Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Report from Ferguson: Lost Jobs, Lost Homes, Lost Lives

If there is one thing that people looking at Ferguson from the outside need to understand, it is the depth of the trauma experienced by that community.  It wasn't until visiting the city that I realized what a small town it really is.  With a population of 21,000 people, it is comparable in size to the small town where I grew up in Indiana, with a population of about 18,000.  In my hometown, we all pretty much knew everyone else.  

It isn't any different in Ferguson.  Many of the people knew Mike Brown personally, or, at least, know someone who knew him.  His death is a very personal loss for Ferguson residents.  The "normal" trauma of grief was exacerbated by the way in which his body was treated: left uncovered in the street for four hours on a hot August day and then retrieved by a police car rather than an ambulance.  This contempt for human dignity has left a deep psychic wound.  The grief and sense of being treated with disdain was further compounded by the militarized police response to protests.  

Of course, these events were simply the last straw for people of color who bear the everyday slights of racism.  I get that.  What I didn't realize, living in the economic bubble of San Francisco, is the level of economic distress affecting Ferguson.  

Last Saturday morning, my colleagues from San Francisco and I joined a group of volunteers canvassing the neighborhoods of Ferguson and nearby Dellwood to register people to vote.  I was shocked to discover that every fourth house was empty and boarded up due to mortgage foreclosures.  These are nice middle class homes.  I've since learned that 50% of homes in Ferguson are underwater:  the owners owe more on the existing mortgage than the home is actually worth.  Nationwide, the rate is 17%.   

The African-American community in St. Louis County is still living in a recession.  Although the overall unemployment rate in the County was 6.2% in 2012, 26% of African-Americans were unemployed.  Today, the rate of unemployment there among young white men ages 16-24 years-old is 16%, but it is a whopping 47% for black men in that age group.  

Lost jobs, lost homes, lost lives: this is the deeper wound that underlies the weight of grief people feel in response to the killing of Mike Brown.  The work of healing the wound of inequality will not happen overnight, and it needs to begin today.  Black lives matter.

The first step is to recognize the reality behind the grief and anger that fuels the Ferguson rebellion.  This is the reality experienced by people of color in many communities across our nation.  It is not just a problem in Ferguson or St. Louis County.  That is why Ferguson represents an iconic moment in our history: it is a wake-up call for all of us to renew our commitment to the work of economic justice and racial reconciliation.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Report from Ferguson: "I never knew I had so much power!"

Photo:  Scott Olson, Getty
Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.  If you want to understand the power dynamics of Ferguson, Missouri, look at the this image of the mayor and city council seated at the dais, with the citizens below standing on the floor.  Houston, we have a problem.

Last night, we attended an eye-opening community organizing meeting in Ferguson that engaged in an analysis of the power dynamics there.  I learned a lot about the underlying problems exposed by the death of Mike Brown.  This learning reinforced the organizing adage:  "You only get as much justice as you have power to compel."

I want to begin with some facts about Mike Brown's murder and its impact.  What I heard from many Ferguson residents is outrage and disgust that basic police protocols were not followed.  The officer who killed Mike Brown, Darren Wilson, fled the scene.  There are questions about the filing and handling of the incident report.  Mike Brown's body was allowed to lie in the street for four hours - uncovered for much of the time - and was then removed by a police SUV rather than an ambulance.

This contempt toward the life of a young black man was reinforced by racial epithets used by police throughout the Ferguson rebellion, revealing an undisciplined and bigoted police culture.  Ferguson residents report a long history of police violence and harassment.  This is exacerbated by the disconnect between a nearly all-white police force and a two-thirds black community.  Ferguson police are not required to live in the city and most do not.

In addition, there is a long-time practice of hiring officers who resigned from other law enforcement agencies due to disciplinary problems.  Evidently, the greater St. Louis region has a revolving door policy of moving problem officers from one jurisdiction to another.  One of the current Ferguson city council members, Kim Tihen, served for four years on the Ferguson police force and has been implicated in a police brutality case dating to her time on the force.

