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Even after video has surfaced showing that a North Charleston, SC, 33-year-old white police officer who was clearly not “in fear for his life” shot a 50-year-old unarmed black man fleeing in fear of his life (and justifiably so), the culture of white supremacy that permeates our society can’t help but try to give some grounds for the murderer’s actions or call into question the actions of the murder victim.
In an article released as recently as today, CNN reporter Holly Yan wrote:
“It’s unclear why Walter Scott decided to run away from Officer Michael Slager after a traffic stop Saturday morning.”
Really? Not ‘why shoot,’ but ‘why run?’ How many people of color have to die or be violently assaulted in the execution of a traffic stop or some other simple encounter with the police, before running away becomes a reasonable response? 10? 50? 100? 1000?
Modern science has assured us that “Fight-or-Flight” is an instinctual response to any life-threatening encounter. It is so fundamental to our understanding of human response that to say “I felt threatened” in any situation provides an immediate legally defensible rationale for the use of deadly force, even when the person killed had no apparent means of exercising lethal force in response. We call it “self-defense” or “stand your ground” or “justifiable homicide,” and the person who claims it is legally presumed innocent until proven guilty under the law–as long as they are white.
The moment color is inserted into the scenario even instinctive responses of self-preservation are called into question. Admit it, we’ve all questioned at some time or another, “Why’d he run/fight if he was doing nothing wrong?”
“Never mind the recent rash of unprosecuted killings of unarmed persons of color by law enforcement that are just the current manifestation of an even longer history of the same that dates back to the founding of this country. Never mind the generations long list of acquittals for non-police who’ve been able to successfully argue they felt threatened after killing a person of color. Never mind the generational in length history of state sponsored murder in the form of capital punishment of people of color convicted on dubious evidence. Never mind the poorly documented yet generationally substantial history of state sanctioned murder in the form of public lynching that has claimed tens of thousands of victims of color and at one time proudly included the participation of public officials until it became expedient to keep participants’ identities obscured. Never mind a criminal injustice system that has functioned primarily as a system of racial control creating a legally acceptable form of second-class citizenship, after the reconstitution of slavery and abolition of Jim Crow. Never mind that these things have happened to quite literally “choir boys” and those who were not alike, to persons who let injustice run its course and those who “raged against the dying of the light.” Never mind that there are an exponentially greater number of violent assaults short of death that happen in police custody day in and day out than those who end up dead or in the news. Never mind that these things aren’t happening to some other people of color some other place far removed from us, but to our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, our uncles and aunts, our nieces and nephews, our friends and neighbors, so that as a community we are intimately acquainted with both the individual and collective grief as well as the threat of it happening to our person. Never mind that the society in which this happens doesn’t acknowledge any of these as conditions of sustained terrorism…. People of color have every reason to trust the system.” Only a culture of white supremacy would insist so.
While being considered, on one hand, so inhumanly threatening, even when unarmed, as to be unworthy of a presumption of innocence sufficient to preserve their lives during a simple traffic stop, people of color are expected, on the other hand, to achieve the superhuman feat of never responding to the basic instinct of fight-or-flight, even in the face of likely death. Pay attention to the disjointed contradictions in this corrupt line of reasoning. When the only criterion under the law for presumption of innocence is humanity, one can only conclude by the patterns of clear bias against persons of color that they are perceived as something short of fully human. This perception is further compounded by the perpetual expectation that people of color should do nothing humanly instinctual to preserve their lives when threatened with injury. They must always rise above as if angelic or divine. Simple fear is enough to justify legalized murder, but actual terroristic threat is supposed to be eternally ignored. That’s ridiculous! As long as it remains acceptable to perceive people of color as life-threatening though unarmed, both fight and flight remain perfectly reasonable responses.
Sure, I have other options too. However, with the odds of things going bad being so high and that bad (not potentially but) likely costing me my life, how could anyone in their right mind fault me for running or resisting when the other guy is the only one with a weapon?
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In my time with the Wild Goose Festival, I learned about the various riders artists would send (e.g. technical riders or hospitality riders) along with their standard contracts, detailing stipulations for their participation beyond fees for service and use of property. We’ve all heard of them, even if not by name. For instance, contractual stipulations that one will only sing with a particular microphone or must have the largest dressing room or the closest room to the stage or towels of a certain thread count or only 5-star hotels or only yellow M&Ms. You get the idea.
