WHAT’S IT LOOK LIKE? Clark … King … Death … Life … Easter

Four weeks ago, as of last Thursday, I was headed off on a reluctant return errand to a store I generally visit only once a month because it is a fair drive from home.  I misremembered whether it was north or south that I wouldn’t be able to go directly from the eastbound freeway.  As a result, I ended up taking a much longer and (worse!) time consuming way than that drive already takes.

I’m trying not to fret and stress over such moments by turning my attention to the questions: Why am I in this place right now?  What am I supposed to be seeing?  Is there something to be learned here?

There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear…

That day, as it turned out, the question wasn’t so much about what I needed to see as it was what I needed to hear.  Had I gone the fastest route, I might have arrived at my destination not long after The Takeaway radio program comes on the air here.  And it was the first story of that show that (apparently) I needed to hear.

That March 22nd episode started out with a report on the killing of 22-year old Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandparents’ home in Sacramento, CA.  When I first heard the name, I thought Todd Zwillich had said “Jamar Clark,” a young man killed by police in Minneapolis several years ago.  But I quickly realized that, while the story shared some similarities with the Clark shooting here, this was yet another case of a young, unarmed black man who was killed by police.  This was the first I heard of Stephon Clark; it wouldn’t be the last.

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware…

The story included the recently released bodycam recording of the incident.  It was staggering – especially the gunshots.  Had I not been on the longer route, I might have missed it … and that’s what I’m sure I needed to hear that day.  A few days later, the recording of Alton Sterling’s fatal encounter with the Baton Rouge, LA police was released … and at first, the two conflated in my mind.  The killing of Sterling happened a couple of years ago, around the same time Philando Castile was killed in Saint Paul, MN … along a stretch of road that I used to drive on a daily basis.  In the glare of this local story, the similar story from Baton Rouge was hardly noticed.

These stories – and too many more just like them – form a common pattern in which an unarmed black man is perceived as a threat in some way by a police officer (or several officers) … so the quick-thinking officer of the law makes the decision that deadly force must be used to mitigate the threat.  I’ll delve much more into in another couple weeks.  [It’s a post that’s been waiting in the wings for a local county prosecutor to decide whether or not to being charges in another similar, and yet different, local situation.  That happened shortly before the Stephon Clark story came to national attention.]  I want to stay with the unfolding of this Clark story for now…

The funeral for Stephon Clark took place one week later, on Maundy Thursday … and the results from a private autopsy the family had commissioned were made public.  Eight of the twenty rounds fired by the officers hit Clark, almost all of them entering his body from the back side.  But none of the shots were instantly fatal.  While the officers continued to assess Clark’s level of threat from a distance, he died.  Instead of rendering aid, they continued to act with suspicion and fear.

Maundy Thursday, in the Christian liturgical calendar, marks the first of the triduum, the sacred three days of commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning commandment – pointing to Jesus’ command to his disciples at their last meal together, a call to “love one another as I have loved you.”  The service might include foot washing, a remembrance of how Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet in an act of loving service that they were to emulate.  Services most definitely include communion, the sacramental and ritual meal instituted at that last supper together, which the disciples were also instructed to do “in remembrance of me.”  The events of Jesus’ life recounted on Maundy Thursday include his prayers in Gethsemane … and that his followers would be one … and then the betrayal by one of his followers, his arrest, and the start of the series of trials that would lead to his execution by the authorities the following day.

These were the stories being told inside churches as marches and demonstrations protesting the killing of Stephon Clark were taking place in the streets outside them.  Such demonstrations continued throughout the weekend … on Friday, as Christians commemorated the death of Jesus and Jews began the Passover celebration of deliverance from slavery … and on Saturday, as a few churches here and there keep vigil, waiting for the promise of resurrection … on Sunday, Easter, when even non-churchgoers might stop by to keep Easter with Mom or Grandma and maybe hear some hopeful news that death might not be the end of everything after all.

Beyond the Christian calendar, the demonstrations in Sacramento continued (almost two weeks from when I first heard) to April 4, 2018 … the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, TN … another black man who was perceived as a threat by some number of people at the time … a fact which may have been lost with the hagiography of the decades since.

Most famously, King was the key leader in the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s that (eventually) led to the end of Jim Crow laws, assurance of voting rights, and other protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  That, however, was not the end of King’s public life and leadership.  He had become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.  A number of those who had agreed that the Civil Rights Act was a good thing then turned away from him when he opposed the war; they considered him un-American … and quite possibly a communist.  King was also preparing for a “poor peoples’ campaign,” to call attention to the needs of the impoverished of all races and all areas of America.

That’s what took him to Memphis … a request to support striking sanitation workers.  The strike began when two black workers were accidentally killed as they took refuge from a storm in the back of a garbage truck.  Black workers went on strike to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions.  They carried signs stating: “I Am A Man.”  And they were men – but they weren’t seen or treated as such.

And here it is now, more than four weeks since I first heard the horrifying sound of those twenty rounds being fired at Stephon Clark.  At just 22 years of age, he was still young … but he was over 18 – and that makes him a man.  But to the police officers, he wasn’t a man; he was something else.  What that something was, only they can say for certain.  However, it is certain they did not regard him as a man, someone just like any one of them.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

This keeps happening and nothing changes.  Since I heard about the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, half the country away, in Detroit, MI a 14-year old (14-year old!) was shot when he knocked on a door to ask directions.  And then there were the incidents over a weeks ago at Starbucks – the big news story of two black men at a shop in Philadelphia who were arrested when staff called the police because they had not yet bought anything.  (It turned out they were there to meet with a business associate.)  In a lesser story from the west coast, reports surfaced of a Starbucks employee in Torrance, CA not only refusing to allow a black man to use the bathroom, but also calling the police.  Same themes … different variations … they all start to blend together after a while.  And if it’s this bothersome to keep hearing these things over and over, what’s it like to live them out?

