This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/7/14. It explores the tragic death of black men and boys by white police officers.
It’s December. The Rockefeller Christmas Tree was lit before a river of protestors marching from Times Square. Anger in the season of joy. The police would barricade them some way along their route so that their peaceful protest would not disrupt broadcast television. And true to form, NBC would nary blink an eye to cover it. Late night news would mourn the delays on drivers. A “die-in” at Grand Central – where protesters, en masse, lie motionless on the floor – delayed train commuting for hours. By the next day, papers would publish sketches of the figure of the Blind Justice on the ground gasping “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, a black father and a husband, had died at the hands of a police officer who would employ an illegal chokehold on him, and the grand jury ruled no cause for indictment. I can’t breathe.
We know from the video footage that Eric Garner was unarmed. We know he was not attacking anyone. We know he was accused of the petty misdemeanor of selling loose cigarettes on the street. He kept his hands to himself and barely struggled with the police who were slowly killing him. He said, “I can’t breathe” and the police continued to kill him. We know this from the video footage. And still, no cause for indictment. We know this from the video footage. Yet seeing is not enough to believe anymore – to at least go to trial.
Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black boy, was playing on a field with a toy gun. A 911 call was made which mentioned that the gun was probably fake. Police were dispatched and no word of the probably fake gun was passed onto the responding officers. Within 2 seconds of getting out of the car though, Tamir Rice was gunned down. The police would falsify a whole range of things in their press conference, from lying about asking the boy numerous times to drop the weapon, to claiming that the orange tab was off the end of the gun so they thought it was real. The orange tip was removed, but the toy gun was in Tamir’s pants – so it’s really a moot point – there was no tip to see one way or the other – so they lied about having knowledge they didn’t actually have. We know the responding officers didn’t warn little Tamir because we have video footage that shows they gunned him down within 2 seconds. We have footage. Yet, we’ve likely all heard or read of many white apologists blaming the parents for letting their kid carry a toy gun. ‘It’s the parents’ failure of parenting.’ Ohio is an open carry state, but a child with a toy gun in Ohio is the problem, not the police officer who we’ll later learn had a supervisor who said this particular officer was not fit for duty and was fired, only to be hired by another precinct. But we’ll jump to blame the black child, not the adult trained in the use of firearms.
This thinking is truly remarkable. Back on April 12th, 2014, the media labeled Eric Parker a “protestor” when he aimed a loaded assault rifle at a Federal agent of the Bureau of Land Management when they seized cattle belonging to the rancher Cliven Bundy for their illegal grazing on federal land. This white man with an assault rifle pointed at Federal Agents acting in the course of their duty is merely “protesting” but a black boy with a toy gun playing by himself with no one around him requires deadly force.
So when I hear people say in the case of Ferguson that we should give the system the benefit of the doubt, I say, “I can’t breathe.” Where was the benefit of the doubt for the dead victims? And why, why must we perpetually, and with knee-jerk precision, give the benefit of the doubt to the people with the power in the situation?
I know officers have a seemingly impossible job. I know they put their lives on the line. I know I could never do that job. Yet still, how does critiquing one officer’s actions immediately translate into attacking all officers – conveniently – every single time this comes up. And it appears to be coming up every single month, in every single year, of our lives, for generations.
It’s not rationale. It’s victim-blaming. And we don’t seem to put up with it for any other profession. I have power as a clergy person. I have authority; I have influence; I have a larger voice than most of us simply because of the stature of my office. For a long time, our nation allowed clergy to get away with horrendous offenses in the name of covering up what we did not want to see. Thankfully, light has been shown on corners that should never have been allowed to be hidden. That’s the just and right response to abuse of power. I don’t expect any special considerations because of the nature of my job. In fact, I expect to be held to a higher standard because of the power I wield. It is our ethical and moral responsibility to shine the same light on any professional who holds such power. The calling to task of clergy abuse of individual clergy doesn’t call to task all clergy, just the guilty party. So why must we pretend we’re insulting all officers when we challenge the actions of an individual? We’re not insulting officers by questioning flagrant abuse; we’re treating them like citizens, because they still are. We don’t live in a police state, so we shouldn’t act like it when it comes down to black victims. And frankly, I think not holding police officers to at least the same standard we hold other citizens, is an insult to the office of the police.
We do this with police because something else is going on. Individuals officers are responsible for their actions; they must live with it for the rest of their lives; and justice should be served. But it’s not only about them. It’s about a system that devalues black lives to protect white privilege. If you thought white privilege was only about perks and benefits, the death of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with not using the N-word, Eric and Tamir correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with ensuring equal job opportunities and equal pay regardless of race, Eric and Tamir correct us. Lynchings are alive and well and sanctioned by the justice system, and we become complicit the moment we lose our outrage.