Well, today I have decided to compile what I am calling a Consciousness Rider. The way I figure it, people are only going to do better if people of influence expect it of them. The size of the sphere of one’s influence doesn’t matter, only that one use it to advance the best s/he knows to do. So here are my commitments when it comes to participating in public events. If you make at least part of your living in front of an audience, I invite you to join me. I have already distributed it in response to one invitation to speak.
Unless the purpose of the gathering is specifically to problem-solve toward these very ends, I will only participate in gatherings where:
- No less than 30% of the rest of those who present are people of color (across the racial/ethnic spectrum); no less than 50% of those who present are women; no less than 10%, identify as lgbtq. I encourage intentionality be given to the age, faith, disability and national origin demographics in the room as well. The purpose of this is to normalize a gathering dynamic in western culture that is more indicative of the world in which we actually live.
- A similar level of diversity shows up at every stage and on every platform: from the planning to the execution, from the main stage to the plenaries, from the art to books to social media. The purpose for this is to institutionalize one’s commitment to pursuing beloved community.
- Any social identity discussed is represented by someone of that identity. The purpose of this is to make normative people’s right to tell their own stories.
- If the gathering is talking about land in anyway, indigenous people are a part of the conversation. The purpose of this is to give ear to the wisdom long marginalized of those whose relationship with the land has proven itself most sustainable over the longest period of time.
- An articulated intentionality is given to functioning in an eco-friendly manner. The purpose of this is to acknowledge our inability to become our best selves at the expense of the rest of GOD’s good creation.
- Intentionality is given toward establishing a democratic learning environment that honors multiple learning modalities and doesn’t just privilege “the sage on the stage”. The purpose of this is to do what matters in ways that matter.
I am always open to exploring the possibilities of engagement with any community willing to make these commitments. And should that community desire to move this direction, but just don’t know how to begin, I am willing to help.
I won’t stop until all my audiences look more like this.
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THANK YOU, AVA DUVERNAY!!!
In the immortal words of Nina Simone…
“[This film, this review] is not addressed primarily to white people…. It does not put you down in any way; it simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.”
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In the wake of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s failed Friday press conference, the debate still rages on as to whether enough retribution has been inflicted on Ray Rice and others to prove that Goodell actually gets it. In that sense the comparisons of American professional football to the blood-sport of ancient Rome that became common a few years back seem almost prophetic. “You have displeased us. To the lions with you!”
Despite my own propensities toward it, I wonder if the you-have-done-bad-we-will-do-worse-to-you approach is the best possible response to anything, let alone domestic violence. It surely isn’t if restoration of the family unit is the goal. If punishment for wrongdoing is the goal, perhaps it will suffice. However, forcibly divesting a family of income, forcibly divesting a mate of her/his intimate partner, forcibly divesting a child of her/his parent punishes the entire family, not just an abuser.
Putting aside for a moment how repulsed we are by violence done to women and children in the home and the history of neglect that has obscured such violence in the past, let’s consider the interest of the family involved and our duty of support to that family. No one wants to lose their family, if they can help it. We are well aware of the measurable psychological, sociological, financial and other costs associated with broken homes. Forced family disintegration was one of the hallmarks of chattel slavery; it is not something a society seeking justice should ever think to impose on anyone. Provided the abuser has not demonstrated a life-threatening loss of impulse control and if the survivor(s) expresses a non-coerced desire to pursue restorative therapy and as long as the abuser is committed to appropriate therapeutic and legal accountability, who are we as a society to stand in the way of that family’s attempt to pursue health and healing?
Believing that we shouldn’t then raises several questions for me. Does it serve the goal of restoration to strip the abuser of his ability to provide for his family? Does potential loss of income make it more or less likely that a victim would come forward in acknowledgement of abuse? What other social expectations or public policies make it more difficult for victims to seek help? Can employers, who have a undeniable public relations interest in the outcome of any abuse scandal, ever be trusted to be the unbiased arbiters of what is appropriate in cases of domestic violence? Does our societal interest in correcting past wrongs, discouraging future misbehavior and protecting women (sometimes men) and children currently victims of violence ever trump a particular family’s interest in working things out?
