Category Archives: Justice

When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 

 

*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 

 

Advertisements

Good Men, Me Too, and the Rise of Nazism

At 5:07 am this Friday, October 20, the Nazi who attacked me in Houston back in January was booked into a jail in Alachua County, Florida. He was charged with attempted homicide in the first degree. His bail was set at one million dollars. He and two other Nazis had shot at protestors speaking up against White Supremacy when Richard Spencer came to their University of Florida campus this week.

I call William Fears a Nazi, because William Fears does not like being called a Nazi. He prefers to be called a White Nationalist, because he told me he believes the plans of Nazis are weak and small compared to what he has in store. I’m sure he also knows that there are plenty of “good, God-Fearing men” that do not want to be associated with the Nazis that their granddaddies fought, but are begrudgingly content to be associated with the White Nationalist, Alt-Right that won their party the Presidency.

In January of 2017, with the childish and snide smirk of a 5 year old who has just put a whoopee cushion on his teacher’s chair, William stood next to men, women and children holding welcome signs at the Harris International Airport. We were waiting for the release of University of Houston students who had gotten their travel interrupted by Trump’s ban, and he thought it was wonderfully clever of him to hold a Nazi poster up amongst their words of love.

William looked like a baby who has just messed his diaper, as he smirked slightly and looked back and forth, waiting to see who would be the first to notice his stench. He and his brother were trying to get someone to fight with him so they could film themselves getting punched and send it to Fox News. They wanted to do it for Big Daddy Trump: create some fake news to make his lies look real, so that people sitting comfortable on their sofas in suburbia would be afraid of us and continue to sit silently when the violence against us and eventually, he hopes, the killings begin.

Unfortunately for William, the optics did not turn out the way that he was hoping. I asked him to stay away from the Muslim women and children, happily chanting their words of welcome. I asked him if he was a White Supremacist or a Nazi, hoping to distract him from them, knowing that it might offend him. It did offend him, but not as I had thought it would. He told me that Nazis and White Supremacists were weak, that they did not go far enough. That the Alt-Right would have to push them further.

He then he told me that women were inferior and not worth engaging in conversation, so he did not have to talk to me. Without thinking it through, I did something that could have cost me my life.  I turned my back to him and informed him that we did not need to engage in discussion, but that I was not going to let him near those children either.

As much as William had wanted to get his “liberals punching Nazis” video clip for Fox News, and there was a man standing right there ready to do it, to have a woman turn her back to him seemed to be too much. Suddenly I was being violently shoved from behind as he lay hands on me. The Virgin Mary with Jesus stitched into my clergy stole by the nuns of Marianhill Monastery in South Africa whipped back and forth, until another woman with baby in arms pulled him off of me, as a cry of “He’s got a knife!” went up.

The police officers took him off without searching him for the knife and he went to creep around the parking garage, waiting for another woman to harass. Advocates spoke to City Council about him, but it came to nothing.

Good Men did not want to be associated with his behavior, but they did not want to confront him either.

So, as I’m still blessed with a life and a voice, here’s what I need from our nation’s self-described Good Men, specifically those who bear the hue that William Fears prefers:

I need you to stop telling me from your armchair that you are one of the Good Men, and start showing me.

I am not asking you to punch a Nazi so you can feel like a man either, that is exactly what he is desperately longing for you to do. We cannot give this petulant child his way. Instead, I need you to start talking to William Fears. I need you to visit him in prison. I need you to find his 12 year-old self at your local school and mentor him. I need you to talk to your son about what he is reading on the internet, and teach him to listen to women rather then feel entitled to our gratitude and silence. I need you to understand that you can never lay a hand on a woman, and still be a part of the problem. I need you to step up and take responsibility.

When I say we have a problem, when I say Me Too, and you respond by saying that “there are good men out there” and you “don’t know what made me so mad at men” then what you are saying is that you do not actually hear me. What you are saying, just like William Fears did, is that I am not worth hearing. What you are saying, just like William Fears did, is that you do not have to listen to me. If you want to change the world that William Fears is trying to create, then teach your sons the opposite. Show them what it looks like to change in response to the voices of women.

Do not strive to keep the focus on yourself as one of the Good Men, without realizing that continually centering our national narrative on the irreproachability of the Good Men is exactly what is at the root of this whole White Supremacist system.

All that William Fears is doing is taking the Good Man’s fear of critique to the extreme. Listening to all the complaints of Good Men not getting their due, and spinning it into a philosophy of what he will do to return the world to the kind of place where they do. He is not the opposite of the Good Man philosophy; he is the extreme of it.

