2014-11-25

Ferguson

When I first heard that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, I had some anger. Today I've been looking up what I could find and reflecting on the issues.

photo by BBC
My Unitarian Universalist faith is famously rational. My heart cries for justice – and its habit is to ask my head to help it figure out what the heck that means in a particular case.

We’ve got big problems, and they require our commitment of hearts and heads. I would like to be indignant about the Grand Jury’s decision, but the fact is I’m not sure they were wrong in this particular case. I am sure, though, that there are big wrongs in our land.

What Happened
11:54 a.m. Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson leave Ferguson Market and Liquor. Surveillance video shows Mr. Brown stealing some cigarillos. They walk along West Florissant Avenue and then in the middle of the street on Canfield Drive.
12:01 p.m. Officer Darren Wilson arrives, alone in his police vehicle. Speaking through his window, he tells the two men to move to the sidewalk. He sees that Mr. Brown fits the description of a suspect in a convenience store theft.
12:02 p.m. Officer Wilson makes a call to the dispatcher about the two men. He positions his S.U.V. to block the two men as well as traffic. There is an altercation between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown, who is standing at the window of the vehicle. Officer Wilson fires two shots from inside the vehicle, one likely grazing Mr. Brown’s thumb, and the other missing him. Mr. Brown runs east. Officer Wilson pursues him on foot. Mr. Brown stops and turns toward Officer Wilson, who also stops. Mr. Brown moves toward Officer Wilson, who fires several more shots. Mr. Brown is fatally wounded. (New York Times - CLICK HERE)
Wilson testified that Brown reached into the vehicle and fought for his gun. Wilson fired – plausibly in self-defense at that point. Brown’s blood (evidently from the shot that grazed Brown’s thumb) on the inside of the police vehicle and on Wilson’s clothes indicates that Brown had reached in the vehicle. Some witnesses said Brown punched Wilson while Brown was partly in the vehicle.

Brown then ran 150 feet from the car. Wilson pursued. Brown then ran 25 feet back toward Wilson. Perhaps Brown was trying to indicate surrender. Witnesses differ on whether his hands were up. Wilson interpreted Brown’s move toward him as a charge, a re-initiation of the assault. Wilson fired 10 more times – a total of 12 shots (counting the two fired in the vehicle). The autopsy said Brown was struck with at least 6 bullets – one in the right hand, fired from inside the vehicle, plus 5 more hits – three in the right arm and two in the head. As many as 6 of Wilson’s 12 shots missed entirely. No bullets struck Brown from behind.

Under those circumstances, I, too, might have found that Wilson acted within the guidelines for use of lethal force.

Even so . . .

The fact remains that Michael Brown was unarmed. We need our guidelines and trainings to better ensure that alternatives to lethal force are used when an assailant is unarmed.

Moreover, it remains likely that race played a role and that Wilson would have been less likely to have shot a white man in similar circumstances.

It’s About Police Brutality and Growing Police Militarization

Statistics on police abuses are inconclusive, but the trend of militarization is clear. Beginning in the 1990s, Congressional authorization has allowed local police forces around the country to become militarized to a degree never seen before in the United States. Transfers from the Pentagon have included tanks, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, helicopters Then, after the September 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security paying for new military-grade equipment for local police departments. An ACLU report released last June found “police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs.” Some SWAT teams are sent out as much as five times a day.

Last spring in Georgia,
“a SWAT team, attempting to execute a no-knock drug warrant in the middle of the night, launched a flashbang grenade into the targeted home, only to have it land in a crib where a 19-month-old baby lay sleeping.” (John Whitehead, Huffington Post - CLICK HERE)
In Minnesota, a
“SWAT team raided the wrong house in the middle of the night, handcuffed the three young children, held the mother on the floor at gunpoint, shot the family dog, and then forced the handcuffed children to sit next to the carcass of their dead pet and bloody pet for more than an hour" while they searched the home.”
As one reporter concluded, the problem is
"not that life has gotten that much more dangerous, it's that authorities have chosen to respond to even innocent situations as if they were in a warzone."
It’s not just the increasing use of SWAT teams. We’re seeing
“a transformation in the way police view themselves and their line of duty. Specifically, what we're dealing with today is a skewed shoot-to-kill mindset in which police, trained to view themselves as warriors or soldiers in a war, whether against drugs, or terror, or crime, must 'get' the bad guys -- i.e., anyone who is a potential target -- before the bad guys get them. The result is a spike in the number of incidents in which police shoot first, and ask questions later.”
Perhaps it is necessary that police be permitted to use deadly force if they have probable cause to believe a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm either to the officer or to others. The reality, though, is that an officer’s subjective assessment of “probable cause” is rarely questioned – with the practical result being that it’s almost impossible for a police shooting to be judged a crime. And when police do shoot,
“most officers are trained to shoot at a target's center mass, where there is a higher concentration of vital areas and major blood vessels, according to a report by the Force Science Institute, a research center that examines deadly force encounters.” (Sabrina Siddiqui, Huffington Post - CLICK HERE)
It’s About Our Insane Gun Culture

In many ways, the police are simply doing the best they can. If police are using deadly force more often, sometimes without good reason, it’s partly because the prevalence of guns creates a context in which more situations appear threatening even if they aren’t.