We talk about King and his legacy as if getting the Civil Rights Act passed was all that was needed to make everything right and fair and equal.  But it isn’t.  Systemic racism always seems to find a way.  Housing discrimination still happens.  Get the Voting Rights Act passed and discrimination in employment banned … but then the strategic changes in policies during the Nixon Administration accomplished the goal of targeting the Black community without seeming to specifically target anyone.  (Michelle Alexander describes this in The New Jim Crow.)  In much the same way, the push for Voter ID registration in many states purports to be aimed at preventing alleged voter fraud by impersonation, which is something that rarely happens; however, these laws do create barriers for people with low incomes (who, oftentimes, are also persons of color or culture) from voting.

The litany of examples of the lack of real progress goes on. In the weeks since the shooting of Stephon Clark, a 50-year follow-up to the Kerner Report was released.  The original report came from a commission initiated by President Lyndon Johnson, but then he tried to quash the report because it didn’t praise his actions enough.  Fifty years later, the follow-up report shows little has changed.  The economic disparities aren’t much different now than they were 50 years ago.  Most glaring, Black men born into middle class families are quite likely to do less well economically than their parents.  If that doesn’t make sense, then consider the parallel resume studies in which the exact same resume is submitted, one with a name like James and another with a name like Jamal.  James gets a call for an interview; Jamal’s resume goes to the trash.

Recent studies are also showing maternal deaths among Black women are dramatically higher than they are for white women.  (Here’s one such example.)  The exact reasons for this aren’t clear, but the outcomes are stark enough.  Preliminary findings show that there are presumptions made by medical professionals about Black women that lead to a dismissal of their physical concerns. (Here’s a talk about that.)

And all of this is coming forward in the midst of the Easter season, the celebration of the resurrection.  What does resurrection look like for the family of Stephon Clark?  What does resurrection mean for the other families who have suffered similar losses?  What does resurrection mean for the marginalized, maligned, and neglected?  What does new life out of dead ends look like in these situations? And what does it mean for those of us who profess to walk in the light of the Risen Christ?

Resurrection means new life is possible, even from dead ends.  Resurrection is about a new way of life, right here – right now.  It’s not just a promise of eternal life in peace and joy in the presence of God after our bodies have died.  Resurrection is not about some heavenly existence far removed in time and space from life in this world right now.  Resurrection is about life right here, right now.  Resurrection is about God and what God is doing.  Resurrection is proof that death and destruction and sin and evil do not have the last, final word.  God has that last, ultimate word and that word is life – life of the Reign and Realm of God, what God has always intended for the world.  That resurrection life starts right here, right now as people touched by the resurrection stop living by the old ways, which lead to destruction and death, and start living new ways, the ways of the Reign and Realm of God.

People marked by the Resurrection of Christ live differently.  That means me, and if that means you as well, then we are going to have to learn how to do things differently.  The privileged people are going to have to do the heavy lift of tearing down the very systems and structures which grant them their privileges … because those being marginalized, overlooked, excluded, oppressed by these systems will never be able to dismantle them.

Where to start?  First, acknowledge privilege exists.  The idea that we all start out essentially equal and what becomes of us, where we end up is determined solely by our own efforts is a story that isn’t true for everybody else.  Only the privileged can say that; everybody else knows that they’re behind from the start.  (They can see the backs of those in front of them.)  Stop finding fault with the victims of this system of privilege; drop the “they need to …” and the “yeah, but they should …” and the “if only they would realize …”  Just stop it.  Stop trying to talk it away; the silence creates space for listening.

And listen.  Listen to the stories, the experiences, the accounts of others who have had a different path.  You do not know them.  You do not know what their lives are like.  You cannot narrate their experiences for them.  Be open to what others have to say.  Don’t close your ears and eyes and heart, saying “I’m tired of hearing about this.”  As Jon Stewart once said, if you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine what it’s like to have to live with it.

As it happened, this past Thursday, I went out to the same destination as at the start of this post.  I took a different, better route this time … but still, I was later than I’d intended to be.  Because of the timing, I was able to hear a regular mid-day broadcast feature on MPR called “Counter Stories”.  If you need some other experiences to listen to, you can start with these.

To really listen and understand what you’re hearing, you’re going to have to check you biases.  (Here’s a couple places to do just that: Understanding Prejudice and Project Implicit.)  We all have them; it’s part of being human.  But part of being human is also that we have higher level abilities, such as self-awareness.  Learning to recognize your own internal biases helps you be aware that they are present and working on you … so you can think past them, rather than just letting the biases automatically guide your responses and behaviors.  Once you see them, you can choose differently.

And living differently is what resurrection life is all about.  It’s about living here and now in ways that align with the Reign and Realm of God … so others can see and be drawn to this new way of life … and others … and more … and then, in time, with more people involved, life in this world starts to look a bit more like the Reign and Realm of God.

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down…

Lyrics are from “For What It’s Worth” by Stephen Sills                          (c) Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.