You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

O My America: The “Unique Suffering” of Every Group

November 26, 2014

Reflections on Ferguson, MO

by Lawrence Bush image-453673840THICH NHAT HANH, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk (who, at 88, is currently in a coma, nearing the end — though he would probably put “end” in quotation marks), once amazed me with a single statement on Krista Tippett’s NPR radio show. He was describing a workshop he had done with New York City police, and Tippett asked him how he managed to prepare himself to bring his teachings of mindfulness and compassion to diverse audiences. “I ask myself,” he said, “what is the unique suffering endured by this group?” And that, he continued, sets him on the path to meaningful translation of his insights into language they can receive. I’ve been thinking about this against the backdrop of Ferguson, MO and the plague of police shootings of young African-American men throughout the country. I’ve been thinking that the issue at stake is not whether cops are at fault and should be indicted, or whether victims of shootings are at fault for criminal or threatening behavior — the issue at stake, the issue in which these victims and perpetrators are embedded, is our society’s institutional racism, which reproduces the conditions that lead to these incidents over and over. Time and again in these cases of cop-killing-black-man, there is a profound failure in our country to set up real channels of leader-to-leader, citizen-to-citizen communication. Time and again, we get hung up, instead, on the details of what happened, how innocent was the victim, how reckless or quick on the trigger was the cop — and who should pay for it. Time and again, our nation is polarized by a “which side are you on?” mentality — are you with the cops or the dead? — rather than uplifted and advanced by a spirit of communication. IN TRUTH, WHAT COUNTS MOST is not if Citizen Michael Brown robbed a convenience store half an hour earlier. Or if he had a criminal side that he successfully hid from his parents. Or even if he stupidly slugged a cop inside his patrol car. Brown didn’t deserve to be shot down for any of these hypotheticals — and those in America who think that petty crime by people with non-white skins renders them expendable need, for the sake of their own souls, to be engaged in real dialogue about their perceptions, fears, and beliefs. Americans altogether need to contemplate the “unique suffering” of young black men: the scary living conditions, in which everyone is suspicious and jumpy; the constant police harassment; the poverty and poverty’s endless frustrations; the impotence; the rage; the ignorance; the dark public housing stairwells; the need for masculine affirmation; the hopelessness... And what counts most is also not if Officer Darren Williams mistook a head-bowed surrender for an aggressive charge. Or if Williams, 6′4″, felt like “a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” in his struggle with the 6′5″ Brown (my son is a nearly 6′5″ bodybuilder and regularly tells me that he feels small, that he always has to remind himself that he’s as big as the next big guy in the gym). Or if Williams should have had the wherewithal to stop firing his gun before killing Brown, and to make an arrest instead. Or even if he lied to the grand jury about what happened that night. Ultimately, it would change nothing to have Williams rotting in jail for any of these hypotheticals — and those in America who do not understand how scared and stressed-out cops are need, for the sake of their citizenship, to understand the “unique suffering” of cops. “[W]e deal with the 5 percent of the worst part of society,” says Captain Cheri Maples, who arranged Thich Nhat Hanh workshop that Krista Tippett reported about, “so you start — you know, you don’t want your kids [at home] exposed to that. You don’t want your partner exposed to that. It’s got to go somewhere. You don’t know who to talk to about it, but it starts to affect the way you see people.... And the accumulated stress of, you know, if you’re a young officer and you go to your first accident scene where somebody’s head has been rolled over... you go to a homicide scene and you see very grisly details... the accumulated sort of stuff post-traumatic stress is made from, and you start shutting down and you don’t realize it. So you need tools to keep your heart open and soft.” HOW TO PROMOTE SUCH UNDERSTANDING? Church-to-church, church-to-synagogue, church-to-mosque, synagogue-to-mosque dialogue. Community-based, community-informed policing — and police unions and police leadership that actively advocate for poverty-relief, community-uplift programs and policies. Extensive racial integration of police forces, through the use of quotas and whatever means are needed. More cross-generational, cross-racial conversation groups, organized by community organizations with government support. Less blaming, and so, so much more dialogue. All leading to a mass demand for an end to poverty in our enormously wealthy society! What’s needed is for the matrix or racism and economic injustice to change, so that those caught up in it do not play out the same scenario time and time again. “We live in a time,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “when we have a very sophisticated means for communication, but communication has become very difficult between individuals and groups of people. A father cannot talk to son, mother cannot talk to daughter, and maybe husband cannot talk to wife. And Israelis cannot talk to Palestinians, and Hindus cannot talk to Muslims. And that is why we have war, we have violence. That is why restoring communication is the basic work for peace, and our political and our spiritual leaders have to focus all their energy on this matter.” ---------------------------- PROGRESSIVE JEWISH VOICES ON FERGUSON Stosh Cotler, CEO, Bend the Arc:
Let’s start with the hard truths. The police action in Ferguson is not about protecting small business owners from petty theft. It’s not about quelling chaos or keeping order. It’s about racism. It’s about the fact that, as a country, we have never truly grappled with the lasting effects of slavery and the multiple iterations of Jim Crow. As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently explains this in his recent article in The Atlantic, “What came before this was a long bloody war—enslavement—against black families, black communities and black bodies. What came after was a terrorist regime which ruled an entire swath of this country by fire and rope. That regime was not overthrown until an era well within the living memory of many Americans.” Simply put, there is an undeniable connection between the deep, unhealed scars of slavery and the fact that no one called an ambulance as Michael Brown lay dying in the street. It is the blasphemous and offensive philosophy that says some wounds matter more than others, and some wounds are best left ignored.... For those of us who are not targets of systemic racism, for those of us who do not get stopped and frisked and have never had to stare down the barrel of an officer’s gun because of our white privilege, the police action in Ferguson might seem like a rare and violent overreaction to a community’s protests against police brutality. But if we look just a little bit outside ourselves and beyond our own community, we may begin to understand Ferguson as the latest abuse in a centuries-long history of the US government and its citizens terrorizing African Americans. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King in Selma, reminds us that, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings... In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the Shalom Center:
