Category Archives: Featured

The American Reformation


 

PART 1: The American Reformation Begins

Not all Revolutions begin with a Declaration, and not all Reformations begin with a list of Theses. The Reformation of the Methodist church in the United States began with prayer.

In 1787, ten years after Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones came to the recognition that these words though ambitious in scope were incomplete in execution. These ideals, impressive as they sounded, were not truly intended to include all people.

On July 12, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia,the city where Allen and Jones were pastors, and agreed upon the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” It was a compromise between the Northern States, who did not want African American slaves to be counted as persons in the census, but instead as property; and the Southern States, who did want them to be counted, but only so that they could receive more seats for white men in the legislature. The two sides agreed to compromise and count slaves as 3/5ths of a person.

Within only four years of the establishment of the United States, it was abundantly clear that the nation that had won its independence from Great Britain would not be extending that liberty and equality to all people. The white, land-holding men who held power in the country would continue to treat the indigenous peoples as trespassers on their own land, or rather God’s land, and would continue to hold their brothers and sisters in slavery.

While they said that all men were created equal, that was not how they treated all men, let alone all women. This hierarchy of value, placed upon persons according to their gender and nations of origin, ran contrary to the Christian scriptures. Disappointingly, however, that was not the prevailing narrative told by preachers and theologians of the time.

According to the seventeenth-century English theologian Lancelot Andrewes, “Animals [i.e. indigenous persons of the Americas, Australia and Africa] can have no right of society with us because they want reason.” With respect to land, animals had no rights, Andrewes concluded on biblical grounds, because God had given the earth to humans. Since they had no human rights, they could be exterminated, both in the sense of being driven from land settled by humans and in the sense of being killed, because biblical commandments against theft or murder did not apply to non-humans.”  – David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14

Although the Methodist movement had been built upon staunch abolitionism in Great Britain, and although it contained many abolitionist preachers within its ranks, within a nation whose economy was built upon this theological falsehood, the new religious movement found itself failing in many places to remain true to what had set it apart.

So it was that Absalom Jones and Richard Allen found that the promises of freedom rang just as false when coming from the church bells of St. George’s as they did when tolling from the nearby Liberty Bell.

At the root of this disconnect was that theological error, that exegetical fraud, that hermeneutical crime – or, as we once called such things – that heresy. The heresy that God did not love all people the same. The abominable heresy that not all people were made fully in the image of God; thus, justifying leaving them out of the words, “all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Thus, allowing the “Three-Fifths Compromise” to go unchallenged on theological grounds.

Falsehood in science, ignorance in philosophy, criminal greed in the economy – yes, all these things played a role. Yet, the betrayal and falsehood that cut most deeply, was the one that was the most unexpected: the betrayal that came from the church. Abolitionist preachers, of all races and ethnicities, did battle to be heard over the more common teachings of preachers that promoted and endorsed the practice of classifying African Americans as only 3/5 of a person and, thus, not made in the full image of God.

If left unchallenged, this social teaching, supported by a false hermeneutic of exclusion rather than inclusion, rang the death toll for any hope of spiritual integrity that the churches of the fledgling nation might have.

Enter the American Reformation.

In November of 1787, just three months after the passing of the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones had the courage to take action in the face of theological cowardice just as reformers throughout the centuries had done before them. Rather than nailing the 95 Theses to their churches door, the renowned preachers did what many civil disobedience activists since that time have done: they simply knelt to pray in a place where they were not welcome to do so.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, did he know that Jones and Allen had been there before? When leaders of the United Methodist Church were arrested while kneeling in front of the White House to protest the separation of families taking place through deportation last year, did they know that Jones and Absalom had been there before? When we kneel to pray in the driveways of prisons about to execute human beings, or in the streets of places like Ferguson where lives have been lost, do we recognize that Jones and Allen have been there before?

With a simple act of kneeling to pray in a place that God had called them to pray, yet man had denied them the right to pray, these leaders sparked the American Reformation within the Methodist movement.

The response they received was not unlike those received by practitioners of civil disobedience today.

When they knelt to pray at the front of the church, rather than in the balcony where the white members preferred them to pray, they were pulled to their feet and told to go pray where they belonged; receiving treatment much the same as practitioners of civil disobedience today. Their response, so the story goes, was to respond that they intended to finish their prayers and then would bother the congregation of St. George’s no more. That is exactly what they did.

