by Rev. Peter Friedrichs
I am angry that a mostly white grand jury, led by a white prosecutor who manipulated the process, failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. While the refusal to indict was not surprising, how the decision was reached, and how and when that decision was announced, reveal to me the injustice embedded within our justice system. By any standard, there was sufficient evidence to bring an indictment against Officer Wilson, which would have led to a trial where all evidence would be adequately considered and a verdict publicly rendered. I do not take a position on whether or not Officer Wilson was justified in using deadly force against Michael Brown. But I am angry that those in power have abused that power and robbed Michael Brown’s family, friends, and all those who seek justice of the process guaranteed by the Constitution.
I am angry, too, that the prosecutor and many in the media have sought to demonize both the deceased victim of the shooting and all those who have raged against the non-verdict. While I do not condone violence against local businesses, property, or people, those of us in positions of privilege have no right to tell the residents of Ferguson to calm down or act civilly in the face of this injustice.
I am sad that, day after day, people of color are dying at the hands of police, and that the majority of Americans either fail or actively refuse to see the role that race plays in many of these deaths. The list of African American men, women and children (but mostly young men) who have died by violent encounters with the police grows almost daily. While I understand that policing is a difficult job and that sometimes split-second decisions need to be made, we cannot deny that a pattern of perpetrating violence against people of color exists. As Unitarian Universalists we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The loss of so many lives to violence should be a source of grief and despair for us all, and it should motivate us to action.
I am frustrated because I feel powerless to do anything about the current climate in our culture. There is no denying that systemic, institutionalized racism continues to thrive in our society. Having just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow, I am incredulous at how steeply the deck is stacked against young black men in our country. (If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. It is truly eye-opening.) It frustrates me that, as a member of the dominant culture, as one who supposedly holds a disproportionate amount of power, I feel so helpless. I am sure that many of you shared my outrage when the prosecutor announced the decision last week, and I’m sure you share these same frustrations.
Finally, I am afraid. I am afraid for the kind of world we are creating. A world where class divisions and racial differences are widening instead of narrowing. I am afraid of the concentration of wealth and power within the hands of a very few, and the erosion of the middle class. I am afraid that those who remain oppressed within our society may one day soon decide that their only recourse is violence. But more than all that, I am afraid that if I am not part of the solution, then I am part of the problem.
I know that I cannot change the world, but I also know that I must do what I can to change the parts over which I have some influence. The shooting of Michael Brown last August and the failure to indict his killer last week have galvanized my own commitment to the work of ending systemic racism and creating a more just society. I realize that making progress on these complex issues will take more than just reacting to specific events (although events such as these demand real-time responses). It will take an intentional, long-term effort. Shortly after the first of the year, I look forward to pulling together a group of concerned congregation members to develop a strategy for improving our multicultural competency and becoming a congregation that is truly anti-racist and anti-oppressive. If you’d like to take part in that planning, please let me know.
In this, the proclaimed “Year of the Child” at UUCDC, I invite you to join me on this journey to helping create a country where all children are cherished, where all children get a good education, where all children can walk safely down the streets of their neighborhoods without fear, where all children have an equal opportunity to thrive.
May it be so. May we help make it so.
P.S. Shortly after completing this letter, a grand jury in New York ruled that police officers responsible for Eric Garner’s death would not be indicted. This, despite a video of the incident that clearly shows him pleading for his life as police used an illegal chokehold on him, and despite the fact that the State coroner ruled his death a homicide. Eric Garner was illegally selling cigarettes on the sidewalk.