Messing with the Police

On August 9, 2014, Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Missouri.

What’s been your reaction? And how do you respond if different wording is used?

Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown.

Our own prejudices and the baggage we carry affects profoundly how we see a case like this. For me, this brings about a strong case of déjà-vu: 1994-5, the years I met my beloved wife (and then married her!) The years of the OJ Simpson trial. I still remember where I was when I heard the verdict. I had followed the case closely and the evidence was damning. Blood all over OJ’s clothes, his house and car. It seemed impossible that he would be found ‘not guilty.’ But I was naïve about the effect of race on a trial like OJ’s. As many have concluded, he was never going to be found guilty by a majority black jury. Not in a million years.

I still remember my wife recounting her conversation with one of her co-workers, a black female psychologist, middle class, educated and successful. Paraphrasing, she said something like this, ‘It’s not that we think OJ’s innocent, but just this once, it’s nice to see one of us ‘beat the system.’ Black men, in particular, receive such poor treatment at the hands of the police, for once it’s the police who didn’t come out on top.’

And despite being white, I understand this sentiment. The reality is, race is still a huge issue in America and black men are often treated badly by the police to put it mildly. They aren’t just pulled over occasionally. It happens a lot and it’s clearly based on race. But black men are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, comes the response. Yes, that may be true. Or is that a function of class rather than race? It all becomes very messy.

Back to Michael Brown.

I have read a fair amount about the Michael Brown shooting and I’m still somewhat confused. Brown was caught on CCTV robbing a convenience store. That one’s easy. An altercation took place between Brown and Wilson at the car. Some say Brown reached in and punched Wilson. Others say he didn’t. After Wilson fired a couple of shots, one grazing his assailant, one missing, Brown took off down the road and then stopped and turned towards the policeman. Here we then have several witnesses whose testimony is contradictory. Some say he ran towards Wilson, some say he raised his arms, some claim he didn’t. Whatever happened, Wilson fired 10 more shots at Brown, killing him. Obviously he claims self-defence. That’s all he needs. The exact wording in the legal code which permits lethal force is this:

The suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.

OR

The suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.

You can see the problem, I’m sure. As long as the officer thinks s/he’s in danger, s/he can use force. That’s how it works. And that’s often how black men die and police officers avoid prison.

Let me back up and tell you a little story of my own. We’d just started living in Torrance, CA and I was returning from our local store with a bag of groceries. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed three hooded figures tracking me on the other side of the road. I guess I wasn’t switched on enough, because as I reached a darkened area on the sidewalk, they ran across the road and demanded money. One brandished a knife.

Playing for time . . . er, or just being rather foolish, I tried to slow them down and allow myself time to think by asking a question! I know, I know, not the brightest spark. Now, come on, just hold on a minute. What are you–? . . . at which point, the guy with the knife moved forward. They grabbed my bag and took off. With a quart of milk and a lump of cheese. Oh and my wallet – that’s when I realized why I’d been stalling. So, of course . . . I immediately ran after them. No thinking. No concern for my safety. No consideration about further endangerment, possibly guns. Just . . . ‘hey, you’ve got my stuff!’

They jumped in a car and took off. I eyeballed the license plate and within 15 seconds of the robbery, I was calling the police. Two of the officers were very professional. A third was an imbecile, knew nothing about my case, but arrived to poke his face in the back of the Cruiser and ask stupid questions.

Here’s a remarkable end to the story. The following day, a man knocked on our door and handed me my wallet. He’d found it in a gutter about 200 yards down at the junction. Evidently, after seeing me pursue on foot, the thieves had panicked and tossed it out of the window. All my credit cards were there, my driver license, all but around $50 in cash. I thanked the man and then praised God!

What did I learn from my brief adventure? First, that under stressful circumstances, we don’t think, we just act. And sometimes we act foolishly. I have no clue why I ran towards the thieves. I just did. Second, police officers in the States carry guns. They bristle with them. Guns kill. Very quickly. Always, always obey a police officer. Simple as that. You do not need to understand, you just need to obey. Why? Because guns kill . . . very quickly.

Michael Brown was a petty criminal and he was foolish to stand up to a police officer. He made a foolish mistake. After taking off down the road, he turned and faced the police officer. Who knows exactly what he did next? It certainly seems as though he ran towards a policeman who was pointing a gun at him. What was he thinking? Answer? He wasn’t thinking. How easy it is to damn such foolishness. Yet, panic and stress cause people to do foolish things.