With respect to the case of Mike Brown's death, the county prosecutor responsible for presenting the case for a grand jury indictment, Bob McCulloch, has a reputation for protecting bad cops.  He has several family member who work or have worked for law enforcement agencies, and his father was killed by an African-American man.  All this raises questions about his impartiality, yet he has refused to recuse himself from the case.

During the state of emergency declared by Governor Jay Nixon, the Governor had the authority to appoint a special prosecutor to replace McCullough.  Nixon rescinded the state of emergency just one hour before the Don't Shoot Coalition made a public statement calling for a special prosecutor, so that he would no longer be on the hook for responding to the request.  There has been a failure of leadership and basic fairness at every level of the system.

What is to be done?

Ferguson citizens have to reclaim their power, beginning with electoral power.  There are approximately 13,745 registered voters in Ferguson, a city of about 21,000 people.  Only 11% of them voted in the last municipal election; 17% of white voters turned out and only 6% of black voters.

For example, Councilwoman Tihen won her seat by receiving just 288 out of 552 votes cast in her district.  Councilman David Conway received 72 out of the 168 votes cast in his district.  Even Mayor James Knowles running citywide garnered only 1,314 out of 1,325 votes cast.  It only requires a slight uptick in voter turnout to bring in a new city council and mayor.  The city council hires the city manager, who hires the police chief.  Accountability begins with the city council.

On Saturday, we will be canvassing in Ferguson to get out the vote; old fashioned door-to-door work.  There are a lot of newly energized voters in Ferguson who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.  They are beginning to realize what one young man said after last night's organizing event, "I never knew I had so much power."

Paul Fitzgerald, SJ, the new president of the University of San Francisco, said recently that "Roman Catholics have a moral obligation to vote."  Faith leaders in every religious community need to reaffirm our shared responsibility for the common good and encourage civic engagement at every level of our common life.

Report from Ferguson: Faith Leaders and People Power

Credit: Episcopal News Service
One of the questions that keeps coming up during our visit to Ferguson is the relationship between faith leaders and people power.  Most of the young adults we've spoken with are distrustful of clergy and complain that we don't listen to them.  In the Ferguson rebellion, young people felt that clergy leaders sold them out, aligning themselves with the police.  From their perspective, the clergy were more concerned with order than they were with justice.

Clergy here are divided along racial and faith lines, much as they are elsewhere.  The St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition is the main interfaith group, but many African-American pastors choose not to participate.  Several new clergy coalitions have sprung up in the aftermath of the Ferguson rebellion - consisting mostly of African-American faith leaders - but these groups do not collaborate together.  Racial reconciliation work needs to begin within and among faith leaders before we can be agents of reconciliation in the wider community.

I was heartened, however, by a meeting of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition that we attended.  It was convened by the Rev. Rebecca Ragland at Holy Communion Episcopal Church.  About 40 faith leaders gathered to prepare a collective response to the grand jury's decision early next year (no one believes Officer Darren Wilson will be indicted), and to support the ongoing efforts for justice in the greater St. Louis area.

My observation is that the group is working hard to bring diverse voices to the table and to include African-American leaders in particular.  Several of the clergy present were at the Don't Shoot Coalition meeting earlier in the week, so faith leaders are connected with the broad coalition of multiracial, secular groups working for reform of law enforcement in the Greater St. Louis area.

More importantly, faith leaders are beginning to better define their role vis-a-vis the young adults driving the Ferguson rebellion.  Initially, the working group on the on-the-ground response framed their charge as being about peacemaking, bridging the gap between protesters and the police.   What the group discerned, however, is that they need to ask young adult leaders how they want clergy to support them.  The role of clergy is not to serve as agents of the police enforcing order, but rather to be "protectors of the story" - witnesses to the reality of injustice and the hope for justice that the Ferguson rebellion expresses.

This is not inevitably a comfortable role for clergy.  We tend to be a conflict-avoidant lot.  We are like the religious leaders criticized by the prophet Jeremiah:  "They dress the wound of my people as if it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 8:11, NIV).  As faith leaders, our role is to bear witness to the wound of racism and to support the struggle for justice.  Only justice can heal such a serious wound.  And only then can there be peace.

