Tag Archives: justice

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.

Advertisements

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

 

Yvette Smith Verdict: No Comment Necessary

*Photo is of a building about 15 minutes from where Yvette Smith died, off the side of the road near the Bastrop County Line. It is the first significant building drivers see welcoming them to the County. 

Today Judge Albert M. McCaig, a Waller County Judge visiting for one case in Bastrop County, rendered verdict in the murder trial for ex-officer Daniel Willis’s killing of Yvette Smith. Beginning mid-May, he will oversee the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia on charges of perjury for lying about his arrest of Sandra Bland.

On April 16, 2014, Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call, calmly speaking to a man in the front yard when he got there who told him the situation was diffused. Getting a call on his radio that there was a gun in the house, he went and got his AR-15 assault rifle from his car, stood behind cover in his body armor, and waited. When the door opened shortly after, he yelled “Police!” and fired immediately without giving any warnings or commands, and without taking the necessary time to ascertaining if the small African American woman who had opened the door to check on her boyfriend was armed.

He killed Yvette Smith on the threshold of her own house.

Daniel Willis has never shown any signs of regret or remorse: neither in the dashcam footage at the scene, nor in the two years that followed. Today, his attorneys reiterated that he had no regrets and that if put in the same situation again, he would do it again.

Before concluding his remarks by honoring Daniel Willis as “the man in the arena” described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, Judge McCaig spoke for about ten minutes as Yvette Smith’s family clung to one another, two rows strong. In those ten minute remarks Judge McCaig made this statement: “So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom.”  Although our agenda is more of a communal one than a personal one, to honor the fact that black women’s lives matter, it seems wisest to take his words to heart. Therefore, the clearest way to communicate what took place today is to simply allow you to offer Yvette Smith’s family the solidarity they deserve by reading what Yvette Smith’s mother, identical twin sister, and son had to sit through: All of it. Every last word. Without commentary from me. You can draw your own conclusions. His words speak for themselves.

It would be very disingenuous of me, as well as very short-sighted, to believe that this case is nothing more than a routine case in which Daniel Willis is accused of murdering Yvette Smith. Since the law is certainly what I’m bound to follow, it is that, in simplified terms, the legal question is whether Daniel Willis knowingly [put to death?] Yvette Smith, or alternatively whether he did an act which is clearly dangerous to human life that caused her death. And the question of whether his conduct was objectively reasonable is the controlling issue. I fully understand the law, the indictment, the issues. I also understand the facts, having heard most of these facts through a total of almost three weeks of actually vigorous and well-presented trials of this case from both sides.

This case is also, as Mr. Sanderson had pointed out in his opening, about what we as a culture and as a society expect from our law enforcement officers. They do an incredibly difficult job often in very difficult and intense circumstances, and it is a tribute to the overall professionalism of the police in general that so few situation such as this one actually take place. But I’ll go a step further and say that its not only about what we expect from our law enforcement officers, but also what we should expect from ourselves. Each and every one of us as citizens of this great nation as we react to circumstances that occur within our society.

I’m fortunate in that I answer to very few people in this case. I’m a visiting judge and I don’t run for office over here in Bastrop County. In fact, I doubt if I’ll run for office again due to my age and the length of service that I already have. But regardless of the decision that I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary about what it is and those that are affected by this decision. And certainly all that I do is subject to review by our courts here in Texas and perhaps even higher.

I’m fortunate in that I do not answer to political correctness, I do not answer to the media, I do not answer to politicians. I answer to the law and to the facts as they relate to this case. Also, and I’m fortunate that I have the only other entity that I’m ultimately responsible to, that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but I do not invoke his great name in making my decision here today. I believe that would be very shallow and weak of me to do that. My decisions and my comments are my own and I stand by them on my own.

But before I go further, to the family of Ms. Yvette Smith, I tell you truthfully that I am sorry for your loss. I’ve come to find through these proceedings that she was indeed a good person, a kind person, and a gentle person trying to do the right thing. And I know that you will miss her greatly and will continue to miss her for the rest of your lives.

