Black History Month is behind us and I can’t help but think about the murky future that is yet to unfold before us as a nation. Eight years ago, I could not have anticipated the extent to which we would regress in terms of racial relations. I had been the second in my family to earn a graduate degree. My recent appointment as a Staff Member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was, for me, an accomplishment. Eight years ago, I had been the only Black male on campus staff in the region at the time and felt well received. That year, we also witnessed the election of the first Black U.S. President. We had come so far, eight years ago.
Today, we are so far from eight years ago. What is unfolding for us to behold is the denuding of the myth that we live in a post-racial society. What’s particularly disturbing to me is the veil of ignorance that persists and continues to make it impossible for many to see what others are witnessing. Scrolling through the bottomless pit of the Facebook timeline is all it takes for me to realize that many people, with whom I share the pew, classrooms, dorms, or office spaces approach the issues surrounding race and justice differently than I do.
Today, whether in the political sphere or academic setting, we have a front row seat to the role that power plays in the issue of race. When three San Jose State University students can chain, haze, spew racial epithets and call a fellow student Donald Williams Jr., “three-fifths” of a person, while flying a confederate flag in their dorm are convicted of battery but not hate crimes – power is at play. The problem is, power isn’t inherently evil. We entrust people and empower them to execute justice. Unfortunately, is isn’t uncommon to find cases in which power has been abused – particularly in law enforcement.
What is also troubling is the divide among people who sincerely want to support military and law enforcement officers and those who have been impacted by the misuse of authority. There appears to be an “US vs. THEM” mentality. My colleague Jonathan Walton describes it best in his article “Are You For Us or For Our Enemies.” Somehow, any critique of law enforcement officers or military officials have been construed to mean a lack of support or respect for people who lay their lives on the line to protect our citizens. At worst, one can be viewed as an enemy of those in authority. Coupled with the visceral notion that our officials are expected to be honest, fair and just – it can be taboo to approach the idea that officials can be racially motivated.
I grew up in a home of law enforcement officers. My grandfather was in law enforcement and my father was a New York City Detective. When asked in kindergarten what I wanted to be, I replied “A police officer like my father!” Police officers were my heroes. I enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and as soon as I was eligible, took both the NYPD and NY/NJ Port Authority Police exams. I scored in the top ten percent of both exams and began the process of waiting to be called.
That same year, I found myself glaring at a toilet bowl, which stood in the center of a jail cell that I shared with eight other black men. As I recounted the details of events, which led to my being there, my own veil of ignorance began to be lifted. I was angry, confused, frustrated and disillusioned as my friend Michael whispered in my ear to ask me “Can your father get us out of here?” I thought to myself, “It’s all true. What my friends told me about racism and injustice is all too true.” I had refused to believe that I lived in a world where things like this could possibly happen. Somehow, in my mind, I had transcended that world. Never mind that I had lost count of how many times I had been stopped and frisked, only to be told that I “fit the description” when I pressed for an explanation. I felt powerless and conflicted. Here is how it unfolded:
My friend Michael (at my encouragement) was heading to enroll at a Community College. He had only one problem: He was short $3 for the commute. I wanted to help, so I walked into a bodega and asked if they would change a $5 bill, to which they responded, “You’ll need to make a purchase.” As we left the store, we ran into a neighborhood friend who offered to break the bill for us. I handed him a five, he handed me five singles, and I handed Michael three dollars. Two minutes later, I was approached by three plainclothes officers who asked me to get on the ground and put my hands behind my head. I looked behind me – assuming that they were referring to someone else. They weren’t. “Stop resisting”, was all it took for me to remember the many conversations that I had with my father about what to do when confronted by the police. I complied and was searched.
I thought to myself, “They’re going to realize that they had made a mistake and all will be well.” Only they didn’t and it wasn’t. I was handcuffed and placed in a van with four men. Before we took off, an officer took a swing at me - barely missing - because I was cuffed with my hands in front of me, rather than behind my back (this was done by another officer). He had assumed that I was attempting to escape or do harm. During what felt like an endless drive to the precinct, I continued to make an attempt to make sense out of the situation: “It’s all going to work out”, I convinced myself. When we arrived, two uniformed officers saw me and asked surprisingly, “What are you doing here?” The arresting officers smiled and exclaimed mockingly, “Oh, a recidivist!” “No…his old man is a Detective at the six-nine.” One uniformed officer replied.
Their faces turning white in disbelief, the arresting officers asked me “Why didn’t you tell us that your old man was on the job?” To which I replied, “I didn’t feel the need to. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
It was later revealed by my attorney that the officers had falsely written in their report that I had “tossed the drugs” and that they were unable to retrieve them. Unable to revise their report and unwilling to confess to falsification, they opted to run me through the system. Fortunately, the D.A.’s office decided to drop the charges and seal the record of my arrest. Unfortunately, two years later – when I became a candidate for the Port Authority Police Department – that record would be unsealed during my background investigation and I would be disqualified from further consideration for the police force.
It occurred to me during my time in that cell, that; no matter how long or hard my parents had worked or how long or hard I had worked, I could be stopped, frisked, and thrown into a cell and have my future or life thrown away at a whims notice. What I had done with my life didn’t seem to matter until the officers saw that I was one of theirs. When I was arrested, I was black. When I got to the stationhouse, I was blue. Blue, because as the son of a police officer, I had privilege. When that didn’t work for me, I had some level of wealth, being from a middle-class family. I could afford an attorney, Michael couldn’t.
I wrestled with the tension of loving people in law enforcement while simultaneously acknowledging systemic injustice and calling for reform in our criminal justice system. I think of my former students who are now
Police Officers every time I think about posting another case involving the misuse of authority. I also hear their stories of how they are treated on the streets, feel unappreciated and threatened. It was what prompted me to attend a small group gathering of former InterVarsity students who were now police officers.
My desire was to enter their world and ask them about their experiences. While there, I had a great conversation with an amazing officer who told me about the difficulties of his job, but also about the opportunity to represent Christ and love his neighbor. A week later, that officer – Ralph Ramos and his partner Wenjian Liu – would be gunned down while they sat in their cruiser by a man who misunderstood and hijacked the #BlackLivesMatter cry for justice.
Meeting with Officer Ramos was one of the best things that have happened to me. I thought that sitting at the table with police officers would be a betrayal. Hearing his story did not negate my own experience. Sitting at the table is effortless and joyful when we do so with people we love. Sitting at the table is one of the most difficult things to do when hostility exists. Yet it is at the table that reconciliation is possible, not at the battlefield.
I’m struck by Jesus’ approach towards reconciliation. It frequently involves eating and drinking. He invites people who are hostile towards one another and breaks bread with them. In the Gospel of Luke, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. In John’s gospel, he asks for a cup of water from a Samaritan – confusing his followers. In Revelation 3, after laying out the issues he has with the church, he comes to the front of the door and says “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” – Rev 3:20.
Perhaps you have similarly been wrongfully accused, affected by systemic injustice, prejudice or racial profiling. On the other hand, you may be in law enforcement and realize that you’ve unconsciously adopted an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Or perhaps you resonate with neither and are rather apathetic or indifferent.
What would happen if we came to each other’s homes, sat at the table and listened one rather than turning a deaf ear and a blind eye? What would happen if rather than feel threatened and get defensive, we took the time to enter into the world of the ‘other’ and share in their suffering?
Perhaps, our world would move from being black and blue, and we could begin the healing process.