Black Lives Matter
I love the Christmas season. Yes, I know in the church that we call this Advent, the season of waiting. But honestly, my heart is all about Christmas, the wonderful time when we celebrate a child and hope for the world. I begin early - the carols started in my house on Nov. 1 - and actually that was pretty late for me - and the tree is already up.
Still, I know the value of Advent. And so today I had thought I’d preach on Advent, on what it means to wait when you desperately hope; thought I’d speak about the child at the center of it all. But then something happened this week. Ferguson. And my heart started thinking about another child, a child, a youth, whose life ended tragically early.
Michael Brown died this summer when police officer Darren Wilson shot him several times in Ferguson, Missouri. But nearly everything beyond those bare facts remains contested. This week a grand jury investigation decided not to prosecute Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, a decision which touched off protests and rioting in Ferguson.
I don’t know what happened in the interaction between Brown and Wilson - there’s a lot of different information and counterclaims. But I do know something of the protests in Ferguson because several friends from St. Louis regularly take part. From the outside, we hear reports of looting; but my friends who are there speak of the more than a hundred days of peaceful protests ever since Brown died. Peaceful days in which they gathered under the banner of a simple message: black lives matter.
It’s shocking that such a slogan would even need to be spoken. Black lives matter. But too often the history of our country and racial incidents throughout it speak otherwise. And that’s why my friends protest, and it’s why so many people are frustrated, frustrated even to the point of rioting. Not just because of Michael Brown’s death, but because of a pervasive sense of injustice.
Much of the public discussion of Ferguson dwells on this question: did officer Wilson have a reasonable fear for his life? As important as that question remains, I want to put it aside to probe this issue of the anger and frustration behind the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, to look at the context.
For me, the context of racial injustice became evident in another story, that of Kalief Browder. The injustice of his case speaks to why we need to say loud and clear “Black Lives Matter.” But also “Poor People Matter.” For his story is one of both race and poverty in America. I worry Kalief’s story is too mundane to get much coverage, and that makes it even more haunting to me. Unlike Michael Brown, Kalief didn’t die but his experience reveals injustices in our society.
One night sixteen year old Kalief and a friend walked home from a party. Suddenly, they were surrounded by police cars. An officer accused Kalief of having just robbed a man who now sat in the back of the police car.
“I didn’t rob anybody,” Kalief said, “You can check my pockets.” The officer did; he found nothing. But the alleged victim changed his story. Now he was not robbed that night but a week before; or was it two weeks before? The story of the victim kept changing but nonetheless Kalief was cuffed and taken into custody on the accusation of stealing a backpack, sometime between May 2 and May 16.
A prior run in with the police meant Kalief was not eligible for bail. He went to Rikers, the infamous jail of New York City. There he began a three year odyssey in a notoriously brutal and violent facility, waiting for his day in court. One incident stood in for a hundred: the guards wanted to know who started a fight, so they lined up teenagers against the wall, questioning and punching them one-by-one. The culture of violence at Rikers has triggered investigation by the state of New York.
Kalief often ended up in solitary confinement; remaining in a 12 x 7 cell for 23 hours a day. Overall, he spent two years of this three years in solitary. He wasn’t alone. At Rikers, 27% of the teens 18 and younger are held in solitary confinement.. These are boys awaiting trial. The experience left Kalief despondent. He tried twice to kill himself.
But throughout it all, he kept insisting on his innocence and waiting for his day in court. A court appointed lawyer represented Kalief, but was too busy to actually meet with him in person. They talked occasionally on the phone. New York state law guarantees defendants a trial in no more than six months. Kalief’s dragged on for three years. And this happened because of a loophole the prosecutors exploited - every time they asked for a continuance, say for a week, the backlog of the court meant they received a six-week delay. But the clock only counted the week-long continuance, not the 6-week delay.
While the prosecutors sought delays, they also offered plea bargains. Each time the offers got sweeter. First it was three and ½ years. Then 2 and ½ years. Then sixteen months. Time served. Throughout these offers Kalief maintained his innocence and demanded his day in court.
The delays and the harsh conditions would cause many to accept the offer of time served. In fact, during Kalief’s time in prison, only 165 cases went to trial. The other 3,991 cases ended when the defendant plead guilty. How many of those were boys just trying to get out of gruesome conditions?
Still, Kalief persevered. And finally the prosecutor announced that the alleged victim - the one who changed the date of his robbery - could not be located because he had moved back to Mexico. The victim probably disappeared years ago, when Kalief was first arrested; but prosecutors kept Kalief in jail hoping to resolve his case with a plea.
