I’ve been trying to write this post since I first read the about the tragic killing of Jemel Robersen. I think it hit me hard because of my naive believe that as soon as people learned about police brutality toward black Americans, it would stop. But it hasn’t stopped, and at the same time as seeing our awareness build, there is also a sort of defeat. How will it end?
I went searching for some statistics on mass shootings. Not my normal afternoon exercise, but it seemed important. Specifically I wanted to know how many mass shooters end up in custody rather than dying during the attack.
Here’s what I have read in these statistics.**
First, police do extraordinary work in subduing and arresting mass shooters—people with weapons who have already used those weapons to kill and injure multiple people. And still somehow, in 90% of cases where the shooter does not kill himself, police manage to take the shooter into custody. Without killing him. In cases where the suspect has a gun, has proven he will use it, and has already taken lives. These are truly difficult situations of high danger, and they have the skills to take people in alive.
But then we have someone like 26-year-old Jemel Robersen, who was killed on duty as a security guard, doing his job as he apprehended a (white) shooter who opened fire in a bar in Chicago. Jemel did his work well, disarming and holding the shooter until police could arrive. He did what he was supposed to do.
Doing what he was supposed to do didn’t help him be any safer. When police arrived, they saw a black man with a gun and shot him, ignoring the shouts of people around who said, “he’s one of us!” or “he saved us!” He died. The original gunman was taken into custody.
Like many other horrified people, I shared the article on Jemel Roberson on Facebook, and my brother-in-law commented, “The sad part is the culture has always been in the shadows. Now it's in the light. They always have been killing us. It's just on camera now. And they still won't stop.”
They have always been killing us. Here is the hard truth. Even though many police have the skill to de-escalate, black lives are simply worth less than white lives in America.
White people have always been killing black people. 2 million deaths in the middle passage (slave ships from Africa to enslaving countries). 2 million more African deaths attributed to slavery, a system of profit for white people. It’s how America started. It is poison, and the poison has not been eradicated.
From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446, 72.7% were black. Other people who were lynched included people who smuggled runaway slaves or were caught helping black people. It was a form of execution without trial. Police shootings are also a form of execution without trial. Young black men are 9 times more likely than any other kind of people to be killed by officers.
They have always been killing us. We have to get rid of this poison. We must. It is poisoning all of us.
Here’s how it goes with black men. A young black man looks “dangerous.” He’s standing around. Sitting at a cafe, doing his job, walking down the street, and someone calls the police. The police come, and don’t use their extraordinary skills of disarming dangerous people with guns. They shoot first.
Here’s how it starts: We (white people) start it by labeling a normal situation dangerous. We call in the authorities for no reason. (He looks suspicious. I don’t think he lives in this neighborhood.) Those men laughing and talking on the corner? Hanging out? Why do we call the police on them? At best it’s harassment. At worst it costs people their lives.
Our family has not had a visit back to the US in the last five years without some sort of interaction with the police.
One scary moment happened when we visited a friend. We had gone to a nearby park because the friend’s father and brother-in-law were arguing and he felt it would be better if we left them alone. (Our friend and his father are Asian-American. His brother-in-law is white.) After a while, the brother-in-law ran out of the house shouting, “Call 911, he has a gun!”
Someone did call 911. We walked to the other side of the park to get far away from the house. But when the officers arrived, they spotted Chinua, and charged out of the car toward him, aiming their guns at him, while he held his hands up, despite the fact that we were nowhere near the house. His friend beside him called and gestured to show the house that the gunman actually was in. The kids and I were only a few feet away. There was a two-second pause while the police considered this, and then they changed course and went to the house where the man was. (It turned out to be a pellet gun.)
We were in the wrong place at the wrong time- the incident had nothing to do with us. But why did they run toward Chinua, despite the many, many people standing around in that park? He was the only black man.
Chinua has been pulled over for nothing more than driving an expensive car. (It was the car he was borrowing from a friend while he spent a month with Ian in the hospital, at the end of Ian’s life.)
He has had special services swarm him for exiting his vehicle during a motorcade.
When he was a boy, he was surrounded by several police cars and told to get down on the ground because he was running down a sidewalk with his brother.
I want to learn to listen well.
I have been on my own journey with race. From my youth in Canada, to meeting and falling in love with Chinua, learning about historical racism on a different level, hearing his stories of his mother’s investigations into police brutality in Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s, to current day issues. I know that I have listened as though I was listening to a story that has nothing to do with me. I know that I have refused to acknowledge the reality of racism at times, as though my own sheer optimism (that came from growing up believing that people would listen to me and fight for justice for me) could cover everyone around me. Or have not wanted to acknowledge that I have benefited from a system where white people have the most power. And I am slowly starting to see that not having to think about race is a privilege for white people, how race effects nearly everything in our world and political systems for anyone of color, especially black people in America.