The same culture that makes the rise of Nazism possible in this nation is the one that tells you that you are a Good Man and that you do not have to listen to me. That raises young, white men to believe that it is their role to protect me and treat me like a lady, as long as I do not step out of line.

Meanwhile, here I stand, face to face with William Fears, unafraid of the wounds to come, while you sit on the sidelines waiting to use those very wounds to silence me. Waiting to rub salt in by telling me that you too do not have anything to learn from me; by telling me I am irrational; by telling me “I don’t know who made you so angry baby.” Pitying yourself for the way that women do not act like ladies anymore, while I stand here with a knife at my back.

The very system that puts me in danger, claims to protect me. It silences me by telling me to be grateful that Good Men want to treat me like a lady, while simultaneously using protecting my body as a justification for violence against others. The same culture that makes the rise of Nazism possible in this nation is the one in which the penultimate “Good Man”, retired General John F. Kelly, can get on television and reminisce about the days when women were treated with dignity and honor while simultaneously dehumanizing a Black woman because Black women are not who he is talking about.

Why should we be suprised? The narrative of Good Men in our nation was built by men who regularly assaulted Black women in the slave quarters, and Indigenous women on the plains, and then came back to bed to snuggle up with their white wife, relying on her to say he is a Good Man. The Good Man counted on us to make it possible for him to get up and do it again the next day. Our affirmation of his goodness made him feel confident to stand before God on Sunday without a care in the world. Don’t you think that broke something within us? Don’t you think we, all of us, need to be healed? Don’t you think it is time for a new story? Don’t you think you should stop relying on white women to tell you that you are a Good Man? Clearly, we have been lying to you for centuries, anyway. Maybe we should all start listening more to Black women like Representative Frederica Wilson if we want to get to know ourselves better.

Try this: Stand up from the leather office chair behind your pastoral desk. Stand up from the armchair where you are reminiscing about the good old days when I stayed in my place. Stand up and go find William Fears, wherever he is in your community. It may be awkward, it may be hard, it may even be dangerous. Yet, if I can do it, so can you. We need you to do it now, because when William Fears was a little boy, you taught him in so many ways that he did not have to listen to me. Now he has taken it to the extreme and is ready to kill to prove you right. It is time for you to show him he is wrong.

My friends at the airport were good people, precisely because they would never expect me to call them Good Men. Precisely because they would not have presumed to tell me what to do with my body or whether I could place it in harm’s way. Precisely because they were not about to disrespect my non-violence by punching him, but they were not going to let him stick a knife in me either. We were in it together.

Maybe all of us could stop worrying about who are the Bad Men and the Good Men, and all of us try together to be good people instead. That is not a title to be either earned or demanded, rather it is a life to be lived.

Do not insist on maintaining the role of a bystander in the struggle we face.

Do not try to change the topic to the fact that you do not feel like your goodness is acknowledged, in order to avoid acknowledging and facing our righteous indignation.

Do not tell me you are a Good Man, show me you are a good person.

 

Hope In Labor: A Parable

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the same.” – Often attributed to St. Augustine

Prelude to a parable:

It had been a time of great loss in my life, that day in May of 2016, and I had hoped to slip into the back of the sanctuary of Hope AME unnoticed. Yet, my friend, the Rev. Sean Nickleberry had seen me and called me to the front to be the preacher of the hour. Suddenly, I found myself mid-way through my first extemporaneous sermon, and at a loss for words.

Turning to the second pew from the front, I looked at the matriarch of the church, Sister Jackson, and asked, “Why did you name this place Hope? I can’t go any further in my sermon without knowing that, and I don’t have the answer. Help me. I cannot tell the people what I do not know.”

With a slight quiver of emotion in her voice, Sister Jackson replied, “We named it Hope because we needed Hope. We named it Hope because we didn’t have anything else. And now you have brought Hope back to us.”

You was Sean. Was me. Was Mirissa. Was Jonathan. Was Sandra Bland.

Without the words attributed to St. Augustine, however, you will never understand…

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the same.”

Yes, but there was more.

Hope, that long-suffering mother, had been alone. Her children had been ripped from her grasp, and without them, she could not live. The nation had built a monument to her and upon it they had heaped their offerings, naming their gifts reconciliation and peace. Yet, those were the names of children not yet born. Children that Hope had dreamt of but had not yet seen. Children that would not be born – could not even be conceived – until the child still growing in Hope’s womb had been born. That child’s name was Justice, and its sisters waited by their mother’s side, trained and prepared to be her midwives.