As much as I am against allowing employers to be actual arbiters in domestic disputes, it seems to me relatively clear that they are the social institution best positioned to provide incentive for domestic partners to seek the help they need. As an act of good corporate citizenship, employers could enter into a 3rd-party arbitrated agreement of cooperation with the therapeutic and legal accountability plan that the family is pursuing. Such cooperation may include schedule accommodations for counseling or, in similitude to garnishment of wages for alimony/child support, a “family support trust fund” into which up to half of the employee’s income is paid each month, to be used for whatever, including household expenses, but kept under the strict control of the abuser’s spouse or children. The goal wouldn’t be to punish, but rather to leverage the opportunity to continue to earn income as incentive to remain committed to the therapeutic and legal process.
I’m particularly interested in what women in general and anti-domestic violence professionals or domestic violence survivors might think. Is this an appropriate roll for employers to play? Is this worth advocating as it relates to the NFL, as opposed to the simple resignation of Roger Goodell or the continued chastisement of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and others?
I’ve been seeking to listen deeply, while standing in solidarity with all who work to end violence against women. Here are two conversations I’ve found particularly insightful (in addition to others noted in previous posts):
MHP 14 Sept 2014 | “BeLEAGUEred: What If a Women Became NFL Commisioner?”
MHP 13 Sept 2014 | “Domestic Violence: ‘Leaving Doesn’t Make You Safer'”
MHP 13 Sept 2014 | http://http://on.msnbc.com/1wjRiLW
MHP 21 Sept 2014 | “BeLEAGUEred: Fans Exchange Ray Rice Jerseys”
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Adrian Peterson physically harmed his son. He was wrong. There is a line between discipline and abuse that has nothing to do with whether or not one’s ideology permits corporal correction. Adrian crossed that line, as many who are ideologically against corporal discipline do at the other end of the spectrum when they are so lenient with their children that it leaves psychological welts of indulgence which over time create a pathology of entitlement that later spills over on the rest of us.
However, before we allow a dominant cultural agenda of conservative versus liberal to set the terms of this conversation, we need to be real about the social context in which Adrian Peterson is raising his child. It is the same catch-22 that faces any parent rearing a black son. Adrian Peterson’s actual fault was in overcompensating in his race-against-the-clock to cultivate in his son a particular manifestation of discipline that may one day be the only thing that saves his life–after he’s no longer 4-year-old-cute and many of the same people who now berate the father have begun to view the son as a threat even with his hands up and have no qualms “disciplining” him by taking his life, while telling the rest of us it was justified.
-Salon.com contributor Brittney Cooper, aka “Professor Crunk,” offers an analysis that reflects much of my own evolving perspective on corporal punishment.
-Melissa Harris Perry hosted a useful panel on the subject that included my friend Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis (Part 1 & Part 2). I do, however, disagree with Melissa’s insistence and the panelist’s apparent agreement that all corporal punishment/correction/intervention is violence and thus abuse.
-TheNation.com contributor Mychal Denzel Smith does some important work on this subject, although I disagree with his blanket analysis that corporal punishment is an extension of the politics of respectability. Though it can be, it is not exclusively so. Often it is an extension of the ethic “do what you need to make it home.” And that’s real.
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Originally posted on the Patheos “Emerging Voices” channel…
The work I find most rewarding nowadays is helping communities of goodwill find courageous responses to challenges relating across differences in identity. So when asked to become a regular contributor to Emerging Voices (to come home, as it were, to this space now hosted by Patheos that started as the Emergent Village blog where I used to converse and co-convene years ago), almost immediately it came to me to use the opportunity to explore the theme of “courageous responses”. It is such a joy to be able to explore these hopes with you.
The first courageous response I’d like to propose came to me no more than a day after being invited to post here. It was early morning 29 August, and I was checking my “black twitter” feed. (Who knew there were more black people on Twitter than any other demographic? We’ll see how long Twitter lasts!) I saw at the top of my stream a tweet by Rachel Held Evans, that sent me to a post by Justin Lee (black twitteratti that they are). The post was a YouTube video of a young gay man from Kennesaw, GA, who was evicted by his parents for refusing conversion therapy. The video was entitled “How Not to React When Your Child Tells You that He’s Gay.”
