Helping Bend the Arc Toward Justice for All
A sermon based on Amos 5:21-24
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 18, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Years ago one early winter Saturday morning I drove the misty dawn lit country roads of Oregon headed to a legal seminar (I was a lawyer back then). There was not another car in sight as I slowed down for a town outside of Portland, but when I entered the town another car came out of hiding and got behind me with red and blue lights flashing. I pulled over, got my registration and license, stepped out of the car and waited for the town’s police officer.
I have a great deal of respect and gratitude for police. As a lawyer I often dealt with them as witnesses and they have helped me during jail visits. Police have of course– THANKFULLY– also provided protection in every community I’ve lived in. I’ve had police officers as clients, friends and fellow parents of kids. I even directed a police chief in a play. It is my experience that the vast majority of police are very good people in a very tough occupation enforcing laws, providing life saving and helpful work, along with experiencing lonely drives and hostile encounters with violent criminals . . . and citizens upset about tickets.
I have to honestly report that I added to one officer’s list of encounters with citizens upset about tickets. In the twilight on that Oregon roadside the officer came over and told me I was driving above the posted limit. I politely indicated I’d looked for a sign and even though I saw none had slowed way down.
The officer told me the sign was on the left in the center divider. Speed limit signs are supposed to be on the right. Why would they ever be on the left? I asked myself, and instantly answered “For a city to set a speed trap.” So I verbally confronted the officer with my objections to his city’s trap as he prepared the citation. The officer heard my –what I am quite certain were brilliant and animated– protests. He remained professional and courteous, and this will surprise you: he gave me the ticket.
I actually had pretty much forgotten about that traffic stop until a few weeks ago when I heard a professor at Kenyon College speak at panel on Civil Rights and the Police. Dr. Glenn McNair has a PhD from Emory, but spent a dozen years working in law enforcement as police officer and federal agent.
Dr. McNair’s presentation included an expert break down of what broke down from a police perspective during Officer Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And he discussed his insider view of risks Black men face in police stops.
What brought to mind my traffic stop in Oregon was a “Q & A” answer that Professor McNair gave to a young Black man asking advice on how Black males should act during traffic stops.
The answer was stunning to hear. Dr. McNair advised that all Black men should remain seated; get the registration and license out before the police approach; roll the window down; put the documents in one hand while gripping the top of the steering wheel with both hands in plain sight; look ahead until the officer approaches; and then –no matter what– be calm, non-confrontational, non-threatening, and cooperative to lessen police concerns.
That advice appalled me, not because Dr. McNair was a White man trying to tell American men who are Black to be calm and non-confrontational to the police, but because Dr. McNair is an American Black man with years of experience as an police officer with first hand knowledge from both sides of the car door of the threatening situation police stops as a rule pose to American Black males. His advice was intended to minimize those threats by acting in a completely un-challenging manner whether a stop is unjust or not. Two other professors of color on the panel, one a former criminal defense lawyer and the other a former criminal prosecutor, agreed with Dr. McNair’s advice.
There are two reasons this advice reminded me of my own traffic stop in Oregon.
The first may seem obvious, clearly I did not follow any of that advice. I did not sit still and act completely calm and non-confrontational in the dark twilight. I got out of my car and felt empowered as an American citizen to aggressively challenge the impropriety of the stop. I had no fear for my safety, no fear of pretext searches, and no fear of the officer retaliating with more citations or an arrest, let alone violence. Indeed the officer was the one who acted deferential and respectful to me – a very apparently White man (this is as tan as I get– you don’t get whiter looking than me). See, Dr. McNair’s advice was not pertinent to my stop. That’s what I find appalling.
The second reason my stop came to mind was that the advice the Professor gave might –White as I look– have applied to me. Around the time of my ticket I was told my great grandmother was 1/8th Black. I have not been able to verify that news with any genealogical data or reliable family sources, but I’d be honored to have, and gladly welcome, such rich heritage in my veins. I hope it is true. If I had such heritage under the “one drop rule” of racist Jim Crow laws my 1.6% African-American genes would’ve made me a 100% Black American male–and my White American privilege would’ve been made non-existent in another place and time. The tenor of Dr. McNair’s advice, especially during a darkened country road police stop, in a virtually all White town might have been germane to me– the whitest looking male you’ll likely ever see.
I’ve thought about this a lot since that panel discussion. I’ve thought about Eric Garner challenging the police in New York for what he thought was a nonsense stop for selling loose cigarettes. Would I be choked or manhandled by law enforcement for talking back? The risk seems very low for me as an American White man, but I have to say honestly, the chance would sure seem higher if I was perceived as an American Black man.
I thought about John Crawford too. The handsome young African American who was shot for carrying an unloaded BB gun for sale in an Ohio store; the same type of store White Americans recently open carried firearms in off the street to demonstrate Americans have the right to carry guns.
Professor McNair’s advice – and Eric Garner and John Crawford’s deaths– sure made me wonder . . . those deaths have made much of America wonder. Of course we also wondered at unarmed Michael Brown’s encounter with Officer Wilson’s deadly volley of shots. Saddest of all we have wondered about 12 year old Tamir Rice – a child– being shot and killed in a park in Cleveland.
These events even in isolation suggest something went wrong. Americans as a rule do not want unarmed people being shot and killed. We. Don’t. Want. That. Nor do we want American families, police or communities to face the grief and trauma of such deaths. No American in their right mind wants such killings . . . certainly not us . . . and certainly not the police.
And I want to make it clear that none of the deaths I mentioned evidence that police are bad people. None of them suggest that police lives don’t matter. None of them suggest we should hate police. But all of them do suggest something is amiss.
Why should anyone in America have to take Dr. McNair ’s advice as sound?