Yet, Justice had never been born. Justice had never come.

The birthing pains had come, most assuredly, and Anger and Courage had taken their places on either side of their mother, holding her up and helping her to push.

Yet, as the contractions came closer and closer and the day became nearer and nearer, The Empire feared the baby child, as Saul had feared David, as Pharoah had feared Moses, as Herod had feared Jesus. Conspiring with the Pharisees, the Empire sent its forces to destroy the threat to its power. They arrived together, those entrusted to enforce the power of the Empire accompanied by those entrusted to enforce the respectability politics of the church.

They interrupted Hope mid-contraction and tore Anger from her side. Hope stumbled, and slumped against Courage. Yet, without her sister’s help, Courage could not bear the weight alone. With horror, she watched her mother slip from her grasp and slump to the ground. The unborn child Justice remaining in her womb.

Taken away in handcuffs, Anger was tried and convicted, just as Jesus had been before her, for deceit and heresy; he for claiming to be the Son of God, she for claiming to be the daughter of Hope.

It was written down in the law, history, and theology of the Empire, that Anger was a bastard child, parentage unknown. The only place you could find the truth was outside of the courtrooms and cathedrals where the artists in the streets sometimes whispered and sometimes shouted the truth of who Anger was.

Anger languished in custody, while her mother wept in the streets for her stolen child, locked out of the rooms of power and unable to set the story right. Without Anger by her side, Courage became silent, for it had always been Anger that had helped her see. Without her sister to guide her, Courage did not know where to go or what to do. So she sat down in the street, and those respectable people who passed her looked the other way, averting their eyes from her face.

Robbed of her daughters, Hope went into hiding to protect the unborn child Justice. With her true face out of sight, the Empire built a monument in her image and called it Hope. They made her features soft and tender, and her form weak; they placed this monument inside the church. Into her arms, they carved the image of the unborn child Justice. With claims that Justice had been born, they taught the people that the unconceived children that Hope had dreamed of, Peace and Reconciliation, were even now in the birth canal itself.

With Hope’s only living children missing, Anger convicted and locked away, and Courage silenced without her sister, there was no one to tell the world otherwise.

Until one hot Texas afternoon, when Courage heard her sister Anger’s voice and cried out!

They silenced Courage quickly, and took her into custody, without knowing they were taking her to the very place she needed to go. They thought that by throwing Courage into custody they would silence her as they had Anger. But it was too late. The world had heard her.

More importantly, her mother, Hope, had heard her, for they had taken Courage into custody upon the very doorstep of her house. As Courage cried out, her mother Hope’s water broke, and the labor pains of Justice began again. Reunited, Anger and Courage burst from their cell to be at their mother’s side. At that moment, the monument they had named Hope with the false child Justice in her arms began to crumble. Those who rejected Anger and Courage believed this to be the end of Hope, but those who knew their worth understood the truth.

Even in the midst of her birthing pains, the greatest pain she had ever known, Hope stood tall beside her daughters as they held her up in the manner used by women for thousands of years. In their solidarity, grasping one another once again, Hope declared to the world that Anger was her child. She declared that Anger was wrongfully convicted. She declared that Anger was free to roam the sanctuaries of the church once again.

She spoke woe to the church if they handed her daughters over to The Empire again. For only with their help would Hope be able to give birth to a living child. Only with their help would the church see Justice come. Only with their help would Peace and Reconciliation finally be conceived.

As their mother Hope reclaimed the daughters that the world had stolen from her, her strength returned and the earth began to tremble in the wake of her mighty birthing pains.

img_9159-2

Dedicated to Sister Jackson and Sister Green, faithful, long-suffering midwives.

64 Hours for Sandra Bland: The First Night

“You’re going to be arrested tomorrow,” my neighbor said to me solemnly.

Sitting on the front stoop of his house, the street was silent. The laughter and mariachi music from the birthday party down the block had long since morphed into a pile of tables and chairs awaiting pick-up. Only a few neighborhood dogs walking their patrol kept us company as we huddled over my iPhone, watching DeRay McKesson’s Periscope lifestream from Baton Rouge. All of a sudden the shot tilted sideways as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground and an officer seemed to tackle and arrest him. With countless people watching around the country, we were filled with outrage. He had just pointed down to the road lines to show he was not walking in the street or breaking any laws.