In this situation there is plenty of blame to go around, and there are several people beyond Daniel Willis who share this tragedy that eventually took the life of Yvette Smith. There may be those who may ask how would I dare judge the actions of those who were not on trial here today, but as the fact finder, and as the person rendering judgement on the law, that is what I am entitled to do. And as I look at the facts of this situation, I see that both Willie Thomas and Chris Thomas got a large part leading up to the events that evening. Had they not fought. Had one of them had the ability to walk away from the fight, ultimately that 911 call just after midnight on February 16 of 2014 would never have been made. Whether it was alcohol, fear, or passions, whatever the reason, each of them could have changed the outcome had they changed their actions.

I believe we can all certainly regret that Yvette Smith walked out that door. Yvette Smith is without a doubt the victim in this tragic situation.

And now I do have to come to Daniel J. Willis. You know I was not there in the incident when Deputy Willis fired his weapon and took the life of Yvette Smith. Yet, I have heard a great deal of testimony from all of the witnesses. All of whom may have more experience than I do in highly charged, tense and stressful situations. You know I have had my share of intense situations in life, especially in my time in the military, but I have not personally dealt with a situation like this. I’ve seen the video and I’ve heard the audio many, many times and I’ve come to know it well. I do respect Ranger Verina and the balance he attempted to bring to these situations, attributing good police work and good police conduct to Mr. Willis when it was deserved, and clearly stating his disagreement with his actions in firing the fatal shots. Ranger Verina is also good enough to recognize that a lot of what was said by the other experts in this case was accurate and consistent with his own training. I believe it takes a very strong man to be able to agree with an opponent, and I congratulate you sir.

I appreciate what the other experts brought into this courtroom as they used their training, experience and education to try to make some logical sense from what can only be described as a chaotic and illogical situation. All of that added to my understanding of what happened, and ultimately was a great aid in my coming to a decision in this matter. The expert reports themselves were not all that persuasive, but the testimony of those experts and especially the vigorous cross examination from both sides certainly was very helpful. In retrospect, all of the officials actually agreed on many of the same points, they only differed in their conclusions. And as we all know this all boils down to a very few seconds.

We all know there was no weapon, but was there a reflection? Was there a piece of plastic? Was there a piece of junk on the porch? Was it a large and bright silver earring as those worn by Yvette Smith that reflected back the light from the flashlight? Or was it about the last radio message that Mr. Willis received, the man behind the door with a gun, that priming that was talked about by several of the witnesses. Those are questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. At least two of the professionals gave me an opinion that Daniel Willis should have waited longer before he fired. So my question to myself then became: do I convict a man based upon those opinions alone or do I look at the totality of the circumstances to find the proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. I had to look deeper, knowing it would be easier, literally, to sacrifice one person for the good of some others. 

So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom. The truth that both sides have been given a full and fair hearing of all of the available facts. Both sides have been represented by very competent, capable advocates, and no short cuts were taken by either side.

To the attorneys from both sides, you’ve done a tremendous job with a very difficult task and regardless of the ultimate ruling that I make, you may each look at this body of work with a great deal of satisfaction. None of us are rookie attorneys, but you have all truly done what we all dreamed about doing when we were back in law school. You have zealously, courageously advocated your positions with skill, knowledge, understanding, even coming whenever was necessary. And I do commend you for that. And I thank you for the trust that you have given me in allowing me to hear this case and render a verdict in this manner.

To everyone watching this case unfold, I know that you will each carry away from this courthouse your opinions of what I should have or could have done or not done. Frankly, we may agree or disagree on the ultimate decision, but frankly I’m pleased that you’ve come and watched regardless of your reasons for being here.

So Mr. McCabe, Ms. Jernigan, is there any legal reason why the court should not render its verdict in this case?

Will the defendant please stand.

And please bear with me as I read to you one of my life-long favorite passages from Theodore Roosevelt, from April 23 of 1910. It’s a really great passage. It goes this way: 

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mr. Daniel J. Willis, you are the man in that arena, and it is the verdict of this court that you were not guilty of the charges stated.

Yvette Smith: Why All Our Rights Are Lies

“Yvette hated guns. She never let her sons play with guns,” Yvette Smith’s mother said to me after Judge McCaig called a 20 minute break, part way through the afternoon of the second day of the defense arguments for ex-officer Daniel Willis murder trial for killing her daughter.

