My daughter is a social justice advocate in her city. We recently had a conversation about the realities of living as a person of color. At one point she said, “Dad, I’m scared!” She described an uncomfortable incident with a policeman while driving on an expressway. There was no direct encounter, but his staring made her afraid.
I understand that fear. I, too, am afraid — afraid for my children and community. Black people have a right to be scared. There’s a history of indiscriminate violence and murder by law enforcement. It was used to suppress African-Americans fighting for racial justice and equality during slavery. During the Jim Crow era, police arrested and beat what they called “lollygagging Negras.” As a youth growing up in the South, I witnessed beatings and a fire-hosing of black demonstrators.
The Black Lives Matter movement, like the demonstrations of the 1960s, has caused many people to take notice of the inequality. The killings never stopped. They have become more visible as a result of social media. Thus, we are witnessing the indiscriminate killing of black people, particularly men.
Numerous police departments claim the motto, “To Protect and Serve.” Many African-Americans are asking who is being protected and served. There is a code of conduct among “peace officers” to protect each other called the Thin Blue Line. I understand that all law enforcement officers aren’t bad. Some see the injustice and take a stand against police brutality. There are reports that some have been severely reprimanded for their actions.
The recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, African-American men, by police, and the “retribution” against police in Dallas, cause me to ask, “Are we at war?” Reacting to these killings, Donald Trump has suggested we are in for a violent summer. He has proclaimed himself the protector who will bring law and order while stoking the flames of racial discontent.
Many of my white brothers and sisters say the Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for police and societal accountability, is creating the disturbance. The activists are labeled as thugs and criminals. With each death, they rationalize why it happened. They blame the protesters and victims rather than dealing with the root causes of the murders: overt personal and systemic racism.
I am reminded of “Dream Deferred,” a poem by Langston Hughes. He asks: What happens to a dream deferred? He ends by saying, “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” That’s the state we are living in now. Our nation is exploding with injustice, violence and murder. When we are recovering from one violent act, another one crops up.
I mourn the deaths of all the victims. I mourn with families who have lost their loved ones because of the hatred that exists. In the past, I have called for a spiritual awakening and prayer for peace and reconciliation. I still do, but the question remains: what next? We join ecumenical prayer vigils, but the killings keep on mounting. After the prayer vigils, do we remain silent and go back to our regular routine and wait for the next death? Do we continue to mourn and call for silence, or will we respond by insisting that our elected officials do their job?
I am angry, righteously angry. Are you? If you are and believe that black lives matter, demand police accountability now. Fear and anger often go together. So do fear and action. Which one will you choose?
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.