Militarized police response to the Ferguson rebellion
This is not a counsel to condone violence, but to recognize that the concentration of violent power is overwhelmingly in the hands of the state and its agents.  In response to that violence, faith leaders must choose solidarity with the power of the people.

Report from Ferguson: "We the People"

memorial near the site of Mike Brown's execution
I shouldn't have been surprised by how moving it was to visit the street where Mike Brown died.  On the rug pictured above there is a quote from Esther 4:14:
For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?  
This is a question we must all ask ourselves.  God will deliver the oppressed, but will we be the agents of God's redemptive work?  The people of Ferguson clearly are no longer willing to remain silent.

One man spoke with us while we were in the neighborhood.  Notice the area in front of the building where the mulch is spread.  This man was working there on the afternoon Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer.  This eyewitness claims that there were not one, but three police officers present on the scene.  According to him, Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, discharged his weapon in the police car; apparently, accidentally.  He saw no physical altercation between Brown and police.

Officer Wilson then shot Brown while he was running away from a distance of about 30 feet.  Once Brown was down on the ground, Officer Wilson approached him and shot him again at close range.  Witnesses have indicated as many as 11 shots were fired and we know from the autopsy report that Brown was hit six times.  Whatever the circumstances, having visited this quiet neighborhood, it is very difficult to image a situation that required such excessive force.

The eyewitness we spoke with has been interviewed by police three times.  One wonders if the police aren't desperate to surface and exploit discrepancies in his story.  Evidently, this witness is scheduled to be interviewed by the FBI as part of the Justice Department investigation.

Not far from the site of Mike Brown's memorial a group of young black men are camped out Occupy style in silent witness to the ongoing experience of racist oppression. They represent the "Lost Voices" that continue to go unheard in the media and in the councils of power.  Mike Brown's death is just the most visible expression of the disconnect between the police and the people in Ferguson, and between the city government and the people of Ferguson.  Everyone we talked to is certain that Darren Wilson will not be indicted by the grand jury investigating Mike Brown's death.  In fact, the date for the grand jury decision has been pushed back from mid-October to early January.  Authorities are no doubt hoping that bitter winter weather will stifle protest in the streets when the announcement is made.  "Lost Voices" will be there, but will they be heard?

Concern about the postponement of the grand jury decision was shared by another protest group, "We the People:  Black and White." This is an interracial group of Ferguson citizens who peacefully keep vigil across the street from the police station.  They, too, are concerned not just with Mike Brown's killing and the failure of police to follow appropriate protocols, but with the larger institutional problems  besetting the police force and city government.  Police by and large don't live in the community - in fact, the mayor doesn't even live in Ferguson (he simply owns property there) - and are overwhelmingly white in a black majority city.

"Lost Voices" and "We the People"' are indigenous groups that have formed because the people of Ferguson are tired of being disrespected, harassed, and ignored by their own government.  The People have woken up and they are no longer willing to be lulled back to sleep.  Yet, even now, the People keeping vigil here endure the slurs of white people driving by and cursing them.  I witnessed a young white boy - a child - push his head out of the car window and yell, "Get a job!" to the protesters as he drove by.

This is the root of the problem in Ferguson, the problem in America.  We have to be carefully taught to hate - and we are.  The more people in Ferguson and elsewhere wake-up, the greater will be the tension  that surfaces as the boil of racism is lanced.  We the People have to be willing to count the cost of striving for justice, of refusing to remain silent.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Report from Ferguson: Day Two - "The Poet of Ferguson"

The absolute highlight of the day was meeting the poet of Ferguson:  Marcellus Buckley.  You can hear him yourself in the video from Realnews.com above.  Marcellus is one of the young adult leaders of the Ferguson rebellion, and has been instrumental to PICO's work of identifying and supporting such leaders.  He has a huge heart, a subtle mind, and a gifted voice.  He understands the complexity of the situation in Ferguson, yet speaks truth to power in love.