Yvette-SmithI knew what it was like to grow up in a household like that; a household where, as Yvette Smith’s son Anthony put it, the “mother was uneasy around guns.” I was never allowed to play with so much as a water pistol or a nerf gun, and to this day it has had a lasting psychological impact on me. I see guns as something that could wound or kill. My best friend’s father used to leave his guns on the dining room table, and it made my heart beat faster just to see it. I could never touch a gun. That’s how I was raised. That is how Yvette Smith was raised. That is how Yvette Smith raised her sons.

Now I live in a state where people care more about their right to open-carry, than about how it impacts other people and the stress and anxiety they cause. Now I live in a state where open-carry is a lie, because we know it really only applies to certain people. Some people – let me be clear: white men – have the right to carry machine guns openly on the streets, as I saw them do in Austin. Other people – let me be clear: Yvette Smith – will be killed merely because an officer imagined that she was carrying a gun inside of her own house.

“Stand your ground” does not apply to black teenagers.

“Innocent until proven guilty” does not apply black men. 

“Open carry” does not apply to black women.

Havin1403134974000-YVETTE-SMITH-2g all of those things apply to you and not to people of color is part of having white privilege. People who are white have the ability to observe that reality, to acknowledge it, and to work to undermine their own privilege in order that the rights our nation claims to hold as “self-evident” apply to all. If they do not apply to us all, they are not civil rights, by definition they are privileges. Privilege: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” If your race and/or ethnicity is a factor in whether you can assert your rights safely, which I believe it is, then civil rights exist only in our imagination.

Just as the gun that Daniel Willis claims Yvette Smith was holding existed only in his imagination. Listening to hours of taped interviews with him during the trial was nothing short of disturbing. Having watched the dash cam video of Yvette Smith’s killing, you see three things happen in three seconds.

First second: Yvette opens the door.

Second second: Daniel yells “Police.”

Third second: Daniel fires 2 quick shots from his personal AR-15 assault rifle into Yvette’s body with no warning, no commands, and no evaluation.

In lengthy explanations, he talks in the interviews shown at trial about how Yvette stepped onto the porch and was “indexing” with her gun. Aiming it at him and his partner. He talks about how he flashed his flashlight at her several times and she kept ducking out of the path of his light and repositioning her aim. He talks about how she had a small, shiny pistol; then a light colored, long barreled gun. He talks about her having a small, shiny L-shape in her hand, which out of his peripheral vision looked like a long gun, like the AR-15 assault rifle he was holding himself. He says he was afraid for his life; then he says he was never afraid for one single second; then he says he was afraid not for his life but for the other officer at the scene. He takes hours talking about things that never happened.

None of it happened. Sitting in the courtroom, we knew already. We had watched the dashcam. We had heard in rapid succession: Door opening, “Police”, BAM BAM. Even if Daniel Willis’ story was not so inconsistent, there was simply not time for any of it to have happened. All of it, and all of the different versions, were lies.

Yet with all the things he had to talk about, there were somethings he did not talk about:

  • He does not talk about the fact that he has night blindness and could not see and, yet, like many stubborn people chose to not wear his glasses while cocking an AR-15 in the dark.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was wearing body armor at in little danger.
  • He does not talk about the fact that his own body was safely behind his car. Nor does he talk about the fact that being behind “cover” was supposed to give him the opportunity to: a) take time to evaluate the situation b) yell commands, such as “drop the gun” c) call for back up.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he seemed eerily undisturbed after the shooting.
  • He does not talk about how he subtly threatened another woman while they waited for Yvette’s body to be taken away. She said, “don’t shoot me,” and he responded “Well, then don’t point anything shiny at me.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he has never shown any remorse or regret to Yvette’s family.
  • He does not talk about how after killing her he laughingly said “I didnt’ want to die.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was in no danger of dying: Yvette was.

Ironically, his lawyers then used that as his defense. They had a forensic psychiatrist testify that because there was an officer outside, Yvette Smith exhibited impaired judgement by opening the door.

Yes. That is the defense. That a black woman is responsible for her own death because she opened her door when there was a police officer outside. 

Are the lives of black women in so much danger in this nation that there are responsible for their own deaths if they are foolish enough to leave their own house?

Nay, not to leave their own house; if they are foolish enough to open their door.

Foolish enough to claim to have rights? Foolish enough to drink a beer in their own home, or smoke a cigarette in their own car? Foolish enough to think they were citizens? Foolish enough to think they were children of God, and their bodies sacred and powerful vessels?