Why should this American up here in this pulpit think he can safely get out of his car and argue during traffic stops, but other Americans, who happen to be Black men, cannot?
And Dr. McNair, far from giving racist advice, was giving compassionate caring advice to protect American Black students.
You are certainly free to disagree with me, but I am convinced something’s very wrong if our culture is such that that advice is needed and valid and good–concurred to by both an experienced defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney.
There has to be something wrong.
Even if we ignore the deaths of Americans I’ve named, the cold hard facts of statistics indict us.
Something is wrong when the fact is American Blacks who are stopped by the police are twice as likely to be arrested as American Whites stopped by police. 1
Something is wrong when the fact is American Blacks, sentenced for the same type offenses as Whites, get on average 10% more time in jail. 2
Something is wrong when the fact is American “Black men of all ages are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated than [American] white males of the same age.” 3
Something is wrong when the fact is “African Americans make up about 40 percent of the prison and jail population but just 13 percent of [our] population.” 4
Something is wrong when the fact is “an estimated 4,777 black males were locked up for every 100,000 black males in the free population, compared to about 727 per 100,000 white males.” 5
Something is wrong when the fact is “A stunning 11.7 percent of black men in their late twenties were incarcerated.” 6
Something is wrong when the fact is that such “Mass incarceration steadily drains away breadwinners, fathers, and heads of households” in American Black families. 7
These are cold– hard– ugly– facts.
Here is another fact we know, Black men ARE equal to White men. Period.
Black men are equal to White men. So here’s the thing, there is only one possible answer for what is wrong. We can deny it all we want but the reality is our culture, one way or another, has created a time and a place –NOW!– where there is an unjust difference in how Americans are treated during encounters with our justice system. Whites are not treated the same as Black males . . . and visa versa.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great clergyman, civil rights leader and American whose birthday we celebrate this week defined unjust laws in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail like this:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal . . . [ Martin Luther King Jr.]
Unwritten rules requiring only Americans who are Blacks males to face risks if they question or object to –or are not hands-up on the wheels– in traffic stops, is unjust.
Unwritten rules subjecting Americans who are Black males to more searches, more arrests, and more jail time is unjust. These are differences made legal. In order to undo those differences – to end the injustice – we can do one of two things. We can require every American –White and Black, male and female– to be subject to that same set of unwritten rules so all Americans face higher arrest and longer sentence risks and that all Americans must only be calm and non-confrontational in routine traffic stops, and put our hands on the wheel gripping our documents looking straight ahead not daring to challenge a stop–even if it is unjust.
Or . . . or we can require every American– White and Black, male and female– to be subject to the same set of rules that Whites, like me, presently experience, where we do not have to be unquestioning or non-objecting or hands on the wheel; where we do not face the risk of more arrests and longer sentences than any other Americans.
See if we think it is okay that American Blacks males have to be calm, non-confrontational, and hands-up-like during traffic stops, and also face a higher level of arrests and sentencing, then all Americans need to face that heightened stuff too. My guess is none of us are willing in that regard. What we want is safe, fair and equal treatment. We want justice. That is what the protests triggered by the recent rash of American Black men and boys’ deaths in police stops are about. They are not about Black lives mattering more, they are about Black lives mattering equally.
That Black lives matter equally is a truth no American or Christian can justly deny.
The protests – with the vast majority of protesters acting non-violently– are about wanting what I am pretty certain everyone in this church wants for themselves and their family and their friends. We all want safe, fair and just treatment. We want justice. The facts evidence that this is not occurring for all Americans. We can deny it all we like, but the ugly truth is American Black men, relative to American Whites, are being treated differently and oppressed by our justice system. That’s an injustice– and to quote Martin Luther King Jr “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In other words, American Black men facing any injustice threatens all of our justice.
What we’ve been seeing in the protests around the country is what Rev. Dr. King predicted a half century ago when he wrote: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself . . .”
Martin Luther King’s greatest legacy was his very Christian teachings and non-violent actions for equality and love-centered change, which are not only backed by the Bible but by Christian and American ideals. Listen to his list of theological and Christian and American ideals written fifty-years ago that remain just as pertinent today:
I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”
Rev. King goes on:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. . . .Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Right now (2015), in America, there are injustices in the treatment of Americans. At every point of encounter in our criminal justice system American Black males face inequities. 8 That’s an injustice none of us should stand for and all of us should stand non-violently against as extremists for love, truth and goodness.
We are in the need of non-violent extremists for love, extremists for truth, extremists for goodness, extremists for the gospel, extremists for providing the rights given by our Creator that are enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. Equality. Life. Liberty. Pursuit of happiness.
Jesus was an such an extremist for such things. Martin Luther King Jr was too. I am wondering these days are we extremists for such things? Am I? Are you? Is the church too? Because that is what Christ and God call us over and over again to be and do.
And when enough of us answer that call, it will be a force to reckon with, the Holy Spirit and justice will roll down like waters. In closing here is how Martin Luther King Jr put it:
When the cry of justice has hardened into a palpable force, it becomes irresistible. This is a truth which wise leadership and a sensible society ultimately come to realize.
We have a strong feeling that in our struggle we have cosmic companionship. This is why the movement is often referred to as a spiritual movement. We feel that the universe is on the side of right. . . Even though the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. . . 9
May the Holy Spirit move us . . . to help it bend toward justice!
1 UCC facts http://uccfiles.com/pdf/SCOR-and-Criminal-Justice-2012-Fall.pdf
3. Aspen Institute, p 19 http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/pubs/Race-Crime-Punishment.pdf
9. King, Martin Luther, “The Montgomery Story” 27 June 1956, San Francisco, Calif.
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