Anger in the season of joy. We should be outraged right now. I remember asking this when I had to preach in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin to my community in Brooklyn, and I will ask it again here in Huntington about the 12 year old Tamir Rice, and the 18 year old Michael Brown: Can you imagine any scenario where one of our 12 year olds, or one of our congregation’s 18 year olds, was killed by anyone and we didn’t lose our minds in sorrow and rage… Take a moment to imagine that horrid reality. Do you actually believe this congregation wouldn’t move heaven and earth to find justice? I can’t. I just can’t. We should apply that reality to the families and communities of Tamir and Michael, and now Eric. Benefit of the doubt language takes on a whole new meaning in that light.
I want to reflect on another story of unjust deaths of children. We talk about it at this time of year, every year, but rarely do the commercials, sermons or politicians of this world focus on this part of the story. It’s the story of the Wise Men. They come to Jerusalem and visit King Herod asking ‘“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…”. (Matthew 2:1-12) King Herod tries to trick the Wise Men into finding Jesus and informing the King of his location for Herod believes Jesus will be a threat to his reign and intends to kill him. The story of the Wise Men often ends with, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
But the story goes on with a message you will rarely hear at our children’s pageants. “16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Rachel’s wails echo in our ears when we go the path of cool analyzation in the face of a generation of black children being killed before our eyes without recourse or justice. It’s the safe and privileged position, to argue each individual case over our awkward Thanksgiving dinners, or on Facebook walls, or at the water cooler; all the while forgetting that this is happening every month, of every year, for generations. If we remain solely in our heads, perpetually fixated on the myth that there are always two sides to any situation, we remain deaf to Rachel’s wails. I say it’s a myth – two sides. It’s a myth, because we talk blithely about two sides while never allowing the victims’ sides to actually be heard in a court of law. There has been no trial to avenge the death of Eric Garner; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial to avenge the death of Michael Brown; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial, so there was only one side.
We pretend the closed-door practice of Grand Jury’s, who only ever hear from an elected Prosecutor, is a fair trial. When the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict was released, the British version of the BBC had to explain to its readers that our Grand Jury’s are secret and that only one person gets to speak with them. Europe doesn’t have this as part of their legal procedures and readers were confused. It’s considered anathema to a democracy. The judicial system should be transparent, and in this way, our system is not. Some would also call into question the political nature of asking an elected Prosector, one who likely benefits from Police Union votes, to ever indict a police officer for such a crime. It’s a complicated conflict of interest that under normal circumstances I would discredit, but baring witness to the near 0 rate of county prosecutors every actually indicting a police officer for the violent death of an unarmed black man, I’m not sure it’s something we should continue to wholly discredit.
The story of the Wise Men is timely and important. Who is Herod today? I don’t believe there’s an evil mastermind organizing the wanton death of black children. But I do see a nation feeling threatened by race reacting in violent ways, without recourse or justice for the victims. Travyon, Tamir, Eric and Michael were all on trial for their own deaths. From carrying skittles, to playing with a toy in an empty field, to saying “I can’t breathe”, to a punch in the face that was falsely reported as breaking the officer’s skull but in fact caused light bruising – we give the death sentence. We can parse out all the ways in which someone should or could have done something different, although in 3 of these 4 cases, I find none of those critiques credible in the face of Rachel’s wail and weeping for her children. Friends, we are in a Modern Western Society. We do not give the death sentence for walking home from a convenience store with a packet of skittles; we do not give the death sentence for playing in a field with a toy, or for selling loose cigarettes. We just don’t.
Herod is in our faceless system that allows this happen. Herod is in our criminal justice process that forces imprisonment for non-violent crimes at a ridiculous rate – one that is higher for people of color than for whites. When you’re imprisoned for a non-violent crime, your chances of ever getting a good job decrease. While you’re imprisoned you also lose your right to vote. It’s like the Jim Crow south all over again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Herod is in the rampant fear whites have of blacks. When Darren Wilson said, “I feel like a 5 year old holding onto Hulk Hogan” we were hearing the fear of Herod come to life. “He looked up at me and had the most aggressive face,” he said to the grand jury. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Officer Darren Wilson is 6’4” and 210 pounds. He’s about two inches taller than me but otherwise my size; except he had a gun. And he was facing an unarmed 18 year old. Officer Wilson also got to speak to the Grand Jury; something Michael Brown never will get a chance to do.
I know these cases aren’t all the same. I’m not saying we need to convict anyone in the court of public opinion. I am saying that the court of public opinion always seems to rule in favor of the officer at the expense of the dead black boy, teen, or man. I am saying that I find it horrifying in a democracy that in each of these instances there is never a trial – a child is dead and there is no trial. We can send a black man to prison for a non-violent crime at a rate radically out of proportion to white prisoners, but we can’t even hold a trial for the killing of black youth when it’s done by police? When we insist that black youth are treated fairly, while they lie dead on a Ferguson street for 4.5 hours for all the community to see, we keep Herod on the throne.
So yes, not all police are bad. In fact most are awesome. But when you hear another story of another unarmed black man killed by another white police officer over another petty mis-demeanor, hold back from the knee-jerk “it’s not all cops.” When Rachel was weeping in Ramah, over the death of all the infant men of Jerusalem, saying “well, it’s not all kings” says more about you than it does the grieving mother.
