It Will Never Be My Name in the Headlines

I want to start this by saying I don’t generally like to be very controversial on the Internet. This isn’t to say that I don’t have opinions on controversial things—I certainly do—but that I’ve mostly refrained from using social media and this blog (which I haven’t posted to in ages) to express my opinions. This is partly because of my conflict-avoidant Scandinavian upbringing, partly because I know there’s a lot that I don’t understand and many pieces of the puzzle I lack (including in what you’ll read below), and partly because I don’t want to be just another loud, angry, indiscernible voice amongst the cacophony.

But today, I am hurting, I am seething with frustration and anger, and I don’t think I can maintain my self-respect if I don’t explain why: Philando Castile (or any number of the Black people killed by police officers recently) could have been someone I love.  Philando Castile (or Lavish Reynolds) will probably never be me.

I was born and raised in White America. I’m from rural Montana and proud of it, where even nonreligious people believe in God, in family, in loving their country, and in lending a helping hand to their neighbors. Rural communities have each other’s backs, and that is a value I’m proud to carry with me today.

I went to D.A.R.E. as a kid. I was taught to respect and trust police officers and authority figures in general. Although I have yet to meet a single perfect cop (because no one is), I believe that the vast majority of them put on their uniforms every day to do what their badges declare: to protect and serve their communities. I vividly remember a poster in our local IGA of a police officer drinking lemonade at a little girl’s sidewalk stand. This is how I grew up viewing police officers, and as far as I know, it still fits my sleepy little hometown.

I was raised in White Evangelical America, where we listened to talk radio, memorized Psalm 139, and voted pro-life. Psalm 139 is still one of my favorites, and I’m still avidly pro-life. This is the general context I’m coming from, and the context I hope to address.

I was in my last semester of college at the University of Montana when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. It struck me as a bizarre situation, like part of a world to which I did not belong. I followed the news as it unfolded with the rest of America, and I remember thinking that even though the situation was fishy, there just didn’t seem to be enough evidence to convict Zimmerman beyond reasonable doubt. And even though UM is probably the most ethnically diverse 220 acres in all of Montana, I still managed to stay emotionally distant, like a lot of America. I still failed to consider that there might be something bigger going on in Trayvon’s death than a trigger-happy vigilante, like a lot of America.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. This was the first death of a Black person that shook me, not because of the protests or the controversial details of the incident, but because for the first time in my adult life, I really paused to listen to Black voices. And I started to hear a different narrative about violence and fear and the justice system I had been raised to trust. I began to actually hear my Black friends as they told me about getting pulled over while driving the speed limit, being followed in stores, and far more terrifying things that are not my stories to tell. I was in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and even shocking territory.

That summer, I was talking with a friend of a friend who is a police officer, asking him what it is like to be a cop in the midst of the tensions caused by Michael Brown’s death. This police officer, who I still believe puts on his uniform to serve and protect, told me that he could not do his job without racial profiling.

If the notions I had about the fairness of the American justice system were shaken by Michael Brown’s death—along with the subsequent grand jury proceedings—they were shattered as I watched, with the rest of the nation, as police officers forced Eric Garner onto the concrete and choked the life out of him. The pieces of my shattered faith were ground to dust as I watched Laquan McDonald die. The dust was blown into the wind as I saw a police car pull up to an isolated park bench and its occupants shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death without warning.

To my people, my White people, who I love and deeply respect, I know what many of you are saying. You’re saying that Michael was smoking weed, that he should not have stolen those cigarillos. He shouldn’t have resisted arrest (which we do not know for certain). True, but I know of large White men from my rural Montana community who, in their misspent youth, committed much larger robberies while intoxicated, ran from the police (resisted arrest), and are still alive. College classmates ran when the cops came to bust up parties, and rather than being fearful, we could joke about how it was a good thing Missoula cops loved their donuts.

To my people, who I love and deeply respect, I can hear and have heard what some of you have had to say about Laquan. He had a history of violent behavior, he was mentally unstable, he was a criminal. He was breaking into cars. I can say the same thing of White men I know who have lived to tell about it. But Laquan had a knife! I know. I was once mugged at knifepoint, and even if I had had a gun, I would not have used it. It is always, always better to deescalate the situation, even at the expense of personal property. There’s also so much I could say about how our society fails men and women with mental health issues on a daily basis, but suffice to say this: nowhere is that failure more apparent than in communities of color.

To my people, who I love and deeply respect, I can guess what some of you are thinking: Tamir Rice should not have been playing with a toy gun in a public park; he was big for his age; his parents should not have let him play with a gun without the orange cap which marks it as a toy. Let me remind you, my people, that my siblings, my friends, and I played with toy guns throughout our childhood, sometimes in public parks. Some of those toy guns didn’t have orange caps. Many of us were shooting real guns by age ten or twelve, sometimes without parental supervision. Many of us were big for our age. Not one of us was ever perceived as a threat.

Please, these are not singularities. I could go on, and on, and on reminding you of times in recent memory when Black men and women were abused, mistreated, and yes, killed, before our very eyes, while for the most part similar situations are handled much differently when the suspects are White.

My beloved people, I am not defending criminal behavior. I am not saying that the emerging details of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths at the hands of police officers are insignificant. I am not saying our nation’s police officers set out to brutalize our Black brothers and sisters when they put on their uniforms. Let me reiterate, I believe they put on their uniforms to protect and serve their communities. What I am saying is that in so doing, our police officers have stepped into a system that regards Black men and women as inherently more threatening than White men and women.

This is a well-documented fact that even includes the way Black and Latino officers perceive civilians of color[1]. The desire to protect and serve, combined with an innate view that the darker someone’s skin is, the more of a threat they are, creates an atmosphere where men and women of color are more likely to be searched, shoved, and shot by police officers than if they were White. Many of our police officers, regardless of their skin color, operate under a narrative where a Black person is an object of fear first, rather than someone to be protected and served.

And they operate under this narrative because we, a majority White nation, have allowed it. We have allowed it with our disbelief, our silence, and our refusal to listen. We have allowed it with our dismissal when we have listened, our discomfort, and our calls for understanding when we are the ones who don’t understand. We have allowed it with our votes, with our inability to comprehend a bigger picture on crime, poverty, and race, and with our assertions that we are incapable of racism because we have Black friends.

So please, my beloved White people, let’s not allow this anymore, for the love of our God whose image was imprinted on Alton Sterling’s Black body, for the love of our God who knit Philando Castile together in his mother’s womb. Please, do something. Right now, our brothers and sisters are in agony. Let’s allow ourselves to hurt with them, rather than demanding that we wait for more information before validating their anger and pain. If you are still dubious about the realities of the racial system we all live in, read articles and books of whose premises you are skeptical; I would be more than happy to suggest some resources that have deeply challenged me. Listen, really listen, without passing judgment, to the stories of our Black (and Latino, Native American, etc.) brothers and sisters. Allow a new perspective and our God’s heart for justice to inform the way you vote, not just in national elections, but especially in your local elections. Please, let us love our Black neighbors, whether across the street, across the tracks, or across the country as we love ourselves, because they are precious to the Father.  And because, for those of us who have been blessed with Black friends, it could have been those we love.

[1] See Lorie Fridell’s contribution in this article.