Now Kalief is back home. But his life is broken - he’s made other suicide attempts, finds it hard to adjust to life, is moody and distrustful and understandably angry about the three years taken from him. Three years taken from his after an alleged theft of a backpack. An injustice perpetrated by the justice system.
Much of this year the stories of other African-American boys and men captured our attention. Michael Brown in Missouri or Dontre Hamilton here in Milwaukee.
Those cases raise serious questions about what happened and why. People debate the circumstances. But the situation of Kalief is beyond dispute - a teen held in solitary confinement for years while a district attorney without any evidence tried to bluff his way into a plea bargain. Not to mention ineffective legal counsel and brutal guards.
There is a brokenness in our justice system; and it’s what fuels the rage we saw in Ferguson.
But it’s not just our justice system. Ferguson, like other places of urban poverty, grew out of several decades of government housing policy and business practices. Segregated towns like Ferguson didn’t just happen; they were created.
And this is not just a story about the past. A Department of Justice investigation revealed the approach of Wells Fargo. The bank touted itself as a lender to minority homebuyers. But what went unsaid was the practice of shunting African-American homebuyers into subprime loans. Even controlling for credit scores, black homebuyers were much more likely to get subprime loans - higher fees, higher interest rates, higher profits for the bank. As the housing bubble burst, these loans proved toxic to whole neighborhoods. A study of Baltimore documented the effect. 71% of Wells Fargo loan failures were in black neighborhoods. Wells Fargo made a lot of money off of black families, but left behind even more blighted neighborhoods.
So the problem is not just with a rogue police officer. It’s not just with the justice system. It’s not just with the banks. It’s a problem with America; the problem of racism which we seem never to overcome. A problem of our nation not believing in it’s soul that black lives matter.
It’s unsettling to look from the tragedy of Michael Brown to the broader picture of race in America. But that’s what we’re meant to do in Advent. For Advent is not just about decorating our houses for Christmas; it’s about preparing our hearts for God.
Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah sets the theme for the season. We don’t just wait; we look inward at the condition of our soul. Isaiah spoke in-between two great events in the history of Israel - between the Babylonian Exile, in which the city of Jerusalem was destroyed, and the return of the exiles, in which the city and Temple were rebuilt.
Isaiah felt the destruction of Jerusalem revealed the brokenness and sinfulness of his society. Those years were filled with anger and frustration, not unlike the feelings in Ferguson.
Two things interest me in what Isaiah said. First, he poignantly spoke of the feeling of sin. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” It expressed the sense of repulsion Isaiah felt.
Could we say the same of racism in America? Are we bothered in the depth of our being by the difference between Tamir Rice and Joseph Houseman?
Tamir Rice was the 12-year old boy recently killed in Cleveland, Ohio. He was playing in an empty park with a pellet gun. A video of the incident captures a squad car racing up. An officer jumped out of the moving car to fire his gun and kill the boy. The cop said he shouted from the car for the child to put down the weapon. Watching it unfold, I don’t think I could have reacted quickly enough if I were Tamir.
Joseph Houseman was the 63-year old - and do I need to add white - who carried a gun on to a busy street. In his case, the officers spent 40 minutes talking him into laying down his assault rifle. Tamir Rice would still be alive if he received even a fraction of the time Joseph Houseman did.
I think preparing our hearts for Christmas means talking about this difference between Tamir Rice and Joseph Houseman, exploring how racism continues to shape and affect us.
But Isaiah didn’t just feel revulsion. He lifted up hope as he addressed God. “We are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” It’s a great metaphor: God as the potter. Much better than the idea of God as a sculptor, working in marble - one errant hammer blow could wreck the whole creation. Some view sin that way, no recovery from one errant mistake. Potters make mistakes too; but the clay can be reshaped, again and again.
I treasure that view of God - trying again and again to reshape us, the potter who never gives up on the clay. We need to be reshaped again this Advent, our society needs reshaping. Michael Brown, Kalief Browder, they remind us how much needs to change, how much needs to change in order to make clear: black lives matter.
It’s a dream once spoken by Langston Hughes, the great Harlem Renaissance poet, who wrote evocatively of the potential to reshape our country, saying:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
This Advent, as we prepare our hearts for Christmas, may we know in our deepest being the longing for racial justice, for what America never was but will be, for time when no one will question that black lives matter, for a future when a black child on the street is as treasured as a baby in a manger. Alleluia and Amen.