United Police State of America

Have you checked Facebook lately?

That's a silly question. If you're reading this, you probably came to it via the link I posted on Facebook. So for all of us who spend reasonable to large chunks of time on Facebook, here's an observation: there's been a lot about the death of Robin Williams. I've clicked on some of it. I even contributed to it with an essay of my own. It's understandable many of us would be affected by this great artist's tragic death. One also has to wonder, though, whether it's getting maybe a bit too much attention, especially when, in some outlets, it's crowded out coverage of what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri.

That seems to be abating: a cursory glance at my Facebook feed just now (though please note that my friends list is rather heavily weighted with progressive activists) revealed more Ferguson than Williams links. Perhaps it's just people getting past their momentary obsession with a celebrity's death and realizing that something groundbreaking is happening elsewhere in the world. Maybe some of them are even getting bored with the steady stream of tributes and speculations about why he did it, and can now turn their attention to tanks, tear gas, and rubber bullets being used on peaceful protesters in an American suburb. But I'm speculating, and that's something I try not to do.

Here's what I know, after checking the latest news on the incident: on August 9, between 12:01 and 12:04 pm, an 18-year-old African-American named Michael Brown and a friend of his were walking down a street in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, when they were confronted by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown may have stolen some cigars from a convenience store a few minutes prior to the incident. At some point in the confrontation, Brown ran away from the officer, his hands raised above his head. Wilson shot him. He died on the scene. Peaceful demonstrations ensued, to which the police responded with heavily armored vehicles, riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets, imposing a curfew, and creating scenes reminiscent of race riots in the 1960s. Yesterday, a Highway Patrol Captain took over command of the Ferguson police, and a cooling-off period began, with the police putting away much of their riot gear.

Much of the commentary I've seen and heard about Ferguson has focused on the extreme police response. There have been analysis pieces about how local police forces built up their armories until they rival those of small countries; about the racial power imbalance in Ferguson; comparing this incident with two recent choke-hold incidents that have also garnered national attention; and about the immediate defensive posture taken by police forces when one of their officers uses excessive force. With so much already out there, it's hard to find anything new to analyze, so I'm not even going to attempt that. What I do have to share is my personal experience.

I've written before about how I grew up in communities so white that someone with a good tan stuck out. I didn't have any acquaintances or friends of color until I was in college. Grad school and seminary introduced me to more, but then I returned to the Pacific Northwest and its largely monochrome population.

As a pastor, I spent a week each summer counseling church camp. In the 1980s, the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference launched an initiative to introduce inner city children to summer camp. As a result, every camp I worked at had some campers from poorer neighborhoods in Portland. Many of them were African-American. The results were not always harmonious.

In particular, there was an evening at high school Camp 642--later renamed "MAGIC Camp"--in which an annual fund raising tradition called the Slave Auction--and no, I'm not making this up; many youth groups used to auction off chores to raise funds--was emceed by a white counselor who had applied some dark makeup to his face and was pretending to be a gospel preacher, complete with a choir in robes shouting "Amens" to his jokes. After just a few minutes of this, all the black campers quietly walked out. One called home, and the next day, the dean and I (I was his assistant) met with several angry parents and struggled to explain why a Methodist camp would invite several dozen African-American teenagers to attend a slave auction that added insult to injury by having a white man in blackface lampoon a black preacher. At one point, I told the parents that I had simply not been acquainted with any African-Americans prior to adulthood, that this was almost certainly the case with most of the white campers, and that what they had done, however obviously offensive it might seem to anyone with even a modicum of common sense, they did out of ignorance. This did not in any way excuse the incident, or let us off the hook from permitting something called a slave auction to go forward, and we apologized sincerely, promising that there would never be another such event held at Camp Magruder (and, to the best of my knowledge, that promise was kept).

Four years later, after leaving the ministry, I took a position as pianist and occasional preacher at a small African-American church in northeast Portland. The congregation welcomed me warmly, was patient with my learning curve as I adjusted to the gospel style they preferred, and responded to my sermons just as vocally and affirmingly as they did to their pastor's. It was pure coincidence that I was assigned to preach on the Sunday after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, but the way my sermon was received gave me another profound lesson in seeing the world through African-American eyes.

I can't remember what exactly I said, and there's no manuscript--I had long since dispensed with writing even outlines for my sermons--but I know it was about the shock of being attacked, how new this feeling was to me as an American. There were nods, "Amens," hummed assent; but also, toward the end of the sermon, there were comments (I solicited their responses) that I would not have heard in a white church. They boiled down to this: "Now white people know what it's like." Many of the members of this church had grown up in the South, and had memories of the Civil Rights struggle, as well as family memories of living under Jim Crow. In essence, their ancestors had lived under the shadow of terrorism since the Civil War--and before that, they had been slaves. This is a part of their identity that had never hit home to me before because I just didn't have anything to compare it to. Now I did. Once again, I was humbled by my ignorance; more than that, I felt deeply honored to be welcomed into their community, even though I wear the face of an oppressor.

Today I'm thinking about Ferguson, Missouri, and the overwhelmingly militarized response to protests. More than that, though, I'm thinking about how dangerous it is for a person of color to have an encounter with a police officer. I've had a couple of traffic cops chew me out for doing something stupid, but it's never crossed my mind that I might be pulled over just because of the color of my skin--as had happened to every member of that church. I've also always been let off with a warning, something I put down to being a mature white man. If a policeman confronted me in the street, I wouldn't be thinking about Michael Brown or Eric Garner or any of the many other black men who wind up dead from an encounter with the police. Yet such fears are a daily reality for both African-American and Hispanic men.

Mostly, I just have to accept that, when it comes to situations like this, I am an outsider looking in. I can't really know what it's like not to be able to trust the police to treat me with respect. I can't know what it's like to have the powerful majority to ignorantly make light of the genocidal acts its ancestors performed on my ancestors. All I can do is to agitate for others to be aware, and to adjust their actions accordingly, whether they're in law enforcement, education, or camp management.


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