If a black woman’s life does not have value in our nation, than nothing that we believe about ourselves or our country is true. We have no civil rights, we only have privileges awarded to the few. We are not free, we are not safe, we are not good.

This week, perhaps even today, a verdict will come forth from Judge McCaig. Daniel Willis has waived his right to a jury trial in this retrial; his attorneys citing their absolute certainty that McCaig would give them a “Not Guilty” verdict.

If his attorneys are correct and a “Not Guilty” verdict comes in, before Judge McCaig moves on to the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia, will we be silent? What will we do? Or, as Sandra Bland was known to say, “What will you do? What will you do Queen? What will you do King?” What will you do to show the truth that the lives of black women are sacred indeed?

Sacred beyond measure. Sacred beyond comprehension. Powerful enough to strike fear into the heart of a man holding a taser, a man holding an assault rifle. Powerful enough to make him claim that he was the victim and that you, unarmed black woman, were a threat to him, well-armed and equipped with body armor.

…and you are. A threat to him. Not a threat to his life, but to his power, his comfort, his privilege. The end has already been written, and justice will win. White supremacy knows in its heart that it will be you, black woman, that will bring it down. Its fear and violence is only increasing to keep pace with the increase of your power and confidence. It knows its end is near. Do not give up.

“For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).

 

White Fear & the Hate Next Door

Recently a Facebook Group was brought to my attention by a friend. Before I could read the title, I was struck by the images of my face photoshopped.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 4.29.14 PM

10513491_1109615835756114_6654035767011217024_nThe photo of me reading scripture at the celebration service of Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, her Bishop’s crook carefully photoshopped out and my nose elongated as a reference to deceit.

The photo of me throwing my head back and laughing while holding my friend’s niece, her curly black baby hair rising up to almost touch my chin. The baby had been carefully deleted from the p1915561_1109614982422866_1961854907786616656_nhoto and my face altered, once again, transforming my joyful smile into more of a menacing appearance.

The first feeling that I had was violation. That someone would search me out, and go through my photos dating back several years. The second feeling that I felt was a cold child, that someone could do all of that and not be impacted in the least by those images of my humanity, my moments of joy and closeness with loved ones. It was chilling that the their sense of hatred and anger was in no way dampened by examining who I am and the people who have made me that person. Instead, they chose to distort some of the most joyful and intimate moments of my life into images of hate.

There was a mixture of horror and humor from those that saw it. Some finding the pettiness of it amusing, others finding the heartlessness of it frightening. One person commented that it must have been a “band of wretched psychos” who had put the group together.

What is truly frightening, however, is that it was not psychos. What was truly disturbing was not my altered photos, but their unaltered photos. When you clicked on the link to see the members of the group, the pictures were very similar to my own photos before they had distorted them. The people in the group were someone’s grandmother, someone’s mommy, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. They were your neighbor. They were your church member. They were the person next to you at the rodeo, the woman cheering at your son’s baseball game. They were your brother’s boss, and your sister’s jogging buddy. They were that grandmother whose cookies you can never resist at the church baked good’s fundraiser. They were the Judge who you let kiss your baby when he was running for election.

names removed group

They were not psychos. They were us. They were white America. Terrified of losing “our” country to the people who had lived there before any white people arrived. Terrified that “our” way of doing things would not be allowed to continue. Terrified of what it meant for that way of life when a woman like Sandra Bland could expect her legal rights to be respected regardless of her mood or her cigarette; and when a white woman would break ranks with them to stand with Sandra instead, calling that same Sandra Bland they had linked to drugs and disorderly conduct an evangelist and an activist instead.

They were white America. Terrified that the word “reconciliation” would be torn from the grip and control of the white America who had worked so hard to domesticate it, changing it’s meaning to “peace” and the ability to live together in comfort; terrified that the word would be taken back by the same kind of people who had used it to indicate radical change during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s; terrified that reconciliation, once set free, would be reunited inseparably with its partner justice, making it impossible to have one without the other.

