Protestors in New York chanted:
"I can't breathe!"
"No justice! No Peace!"
"We want a public trial!"
"Enough is enough!"
One protestor said, "There is a complete disregard for Black life. We are human, are we not? It is a travesty when you have to worry about if you are going to make it home or not."
Demonstrators across the country thronged the streets when a grand jury could not find its way to bring charges against a police action that resulted in a "homicide" according to the medical examiner, even when there was video tape of the action. From Philadelphia to Atlanta, from Oakland and San Francisco to Washington, D.C., from Chicago to Dallas, and throughout NYC, protestors blocked traffic and staged "die-ins."
If we were looking at our own country from the outside, would we be calling recent actions "riots?" More likely we would be lauding "freedom fighters" in a country that purports democracy but implements a police state where the poor and racially oppressed are targeted by police who have a de facto license to kill and a lack of accountability.
But accountability is swift when people of color speak out. The stepfather of Michael Brown reacted to the Ferguson grand jury decision by shouting "Burn this b**** down!" It didn't take long for officials such as the Missouri Lieutenant Governor to say he should be arrested and charged with incitement to riot.
But what are the right words for despair? What does rage in the face of oppression look like?
As a spiritual leader of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), I must tell the truth. There appears to be a separate justice system for whites and people of color. So what options do people have to be heard and to receive justice? In the Bible, prophets in the Hebrew text used vitriolic words for unjust leaders and predicted their demise. Jesus called unjust leaders "white-washed sepulchers" and "a pit of vipers." Perhaps he would be arrested for incitement to riot -- perhaps he was!
MCC members and friends take these biblical messages seriously and are already on the street chanting with demonstrators. Black lives matter! We add our own words of action and commitment: "Be MCC! Be JUSTICE!" We are ready to risk taking a stand, and we urge other faith groups to do the same.
But what happens when the police treat you like an enemy of the state before they ask any questions? Darren Wilson said to the grand jury about Ferguson's Black community, "that community doesn't like police." Instead of going into the community to protect these citizens, he approached the neighborhood as a hostile force. Michael Brown and his family had an occupying army in their backyard; armored vehicles were launched at the first sign of free speech protest. According to a Reuters article, a police officer in Ferguson was recorded saying to protestors, "Bring it, you f***ing animals! Bring it!"
The despair and rage of a community that burns the only thing within reach -- their own businesses -- is hard to understand if you don't walk in their shoes. But no matter what your perspective, it is wrong to point to symptoms of despair and rage and ignore the root causes. The unrelenting neglect of communities and whole populations through economic exclusion is bound to boil over and become visible -- shockingly visible.
Some of the roots of rage include politicians who show a stunning lack of compassion by cutting basic services such as food stamps and refusing to raise the minimum wage. Our obstructionist Congress uses thinly veiled racial attacks on President Obama -- questioning his birth and bringing lawsuits against him.
So what is an average citizen to do? There are models for better police practices. I had the opportunity to work with the Los Angeles police department in the 1990s to help them move beyond persecution of LGBTQ people. Our work expanded policing by community members in LA and made an impact on police culture. Did it fix everything? No, but we made some progress.
Let's be clear:
- The time for police departments investigating their own crimes is over.
- The time for cameras on every police car and every police officer is now, despite their limits.
- The time for civil protest is now, and the place is everywhere.
- The time for nationwide protest is December 13, 2014 -- in a city near you.
- The time for faith communities to be prayerful and prophetic is now.
These actions will not repair the damage of recent cases, but nationwide demands for change may lay the groundwork for cases of police brutality and murder to see the light of an actual court room, rather than be buried behind the closed doors of grand juries.