Listening to Marcellus tell his story and share his poetry was a moving and humbling experience.  No 22 year-old should suffer so much.  Yet, Marcellus is not a victim.  He has learned to harness the tremendous power available to him by being in touch with his own vulnerability.  He has something very important to teach us, if we will listen.

Marcellus is able to see the good - even in the corrupt law enforcement system that he decries:
To the officers who protect and serve and do their job well,
Whom believe that no matter your skin color justice should prevail . . . 
We appreciate you greatly and so through this poem we spread,
Peace, Love & Harmony for all Humanity & so let justice be fair,
This is a message brought to you by the People from the People to
the Police who have hearts that really care 
  - "To The Police Who Really Care," August 20, 2014
What we have to understand is that every time someone like Mike Brown is killed, a very precious gift is taken away from us.  Mike Brown wasn't perfect, and neither is Marcellus - or you or me.  All of us are imperfect and all of us are gifted.  Let us see and love the gifts we have been given in the face of Mike and Marcellus.

Report From Ferguson: Day Two - Power in the Service of Moral Passion

Today began with a debrief of last night's media training and planning for the day at the PICO "command center" at Eden Theological Seminary.  The PICO organizers on the ground here are awesome:  The Rev. Deth Im, the Rev. Nelson Pierce, and Tameka Bell.  You can tell organizers are at work here!

Following the morning briefing, we split up with part of our team going to Washington University for an organizing meeting with student leaders there, and the other part went to a meeting of the Don't Shoot Coalition.  Imam Abu and I attended the Coalition meeting.  The Coalition brings together labor, the ACLU, social justice organizations and faith based groups in a joint response to the community needs brought to light by Michael Brown's death.  More than 40 people were gathered for a weekly planning meeting.

The Coalition is laser focused on four strategic goals:

1.  Justice for Michael Brown and other victims of police brutality
2.  An end to racial profiling by police in the greater St. Louis area
3.  Development of effective civilian police review boards
4.  Transforming law enforcement agencies to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve

Meetings like this are not sexy, but this is the grunt work that sustains long-term, successful efforts to bring about positive social change.  It requires a commitment to building relationships and a willingness to set aside personal and institutional agendas to achieve shared aims.  At its best, it combines the passion of youth with the wisdom of hard won experience.

It is important for religious groups to be at the table.  We can learn a great deal about the needs of our community by listening at these gatherings, and our presence alone communicates that we really care about the people we purport to serve.  Together, we can mobilize power in the service of moral passion.

Report from Ferguson: Day One - "No more people dying"

Tuesday was a long travel day.  I'm in St. Louis with San Francisco colleagues, Imam Abu Al-Amin, the Rev. Richard Smith, and Bishop Ernie Jackson.  We are here as part of a Bay Area clergy team with PICO National Network, which has been supporting the organizing efforts of young people in the St. Louis area in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown.  We will be supporting youth and clergy organizing, and civic engagement efforts.

We arrived  just in time to participate in a media training for college students involved in the organizing efforts. About 40 young adults, almost all African-American, gathered at Harris-Stowe State University to learn how to work with the news media to get their stories heard.  I sat in on a small group  brainstorming about messaging.  There was discussion about creating greater cultural sensitivity and understanding in their communities, especially police training.  One young man stated his hope very simply:  "No more people dying."  Is that too much to ask for?

One of the things that was clear is that young adults here are ready to lead a movement for justice - and they want the support of their elders.  For them, Michael Brown's death was an execution, part of a long history of racial profiling and police brutality in the St. Louis area.  And this movement is not a protest: it is a rebellion.  The status quo is no longer acceptable.

These young people are articulate, energized, and have a sophisticated analysis of the historical forces shaping the racism and corruption endemic to law enforcement agencies in this part of the country (of course, this isn't just a problem here).  Too often, however, they feel unheard by their elders and especially by clergy leaders in the community.  I am reminded of the power of peoples' stories and the deep listening that can foster transformation.

Part of PICO's work here is to empower young adult leaders and identify clergy who are willing to mentor and support them.