The only face that I recognized of the group was a man who represents the face of Justice in Waller County, Judge Trey Duhon, who I have been told is a member of a local congregation of the United Methodist Church, as well as a member of the Texas Bar Association. The fact that he would choose, as an elected official, to be a member of a group whose banner said of me, “I hope you choke on your lies,” seemed odd. What made it stranger was that he had reportedly written himself, around the time of joining the group, to a woman named Dottie Moore, in a letter that she made public to her friends on Facebook on August 27, 2015, and as a result of tagging a friend of mine made it visible to me as well. In his letter Judge Trey Duhon wrote:

As you can see, it bothersome that someone wearing a minister’s collar is engaging in potential slander. You would think that she, more than anyone, would be familiar with scripture like the following:

James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Proverbs 6:16-19 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Or how about:

Matthew 7:1-29 Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. …

I really don’t want to sue Ms Bonner for slander and I really don’t want to give her more publicity either.

Judge Trey Duhon was correct: I am indeed very familiar with those verses. In fact, I memorized them as a child and they became part of the infrastructure of my decision making. I am also very familiar with the fact that whether we can quote them is much less important than whether we can live them, and that the truth of our words and of our hearts will most assuredly be known by our fruit.

Our nation is on the brink of a change. People are fighting for their lives to be valued, while others are fighting back, afraid of what that will mean for our way of life. There is confusion, as people grapple with seeing things they do not understand.

White people who are any measure of woke: talk to your neighbors, to your brother, to your grandmother; talk to the woman who is proud of her cookies, the woman who is proud of her grandkids, and the woman who is proud of her guns.

If our country misses the opportunity to make this nation a more just place that honors God by honoring the sacredness of each of God’s children, it will not be because of those on the fringes yelling out the N-word into the open air. It will be because of us, our grandmothers, our brothers, and our children. It will be because enough of us were silent when the time came to speak up. It will be because enough of us quietly stood still when it was time to step out and break ranks to go where God called us.

That does not have to be the story of white people in America. We can change this. We can make a difference.

“I can’t do this alone. I need you. I need y’all’s help. I need you.” -Sandra Bland

 

“Dear Fellow White People”: An Appeal For Sustained Discomfort

*First posted on UMCLead.com on Feb. 10, 2015. Revised and updated… still unapologetic.

#BlackLivesMatter makes a lot of white people uncomfortable. The impulse of many is to soothe us. Please don’t. We need sustained discomfort. There are a lot of people in this nation who have been very uncomfortable for a very long time. Those of us who have privilege and have been sitting in denial about that, need to feel this discomfort, need to feel this moment.

Sustained discomfort. Sit with that for a minute. Better yet, don’t sit with it: commit to it. Refuse to allow the media to redirect your attention. Refuse to allow the passage of time to diminish the ache in your soul when the world watched that video of Eric Garner’s life slipping out of him; that video of Sandra Bland’s freedom being taken from her. Refuse to be that person who looks back in twenty years with regret. Refuse to be the pastor who was silent.

Know your history. Remember that the protection of all peoples’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been hampered since the beginning of our nation by two things, among many. First, the fact that while we proclaimed the fundamental equality of all people, we simultaneously and ironically denied that equality to many – African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, women, etc. Second, since that time, change has been delayed by the inability of people of privilege who disagree with injustice to endure the lifestyle required to exchange that cultural lie for the truth, both in our cultural philosophy and in our systemic structures.

To put it more simply: we have had equality in word but not in deed, and we have not maintained the solidarity necessary to change that.

To put it even more simply: do not change the channel.

Now is the time. As the movement that has endured in our country for hundreds of years takes on new energy and strategies, we have the opportunity to see change.

However, we must acknowledge that we live in an era when that potential is threatened. We live in an era when news has become entertainment. We live in an era when justice issues have become an ever-changing cycle of temporary fads that we can exchange one for another as soon as something more trendy comes along. We check social media to see what the cool thing to care about is today.

This rapid exchange rate allows those of us who have privilege within this culture to endure sympathetic pangs of sorrow and discomfort in small, manageable doses. We change the channel before it gets to be too much; throwing our attention into a new direction that promises a rush of energy to replace the frustration of that “other” situation we could not change. Or rather, that situation we did not have the patience, stamina, and determination to change.

Our very ability to choose what “causes” to give our attention reveals our privilege. The very fact that we have the option to give up and walk away from a struggle, is the very reason why those who cannot walk away from the struggle struggle to trust us – and with good reason.

