We All Have Fears

The Rev. Melanie Wallschlaeger, Director for Evangelical Mission for the Southwestern Washington Synod.

“We all have fears of some kind. We can also have these fears in our lives as congregations. . . . We can have fears about the future, fear that our congregation will die, or not be relevant. Do we fear what our congregations might look like if they become more welcoming to our neighbors? Do we fear what our congregations will look like after the pandemic? Do we fear what our congregations might look like if others come and join us and help make decisions, and bring their gifts?

When we think about our congregational ministry, when we think about worship, will an openness to gifts of diversity in our congregations change what I feel is most precious? Will it mean we sing songs I don’t know or like? Does it mean I will lose what I know and hold most dear or value? Will I lose my place of privilege if we welcome others? Am I afraid of the future at this moment because it’s largely unknown?”

My sense of our congregation is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Major props to Wallschlaeger for asking the exact right questions.

Related. Last night on NextDoor (please remind me, why am I still a member?) someone reported on a Black Lives Matter protest. Since NextDoor has no journalistic standards, a certain hysteria quickly set in. Some of the numerous commenters said they regularly check the online County police scanner to learn what bad things are happening before leaving their home.

Let that sink in.

One of two things is true. A mostly unfounded epidemic of fear has descended upon the land or I’m dangerously naive of the many risks to life and limb.

Is Complexity Obsolete?

I break with a lot of my fellow liberals when it comes to negative, largely anonymous, internet-based rushes to judgement of people who feel they have the right to decide what is and isn’t socially acceptable.

Often the mob is right, the offending person deserves to be censored and/or fired, and/or made to stand trial, especially if the people they lead would suffer those consequences from saying or doing the same things.

But sometimes the mob is not right. Which they realize once there’s some context. But then it’s usually too late. The offending person’s reputation, and sometimes livelihood, is ruined.

Consider the case of Al Franken as detailed in this Jane Mayer New Yorker article from 2019.

“A remarkable number of Franken’s Senate colleagues have regrets about their own roles in his fall. Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so. Such admissions are unusual in an institution whose members rarely concede mistakes. Patrick Leahy, the veteran Democrat from Vermont, said that his decision to seek Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was ‘one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made’ in forty-five years in the Senate. Heidi Heitkamp, the former senator from North Dakota, told me, ‘If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation. It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.’ Tammy Duckworth, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, told me that the Senate Ethics Committee ‘should have been allowed to move forward.’ She said it was important to acknowledge the trauma that Franken’s accusers had gone through, but added, ‘We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.’ Angus King, the Independent senator from Maine, said that he’d ‘regretted it ever since’ he joined the call for Franken’s resignation. ‘There’s no excuse for sexual assault,’ he said. ‘But Al deserved more of a process. I don’t denigrate the allegations, but this was the political equivalent of capital punishment.’ Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, told me, ‘This was a rush to judgment that didn’t allow any of us to fully explore what this was about. I took the judgment of my peers rather than independently examining the circumstances. In my heart, I’ve not felt right about it.’ Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator, said, ‘I realized almost right away I’d made a mistake. I felt terrible. I should have stood up for due process to render what it’s supposed to—the truth.’ Tom Udall, the senior Democratic senator from New Mexico, said, ‘I made a mistake. I started having second thoughts shortly after he stepped down. He had the right to be heard by an independent investigative body. I’ve heard from people around my state, and around the country, saying that they think he got railroaded. It doesn’t seem fair. I’m a lawyer. I really believe in due process.'”

That’s a remarkable paragraph.

Have we completely stopped thinking about how we’d want to be treated in a similar situation? Are we not smart enough to recognize and acknowledge subtlety, nuance, and complexity?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself when thinking about the great policing debate. From my vantage point, there are only two choices. The Left’s “Option A” is to believe that police are an occupying force that does more harm than good. Consequently they need to be defunded. Which the Right consciously and continuously misrepresents. Most Black Lives Matter activists argue:

“Police forces have been receiving an increasingly disproportionate amount of a city’s budget. Instead of paying for such things as extensive officer overtime and expensive military equipment, cities should reallocate that money to a city’s social services, such as mental health, education, and housing.”

That filling in of context is still an anathema to the Right and their “Option B”. These “Blue Lives Matter” people argue the Left is exaggerating the problem of police brutality. Why rethink policing when it’s only a few bad apples?

I’m holding out hope for a third option which is neither centrist or moderate as much as it is intellectually honest because it acknowledges the complexity that’s inherent to any discussion of an institution as large and consequential as policing.