Only 250 miles away in Texas, we were preparing for an action of our own. It was Saturday night; the next morning, a Sunday morning, would be July 10th. Exactly a year earlier, on a Friday afternoon, Sandra Bland had been arrested. In preparation, we had worked on all kinds of plans for arts events to make people in the surrounding cities say her name. Yet, as the date had approached, it had became clear that we still needed the same thing that we had needed a year ago: Action in Waller County.

So many days of 2015, 80 in fact, we had sat in front of the jail where Sandra had died, and every day I had prayed that it would make some difference, not only in the communal struggle, but some difference in her personal struggle. I had stood at the back wall of that jail, where she had spent her last days, and prayed that somehow in her last moments she would have some peace. I prayed that somehow she would know we would hear her. I prayed that somehow she would know we would come.

All of the ways Sandra Bland was being remembered had created a sledgehammer strong enough to break through the walls of deception; an ax strong enough to cut through the roots that dug into fear, allowing only silence to grow. Yet, the blow still needed a place to land. It became clear what we needed to do.

For every hour that Sandra Bland spent in custody in 2015, we would be there in 2016.

At the time of her arrest, we would have the powerful voices of women like Aerio, Blanca, Rayla, Kayenne Nebula, Jasminne Mendez speaking from the spot under that tree where Encinia threw her down. We would show them she could not be silenced.

From the scene of her false arrest, we would go to the scene of her false incarceration, and every hour that she was there we would be there. Personally, I knew that I was called to be there the full 64 hours that she spent there: whether that be outside of the jail or inside of a cell. We had not been there with her in 2015, we would be there for her every moment in 2016.

We had prepared. No wine for a month in advance. No caffeine for two weeks in advance. No television or videos for a week in advance. We knew that those 64 hours had the potential to be just as dangerous and physically grueling as the 80 days before.

Then the eve of the action arrived, and there we sat, watching DeRay be arrested just a few hours drive away, for seemingly no reason at all.

On the night before our 64 hours was to begin, we knew we had the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion. Yet, as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground, the reality was more plain than ever that rights were conditional in this nation.

As we watched the lifestream of DeRay being taken away, my neighbor said out loud the concern that everyone around me had only been saying in whispers: “You’re going to be arrested tomorrow. Things are changing. They are cracking down. Trying to send a message.”

A single tear slid down my face. I could not let it linger. Wiping it away, I measured my words out carefully: “What do I need to know?”

He told me what to expect If I was arrested in Waller County. How it would be different from being arrested in a city with news cameras present. What they would do to me as a part of an arrest and booking procedure. What they would do to me. What they could do to me. What they might do. What they would want to do to me after a year of rising tensions between us. He told me that in this nation it did not matter any more if you were resisting in a non-violent manner; resistance, regardless of the manner, was what they wanted crushed. I informed those who planned to be there – Joshua, Mirissa, Jeremy, Lena – not to interfere if they tried to take me, I asked them to promise to step back, remain peaceful, and stay out of custody themselves.

At 4:30 pm on July 10, we gathered at the scene of Sandra’s arrest in front of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas, just a couple blocks outside of the gates of Prairie View A&M University. Two officers sat in a car across the street watching as dozens of poets, local residents, children, and Prairie View students came to the scene of Sandra’s arrest to show the community that Sandy still speaks. Setting up a microphone the first voice heard was that of Mirissa Tucker, a Prairie View A&M senior, followed by Linda Clark-Nwoke, one of the sorority chapter advisors during Sandra Bland’s tenure at PVAMU. Then the poets begin to speak their truth on the microphone, and the singers sang theirs out.

Close to the end, some students from Join the Movement at PVAMU came forward and Joshua Muhammad took the microphone to share some of the successes they had seen that year and some of their goals for the coming year. Those of us headed to the jail invited those at the Speak Out to join us for a service of Holy Communion at the jail if they chose and we slipped away to follow the road down to where Encinia had taken Sandra.

Upon arriving at the jail, we began to prepare the elements for Communion, using a chalice and paten given to me by Pastor Mireya Ottaviano; Hawaiian sweet bread, the favorite of Methodists like Sandra and myself; and the first of 6 cans of grape juice that we would need if made it through the full 64 hours.

Others began to arrive, and we were uncertain of what would happen when the Jail realized our intention to stay. Just then, two of the more senior local activists surprised us by pulling into the parking lot unexpectedly and radically transformed the atmosphere. DeWayne and Hai began setting up chairs for us, gained consent from the Jail to plug into their electricity for our phones, and made it clear to the Sheriff that the local community was watching, and that he did not want the audience to become larger than that.

Within moments we were live-streaming the first of what would be 6 services of Holy Communion, each one becoming progressively longer and more fully developed until by the third day we were having full on church in the parking lot of a jail.