What if, instead, we did not approach phrases like “Black Lives Matter” as causes and fads, but as fundamental truths. Truths that are so important that life is simply intolerable for us if they are not universally recognized and implemented.

This is important because so many of these “causes”, both local and global, have at their root the same denial, subtle or outright, of one fundamental truth: black lives matter. To understand the pervasiveness of this, we must examine why our nation is more comfortable with crowds of white men walking the streets in displays of “open carry” then it is with an African American man shopping for a toy gun. To understand the subtlety of this, we must examine why our news media and world leaders paid so much more attention to terrorism in France, than to mass killings in Nigeria. To understand the danger of this, we need look no further than Tamir Rice.

Intersectionality exists in these justice issues, and we must name and acknowledge the connection between violence against Black bodies and violence against Queer bodies and violence against the bodies of 43 teachers below the border in Mexico. All of these lives matter, and all are connected because all pose a threat to power, to privilege and to the status quo. However, while we name intersectionality, we cannot allow that reality to become confused with our channel-changing, issue-switching culture, and cause us to remove our foot from the gas pedal that is driving this movement.

I understand that leaders throughout our nation, in many walks of life, seem to have a general consensus that change should take place – if it takes place – at a gradual rate that people can tolerate.

The reality, however, is that while some of us seek change that takes place at a rate we can tolerate, many have been forced to come to this nation and live in this nation under conditions that have been intolerable from the start. Intolerable is the status quo for many in this nation.

So the real question is whose comfort, whose pace, whose toleration are we talking about?

While we wait for that answer, people are actually dying.

Friends, we cannot endure this pace any longer. The time has come to commit to sustained discomfort. To refuse to shift our attention as the fads come and go. To understand that our very ability to choose to do so reveals our privilege, and our very willingness to do so reveals the fragility of our solidarity with those who have no choice in the matter.

True solidarity means we do not get to make the decisions and we do not get to walk away; we must follow the lead of those most impacted by the injustice in our system, and see it through to the end.

We must plant our feet, and refuse to be moved. Speak our truth, and refuse to be silenced.

We must commit to sustained discomfort not only for ourselves but for all around us, until we are no longer able to endure the denigration of our own humanity that takes place when any one of our brothers and sisters is put down, put in their place, or put away.

Change is coming, and you have a role to play. Do not walk away.

Congresswoman to DOJ: Investigate Death of Sandra Bland

On December 22, 2015, a politician told the truth.

You may not have heard about it. It did not make headlines. Truth, especially the kind that makes people uncomfortable, is not quite as appealing for the news to cover as a white man with a famously pompadour-style comb-over insulting people to the cheers of his fans. In the midst of a political season that is playing out more like a reality series, the truth, as with many good deeds, goes unnoticed. We must change that.

On December 22, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations told the truth when addressing herself to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the letter seen below. In telling the truth, she renewed her demands once again that the Department of Justice do a comprehensive and transparent investigation of the events and circumstances surrounding the arrest and death of Sandra Bland.

While Sandra Bland has endured six months of slander and accusations that she was not respectful of the law, what you will discover in reading Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s letter is that the real truth of what took place has been hidden beneath a deeply rooted misunderstanding of what the law is. While critics have demeaned Sandra Bland for what they saw as failure to respect an officer of the law, they missed the real truth that it was the officer that was failing to respect the law. The crucial truth that we must grasp as a nation if we are going to avoid the abuses of any more Brian Encinias or Daniel Holtzclaws is that the authority given to individuals to enforce our laws does not supersede the authority of the law itself. It is not the authority of the individual that we respect, it is the authority of the law. If it is a just law, meant to protect the people, and the individual is breaking the law, they have given up their authority in that moment and have become the criminal themselves. In the case of Brian Encinia, he gave up his authority to enforce the law the moment that he became a physically dangerous, and we now know perjurious, law-breaker himself.

Stating a truth that few have been willing to acknowledge, Congresswoman Jackson Lee wrote, “The violent verbal and physical assaults Ms. Bland endured have been met with little action and slow responses by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Waller County District Attorney’s Office.” In the midst of a two page letter detailing the failure of the nation and the state to adequately address accountability in policing, it would be easy to miss the importance of this statement. Yet, in making that statement, Congresswoman Jackson Lee acknowledged some very important things:

  • Sandra Bland experienced violent verbal assault from Brian Encinia.
  • Sandra Bland experienced violent physical assault from Brian Encinia.
  • Public Officials in Texas have done little to nothing about the crimes of Brian Encinia.