Spiritually, we’re called not to blithely dismiss the parents’ pain. We’re called to listen; to act. Democracy is a lively art, and it’s the foundation of our fifth principle. In some of these cases we can lobby for Federal Prosecutors to intervene on civil rights causes. In others we can make our voices heard through joining in protest marches, as some of us already have in NYC this weekend. There will be another opportunity later today at the Amityville, LIRR station at 1:30pm where that march culminates at Holy Trinity Baptist Church at 3pm. But equally important, and I tend to feel it’s even more important, as a predominately privileged community that will likely never have to face the horrors of seeing one of our youth lying dead on Main Street for 4.5 hours, is to listen. Respond with our ears and our hearts first. Be present for a family or a community’s pain – first. Be open to the possibility that if every cop isn’t a bad cop – which no one is saying they are – then maybe there’s room to believe that every black youth isn’t a bad kid deserving of death or imprisonment. If we’re going to stay in our heads, that’s the logic we have to face when we retreat to “all cops aren’t bad”, when no one is talking about all cops. That’s the false logic flipped on its head.
I want to end with the other side of anger in the season of joy. Rage. We’re seeing a lot of photos out of Ferguson showing rioting in response to the presence of Police in military gear and later the presence of National Guard. Remember, protestors were first met with gas masks, tear gas and military grade vehicles. Remember also that the peaceful protestors, and the protest leads are decrying the rioting. In fact the riots are happening at the same time as the legal protests. We’re looking at different people. I wanted to first remind people that the media sometimes sloppily conflates the two groups as the same, thereby indicting the whole community of color for the actions of some.
As a near-pacifist, I can’t condone such rioting. However, as someone who hasn’t just had another one of my people, or community, or family gunned down on the street and left for dead for 4.5 hours – I’m going to choose to remain silent and try to listen. I know that personally, whenever I hear of another gay or lesbian or transgender person killed on the streets – in some ways, I feel like it happened to me too. I imagine many women, when they hear of an attack on another woman, there may be a sense of loss of safety for all women. So too, when there’s a barrage of dead black men and boys on our streets, I think we can all imagine what affect that will have on a community.
I’m going to be real cautious about pointing fingers and blithely exercising my superiority in the face of that tragedy. I’m also going to refer back to my childhood history lessons. When white people riot in the face of oppression it’s called “Patriotic.” In fact, we have a whole political party named after it. The Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was all about Taxation without Representation, and our forefathers ransacked three ships in the harbor and tossed hundreds of chests of tea into the water. It’s like ransacking the Best Buys of the day, and destroying public property. But they were heroes. They also hid their identities by dressing as Native Americans to do so.
I remember Southern States rising up against the North, in name, over the “sovereignty of states.” 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. That’s only 24,000 less deaths than all other US conflicts combined. And yet, to this day, many Southern Whites will still maintain it was a “just” cause. 640,000 dead. But let’s wag our privileged fingers at the Ferguson community for stealing TV’s and ransacking stores in the face of one of their sons lying dead on the street for 4.5 hours.
I remember Stonewall. For days, several streets in Greenwich village were shut down. Police were barricaded away by Drag Queens and Kings. Windows were shattered with bricks – yes the gay community shattered our own windows. We were tied of the police raping and abusing Drag Queens and Kings. We were tired of the raids that sought to humiliate and keep us down. It only reached page 4 of the papers. But the LGBT civil rights movement was born.
I remember Hanukkah. We focus on the miracle of oil, and seven days and nights of light. But it’s a story about violent revolution in the face of a worldly power that is killing and restricting the lives of Jews in their own land. But we share that story as religious scripture; but another community here, riots in the face of their people lying dead in the street by authority, and we chide them.
Anger and rage don’t always make rational sense. They’re not always helpful. But in the face of seeing one of our children lying dead in the street for 4.5 hours, I’m not sure it’s rationale to expect a neat, clean, tidy, logical response for a very long time.
So we listen. We don’t seek to judge. We don’t seek to quickly hide from the difficulty of a trial. We don’t seek to wash away another’s pain. We don’t condemn a child for their own death. We don’t blame parents for bad parenting by allowing their kid to have a toy gun – again in a state that has an Open Carry law. We don’t accept a system that ignores, time after time, the application of the death penalty for petty misdemeanors. We don’t ignore the fact that European police have a tiny, tiny fraction of the rate of police shootings that we have in our nation (in the single digits in many countries annually) – and we don’t pretend that that difference doesn’t matter.
In our places of privilege we don’t lift up, nurture, defend or protect the Herod of our age – institutional racism – that witnesses the tragic death of black man after black man at the hands of white authority. Some of these cases, the officer may legitimately be found not guilty. Let it go to trial, and we’ll see.
We use our safe positions of privilege to listen. We take the risk that maybe the whole system is unfair and that unfairness means another race of people’s lives are at greater risk. And we allow that possibility to seep in. If we can actually listen, from the place of compassion, we may imagine new ways to live more fairly and more safely. But if we believe the status quo is fair and just; if we believe there are always two sides but we’ll only ever listen to the side of the power and authority, then we’ll continue to see the death of another life, and another life – while we remain safe in our places of privilege.