[T]hese are the patterns: 1. Built-in institutions of racial injustice and oppression in many spheres: far higher disemployment and poverty among Blacks, far less effective schools, far higher rates of imprisonment, far worse exposure to lead poisoning, to asthma-causing coal dust, to disasters like Katrina and Sandy; far smaller representation in governmental leadership; on and on. All this is social gasoline sloshing through every Black neighborhood. 2. The spark that flares this gasoline into explosive violence: Injustice and oppression by the police. Our society agrees to make the police public carriers of weaponry and when necessary, users of legitimate violence — on condition that they must therefore be utterly neutral about race, class, religion, and every other social category when they face what may or may not be criminal behavior. But the police are not neutral. They are infected with the same “power racism” that is endemic in all the other structures of American society. Not only what might be called “personal racism” — using obnoxious language toward or about Blacks, for example — but, far more destructive, using their power to reinforce the disempowerment of Blacks. When push comes to shove, they sometimes use their guns — and now, their tanks, hand grenades, pepper gas, taser-stunners, and other such war-fighting equipment — to threaten, frighten, shame, wound, and kill Black people. So ingrained institutional “power racism” throughout our society is the gasoline, and “power racism” by the police is often the spark, that together produce explosions of violence. I can’t help grieving, and feeling disheartened, that our actual experience of this pattern goes back at least a century, and my own small contribution to thinking about it goes back half a century. So as you can imagine, I feel discouraged to see the police still acting now as they have for at least a century — with the permission and often celebration of the American public.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights):
Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel taught us that on three things the world is sustained: on truth, on justice and on peace. But today the streets have erupted in protest — in Ferguson, Missouri, and around the country — because a clear truth, that an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown Jr., was shot and killed in broad daylight by a police officer, has not lead to justice. And so there is no peace on the streets, because once again, black and brown youth in the United States have been shown by the system of justice that is supposed to serve all of us that their lives do not matter. In America today, it should not be this way. All lives matter. That’s the first message the Torah gives us about human beings, when it tells us that every human being is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. This should not be an abstract concept: We are all sacred; each of us is someone’s child. But I don’t think I truly understood how little these points matter in real life until this past October, when I sat in a church in Ferguson with several hundred other clergy and was asked to imagine that instead of Brown, it was my child lying dead on the ground for four hours, shot by police. I’m the mother of two young children, and as I took part in this chilling exercise, two thoughts flashed in my mind. The first was that if as Jews we really believe that all lives matter, we are obligated to speak out against a system of violence in which someone’s child is shot by a police officer every 28 hours. And the second was that as a white parent, the reality was it would be someone else’s child. And that is a horrible truth in America today. Every parent has a right to a world in which his or her child can grow up in safety, and every parent certainly has a right not to fear that the police will be the ones who violate that safety. Much of the media coverage following the decision of the grand jury not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, has focused on the unfortunate violence and looting of a small number of protesters. This is a distraction; when faced with yet another example of why their lives matter less than other lives, we are asking the oppressed to be nicer in their response. Rather than pass judgment, it is critically important that we listen to what the protesters are saying.
Marjorie Dove-Kent, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice:
We have barely had the time to mourn the death of one person of color by the police before another murder hit the news. As we take in the grand jury’s verdict on Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown in the street in Ferguson, and we await the grand jury’s decision on the officers who killed Eric Garner here in New York by using a chokehold on him during an unprovoked arrest, we were heartbroken to learn of the murder of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man shot in the chest in his apartment building by a police officer in Brooklyn on Thursday evening. And not 48 hours later, we learned of the death of Tamar Rice, a 12-year-old black boy shot for playing with a BB gun in a Cleveland park on Saturday afternoon. From Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton we hear these deaths described as disconnected, unfortunate “accidents.” But these deaths are not merely accidental. They are the tragic results of systemic racism in the police departments that are supposed to protect us — all of us. These deaths are the outcome of a system that supports disrespectful and violent policing of communities of color, and demands no real accountability when a person of color is killed. Police officers are, in effect, trained to shoot first and investigate later. Too many times, later is too late. We must demand real and systemic change. For decades, JFREJ has organized against abusive policing, and we continue to fight today in the streets, the courtrooms, and the halls of government. Our city officials must have zero tolerance for police brutality, not only in words but in action. We must hold them to this tonight, and tomorrow. And, as a community, we need to mourn together. On Friday night, JFREJ members joined together to say the mourner’s kaddish for Akai Gurley and all those killed by the police. We must stop and note that a young life was taken. As we draw the necessary lines between these murders, marking the pattern of systemic racism and unaccountable policing, the lines that the Mayor and the Commissioner fail to draw, we also grieve for each individual life lost. Our own history is rife with times when Jewish lives did not matter. At times hundreds and at times millions of Jewish lives did not matter to the people we lived side-by-side with. It is our tradition and our legacy to believe that every life is valuable, and to match that belief with action. As Jews of all races and ethnicities, we stand together to say that black lives matter. Judaism teaches us that to save one life is to save the whole world. Let us honor each other and our neighbors, our history and our future, as we grieve together and organize together, towards a world where every human life is valued.”
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and its daily blog, Jewdayo.