NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Throughout her presentation at Bethel College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day program, Michelle Armster would pause to call out several names.
“Sandra Bland. Renisha McBride. Shantel Davis.”
“Lena Baker. Kimani Gray. Tanisha Anderson.”
Armster, the transitional executive director for Mennonite Central Committee Central States, noted that when Bethel’s Jean Butts had contacted her about being the keynote speaker for the annual celebration, “I was mourning the death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman murdered on her way to starting a job at her alma mater.”
Bland was pulled over by Waller County, Texas, police on July 10, on a minor traffic violation, arrested for “talking back” and three days later found dead in her cell.
Bland’s family protested the coroner’s ruling of suicide. In December, a grand jury declined to indict anyone in her death.
“[In recent years], the incarceration and state-sanctioned murder of African-American and indigenous women has doubled that of men,” Armster said — the reason for the title of her address, “The New Jane Crow.”
She opened by reading Micah 2. When the Israelites claim to be “the good people,” God rebuffs them, saying, “What do you mean, ‘good people’! . . . You rob unsuspecting people out for an evening stroll. . . . You drive the women of my people out of their ample homes. You make victims of the children and leave them vulnerable to violence and vice” (Micah 2:8-11, The Message).
Those terrorized today
Armster briefly traced the history of mass incarceration in the United States.
The Sentencing Project “provides some startling statistics,” she said. “The United States is the world leader in incarceration: 2.2 million people, a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years, despite increasing evidence that mass incarceration is not the most effective way of producing public safety.”
Among its many statistics, the Sentencing Project shows racial disparity in sentencing, Armster noted. While the likelihood of a white man going to prison is 1 in 17, for a black man it’s 1 in 3, and a Latino man 1 in 6. White women have a 1 in 111 chance, while for black women it’s 1 in 18, and Latina women 1 in 45.
“I could go on and on about the origins of modern-day police and policing, the racial disparity in sentencing, even about the poisoning of the children and residents of Flint, Mich., which is 60 percent African-American — the many ways people of color are being terrorized,” she said. “African-Americans, indigenous people, Latinos. Terrorizing is not a thing of the past.”
The number of women incarcerated has had a cost born by their children.
“Dr. King . . . said: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,’ ” Armster said. “So what can you do to make your life matter? I have a couple of suggestions.”
Armster encouraged reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The book covers mass incarceration and how U.S. drug laws and the war on drugs continue to disenfranchise African-American males.
Second, she urged her audience to “get involved with the Newton Community for Racial Justice. They are doing amazing things. They recognize that unless we do the work, nothing will change.”
Referencing Micah 2, she said God is calling together those who have been left behind.
“So I call the names of those who have been killed by state-sanctioned murder,” Armster said. “I call the names of immigrants . . . Muslim brothers and sisters . . . indigenous people here in the United States who we forget even exist . . . children left alone.”
Learning to see racism
The freewill offering for the evening went to the Newton Community for Racial Justice, which Hamilton Williams, Bethel associate professor of social work, introduced.
“This past year, one thing that happened was we started Law Enforcement Advisory Panel, LEAP. It was mandated back in 2006 and only met one time,” he said. “We brought it back, especially to address racial profiling. We have a good representation from the community.”
Last fall, the Newton Community for Racial Justice sponsored a Roots of Justice antiracism training at Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton. Two participants spoke briefly about their experience with the training.
“I didn’t think my opinion would matter because I’m young. I didn’t think people wanted to listen to me,” said Bethany Montoya, a Bethel freshman from Wilmer, Texas. “I found out my opinion did matter, and adults came to me and asked me what I thought and what could be done.
“I learned that a lot of people don’t see racism. I found out I didn’t. I thought it was normal for people to tell me it was wrong to speak Spanish. I found out that it was taking my culture away, and that it was not OK.”