I thought the stories of protesting and young men killed by police happened in other cities. I read of Ferguson and Baltimore and smugly thought to myself that those were problems for other cities. Thank you, Jesus, that that isn’t our problem.
And then, this week, it is. Early on Sunday, November 15, a young African-American man, Jamar Clark, was shot by the police (See the Atlantic’s story here or MPR’s story here.) and died a day later after he was taken off life support. Witnesses and the police have different accounts of the story. Witnesses say Jamar was handcuffed when he was shot in the head, while the police union says he was not and that his hand was gripping an officer’s gun.
In the wake of this tension between stories, North Minneapolis is filled with protesters. Conflicts here and there have broken out between police and protesters, as demonstrated in the tweet showing police holding a gun pointed toward Congressman Keith Ellison’s son, who was holding his hands up.
To be fair, I know nothing of guns — whether that be a gas gun or something else; some folks point out that the gun is pointed to the side rather than at the person. Either way, to me it is still a disturbing image. This doesn’t look like the peaceful Minnesota I thought I knew. These are things that I thought happened elsewhere, not here.
In response to the shock and the drama, I have a couple of choices to process what’s happening in Minneapolis. I can hunker down and listen to the voices that are familiar to me. The voices that are similar to me, and that automatically reinforce my biases and my experience.
Or I can try see the world through somebody else’s eyes. Particularly through the eyes of someone who’s been hurt by the system. I can listen before I judge. I can choose to see people as people of value rather than quickly dismissing their story. I can recognize that my experience of the world is not the same as other people’s experiences of it.
And lest you think I’m all anti-cop or anti-law enforcement, I’ve got family members and friends in law enforcement. I’ve had positive experiences in dealing with police officers and the justice system. I spent four years of my life working with law enforcement and helping pull records for their cases. I’ve seen law enforcement do amazing things in the pursuit of justice, and through that former job was able to help support their work. I appreciate the hard work and service that my friends and family and people I don’t even know give their communities; I’m grateful for their willingness to put their lives on the line to serve and protect.
At the same time, my gratitude does not lend itself to unquestioning obedience. To empathize with those protesting is not to diminish the hard work that the good and honest cops do. We are not one trick ponies. Emotion is not a zero-sum game, even as most of the news media likes to write polarizing stories. It makes for sexier headlines and more link clicks.
Examining this situation critically helps us hold the system accountable. We need both gratitude and questions. If we do not ask hard questions of our government, we create the kind of space where something like Nazi Germany can happen again.
If we do not respect, we only reinforce our detractors’ negative stance. One note on respect: I think too many of us want the kind of criticism and protest that is quiet, that doesn’t require attention, that goes silently and meekly into the night, that never inconveniences our comfort. That’s great if you feel things are unjust, just don’t bother us with your cries. You have a different view of the world, just don’t bother me with it. But the truth is this: respect and conflict are not mutually exclusive, nor are either inherently quiet.
And as we research, listen and dialogue, we can avoid traps that the news media and public relations people set up for us on both sides.
We can choose to remember Jamar Clark as more complicated than a violent black man with a record. He was a young man with parents who loved him. We can choose to see him as a complicated person, rather than reducing him down to only a violent stereotype. Regardless of how anyone feels about his behavior or his last moments, he’s still a person precious to God. It’s way too easy for us to arbitrarily judge, “oh that man deserved to die,” over one or two sentences in a news article. That’s a quick dismissal of a man’s life over very few facts. What if this person were your brother, sister or child who’d made mistakes? Can we hold the tension that Jamar still mattered as a person– even as we empathize with the assault victim? Maybe especially while we wait for more details of what happened Sunday.
We can also choose to remember that the police officers are more than this one incident. They have stories bigger than this situation as well. And I don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes. These men are precious in God’s eyes, too. And the law enforcement folks that I know are trying to do their best and have good intentions at heart. I also can’t reduce all law enforcement into one stereotype either — whether it’s a good or bad one. That’s not fair.
Can we lean into the discomfort of having the world be more complex? Just for a little while. Particularly as we continue to wait for facts and evidence to be released and for investigations to be complete.
Last, I think it’s important to see these events as wrought with more tension than just this event in Minneapolis. This shooting didn’t occur in a vacuum. It happened in a country struggling again with serious racial tensions in the wake of unsatisfying government responses to the situations in Baltimore and Ferguson. The protest is bigger than just this story.
And that’s the bigger part of why I think it’s important to listen. My experience of the world is so different than others. Talking with the gentleman last week was life-changing for me. Well, talking with him wasn’t the only part that changed me. Watching people systematically ignore him really shook me.
For those of us who think that because we don’t use racial slurs, we aren’t racist — we might really be missing the point. It’s almost scarier to watch people pretend a man isn’t standing in front of them when all he’s asking for is a job application. I watched people in the Twin Cities treat a black man as though his life didn’t matter. As if he wasn’t even worth acknowledging. And that man is my brother in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, he is my family.
I don’t know what being treated as a non-human feels like day in and day out and multiplied across society and social systems. I know small doses of this from some time I’ve spent in some more conservative Christian circles where somehow my femaleness made me feel as though I was less than the men that I was in a room with (or at the least, invisible to them). But, mostly, this is not a problem for me.
And that’s why I urge us to stop and listen a little more before we jump to entrenchment on either side. People matter. Their pain matters. Justice, real justice — not the Facebook status rant justice, matters. Before we move on to the comfort of our resolving our tension (and thereby ignoring others’), can we hang in there and really listen to the hurt and the frustration on both sides?