Yet, that night we did not know all that would lay ahead as we projected Sandra’s videos on the wall and made the community see her face and hear her voice throughout the three nights and two days.

That night, we simply gathered, as 13 friends had done 2,000 years before, not know what would happen next. We gathered and we said the words from the Methodist liturgy, slightly adapted for the occasion.

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

We have not heard the cry of Black Lives Matter.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Jesus the Criminal

Sitting here at the Waller County Jail in hour 44 of the 64 that Sandra Bland spent here before news of her death broke on July 13; making sure her voice is heard here throughout the duration. Sitting here a week after the indefensible killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; as well as a week after the targeted shooting of five Dallas police officers (Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Sgt. Michael Smith, DART Officer Brent Thompson, and Officer Patrick Zamarripa). Sitting here after Breitbart published a piece yesterday falsely claiming that the Dallas shooter was a part of protests here at the Waller County Jail. Sitting here thinking about Jesus. 

Thoughts on Jesus:

• He was born as minority ethnicity within an oppressive Empire.

• He was arrested when religious leaders and the government conspired together to meet their common goals of order and control.

• The government and religious leaders engaged in character assassination, and the majority of people turned on him leaving him with only a handful of supporters.

• He was falsely convicted, and chose to remain silent and plead the 5th.

• He was unable to appeal his conviction because of his ethnicity and the fact that he was not a citizen of the Empire; whereas Paul was later able to appeal the decision all the way to Rome because of his citizenship. 

• After his conviction, the enforcers of the law took him to their headquarters and stripped him and beat him up, making his head and body bleed.

• In the moment of his death, they tried to break his pride and show him his place by putting a mocking sign over his head. 

• He was executed by the Empire/State and died slowly while the world watched; people have replayed it repeatedly over and over ever since. Since they did not have cameras at the time, people have used their own bodies to act it out in Passion plays.

Maybe the question we should be asking is not so much “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather “What Would We Be Doing When Jesus Died?” Currently, in a time removed by 2,000 years, you may believe that Jesus was the perfect Lamb of God; but back then, he would have been just another oppressed man of non-European decent who the State called a criminal and the Religious leaders called a sinner. 

The one we call perfect was rejected as a criminal in his day.

If there were televisions in that day, they would have told you: 

• Jesus frequented prostitutes.

• Jesus was homeless.

• Jesus had verbally attacked church leadership.

• The followers of Jesus claimed he could perform magical feats.

• Jesus was prone to psychotic breaks and had actually waved around a weapon in a public place and destroyed property.

• Jesus mom got pregnant with him when she was not married.

• Jesus family was shiftless and moved around a lot when he was young.

• Jesus was delusional and claimed he was a god.

• Jesus associated with known criminals.

• Jesus had criminal connections in his family, as his cousin John had previously been executed by the State.

• Jesus posed a threat to the stability of the nation.

Now, answer honestly: What would you do? Where would you stand? Is that where you are standing now?

If you still find yourself wanting to hold onto this Jesus, can you not make room for the grief and outrage of those who died in similar ways?

Our theology teaches there was a purpose in the death of Jesus; it does not teach it was right and just to kill him. 

This is why it is an act of faith when I say: #BlackLivesMatter

Imagine A World Where Women Matter

*This piece is written from the perspective of a white woman who attended a heavily privileged Southern institution of higher learning.  It in no way captures the plight of women involved in other conversations about male privilege such as the #RapedAtSpelman advocacy work being done.

When I was in college, I was afraid of boys who looked like Brock Turner, the rapist. I was afraid because in the confines of my southern gentility drenched college campus, I knew that boys like Brock Turner could do what they wanted to me if they got the chance. I knew that even if it happened off campus, that would not make my rights safer. Even if they were reported to city police, those city police would bring them to our campus police. And I knew the mantra on campus: we don’t want to ruin a promising young man’s life.

It reverberated: we don’t want to ruin a promising young man’s life. Yet, there was a silent word in the sentence, like the silent *k* in know. The silent word was *white*: we don’t want to ruin a promising young *white* man’s life. The word was there, we just did not say it.

In my context, I had never heard the phrase, “We don’t want to ruin a promising young man’s life” used to describe anyone but a privilege drenched white man. Privilege becomes equivalent to promise. Having much becomes equivalent to deserving much. Having an affluent past becomes equivalent to having an affluent future. It is the fall we fear. He may not have gotten to the height he is at on his own, but we do not want to see him fall. If he falls, then we all might fall. So we have to protect him. If we do not protect those with the most privilege than it puts all of our privilege at risk.

prom·is·ing (ˈpräməsiNG/) adjective: showing signs of future success. Traditionally seen in the United States to be an attribute belonging to white men raised in affluent contexts.

