A Word About the Verdict of Michael Brelo and the Deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams
by the Rev. Allen V. Harris
May 24, 2015
[Note: the sections in brackets were not able to be read in worship due to time constraints.]
I cannot in good conscience preach today without also saying a word about the events that took place yesterday here in Cleveland in the announcement of the verdict of Michael Brelo in regards to the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in November of 2012. It is poignant that I came to you 14 years ago still with the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 39 times by the police in New York City, on my heart. I leave you with Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, and Malissa Williams on my heart, a black man, woman, and child shot collectively with 141 shots, here in my beloved Cleveland.
On the street yesterday I chatted with a lawyer friend of mine who said it was fairly well known in the legal community that there could have been no other verdict given, certainly one that would have withstood legal appeals, than the verdict given announcing Officer Brelo as not guilty on all counts. The ability to prove out of 139 gunshots to the car that the ones fired from Officer Brelo’s gun were the very ones that killed the victims would have been impossible. This observation came from an African American lawyer.
As a caring person who wishes to be engaged in the world around me, I have reflected deeply on what has happened, as I suspect have most of you. I am not a lawyer and I was not present for any of the testimony given thus I cannot and should not attempt to make a legal judgment on something I am not qualified to do so. What I have done is to take a step back and look at some of the larger, more societal issues that I believe led us to deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, and, I would add, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, and many others. Likewise I have on my heart and mind the many police officers who died in the line of duty, including Brian Moore, Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu. I do think I have some wisdom to share from this perspective, particularly as a pastor of a diverse urban congregation.
As I listened to the entire hour of Judge O’Donnell’s verdict, several things went through my mind that I think we, as a country and as a culture, should consider seriously and certainly we, as people of faith, need to address more seriously. One of the things we need to consider is the conversation about what is a “reasonable threat” in moments that are tense and moments that are even dangerous. Clearly, this was a significant line of reasoning in the judge’s decision, insisting that there was a “reasonable threat” to Officer Brelo’s life, and to the life of the other police officers’ lives, which he believed therefore warranted their actions.
And this concern, that is what is a “reasonable threat,” runs through almost every story we have heard recentlly regarding the shooting of unarmed suspects and the accusations of police brutality that have occurred recently, and really for many years, even decades. “Reasonableness” is a hard point to argue because we understand instinctively that police officers are put, by the very nature of their job to fight crime and catch criminals, in the most tense and dangerous of spots. It is almost impossible to ask people to consider what constitutes a “reasonable threat” when we know we would never want to second guess what is dangerous or what might kill us were we in that position.
So my concern isn’t each individual officer’s decision-making, but, rather, how our society came to the place where the level of a “reasonable threat” seems both so incredibly elevated AND which seems so very different when we are approached by some people compared to other people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke a great truth when he said, in reference to war, the only thing we had to fear is fear itself. Fears, left unchecked, can rule our lives and reshape our society.
We must come to grips once and for all with what it is that engages our fear, fear to the point of killing someone. Here is one thing that has become absolutely clear to me: we have an inordinate fear of blackness. I can only speak of this country and the western culture in which I leave and breath, but it is obvious that somehow a mindset has been shaped within us that those whose skin colors are darker than our own are to be feared more than those who the same tone as ours or that are lighter than our own, and, consequently, we are primed to distrust more those who are blacker than we. And let us be clear, this disproportionate fear of people blacker than ourselves crosses racial lines, as the “brown bag” test of our African American sisters and brothers revealed in the earlier part of the last century.
This fear of darkness is not a new phenomenon, and perhaps even goes back to the dawn of humanity with things in the daylight being easier to see and things in the darkness being harder to see. But we have carried what may have been a generally useful fear for survival and magnified it, transferred it, and undergirded it in multiple and horrendous ways that have brought us to the place where we cannot but help ourselves in perceiving blackness as that which is to be feared more than lightness. A dark night is very different a black woman.
We live in a culture that reinforces this daily. Ever single time we dress our kids up at Halloween in “scary outfits” that are more black than white we reinforce this horrible idea. Every time we talk about frightful things, like zombies and vampires, coming from “the dark side,” we instill and strengthen this terrible image. When we use black to illustrate negative concepts – even “evil” – and white to portray positive concepts – even “sacred,” – we not-so-subtly emphasize this unhealthy way of thinking. Conversely, when we dress our children up to be christened in all white or our brides to be married in white, or go to Easter Sunday in white outfits or put our clergy in white albs we reinforce that white is the purer color and thus better, holier, more trusted color.