In appealing at the beginning of her letter that “the Department of Justice conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate action in connection with the death of Sandra Bland”, Congresswoman Jackson Lee also brought to our attention that:

  • A transparent and thorough investigation has not yet taken place.
  • Action is needed for an appropriate response to the death of Sandra Bland.
  • Failing to take any action would be, therefore, inappropriate.

As she continued Congresswoman Jackson Lee acknowledged that Waller County is “a community with deeply rooted racial divides and a history of racially discriminatory practices…” In making this statement, Rep. Jackson Lee made clear what many within Waller County have refused to acknowledge:

  • That Waller County has a history of racially discriminatory practices.
  • That Waller County currently continues to be characterized by deeply rooted racial divides.

She was not finished yet, however, for the recent records of jailing procedures seemed to raise alarms as well; she stated, “This is very troubling, considering the Waller County Jail previously has been cited for violating state rules for failing to properly and adequately train guards and personnel, particularly when interacting with inmates who are mentally disabled or potentially suicidal.” From this we know that:

  • The Waller County Jail has been cited for violated state rules.
  • The Waller County Jail has failed to properly and adequately train its staff.
  • Those who are vulnerable in society, such as the mentally disabled, are particularly vulnerable and in danger while in the care of the Waller County Jail.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee continued,“The practices and policies that have led to the deaths of multiple persons in custody at Waller County Jail call for immediate review and thorough corrective action by the Department of Justice.”  The truth these last words reveal is perhaps most disturbing of all:

  • The Waller County Jail is directly responsible for the deaths of multiple persons due to their faulty practices and policies.
  • The private review and recommendations given to the Sheriff by the committee led by Paul Looney was far from sufficient.
  • A thorough investigation by the Department of Justice is necessary, not when the Texas Rangers say they are finished, but immediately.
  • It will be necessary to take action to correct what has gone wrong in the Waller County Jail system for the safety of local citizens.

What is perhaps most important in this follow up to Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s appeal for a Department of Justice investigation last summer is the legal reasons she gives for an investigation. While Officials in Waller County have attempted to distract the general public for the past six months with accusations of marijuana use and self-harm, it is refreshing to hear the law actually come up in conversation.

First, Congresswoman Jackson Lee states that an investigation is necessary to examine whether the policing practices in Waller County (which would include the actions of police officers, prisons guards, judges, health providers, and public officials), violate the Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, 18 U.S.C. § 242, which states:

Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnaping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

Reading that law is like hearing a narration of the arrest of Sandra Bland caught on the dash cam of Brian Encinia’s car.

Second, Congresswoman Jackson Lee calls for an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a which guarantees the Attorney General of the United States the right to investigate jails when it is believed they have deprived those in their care of any rights, as well as taking corrective measures to rectify. In other words, neither the Sheriff of Waller County, nor the ad hoc “suggestions” committee he set up, nor the DA nor any official in Waller County has the final say if Constitutional rights are being violated.

Whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that any State or political subdivision of a State, official, employee, or agent thereof, or other person acting on behalf of a State or political subdivision of a State is subjecting persons residing in or confined to an institution, as defined in section 1997 of this title, to egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive such persons of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States causing such persons to suffer grievous harm, and that such deprivation is pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities, the Attorney General, for or in the name of the United States, may institute a civil action in any appropriate United States district court against such party for such equitable relief as may be appropriate to insure the minimum corrective measures necessary to insure the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities, except that such equitable relief shall be available under this subchapter to persons residing in or confined to an institution as defined in section 1997(1)(B)(ii) of this title only insofar as such persons are subjected to conditions which deprive them of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution of the United States.

After that, there was nothing left to be said other than: “For these reasons, I am calling upon the Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy, and to take appropriate action necessary to vindicate the federal interest to protect the civil rights of all Americans and to ensure that all persons receive equal justice under law.”

I think that is what we would call a *mic drop* from one of the great Stateswomen of American politics.

Add your voice along with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee:

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 4.11.53 AM

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 4.12.03 AM