Three months ago, Mike Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American teenager, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri by a White police officer. What has happened since then? The grand jury has not issued an indictment. The thousands of protestors that came and marched have now dispersed. And the throngs of television crews and anchors have returned home. Many of us are wondering: Was this just a moment?
I was horrified by Mike Brown’s death, but I can’t say I was surprised. I am all too familiar with this storyline. I was born and raised in the South. As a civil rights attorney who worked in the Deep South for nearly five years, I have defended and spent hundreds of hours meeting with young black men who had been profiled, arrested, and trapped in juvenile justice and criminal justice systems that were neither kind nor merciful to them.
But even though I wasn’t surprised, Mike Brown’s killing felt different. The facts surrounding his death and the police department’s over-militarized response to suppress peaceful protestors were all too real, too close to home. “Where am I? What type of country allows this to happen? Why aren’t more people outraged that this is happening?” I asked myself. I began to feel exposed and vulnerable. Since Mike Brown’s death, I have felt uneasy around police officers. If Mike Brown was shot after running away, turning and raising his empty hands in surrender, what would prevent me from being shot if a police officer saw me as a threat? Police officers will see my locks way before they see my legal education. And to some, my legal education won’t matter. I am still an African-American female.
From a young age, God gave me a passion for justice. I remember advocating for my fellow preschool classmates who had been wrongly accused of stealing candy or talking negatively about someone. As I grew older, God led me to law school and gave me a passion to defend youth particularly youth who are most vulnerable.
A few years ago, I taught a “street law” class in an Alabama youth detention center. These young men — nearly all of whom were African-American youth detained for the first time and accused of low-level misdemeanors — asked tons of questions about the law. But, when they reflected on their experiences in court, they all talked about one thing — how the prosecutor casually referred to them as “menaces to society.” These young men laughed when they talked about this, but I could see the hurt and disbelief in their eyes.
I went to law school because I believed in justice through the power of the courts. Since graduation that belief has waned. Don’t get me wrong — I believe the courts can be powerful instruments for justice. But far too often, I have seen wealth, race and privilege be better predictors of whether someone gets a fair trial. Not truth or justice. I believe there’s a good chance that the events in Ferguson would have been handled differently if Mike Brown was White and rich and Darren Wilson was Black and poor.
Over the years, I have learned that even as I try to reform these broken systems, I should not place all of my hope in them, but in our God who cares much more about justice and righteousness than I ever will.
Surprisingly, the things that troubled me most these past few months were not the underlying events in Ferguson, but the reactions to the events from some of my friends, fellow African-American young professionals in the body of Christ. These responses included comments like:
- “Why do Black people only protest when a White person kills a Black person? What about Black-on-Black crime?”
- “The people in Ferguson need to learn how to follow the law.”
- “The only thing that is going to help us out of this is if we start to help ourselves and take responsibility for our own lives and communities.”
To be fair, these statements were honest ponderings. What bothered me was not that the statements were made, but that they seemed to be the primary response — a response that, for the most part, seemed to diminish the importance of the pain, grief, and real cries of the protestors in Ferguson. These responses seemed to create some distance between “us” and “them.” They seemed to be void of the grace and mercy that I have learned to value as a civil rights attorney and a believer. I did not expect these responses from my Black, Christian friends.
I have had meeting after meeting sitting across from young people who, yes, have made mistakes, but who are crying out for hope and mercy. Their lives up to then had been mostly influenced by the lottery of birth of which they had no choosing. In those moments, when I am sitting across from them, fighting tears, I don’t tell them that they should try harder. I don’t say that they should learn how to follow the law. I share that I too have made mistakes, that I have broken the law, and that I am here because I am a recipient of grace, help, and a second chance. We have all broken the law. We have texted while driving or driven too fast. We are all criminals, sinners, and we desperately need the mercy & grace of our Lord.
I recall Tim Keller’s words in his book, Generous Justice:
“Christ found in us the same condition. Our spiritual bankruptcy was due to our own sin, yet he came and gave us what we needed” (p. 72).
“When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!’ because you certainly did not do that spiritually. Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, ‘I won’t help you because you got yourself into this mess,’ since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault. In other words, when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror.” (p. 103)
My response to my friends was, “where is the grace and love in your response? Where is the compassion described in Zechariah 7:9-10? If we as believers cannot extend that to them then who will?”