We’ve become a society without the capacity for sanity about guns. As a result, the police, as do all of us, have good reason for suspecting that any angry person may be on the verge of pulling out a gun and opening fire. This reality of contemporary US life forces our officers to react very quickly and extremely. When real guns are as common as they are, a child’s toy gun looks like a threat. As Rev. Christine Robinson notes:
“The wide availability of guns changes everything. We are not living in the world of our childhoods and it is not fair to blame the police in general, or scapegoat any individual police officer for that change. We could, however, work to change this insane gun culture we live in."
And, Yes, It’s Probably Also About Race

White officers mistreat, and are perceived as mistreating, African Americans. As President Obama noted when he addressed the Grand Jury's Brown decision last night, “there are still problems, and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”

Yes, Brown reacted with hostility to Wilson’s initial request that Brown and Dorian Johnson step aside. And that hostility was perfectly understandable. There is a widespread sense among the African American community and anyone else who has been paying attention that that our police are unfair – often violently unfair – toward people of color. To some extent, the police racial bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you treat a population as presumptively hostile, threatening, and needing to be subdued, often violently, then this will tend to make them, in fact, hostile and threatening.

I’m a middle-aged white man. I’m going to respond an officer’s requests as respectfully and cooperatively as I can. I have every reason to believe that this strategy will work for me. Increasingly, African Americans and other marginalized groups have no such reason. Police brutality has become epidemic and it is disproportionately directed at black people.

Over the seven years, 2005-2012, white officers killed a black person on average almost twice a week. Blacks constitute about 12.3% of the population, but are 24% of all people killed by police officers in the US. (These statistics on police shootings, particularly of blacks, are likely to be significantly understated. Police departments self-report the numbers, and these are based on the reportage of only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the US. USAToday - CLICK HERE.)
“A widely publicized report in October 2014 by ProPublica, a leading investigative and data journalism outlet, concluded that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts: ‘The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.’” (John Wihbey, Journalist's Resource - CLICK HERE)
We’re not in Mayberry anymore, Toto (if we ever were), and today’s police are not Sheriff Taylor (if they ever were). Surveys of Latinos and African Americans show that their confidence in law enforcement is low. And its no wonder.
A Huffington Post-YouGov poll of 1,000 adults released this week found that 62 percent of African-Americans believed Officer Wilson was at fault in the shooting of Mr. Brown, while only 22 percent of whites took that position. In 1992, a Washington Post-ABC News poll foundd that 92 perccent of blacks -- and 64 percent of whites -- disagreed with the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of a black man, Rodney King. (NY Times, 2014 Nov 26 - CLICK HERE.)
Opinions differ because experience of law enforcement differs.

We need justice. I don't know if we needed a different decision from the Ferguson Grand Jury. Maybe. In any case, we certainly need better training for our police officers, better community relations between police departments and the neighborhoods they serve -- and we need to address the insanity of our gun culture. None of this will be easy, and none of it will be quick. We've got to be in this for the long haul.

2014-11-24

Biblical Politics

The latest in a long tradition of US Presidents citing Jewish or Christian scripture in political rhetoric was included in President Obama's address to the nation on Thu Nov 20. He said:
ABC News photo
"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Ameicans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Various commentators were critical. (The following four were cited in a Huffington Post article HERE):
"So there, the president of the United States last night in the Cross Hall at the White House invoking scriptures which I believe had to do with feeding the poor and the hungry and nothing to do with visas." (Steve Doocy of Fox & Friends)

"It's repugnant, for this guy specifically, the president who spent his career defending late-term abortion, among other things, lecturing us on Christian faith? That's too much. That is too much. This is the Christian left at work, and it's repugnant. To quote scripture? That is totally out of bounds" (Tucker Carlson)

"To guilt someone into [supporting immigration reform], that's not what the scholars behind the Bible would interpret as proper use." (Elisabeth Hasselbeck)

"I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is President, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby's Wikipedia entry." (Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee)
The President, however, was not "re-writing" scripture. He cited it accurately and in context: that is, if moral principles from the Ancient Near East 3,000 years ever have relevance to situations today, then this one pretty directly applies.

There is, in fact, a long and deep theological grounding for for the kind of action our President announced on Nov 20. The Bible doesn't address the extent of presidential authority for executive orders allowed by the US Constitution. Nor, in this post, will I. The Bible is, however, pretty clear about an obligation to justice for immigrants. It's a point made, in fact, repeatedly:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33)
(From the NRSV. The term translated here as "alien" is variously rendered in other translations as "foreigner," "sojourner," "stranger," and "foreign resident.")