Somehow, in “Option C”, we’d muster the intelligence to do two things simultaneously. First, we’d get a whole lot better at identifying the particular police behaviors and police departments’ activities that are so far outside the common good, as to be unredeemable. The badge-wearing Derek Chauvins of the world. And we’d break the hold of police unions so that we could prosecute them for their brutality much more often than we have so far. In short, we’d get even more angry and determined to purge the police of the “too far gone”.

Equally important, we’d get a whole lot better at identifying the particular police and departments that are building positive working relationships with their communities and consistently and competently upholding the common good. This is especially important for those of us on the Left. Most simply put, we have to reject the utter mindlessness of “All Cops are Bastards”.

There either are important differences between individual police and their departments or there are not. I believe there are. I believe the most intelligent option is neither Option A or B. It’s C. For complexity.

Black Lives Matter’s Leadership Dilemma

Black Lives Matter is an interesting social protest movement case study of leadership dilemmas. Co-founded in 2013 by three female organizers, BLM has no governing board, instead it coordinates with more than 150 organizations.

Laura Barrón-López of Politico” explains the decentralized structure in Why the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t want a singular leader”.

“Instead of a pyramid of different departments topped by a leader, there is coordination and a set of shared values spread across a decentralized structure that prizes local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. Over the last eight years, the movement has steadily built a modern infrastructure on top of decades-old social justice institutions like the Highlander Center.”

. . . local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. More specifically:

“When George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer was captured on film, hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists were ready to launch protests in their cities. They pushed policy with local legislators and police departments and rallied people who hadn’t previously engaged in BLM protests. . . .”

One of the most compelling arguments for a decentralized, horizontal, or flat structure:

“There is no chairperson or candidate calling the shots in private or serving as a public rallying point. With no singular person to attack in tweets, President Donald Trump instead directed his ire and threats of violence at mostly peaceful protesters.

‘In terms of strategy — and this is very real that we have to be honest about this — it makes it harder for those who are against us to do what they did in the ‘60s, which is to target one leader,’ said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter engagement nonprofit.”

BLM activists prefer “leaderful” to leaderless. Is it working? In some ways, definitely.

Barrón-López:

“Activists in cities all over the country are trading notes through the network as they pressure local officials to explore new public safety options, from doing away with police in schools to slashing budgets or reimagining police departments entirely.

Meanwhile, other portions of the movement are organizing bigger national actions. Woodard Henderson, along with the SEIU, the Fight for $15 advocacy group and other unions, orchestrated a strike for Black lives on Monday, with thousands of workers in more than 25 cities walking off the job.”

“But,” Barrón-López notes, “other national policy pushes growing out of the movement have inspired dissension within it.”

For example:

“One of the most widely known policy plans to come out of the Black Lives Matter movement is the “8 Can’t Wait” proposals from the racial justice group Campaign Zero. The package is composed of “restrictive use of force policies” for local police departments — including banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation and warning before shooting — which the group argued would decrease killings.

. . . the release of ‘8 Can’t Wait’ in early June was met with swift criticism from a number of activists who felt the proposals did not go far enough in a climate where calls to ‘defund the police’ were gaining wider acceptance. Within a week, Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham announced her departure from the organization in response to the backlash. Campaign Zero issued an apology on its website, saying its campaign ‘unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment.'”

To add to the complexity:

“The ‘8 Can’t Wait’ package has also faced opposition from the other direction, though: In Atlanta, the city council passed the package after the killing of Rayshard Brooks by police in a Wendy’s parking lot. But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — a Democratic vice presidential contender — vetoed the package, to the frustration of local activists.”

The New York Times reporting on Portland’s protests, “Cities in Bind as Turmoil Spreads Far Beyond Portland” makes me think more identifiable, individual leadership may be needed.

Again, some context. What are people protesting about in Portland?

“The latest catalyst was the deployment of federal law enforcement agents in Portland, Ore., whose militarized efforts to subdue protests around the federal courthouse have sparked mass demonstrations and nightly clashes there. They have also inspired new protests of solidarity in other cities, where people have expressed deep concern about the federal government exercising such extensive authority in a city that has made it clear it opposes the presence of federal agents.”

For example:

“In Oakland, what had been a peaceful protest led in part by a group of mothers proclaiming ‘Cops And Feds Off Our Streets’ devolved after dark as another set of protesters smashed windows at the county courthouse and lit a fire inside.”