This compassionate response is even more critical in Ferguson where there is, in fact, real oppression.
African-Americans are 67% of Ferguson’s population, but make up 86% of the motorists stopped by police and 92% of individuals searched by police. White residents, who are nearly 30% of the population, make up only 12.7% of police stops even though data reveals they are more likely to be carrying contraband. When residents get tickets and citations they come with hefty fines. If a resident fails to pay the fine or show up for a court date, an arrest warrant is issued. Arrest warrants costs a few hundred or even a thousand dollars to clear. With these policies and practices, it is no surprise that court fees and fines are the city’s second largest source of income in Ferguson where most of the police officers and elected officials are White. In Ferguson, there are on average three warrants per household, which is more than three times the rate in St. Louis and in Kansas City. In some cities, you have to pay off the entire debt to avoid arrest. If you want to pay a portion of your fine, you risk re-arrest due to the outstanding arrest warrant. If you are arrested, you could spend weeks in jail until you are able to make bond making it much more likely you will lose their job or be harmed in other ways. These practices take advantage of the poor and the vulnerable. They capitalize on the weak, and keep those who are already struggling to make it in debt.
Around the time of Mike Brown’s death, my church was in a series on Lamentations. God encouraged me greatly through it by reminding me that He has once-before delivered His people from great oppression and destruction. “His mercies are new every morning. Great is [His] faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). Through all of the pain, confusion and chaos, I am encouraged by what I have seen come out of this tragedy. “There may yet be hope” (Lamentations 3:29). I am hopeful by the community mobilization and criminal justice reforms that have happened as a result of the protests, actions and nonviolent resistance. Three things I been particularly encouraged by are:
- Mobilization of youth of color around justice
It has been beautiful to watch young people get motivated, engaged, and channel their righteous anger into peaceful protests and resistance to make their communities safer, better. For all the criticism, there are real, honest, and raw cries coming out of Ferguson. Young people are joining with elders in these marches. White people are joining with Blacks. Protestors chant things like, “Black lives matter” and “Don’t shoot — I want to live.” These cries echo the foundational biblical truth: we are all made in God’s image. (Gen. 1:26-27)
- Criminal justice reform
Since Michael Brown’s death, there have been several positive criminal justice reforms designed to ease the oppression of the Ferguson community, increase accountability and transparency, and improve community relationships with the police. Since August, the City of Ferguson has cancelled over 222,000 arrest warrants for traffic offenses and eliminated several of the tacked-on administrative fees (for things like towing service, revocations, notifications, etc.)! In addition, the City of St. Louis no longer requires individuals to check the “box” asking about felony convictions on employment applications—a practice that has been found to disproportionately impact African-Americans. I pray other cities will investigate whether their policies are harshly impacting people in their community and follow suit with even stronger reforms.
- Open and honest conversations about race in the body of Christ
Christians are talking about race. Pastors are preaching about it. Christian leaders across denominations led marches and facilitated nonviolent direct action trainings in Ferguson. People are hearing and chanting biblical truths like “Our lives matter.” Praise God!
So let’s talk a little bit about race. I have a confession, though: I watched the live coverage of Mike Brown’s funeral. During the funeral, several of Mike Brown’s close relatives and friends said something that caught me off guard: Mike Brown was a believer — he surrendered his life to the Lord last year and was reading through the book of Revelation with a friend when he died. That shook me. It shined a floodlight on my sinful implicit biases. The thought never occurred to me that Mike Brown was a believer. I don’t know if that’s because he was Black or a teenager or both. Either way, it underscores the point – we are all sinners, prone to think better of ourselves and less of others. We are all in desperate need of grace and God’s help to believe, really believe, that we are all made in His image.
These recent events present a unique opportunity for us as the church and as a nation. Let’s mourn with those who mourn and extend God’s grace and compassion. Let’s both acknowledge and resist systems of oppression and the historical amnesia that allows us to forget about this oppression. Let’s speak the truth in love. Let’s repent of the ways in which we do not see or treat others as being made in God’s image. And stand with prisoners and those who are oppressed. May we demonstrate the deep and everlasting love of Christ and live out the gospel in real and radical ways. In the mean time, consider these words:
“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people…” (Isaiah 10:1-2)
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4)