Imagine, if you can, a campus where the mantra about every woman raped on their campus was: “We don’t want to ruin a promising young woman’s life.” Imagine, if you can, that that conviction drove campus personnel to pursue justice for their women, or persons of any gender who were raped, with the same level of passion they now use to protect the men. Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

I want it so badly to be true.

Imagine if we feared nothing more than ruining a promising young woman’s life by permitting her to be raped without real consequence.

I did not know what would happen in the conversations in closed offices. What I did know was that I saw white frat boys go into closed rooms after women had come out having told their stories. What I did know is I would see them walk past each other the next day in the hall. What I did know was that I never heard about a white boy being expelled for raping a woman. What I did know is that the women I knew who had reported said they had been told it was their own fault.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

We don’t want to ruin a promising young *white* man’s life.

Syllogism of the day:

If you know that some women are reporting being raped by white boys.

And you never see any public consequences for those white boys.

Then, you conclude that white boys are allowed to rape women.

I came to that conclusion fairly easily, and it had consequences for me. I became a very careful person around white frat boys, wary, knowing what they could do to me.

If I could come to the conclusion that easily, merely by watching from the outside of the situation, I couldn’t help but wonder what conclusion the white frat boys came to. If I realized that they were allowed to rape me, did they realize it too? Maybe not consciously, but in some part of their psyche? The part that was supposed to tell them when to stop?

True, my high school/college sweetheart was a white frat boy in a Christian fraternity. And true, I moved into a house full of white boys when the Mere Christianity Forum asked me to integrate their Vista House. Yet, all of that felt different. While all men are capable of rape, not all men are exposed to it as a game rather than a crime, taught they can get away with it on a weekly basis, and confident that their privilege supersedes the law.

That same spring that I agreed to move in with the MCF boys, I was chosen to lead Orientation for the freshmen the next year. My campus was a dry campus, and parents sent their freshmen there with the confidence that they would not be handed a beer their first week, at least not during any official Orientation activities.

They sent their daughters there assuming that it was the women that mattered. The sent their daughters there assuming that we would protect them. They assumed too much.

As Orientation leader, I found myself called into a meeting one day in the corner of the PalaDen, with the representatives of the Fraternity Council. They were worried about declining recruitment and the school had opened the door for them to have an exception to the dry campus policy if I would approve it. Their proposal was for the fraternity council to sponsor a party on campus as part of Orientation Week with an open bar.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

I was having trouble following the logic of why it would be a good idea to have a party with an open bar on a dry campus for eighteen year olds who were away from home for the first time. It was, to put it bluntly, part of my role to educate in order to prevent not facilitate those kinds of situations.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

As I resisted, alone with a table full of men, they became increasingly furious that they could not force their will on me. Finally one of the fraternity representatives flew into a red-faced white man rage: “We’ll tell all the freshmen you aren’t cool!” burst from him mouth as his final impotent threat.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

When he was finished, when they were all finished, I thought of a better world, a world where the women mattered. For once, I was the one who had the power to live as if that was true. I pushed my chair back from the table, and lived into that truth. I took my first step out of that world and into another.

I live now in a world where the women matter: black women, and white women, and trans women, and Latina women, and Asian women, and Native women, and older women, and younger women, and celibate women, and sexually active women, and…

We have a responsibility to show those who do not know it yet that the world they are living in is the lie. We do live in a world where women matter. They just don’t know it yet. We will have to make them know it.

 

The Distortion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

The cover article of the May 9-16th issue of The Nation Magazine is an article entitled “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” It takes the words first used by alumni of Prairie View A&M University who were mourning Sandra Bland the week of her death, and ultimately used to express a movement, and repurposes them to make whiIMG_8595te people more comfortable. In a rhetorical move as equally unconscious of bias as the #AllLivesMatter shift, the author uses her platform as a journalist and award-winning author to write an opinion piece masquerading as an investigative piece. The article takes the discomfort that has been rising amongst White liberals and defuses it. It converts it from White responsibility back to White guilt.

It does so not by honoring the intention of the words – a persistent and yet unanswered question – but by delivering the author’s answer.

I was there in the Opal Johnson Smith Auditorium when Debbie Nathan requested an insider interview from Sandra’s family. I was there when she was turned down. I was there when she said she would write the article with or without them. At the time, I did not understand their response. I liked Debbie well enough. Now I understand.