I’ve done it myself. I’ve run towards danger, not away from it and for the life of me, I don’t really know why. Except I can be foolhardy sometimes. If one of those youths had turned, pointed a gun and shot me, my explanation to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, ‘I ran towards them and they shot me’ would surely have caused the great saint to shake his head in disbelief. That didn’t happen thankfully. But it could have, I suppose.

In Michael Brown’s case, his actions cost him his life.

I was watching a show the other day called ‘Forever.’ A police sergeant talked about shooting an assailant in the leg as part of their training. It mystifies me that Officer Wilson shot Brown twelve times. Four of those shots hit his head and neck. The rest hit his right arm. None hit his legs. I’m sorry but I don’t accept the defence, ‘you need to shoot to kill.’ No, you don’t. Not when you’re the only one carrying a firearm. Michael Brown was clearly unarmed. But he was reaching into his jacket, wasn’t he? Possibly. The testimony on that is the most confused. Some say he had his hands raised. Others dispute this. Regardless, I don’t accept the ‘shoot to kill’ defence. Feel free to disagree.

Okay. A few final thoughts, based on Christian conviction.

First, rioting never solves anything. It’s simply the unlocking of our baser nature and damages not only local businesses (often black ones) but race relations generally. We hate the police so let’s commit crimes . . . bringing us into contact with the police. How foolish is that?

The massive divide between blacks and whites in America was highlighted by the OJ Simpson case. Around 90% or so of blacks approved of the verdict. Only 10% of whites did. The chasm may have been even larger. Two communities with vastly different perceptions of ‘how the world works.’

Enter Jesus Christ into a world of kings and slaves and violence and greed and religious hypocrisy. Each class in Jewish society separated and the gaps impossible to bridge. In first century Palestine, you were born into your class and you stayed there. Enter Jesus with a message of salvation for all people. The wonder of the church is that it’s a community of both Jew and Gentile. Read Ephesians. Jews of every class and Gentiles of every shape and size. A radical, world-changing concept. Perhaps even more remarkable is that this idea of unity between classes, races and genders dates from two thousand years ago. Aristotle and Plato never imagined such a thing. Nor did the Founding Fathers, tied as many of them were to institutional slavery.

Yet how could it be otherwise in a faith founded on Love?

Furthermore, the one thing which seems impossible in our world has been accomplished by God: Reconciliation. Of all the people in the world, Christians should understand this best. God has bridged the gap between Himself and his creatures. And he calls for us to be involved in efforts of reconciliation which reflect his character. We shouldn’t need Nelson Mandela to show us what reconciliation looks like. God has already provided the perfect model in his Son.

I have a dear friend in California who’s black. We worked together at the Red Cross. I worked with a lot of African-Americans at the Red Cross. I haven’t spoken to him about Michael Brown, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he viewed the shooting very differently to me. Nevertheless, what unites us far outweighs that which divides us.

We are brothers. We are sons of God.

We are neither black nor white but children of God.

Called to a ministry of reconciliation. For the sake of the one whose love cost him his life. Poured out to reconcile us to our heavenly father. Amen.

© Richard Collins 2014

RIP Nelson Mandela – Reflections on a life

Nelson Mandela is dead. RIP Tata Madiba, a great man.

It’s hard today even imagining the world as it was back in the 1980s and before, when apartheid was the hot topic on university campuses. In the car on the way to school this morning, my daughter asked ‘what’s apartheid?’ reminding me of my age (not a good topic!) as well as the huge change which has occurred since those years. Much associated with the work of Nelson Mandela. At Exeter where I attended, our student union voted to boycott Barclays Bank because of its connections to South Africa. As a result, the Barclays branch on campus was closed, the space given to a different business. I also remember singing with gusto the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials. It contains the lyric, ’21 years of captivity, are you so blind that you cannot see?’ As it turned out, it was a full 27 years before Mandela was released from Robben Island. Yes, he was guilty of sabotage, helping to destroy some of South Africa’s infrastructure as part of the struggle. I remember a close relative of mine who described him back then as ‘a terrorist.’ His actions raise the intriguing moral dilemma, ‘when is it justifiable to act violently for a just cause?’ There would be few today who would begrudge him some justification in the light of what we now know about the policies of that apartheid state. I remember also attending a play in those days simply called ‘Biko.’ It followed the arrest, imprisonment and beating of Steve Biko, a fellow activist with Mandela, who faced injustice and eventually death at the hands of racist thugs in a Port Elizabeth cell. In South Africa, they called them policemen. The words of Jimmy Kruger, the then-minister of police are chilling to read even today: I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you … Any person who dies … I shall also be sorry if I die.

