I believe it is wrong to use journalistic spaces, even opinion pieces, to launch personal attacks, so this isn't a personal attack. It is, however a very direct response to Bob Russell's recent post, "Hands up. Don't shoot." In the post, he acknowledges his bias as the father of a police officer and proceeds to advise "parents of every race" to teach their children to "respond with a spirit of submission toward [police's] authority" when they are threatened with arrest.
You may not be aware that Russell is the former pastor of Southeast Christian Church, the largest church in Kentucky and one of the largest evangelical churches in the nation. When Russell retired in 2006, the church boasted 18,000 members, and it has continued to grow.
All that to say, although he's been retired for nearly 10 years, Russell is a man of high esteem, respect and influence here in Kentucky and beyond. As a religious leader, he (in theory) is able to discern people's perceptions and is undoubtedly able to shape those perceptions. He had the opportunity to demonstrate how Christians could say to themselves, "I know where I stand, but I'm going to try to see this from another perspective." Instead, Russell goes into paternalistic mode and decides that from his vantage point as a white man in America with a white wife and white children, he can advise "parents of all races."
"Of course he can," you're saying. "The Word of God applies universally to everyone. The messenger doesn't matter." (If you're saying that but don't believe women should be ordained to preach, your argument has a problem. But I digress.)
The messenger doesn't matter. Fine. What does matter is that the message is true and that it is delivered with care and empathy.
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The latter issue first. Russell doesn't demonstrate care and empathy for anyone other than the police, and neither do the people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter or the African-American preachers who have attempted to redirect the focus to the fictional "black on black crime." Even if they are unsure of the circumstances of each instance of excessive force, every religious leader should be able to understand that, as a Facebook friend of mine stated, "people are truly hurting over this." Every religious leader should be able to take a moment to understand that black women pregnant with sons are terrified, not just of motherhood, but of bringing a child into a world where he is not seen as human, much less equal. Everyone should be able to understand that to consistently not have one's humanity recognized hurts in deep and real ways.
The other issue at hand is whether the message is true. Here are 10 things Russell gets wrong:
- The claim that millions of protestors are making is not about "occasional" use of excessive force by police. It's not occasional; it's systemic. I don't blame Russell for getting this wrong. I've been troubled every time I hear a news reporter or anchor refer to the past several weeks of protests as responses to the police shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Killing of an unarmed person of color by police, security personnel or vigilante occurs every 28 hours in this country. (Here's a list of those murdered by police "while we waited" for the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson.) The protests aren't about two men. They are about the policies that allow police to harass the people they are supposed to protect and then declare war on them with no consequences.
- The protests are not anti-police. They are pro-civil-rights. Just because you want your rights as citizen of the United States, or just a human being, to be respected by people in authority doesn't mean you are anti-police. Hence, on to No. 3 ...
- To compare extrajudicial killings to the instances of police officers being threatened or killed in the line of duty is a logical fallacy. It is frightening, heartbreaking and earth-shattering, especially for the officer and his or her loved ones and unit, when police are threatened or murdered. But when this happens, their civil rights have not been violated.
- Maybe there are no "unruly riots" when police officers are killed because there's a really big funeral procession instead, and the state treats their deaths like a tragedy that disrupts the entire community instead of like a homicide that a criminal didn't cause. Or maybe it's just because sports and pumpkins aren't involved.
- Why are witnesses attacked in cross-examination more credible than a police officer who didn't get cross-examined at all and whose hospital records tell a different story?
- Stories from scores of parents of African-American children following Trayvon Martin's murder make it clear that they do, in fact, teach their children how to act when encountering law enforcement, which makes Wilson's account of Brown being the aggressor very hard to believe. Since the death of Garner, even New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who has a biracial son, has publicly stated that he, too, has "The Talk" with his son. There are more stories here and here and -- never mind. Just Google "black parents and The Talk" and see what comes up.
- "Criming While White" suggests that not only are white parents not advising their children to conduct themselves with a spirit of humility around police, but that they don't have to. White people rarely get threatened with arrest.
- Most of the "trouble people get into" -- and I think Russell means the death victims and their families experience, which is a little bit more extreme than "trouble," but again, I digress -- is not from resisting arrest or being defiant. It is from encountering police who are racist or who don't know how to de-escalate a situation. Also, a lot of the time, the "trouble" results from having the misfortune of being mentally ill.
- While we're on this obedience-to-authority thing, I guess black people shouldn't have resisted slavery either, huh? Well, guess all the bad slaves will be hanging out in hell with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and God has reserved a spot at the right hand of Jesus for Bull Connor. Less sarcastically speaking, Russell's use of Romans 13:1-5 to implore people to willfully and dutifully submit to authority figures shows a total lack of awareness of the racist undertones that this statement carries coming from a white man and directed to "parents of all races." Perhaps Russell is truly unaware that because many of these cases involve white police officers killing unarmed black people, his use of Scripture here is but one step away from invoking the Hamitic myth to imply that God has placed mostly white authority figures over people of color because the latter is a lower race.
- Finally, Russell misses an important point in Romans 13:1-5. The person placed in a position of authority "is God's servant to do you good." It does not serve God well to shoot unarmed people, strangle a man who tells you he can't breathe, perform martial arts on mentally ill women, beat old men, shoot children, or text your union rep before administering medical aid to a dying man. These are egregious abuses of authority and a failure of stewardship, and I refuse to believe God wants us to ever humbly submit to that.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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