What would motivate her to dig more deeply into the personal affairs of the grieving family than she dug into the circumstances surrounding Sandra’s death in a Texas jail?

To understand her article, you have to start by working backwards, realizing that Debbie Nathan is not asking “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”; she is telling her opinion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

Debbie Nathan had already decided the culprits. She committed one of the biggest errors of investigative journalism, she investigated in order to prove her theory rather than to find the truth.

I first met Debbie Nathan when she came to the Houston area with the conviction that she was the one who would write about Sandra Bland. She had become so fixated on Sandra, seeing her as a daughter figure; and consequently had become a student of my work as well. She had studied both of us on Facebook, and felt so attached to me that she had brought me a red scorpion made of beads that she had picked up for me while on vacation. She felt like she knew me. She did not. She felt like she knew Sandra. She did not.

Through a narrative filled with assumptions, such as the assumption that Sandra Bland cut herself in response to Dylann Roof’s murders, Nathan provides the nation with a way out of the discomfort that has become almost unbearable for many. She works to subtly convince the reader that the only intelligent, educated, reasonable answer is that Sandra Bland killed herself, while simultaneously emphasizing the refusal of many in the African American community, especially Sandra’s close family and friends, to accept those results at face value. She even uses a Black child’s refusal to accept that ‘truth’ as the closing line of the article. Pair such logic with the subtle racism of White liberalism, and the results are obvious: A translation of the experience of the Black community utilized to discredit rather than empower their perspective.

Nathan communicates that it was oppressive systems and structures that killed Sandra inch by inch, wearing down her psyche until she was primed for suicidal thoughts: Sandra Bland died from a “thousand tiny cuts.” Diffusion of responsibility.

This rhetorical move will conveniently remove the thing that the dominant culture abhors most: holding individuals responsible for the actions that they carry out as willing participants in racist and oppressive structures. This terrifies us, because to hold any of us accountable raises the possibility that any of us may be held accountable.

Let me be clear, we do seek to hold the system accountable. We do seek to dismantle the system of white supremacy. However, in order to dismantle the system, there must be accountability for the individuals within it. Without accountability, there can be no motivation to change. First, we made corporations people so they can bear our rights, will we next make systems people so they can bear our sins?

Fundamental to the Christian faith, and many others, is the concept of both corporate and individual fault or sin. While we must seek to deal with the crimes we commit as a corporate body, we cannot lose sight of the sins we commit as individuals. Both are important. Repentance for our corporate wrong-doing does not relieve of us accountability for our individual wrong-doings.

By framing her answer in such a manner, Nathan does dishonor to the reason why we sat in front of a jail for 80 days with a sign that said, “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” We were not asking what happened to Sandra Bland before she got to Texas. We were asking specifically what happened to her from July 10-13, 2015. By using the words of our question to avoid the intent of our question, she relocates the answer from Sandra’s present to her past. She colonizes our query, seeking to replace its original inhabitants.

She takes a big question: “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” and makes the reader believe there are only two answers, A or B; homicide or suicide. That binary is exactly what we have been trying to avoid and expand.

This rhetorical move is so subtle in the article that it is helpful to have gotten the chance to hear her May 5 on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC to discuss her true intentions in writing the article:

Arun Venugopal (substituting for Leonard Lopate): “In terms of the time [Sandra Bland] spent, the last few days, you’ve really tried to clarify and sorta get past the conspiracy theories. What are some of the conspiracy theories that you were trying to sort of put to rest?

Debbie Nathan: “Well, um, the basic one is that she didn’t commit suicide. That was the finding of the autopsy. And so there is a theory that that was wrong and that she was murdered. That it was a homicide. So, you know, I tried to look at all the facts, all the evidence and see if there is anything that would reasonably support the theory of homicide. And the only thing that I could come up with is that since there is no evidence of homicide, there’s no physical evidence of homicide, um, that you would have had to have a pretty big conspiracy. You’d have to have several people in that jail, including the administration, do things like tamper with the film, do things like study for weeks beforehand about how you, um, strangle somebody but make the mark on the neck look like it was a suicide mark, which you’d have to be a genius to do. I mean, I think you’d have to be Hannibal Lechter to figure out how to do this. And, um, there’s just sort of like many things that a bunch of would have to get together and do. So who are these people? I mean like brilliant, psychopathic, really malign racists? I mean, when you look at who was working in that jail, um, many if not most of the guards were either African American or Latino. um. They are low-paid, not very well educated people; to the extent that any of them have education they’ve often gone to the historically black college, to Prairie View, because they live in that community. um, they all have their social media too. I looked at their social media before they all took it down because they got sued. They were doing things like Martin Luther King food drives, they didn’t seem like the kind of people that would be capable of engaging in a very viscious, racist, brilliant, psychopathic conspiracy.”