It was heartbreaking to hear this teenager demeaned, cussed out, beat up and kicked out because in his stepmother’s words (speaking for his biological mother, biological father and others present), “I will not let people believe I condone what you do.” My heart broke not just for what the young man’s family did in the name of Christianity, but also because I grew up holding faith in a way that, though it may not have condoned the physical violence, definitely would have justified the parents’ posture toward their son.
While I wasn’t looking, the video went viral. I saw it again that evening when my cousin, a local news anchor raised in the same fundamentalist tradition as I, played the video and made it the focus of her end of the broadcast commentary. Her commentary? “That’s your child. And at the end of the day, that’s your child. Period. Nothing more to argue.”
The 19-year-old Daniel Pierce’s video at the time had over 3 million views and the Go-Fund-Me campaign he had set up to raise a mere $2,000 for living expenses was nearing $80,000 in donations in two days. It was amazing and wonderful: the compassion and generosity of spirit and support poured out toward this young man. It was a privilege to stand in solidarity with Daniel and queer friends everywhere.
But here’s where my encounter with Pierce’s story gets complex and awkward and risky to write about: for a split second, I was resentful. Loss of housing simply doesn’t compare to loss of life. And I couldn’t help but wonder, What if 3 million white people in 2 days had raised their voices in collective outrage over the slaying of Michael Brown or any of those who came before or after him? (By way of comparison, in 1963 it took less than 10,000 committed citizens to bring the city of Birmingham, AL–the biggest, badest, most belligerent southern bastion of inequality–to initial overtures of repentance and to instigate the national Civil Rights Act.)
Now, for sure, I have no idea how many white people stand in support of Michael Brown any more than I know how many black people or other people of color, how many gay people or how many women versus men or how many people from various religious backgrounds. All I can see are the profile pics that show up in the list of comments and donations on Daniel Pierce and Michael Brown’s respective YouTube and GoFundMe pages as well as what I’ve been privy to in my own Facebook and Twitter feeds. There is a smattering of cross-racial support to be sure, but not as much as one might imagine, knowing the billions who claim to follow after a God who specifically claims to stand with the oppressed.
This strikes me as a deeply important faith conversation that needs to be had at a level of vulnerability we don’t often risk. So let me make a goodwill attempt. I have over 1000 Facebook “friends” (not a lot, but more than I can keep up with). The majority of them are both people of faith and beige (go “white facebook”!). When yet another unarmed person of color is killed, assaulted or maligned by white authorities (or wannabes) and beige friends remain silent, I confess I wouldn’t mind losing a few–namaste. Moreover, when in maintenance of the privilege of perpetual (not just “presumed”) innocence beige friends remind me “we don’t know all the facts,” as if there were some special fact that makes the loss not loss, I find myself trying to remember the deep breathing techniques I learned when my wife, Leslie, was pregnant with our three children–woosah. And when so many of my beige friends, in earnest belief in the so-called “justice” system’s ability to render justice (you know, the same system that took more than 200 years to settle the question as to whether or not I was human, 90 years to denounce the first Jim Crow, 30 years to convict Medgar Evers’ self-admitted murderer… what was that about “justice delayed…”?), respond with the ever reasonable “let’s not rush to judgement,” somehow oblivious to the irony that a person who looked like me was just victimized by an actual rush to judgement, it takes everything within me to remain civil. Especially when I see the very same folks en masse instinctively rally, publicize, advocate, endorse, finance, go out on a limb for, give the benefit of the doubt to or speak so well of the next victim who looks like them.
One would think faith would have something more useful to offer than this sort of petty tribalism. Lots of younger victims of historic marginalization have stopped looking for the church to provide leadership in rectifying the oppression they encounter, in part because in the church even within identity groups the tribalism shows up. So, if people of faith are going to bother to show up, I would argue that the courageous response–the response worth folks caring that we showed up–would be to show up in defense of ALL HUMAN DIGNITY everywhere.