The other day I sat and listened as a couple of white friends kept brushing off what Chinua said about racism.
Chinua was talking about cultural misunderstanding as a piece of the problem, an fixable piece. “People see black people talking loudly and think that they are angry, when it’s just the way they talk.”
“There are differences between everyone,” one said shrugging. “There are differences in cultures between the different regions of my country.”
“But we can learn about cultural differences, rather than calling the police,” Chinua responded.
“What, then we have to learn every culture in the world?” (That would be ridiculous, is the implication.)
White friends, we sometimes respond to the reality serious and tragic injustice toward black people in unkind and disempowering ways. Maybe we’ve tried to say that the problem can’t be as bad as they are making it. Maybe we try to act as though the same kind of thing has happened to us. Sometimes we try to show how much better we are than those other white people. “I have a black friend…”
I have done all of those things, not even realizing just how dangerous it is. Because actually what we need to do is stop talking over black people, stop saying it is all the same, stop saying All Lives Matter (everyone already knows this), stop distracting from the conversation about the dangers that black men and women (and children) face.
Chinua, my kindhearted, right-living husband, has faced these dangers his whole life. As have his family. As have his people. He has skills in how to diffuse a situation, how to not appear threatening, how to assure white people of their worth even while trying to talk about the real race issues of a people who have historically been enslaved and killed, en masse, by white people.
Clinging to our sense of the world as a right and good place, where people get ahead because of their worth, or fail because they haven’t tried hard enough, makes us bad at listening. But we have to listen.
So let’s listen. Here are some gentle suggestions from someone who has got it wrong many many times. The next time you’re in a conversation about race, and a black person speaks about how hard things are for them, don’t invalidate, brush off, or diminish what they are saying. Just listen, and then say, “I’m sorry. I haven’t heard about that.” Assume there is a lot you don’t know. Learn to be okay with being uncomfortable. (It’s the least we can do for our friends.) Let’s sit uncomfortably with our race (and its history of oppression) without twitching it off by saying “All lives matter,” or “black people enslaved each other too,” or “there’s such a thing as reverse racism.” Let’s not divert the topic to something more comfortable. Let’s admit to not being able to understand what it feels like to know that you are the most targeted type of person in America. We don’t have to understand. We just have to listen and we have to care.
Race is not all we are. Chinua reminds me that there are many ways to slice the pie. I don’t particularly like being in a slice that is away from my entire immediate family and all my in laws, but I am. I can’t pretend away my privilege because I don’t want to be different. It’s dangerous for my family if I keep insisting the difference doesn’t exist. It’s dangerous for my sons, who are in the 99th percentile of height and weight for their age, and about to become large mixed-race (black) men. In one configuration of our family, I am different. I am not in danger in a way that they are. I am the one who gets out and checks for a camping spot at a KOA in Kansas, because I am less likely to be turned away.
I also have great power to be a good listener, friend and ally. We get to decide who we want to be. Do we want to get rid of this poison? One way to keep it around is to keep it hidden, pretend it isn’t there.
Let’s be okay with being uncomfortable. The last thing I’ll say to my fellow white followers of Jesus is that this is the kind of thing our faith prepares us for. Repentance, discomfort and pain, weeping with those who weep, remaining quiet in order for others to have a chance to speak at the table—these are all earmarks of our faith, and every one of them ends in what we always have, the mercy and grace of God. Our fairytale kingdoms may fall. Our image of ourselves and our countries or heritage as “completely” good may fall. But nothing can separate us from the love of God. It is safe for false constructions to fall. God will remain, and his love and mercy are for all of us.
Here are some resources:
The current season of Serial. They did some amazing work of spending time and reporting in one courtroom in Cleveland, and what emerges shows how biased things can be in the judicial system.
13th, a Netflix documentary about unpaid inmate labor in America.
**Of the 107 shooting sprees that Mother Jones records between 1982 and 2018, 61 were carried out by white people. 17 by black people. (The rest were a mixture of Latino, Asian, Native American, and Unclear.)
Of those 61 white people, 32 died by suicide. Of those who didn’t shoot themselves, 21 were taken into custody, 8 killed by police.
Of the 11 black shooters who didn’t kill themselves, 5 were taken in, 6 killed by police.
(Mother Jones marks shootings that are spree-like, have 3 or more fatalities and often many more injuries.)