The President is using images of nightly property damage and related violence to demean Democratic leaders and scare undecided voters.

Again, The Times:

“President Trump has seized on the scenes of national unrest — statues toppled and windows smashed — to build a law-and-order message for his re-election campaign, spending more than $26 million on television ads depicting a lawless dystopia of empty police stations and 911 answering services that he argues might be left in a nation headed by his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

. . . The situation has left city leaders, now watching the backlash unfold on their streets, outraged and caught in the middle. Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle said in an interview Sunday that the city is in the middle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with protesters infuriated by the federal presence in Portland smashing windows and setting fires, the very images of ‘anarchy’ that the president has warned about.”

Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, has been even more blunt:

‘I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy. Images of a vandalized downtown is exactly what he wants to whip up his base and to potentially justify sending in federal troops that will only incite more unrest.'”

Biden’s campaign team doesn’t appear too worried about this because they believe the police issue is “being treated by many voters as a distraction by Mr. Trump from his faltering coronavirus pandemic response and the struggling economy.”

Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican strategist sees it differently, “If there is a danger for Democrats generically, it is if the Republicans are able to define them as being on the side of the anarchists in Portland.”

The Times adds, “For city officials, the challenge is more immediate than the November election — it is bringing an end to nights of clashes on their streets.”

The most recent protests add urgency to the leadership challenges:

“The focus on the federal agents in Portland has frustrated some activists who see the pushback against their presence as a distraction from the racial injustices that had been the focus of protests in May and June.

In Portland on Saturday night . . . some participants urged the marchers not to forget earlier protests against local police.

‘It’s complicated, it’s chaotic, and it’s a little hard for us to stay focused. We need to stay focused. We cannot forget this is also about the Portland Police Bureau.’ Kinsey Smyth told the crowd. ‘This is not about destruction, this is about rebuilding.'”

Illustrating confirmation bias, conservatives focus on the most violent protestors convinced they are the majority. Their more general criticisms of protestors demonstrate a depressing lack of appreciation for our nation’s history. Do they prefer the masses blissful apathy because they benefit from it?

BLM is an important extension of the American tradition of taking to the streets to highlight the glaring gaps between our stated ideals about equal opportunity, level playing fields, and most people’s daily realities.

BLM activists have made a positive difference and will continue to; especially, I think, if they reconsider their “leaderful” idealism and consider more conventional forms of organization.

But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

 

 

 

 

Pressing Pause On A ‘National Conversation On Race’

Everyday brings more examples. People regularly write, speak, and/or behave in ways a majority of people would deem racially insensitive, if not outright racist. What should we do about that?

It seems like we’ve decided to make the consequences so severe that the racially insensitive have no choice but to suppress their racist tendencies. Dox them, ostracize them, fire them from their jobs.

Conservative Republicans, who not always, but often are racially insensitive, are quick to label this “cancel culture” which only adds to their persecution complex and makes them even more defensive on subjects of race.

Personally, at this time of heightened racial consciousness, I’m most interested in what militant black men and women are thinking. The more militant, the more I tune in.

Historically, there have been repeated calls by progressives of all colors for a “national conversation on race”. As a life-long educator, that strategy is my preferred one, but I’m not hearing militants make many, if any references to “conversation”.

Maybe that’s because conversation requires slowing down in order to address mutual defensiveness. Instead, activists are accelerating demands for long sought for changes which makes total sense given our collective attention deficit disorder. How long until the media spotlight shifts? In essence, strike now for legislative protections against state-sponsored violence; strike now for the removal of Confederate statues, flags, and related symbols; strike now to destroy white supremacy in whatever form.

As a pro-conversation educator, I’m out of step with the times. Which is okay. Just know I’ll be committed to the conversation long after the spotlight shifts.

 

Minneapolis Burns

“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

Violent protests over Floyd death spread beyond Minneapolis.

The Death of George Floyd, in Context.

How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror.

 

 

White, Male, Runner Privilege

I can run alone, anywhere in my Pacific Northwest county, even after dark. And I do. Without thinking twice. That is the ultimate white, male, runner privilege.

Women have to consider time and place. African Americans have to consider time and place and whether to ever run alone.

I’ve never been more aware of my white, male, runner privilege than this week when the story of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American who was killed while on a run in Georgia two months ago, broke wide open. Today would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday.

Only yesterday were the father and son who stalked Arbery and then killed him arrested. And only because a video of the incident was discovered. Had there not been video, they probably would’ve gotten away with murder. And they’re not convicted yet, only arrested.