So while justice orgs with no faith connection continue to fight-the-good-fight in silos if they must, I’m talking about faith-rooted queer orgs, women’s orgs, immigrant orgs, black orgs, brown orgs, white orgs, interfaith orgs, etc, publicly joining forces (1) to campaign for an intersectional justice that strikes at the roots of structural oppression, (2) to raise our numbers to a critical mass that cannot be ignored and (3) to exemplify the improvements in interpersonal dynamics we say are possible but haven’t gotten around to demonstrating (much like the Forward Together Movement in NC). As long as people of faith continue to stand for only those portions of human dignity with which we personally identify, we perpetuate the same fragmented, colonial morality that gave us the script of disintegration we currently have. However, if people of faith began to practice solidarity with ALL whose human dignity is being denied, we could write a whole new story of what is possible in the world. Now that’s a witness!
I don’t need my beige friends to have all the answers or even to know what to say all the time, but when people of color are feeling the terrorizing effects of the same violations time after time for time immemorial, it would mean a lot if those I call friends would stand with me as I stand for human dignity.
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Women trying to find their way beyond the trauma and stigma of abuse shouldn’t be used as props for third-party PR campaigns–even for the “greater good”. Public conversations about championing human dignity are profoundly important. However, we can talk about issues without re-violating those who have already been victimized.
Here’s how to do it right.
Watch PART 2.
Watch PART 3.
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All due respect to James Brown for seeking to speak meaningfully to the issue of violence against women Thursday night before the Steelers-Ravens game. When public figures choose to stand for human dignity, we are better for it. However, we, the general public, need to stop accepting empty responses to real problems just because we want somebody to say or do something.
Violence against women is as much a systemic issue as it is a individual behavioral one. Yet Brown basically said all men in general–which means no one in particular–need to take personal responsibility for their thoughts, attitudes and actions, and that would make the problem of violence against women better. Really? That’s all that’s missing?
It is simply a fact that everyone IS responsible for their own thoughts, attitudes and actions. So to say men need to “take responsibility” for these things is tantamount to saying, “Men need to keep breathing, because if we all keep breathing, we will be alive tomorrow to possibly do something about this important issue.” Such conversation does nothing to move the ball down the field.
With all this talk about responsibility, it was striking that no responsibilities were assigned to the systems of which Brown is a representative (professional sports and sports broadcasting) for perpetuating a culture of violence and toxic masculinity that shapes men who are violent against women. Far be it from the NFL or CBS Sports to “take responsibility” for that which they actually have control over. No, instead NFL and CBS, “Use your megaphone to assign responsibility to the players or maybe all men everywhere, but never to the decision-makers in the C-suite.”
Brown’s statement was a carefully crafted denial of culpability on behalf of pro football, whether he himself intended it to be or not. Many are now celebrating it. However, it leaves us at the same level of non-response that we were before. It just sounded good.
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Yet another example of why Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry should be considered one of the foremost public intellectuals in America. She is joined by fellow contributing writer at The Nation Dave Zirin, former NFL quarterback Don McPherson, MSNBC contributor Dorian Warren and ESPN’s Jemele Hill in her continued critique of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident.
Dave Zirin and Don McPherson are standouts in the incisiveness of their critiques. Zirin notes, How can the NFL, “the Citadel of Poisoned Masculinity,” be expected to render any kind of credible moral judgement in such matters? And would the league even attempt to were it not an organization of predominately black athletes being ruled by predominately white executives?
McPherson notes, speaking of the commissioner, “Men’s response to violence is [typically] more violence. ‘You do bad, we’re going to do worse to you.’… Sports in general has a toxic masculinity problem and so that needs to be addressed.”
The sad reality is, McPherson suggests, “We don’t care that Ray Rice is an abuser. We cheer for Ray Rice. We want him to entertain us on Sunday afternoon.” “In fact, we prefer that he is an abuser of other men on the field in that moment,” Harris-Perry concurs.
Watch PART 2.
Watch PART 3.
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Here’s to Audi and Dodge for publicly acknowledging the struggle for human dignity! (For kicks and giggles, everyone who can should go out and buy a set. Show a little love for socially conscious multi-national conglomerates. :-D)
Find other BRAND: Human Dignity posts.