But let me press this even further: we don’t just fear blackness, we fear black rage. And, more pointedly, black men represent to us white Americans the epitome of black rage. And while Judge O’Donnell couldn’t mention “American’s Original Sin,” slavery and the racism born of it, I will. I believe every single one of us, whether we admit to it or not, understands on some conscious or unconscious level that because most of the people in our midst whose skin is brown have ancestors who were enslaved in this country they have a certain inalienable right to be angry about that horrendous fact. Our African American citizens, many sitting within these pews, have ancestors, who can be traced back only a generation or two on their family trees, who were transported to this country against their will, in unspeakable conditions, treated as chattel and property to be branded and sold, and who may or may not have been the lucky ones to survive. We therefore know our African American sisters and brothers have every right to have a burning coal of rage red hot within them. This possibility and probability of this rage is inescapable.
And then to add to it the unconscionable history of Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynching, “urban renewal,” unequal criminal sentencing laws, and mass incarceration, we walk the streets wondering why on earth there isn’t complete (perhaps even rightful) chaos all of the time!!! The last series of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement agents has simply become the straw that broke the camel’s back. And we question why this rage has turned into protests, violent and non-violent? It should be of no surprise to any of us.
So of course when a police chase ensues a car for 12 miles and suspects are ramming police cruisers, then the “reasonable threat” becomes, I believe, even more intense, more volatile, when the suspects are black than if they were white, and at least one of them was a man. And one has to wonder whether or not the erratic behavior of the suspects themselves was also a result of their own understanding that their blackness represented a heightened sense of “reasonable threat” in this society that would most likely cause them more harm and more repercussions if they were caught. Who knows, and again I cannot second guess this particular case, but I do know that there is a systemic cultural fear of blackness and black rage that makes wise and thoughtful instantaneous decisions about what is a “reasonable threat” almost impossible.
[And on top of this concern about racism, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that we also live in a heightened militarized culture. I am the first to tell you how proud I am of my father, a career army man, for risking his life in World War 2 and in the Korean Conflict in order to make this nation more secure and stronger. But we have allowed our respect for the military to get so out of hand that everything from the budget of the United States government to the way our police react on our city streets is completely out of proportion and focused more on exacerbating our fears than calming them, and then demand us as a society to pay mightily to respond to those heightened fears. Living in a post-9-11 world has only intensified exponentially!
Because, you see, as proud of my father, the Army Lt. Colonel, as I am, I am also equally proud of my mother, the nurse. I think my mother did as much to make our world safe and the nation secure as did my father, when she gave her all in the Operating Room, the Emergency Room, or the nursing home. As proud of my father as I am, I am equally as proud of my sister, the teacher. I think my sister did as much to make our world safe and our nation secure as did my father, when she gave her all in the classroom, especially on the dangerous and poverty stricken part of town where she served most of her career.
But if we have an understanding that the highest calling, the most noble career, is always the military, and we spend a huge amount of our nation’s and city’s resources for undergirding the military and the police, and many of our police officers come from military backgrounds, then are we not also setting ourselves up to be a war-oriented society? A warrior is taught to kill the enemy, no questions asked. A police-officer is charged to keep the peace, with discernment and negotiation always an option. Can we truly see those as separate in America? I don’t think so, and the anger at the decision yesterday is a sad result of the mixing of those two very different philosophies of life.]
So, as a pastor, I always ask: “what can we do to be the change we wish to see in the world?” Let me offer a few possibilities, and these are just a beginning:
- Change your language and retrain your viewpoint away from the dichotomy of white and black, good and evil. Stop dressing your kids in black on Halloween. Dress them up as characters from history or literature. Buy a beautiful yellow dress for your niece for her christening or a fun green outfit for your nephew for his baptism. Imagine brides with colorful dresses and pastor’s with non-traditionally colored albs!
- Get to know someone of a different race on a deeper, more personal level and for the long term. And not just one person, several persons, for we are all diverse. Invite a co-worker who has a darker skin color than yours out for coffee or tea this week and talk about the Brelo verdict. Go out for dinner with people from church of a different race and ask them if they have relatives who were slaves and what the family history is about that.
[3. Stop glamorizing war. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a toy gun for your child. Make sure you and your children have conversations, if not training, in gun safety. Celebrate Teachers Day and Nurses Day and Artists Day and, and… as much as you do Veteran’s Day. Give money to organizations that work to help integrate our veteran’s back into culture and write to congress to make sure money is available for veteran’s health care, especially counseling and therapy.
- Honor mediation, conflict reduction and resolution, discernment, dialogue, as well as being at peace with ambiguity and uncertainty. Give money to organizations that do mediation and those that celebrate peace and justice.]
These are just a few thoughts on what happened in Cleveland yesterday, as well as a few positive suggestions for trying to reshape our culture so that what happened to Tamir and Timothy and Malissa never happen again. I welcome your responses after worship, but also this week, via e-mail or a phone call.