Charles Blow draws on the police report which detailed the father’s explanation for why he and his son chased Arbery:

“McMichael stated he was in his front yard and saw the suspect from the break-ins ‘hauling ass’ down Satilla Drive toward Burford Drive. McMichael stated he then ran inside his house and called to Travis (McMichael) and said, ‘Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.’ McMichael stated he went to his bedroom and grabbed his .357 Magnum and Travis grabbed his shotgun because they ‘didn’t know if the male was armed or not.’”

Blow then provides needed context:

“Arbery was not armed, and he was not the ‘suspect’ in any break-ins. He was a former high school football player who liked to stay active and was jogging in the small city of Brunswick, Glynn County, Ga., near his home.

Neither of the McMichaels was arrested or charged.” 

And the ultimate context:

“Slavery was legal. The Black Codes were legal. Sundown towns were legal. Sharecropping was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racial covenants were legal. Mass incarceration is legal. Chasing a black man or boy with your gun because you suspect him a criminal is legal. Using lethal force as an act of self-defense in a physical dispute that you provoke and could easily have avoided is, often, legal.

It is men like these, with hot heads and cold steel, these with yearnings of heroism, the vigilantes who mask vengeance as valor, who ­cross their social anxiety with racial anxiety and the two spark like battery cables.

Arbery was enjoying a nice run on a beautiful day when he began to be stalked by armed men.

What must that have felt like?”

What must that have felt like? I have no idea.

Conscience Has No Color

A flag in Vermont reminds us conscience has no color

Originally published February 4, 2018 by Leonard Pitts Jr., Syndicated columnist.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

Except it’s not really failure. It’s actually unwillingness to communicate, fear of what communication might mean. After all, if you communicate, you might understand some painful truths — and then where would you be?

That’s why discussing race with a white person is often one of the most vexing things an African-American person can do. You quickly come to understand that understanding is the last thing they want.

Take “Black Lives Matter.” Those words, if you are black, are both an assertion of self-evident truth and a way of saying you are sick of unarmed people like you being killed under color of authority while juries and judges shrug and look away.

That message would seem to be clear as mountain air, which, for many white Americans, is precisely what’s wrong with it. So they do everything they can not to comprehend.

They pretend confusion: “Black lives matter? Don’t all lives matter? Are you saying black lives are more important?”

They rationalize: “It’s not the cop’s fault. If the man had stopped moving/talking/breathing hard, he wouldn’t have been shot!”

They feign outrage: “Black Lives Matter is an anti-police terrorist group. They’re the black Ku Klux Klan.”

At some point, you begin wondering if the words you hear in your head are coming out in English. How is it you’re both speaking the same language, but you’re doing such a miserable job of being understood?

It’s a frustrating, exhausting experience. If you’ve ever had it, you’ll likely be touched by a recent story out of Vermont. It seems that, with the unanimous support of the school board, the Racial Justice Alliance, a student-led anti-racism group at Montpelier High, is commemorating Black History Month by flying a flag on campus. A flag that says, “Black Lives Matter.”

Lord, have mercy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

It’s stunning, you see, because there are no black people in Vermont.

OK, so that’s not quite true. There are some, but so few — 1.3 percent out of a population of 623,000 — that Vermont didn’t muster its first NAACP chapter until 2015. For the record, the student who founded the Racial Justice Alliance is a black senior named Joelyn Mensah. Still, we’re talking about one of the whitest states in the Union. So this flag flying at one of its schools is no small thing.

Not that everyone is pleased. State lawmaker Thomas Terenzini — you’ll be shocked to learn that he’s a Republican — told the local NBC affiliate that Black Lives Matter is “a national anti-police organization.”

That isn’t surprising. But the moral courage of these students and administrators is, pleasantly so.

We are indebted to them for a message that couldn’t be more timely. As appeals to our lowest selves flow down like sewage from the nation’s capital, they remind us that conscience has no color. It is a point proven in the past by white people like Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Andrew Goodman, James Zwerg, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Viola Liuzzo who fought — and sometimes died — for black freedom.

One hopes white people of today will take note. And black ones, too.

Because, for as much as that flag flying in that place speaks to the broad sweep of conscience, it also rebukes excesses of cynicism, shows what can still happen just when you think you’ve seen it all. To be black talking to white people about race is never easy. You’ll be frequently frustrated, often exhausted. But once in a while, you will also be something you never expected:

Heard.