The theological basis of this commandment is crucial. The land belongs to God, not to the Israelites whom God allows to settle and use it. God tells them:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23)
The authors, Hebrews writing under the conditions of the Babylonian captivity, were making the point that there is no true ownership of land – the land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – belong to the earth, belong to all life, not to me or you. We're all just aliens and tenants here.

If the spiritual is whatever lifts us out of “I, me, mine,” lifts us out of protective fear into a spacious perception of abundance -- lifts us out of any “we, us, ours” that doesn’t include all sentient beings, then recognizing that all of the Earth belongs to all of life is a spiritual act. I believe that’s what the Hebrew people were really saying, in their own way. The moral and emotional truth of “the land is mine, saith the Lord, with me you are but aliens and tenants,” is that the Earth is not truly ours.

You may have deed and title to your house and a plot of land, and the law may say that you own it – but this is a legal fiction. For the squirrels, finches, juncos, and various other assorted wildlife who pass through your yard, that land is as much theirs as yours. The spiritual truth, articulated in the second and third books of the Bible, is that all of the Earth belongs to all of life, a.k.a. God.

There is a fear and a hatred in the land. As people of faith, we are called to stand against it, to stand on the side of love, to know and to renounce our unjust privilege in the name of the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood. Our national heart is closing against itself, but the scriptural resources of our Jewish and Christian heritage enjoin us to hospitality.

2014-11-23

This Week's Prayer

Holy and loving reality, we come to this season of Thanksgiving knowing that every season, every moment, every breath must be a season of gratitude – that the most basic spiritual practice, discipline, virtue, and grounding is gratitude.

Grateful constantly for earth and sun, air and water, life and love, life becomes possible. Without thanksgiving, life is only a kind of walking death.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for “this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,” (many now displaying the beauty of their bare branches) -- “for the blue, true dream of sky.”

Thank you for our home – and our capacity to find ourselves at home wherever we are – for the earth, the universe, wherever we go, is our home.

We will always have problems. Approached with gratitude, we can learn to love our problems, for they are the arisings of life. With hearts of thanksgiving, we can respond with compassion to all that arises.

Grateful for life, we can respond compassionately to those who are sick, supporting the medical teams in West Africa fighting against a deadly virus.

Grateful for our capacity for concern and respect and fair treatment, we can respond compassionately to both perpetrators and victims of unjust abuse, oppression, racial distrust and prejudice.

Grateful for what we know of peace, we can respond compassionately to those whose lives are torn apart by war, supporting the efforts of peaceful and fair conflict resolution.

Grateful for the abundant bounty of our lives, we can respond compassionately to those who suffer poverty.

Grateful for simplicity (beautiful simplicity that liberates from the burden of things, for the things we own and consume also own and consume us) we can turn away from the crazy getting and spending that lays waste our powers.

Grateful for the love of family and friends, we can respond compassionately to affirm those bonds in ways other than buying stuff.

Let our hearts, then, overflow constantly with gratitude.

2014-11-21

The Ground of Hope

“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
- Radio DJ Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off

Hope can go bad. We can use hope to evade reality and escape into rosy fantasies. In the name of hope, people may dwell in a hoped-for future rather than living in the present.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s very useful book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, gives many examples from his patients where evil and mental illness blur together. The evil/ill patients he discusses share a habit of attacking others instead of facing their own failures. When things go well, it’s just what they deserved; when things go badly, it’s always someone else’s fault. By contrast, an ideal of mental health would be just the opposite: when things go well, the healthy think with gratitude of all the others who made their success possible, and when things go badly, they examine what they might have done differently. Peck then defines mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” The evil/ill tendency to blame others and credit the self is a refusal to face reality. The evil/ill prefer the comforts of the illusion of blameless virtue and undeserved victimhood to “a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and honesty with oneself” (Peck).

When hope goes bad, it turns into the enemy of reality, honesty, truth. It beckons us to retreat into pleasant illusions of an imagined future – or succumb to temptations of visions in which other people have finally wised up and stopped standing in our righteous way.

When hope is ungrounded, it is merely another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. This kind of hope is no more than fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become. "I hope the bill passes," or "I hope I get the promotion" is not substantively different from "I'm afraid of the bill not passing," and "I'm afraid of not getting the promotion."

There is surely a place and a need for hopeful visions of a better future – for powerful dreams such as Martin Luther King’s. (There's a place and need for fear, too.) Hope, by its nature, wants to reach for the stars. To keep hope from going bad -- to hope within the context of "dedication to reality at all costs" -- we must also plant its feet in the ground of love of reality. Hope’s grounding lies in making peace with the possibility that the future may not be different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.”

Hope’s grounding is action taken here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. Hope is grounded in what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. Grounded hope reminds us to hold our visions lightly, for they are projections of our ego needs, and the best of them can become despotic and demonic. A grounded activist knows, “I do this not to make the world different. I do this to be who I am.” When our hope is grounded in loving what is, we can be courageous, we can join the resistance (to injustice, oppression, sources of violence) with our hearts and our breath and our being, comfortable that we cannot predict what will come of it. Hope’s grounding lies in listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go of attachment to outcomes.