There it is: the bias. Without even giving notice to the shade thrown at HBCU’s, her belief that it is not possible that footage has been edited would contradict Selma producer Ava Davurnay’s absolute confidence that it has been. Her presentation of the Facebook activity of the guards has portrayed them as saints focused on “Martin Luther King food drives.” She seems to have missed their sinister joking about cell 95 where Sandra Bland died: “Be nice, or else you’re going in 95 and talk with your friend” (Dormic Smith to Elsa Magnus).

IMG_3984

You do not need conspiracies and “tall tales” to know how Sandra Bland was treated. To quote directly from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office Committee Recommended Police & Jail Practices, released in April of 2016: “Epithets such as ‘turd,’ ‘thug,’ ‘gang-banger,’ and ‘piece-of-shit’ were sometimes used to describe suspects. Such ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language is not only dehumanizing in itself, but tends to be a cultural value passed down to other, more junior deputies and engenders an atmosphere that denigrates the rights of suspects and invites misconduct. The risk is that dehumanizing language will be translated into inhumane actions.”

IMG_7054

So where did Debbie Nathan go astray? To understand that, you have to look at another article that she wrote for the Boston Review. In the article, she writes affectionately of Sandra Bland: “Watching the footage these past few weeks, I have felt like one of her queens, and I wish we could all experience the royalty she offered us.” It is there that she shows her cards.

See, the thing is those words were not for us; they were not meant for Debbie and I. They were not meant for white women at all. And that is perfectly okay.

When Sandy was addressing white people, she made it clear, “To my white folks…” and she usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. When she was addressing her African American brothers and sisters, she made it clear as well, “My Kings and My Queens” and she also usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. But her advice was different for the different audiences. Her challenge for white people was different from her challenge for black people.

Nathan’s inability to understand that crucial difference and boundary is the key to understanding why she may not be the one to look to for an understanding of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

She stepped outside her lane. She forgot that the Lemonade being served up in our culture right now is for Black women. It belongs to them. They do not have to share with us. They do not have to give us the recipe. We will not be able to figure out how to make it by watching them. It is not ours.

There are many things I have seen, heard and witnessed about the experiences of Black women in America, but I’m not going to be the one to analyze it. Why? One simple reason: Black women in America are fully capable of doing so themselves. It is not my place. Not my lane. There are plenty of Black women talking about the pain and burden of Black women. Our role as White women is to amplify their voices, not to silence them by telling their stories for them.

Our role is to speak from our own experience: How have we experienced privilege? How can we talk about the impact of racism with other White people? We need to stop thinking that the only way to talk about racism is from the perspectives of those suffering from its effects; we have to start talking about how we benefit from its effects economically and socially, even as it wounds us spiritually.

There was so much real investigative journalism to be done in Waller County. The truth is not even hard to sniff out. It lies on the surface like the algae in my father’s pond. You only have to reach for it and it is in your hand. Yet, Debbie Nathan has chosen to tell the nation through The Nation, that corruption is not there. There is so much white-people work to be done in Texas. Yet, Debbie Nathan left Texas to fly to Chicago; and finding no one close to the situation willing to talk to her, she found people who would say what she wanted to hear, and she let her displeasure with the grieving family’s reticence be known through her writing:

“Geneva Reed-Veal—her mom had gotten married—has acknowledged in recent press interviews that she and her daughter had long-standing conflicts. She and Sandy’s sisters declined to speak with me on the record; what those conflicts were about, Reed-Veal has not said publicly… She contacted a sister who was hardly in a position to send $515, since she was being sued by her landlord for back rent, to the tune of more than $1,500.”

The amount of effort that it must have taken to dig into the struggle of the woman who had been the most supportive of her sister’s Sandy Speaks videos and activism could have been put to so much better use in seeking the truth in Texas. Yet, maybe that was not the goal.

Sometimes it takes a whole lot of facts to distract people from seeing the truth.


The pain and struggle of Black women in America is not one more possession for white women to claim. Their lives and minds are not ours to pick apart, to analyze, to interpret. We have our own work to do. Clearly.

If you want to listen and amplify:

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy A Yoke

Everything on Candace Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus