, baseball tryouts, teacher gifts, summer plans — and we fail to see ourselves as part of the larger whole where so many are in pain and believe that they are not being heard when they cry out about what is happening to them, their children, their students, and their friends at the the hands of law enforcement.
Jesus would care. Whether you see him as a deity or just a man, he would have cared. He wouldn’t have justified killing anyone no matter what their sins were. He would have told us to take the beam out of our own eye before we judge the speck in someone else’s. He would have offered Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and Eric Garner love, not judgement.
He would have listened to and stood up for those who feel like their voices, their lives, don’t matter.
He would never have stayed silent. And he wouldn’t have wanted us to stay silent either.