And what about the day that Nelson Mandela was released? Blanket news coverage of the kind that only occurs with a royal birth, death or major disaster. He emerged heroic and determined to live well for his country. And of course, that is what marked him out as a great man. He did indeed face injustice with grace and dignity, but it was his actions after his release which set him apart from other world leaders. It is the reason why he is revered the world over as a modern day saint. What did he do? Teach, preach forgiveness. Work for reconciliation. This is a path which Christians recognize and which resonates deep in our souls. Reconciliation is a major theme not simply in our lives but in the Bible, a book about the means by which God becomes reconciled to man. I have found it more than a little curious listening to the news presenters this morning talking about reconciliation. They recognize it as a wonderful thing, but for the life of them, they don’t really understand it. You can hear it in their voices. The world as a whole doesn’t operate in such a way. The capacity to forgive an oppressor is seen mostly clearly, of course, in the Lord’s passion. His words, which resound through the centuries, are still with us, faithfully recorded by the gospel writers. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. Even as he suffered for us, he possessed the ability to reach out to those whose only thought was evil and cursing. Mandela, in our time, followed a similar path and for that we are grateful. He reminds us of our God.

These past few months, we have also been celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, a similar historical figure to Nelson Mandela. His letters from Birmingham jail have been variously discussed and debated. He too charted a course of reconciliation, yet was denied the opportunity to see out the mature fruits of his work. The struggle against injustice achieves a very great and noble goal. It reminds us that in our time of post-modern wishy-washy ‘whatever you think is right for you is right for you’ thinking, that there exists good and evil. Right and wrong. No, it is not context which defines good and evil. It is absolute whether it fits your ‘don’t want to offend anyone’ philosophy or not. In South Africa, there was no room for relativistic nonsense. The stories of Mandela and King are stories, quite frankly, about the triumph of good over evil. No, I don’t mean that these leaders were perfect, I mean that their cause was right and good. It is right that black and white should be treated equally, for human beings are created by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The American Constitution is right. We did not invent this. It is discovered by us; it comes from God. It is also wrong to oppress an entire racial group on the basis of skin colour. That is categorically wrong and if you disagree, then while you are entitled to your opinion, you happen to be mistaken. Profoundly mistaken. White oppression is wrong. We feel it. We know it. It is discovered intuitively. We love to see good triumph over evil and we cannot stop telling stories about it. It is in our movies, in our books, on TV. It is everywhere. It is the longing of our hearts. And it’s not a surprise, since our longings are derived from the greatest story of them all, the triumph of good over evil by our God. This is why Mandela’s story stirs not simply Christians, but all men and women. We all know inside that when good triumphs over evil, we are witnessing a story which echoes our heart’s desire.

Mandela’s legacy is rich but there is one final comment worth making. In spite of all the good will in the world, he was unable to solve South Africa’s woes. South Africa is still awash with injustice and poverty. He could lead his nation but he certainly could not save it. He could inspire it, but he could not change the human heart. His family, who surrounded him at his death, were already engaged in bickering over his legacy, even before he had passed away. He could not change the hearts of his nearest and dearest and he certainly could not prevent the infighting which has dogged the ANC since his retirement. His country still suffers. It still needs saving, as we all do. Human beings, even inspirational ones like Nelson Mandela, can only highlight our desperate need for a Saviour. We cannot save ourselves. We long for a day when all racial hatred is ended, when peace and reconciliation are not simply assigned to a commission, but reign in the hearts and minds of all humankind. So his deficits, his inability to effect change in the way he would have wished, is a signpost to a greater truth, a truer hope. That no human being can save us. Mandela was a great man, a super . . . man; but he was no Superman. We need a bigger man, a greater man than him. At Christmas, we remember him as the baby in the manger. Immanuel. God with us, our Saviour, who has the power to change human hearts and bring about true and lasting reconciliation. And one day, he will bring about the full restoration of his beautiful creation, when good will finally triumph over evil, and there will be no more torture cells in South Africa and no more whips in cotton fields, when tears will run no more and the agony of our world will be a distant memory.

If it is a memory at all.

We celebrate that Hope this Christmas.