Absalom Jones walked out and went on to eventually found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). Richard Allen walked out and went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Sixty years after, Laroy Sunderland and Orange Scott walked out and founded the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A hundred years later, more leaders down in Tenessee would walk out of their church and founded what is now called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).

Richard Allen had been present at the actual establishment of the denomination, The Christmas Conference in 1784. Yet he had been restricted to preaching at 5:00 a.m. early services at St. George’s Methodist rather than the regular Sunday services, and disrespected until walking out of that church was the only way he saw to be faithful – the only way to continue the movement, both of Christ and of Wesley.

For the past decade of my ministry, I have looked to this example as the root of a Reformation that began, at least in the Methodist movement, with Allen and Jones, and continues to our day. That Reformation, I would argue, quite possibly holds equal importance to the one begun by Martin Luther. The fundamental truth that all people are made in the image of God, and all people hold equal value in God’s sight, has perhaps just as much to do with our relationship with God and with one another as Luther’s sola fide.

Historically, we have not called Allen and Jones reformers, most likely because we have not recognized that their actions have universal importance; not only for African Americans, but also for all people. The men made this clear in addressing their voices to the nation as a whole:

If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or your country with them” -Richard Allen, To Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice

In fact, the men were so serious about their theology of love, that when given the opportunity put it to the test, during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, Allen and Jones organized their followers to care for the dying white citizens of Philadelphia while other white citizens fled the city.They did not allow the cruelty of others to impact their own integrity and theological consistency.

The question arises, why have we been so slow to follow the leadership of Jones and Allen, who insisted upon being treated as children of God and as no lesser than their fellow human beings? Why have we been so hesitant to join our voices with theirs in condemning the heresy of a hierarchy of humanity: not only in philosophy, but also in practice? Why have we been hesitant to vocally acknowledge, repent and confront the inherently corrupting sin of racism?

The American Reformation began over 200 years ago, it is time for us to finish it.


 

PART 2: The American Counter-Reformation

When the need for Reformation makes leaving the only option for some, it also makes staying the only option for others. Every movement, revolution, and theological shift creates multiple roles that must be fulfilled. These roles work together to bring about change throughout society.

Therefore, every reform movement that has a lasting and universal impact involves not only those who are called to walk out as a statement of their theological disagreement, but also those who feel that they, at least for a time, are called to stay and work for change from within.

One of the Roman Catholic responses to Martin Luther’s Reformation was what we now call the Counter-Reformation. In many ways, the Counter-Reformation was not a response that moved away from Luther’s criticisms, it was a response that mainly moved with them and addressed them. It turned the focus of the church away from indulgences and towards faith development, as Luther had desired. Without acknowledging the fact, the Counter-Reformation followed Luther’s lead from within the Roman Catholic Church, even after he had departed from it.

Any description of the American Reformation, thus, that leaves out those who stayed within racist institutions and fought to change them would be incomplete, would be dishonoring of their labor, and would be quite discouraging to those still laboring. The story of the American Reformation must include those who believed in Wesley’s principle that “there is no holiness without social holiness” and worked with every ounce of their strength to end injustice and inequality.

There has always been a social component to Reformation, because our actions are symptoms of our theology, and the systems we put in place reveal our understanding of the nature of God.

Martin Luther’s concern for the hard working peasants of Germany in the 16th century, who lived in poverty while sacrificing to buy indulgences from the church, created distance between himself and the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wesley’s concern for the workers in the field, the destitute in the streets, the miners in their shafts, and those suffering in prison created distance between his movement and the Church of England.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’ concern for those suffering in cruel slavery created a rift between themselves and the Methodist Episcopal Church (now called the United Methodist Church).

Yet, they were not alone in their indignation. There were many that stayed and used that same righteous indignation to fight for change from within, and who also taught a theology that proclaimed the full humanity and dignity of all people.

In what is now called the United Methodist Church, those people would include: the staunch abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries. People like Harry Hosier, an African American preacher who left audiences spellbound. People like John Dixon Long, who risked his life riding onto slave plantations to preach freedom and collect stories of how the slaves were being treated; who was charged with slander and brought to trial by the slave owners when he published the stories in a book called “Pictures of Slavery.”

They would include the African American leaders that insisted, 100 years after Allen’s departure, that African American congregations should not have to submit to white Senior Pastors and trustees, and formed their own Annual Conference within the denomination: the Delaware Conference, an institution that would serve an important role until deeper changes were possible.

They would even include those members of the laity and clergy who labor today in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and who work to fight racism in the pews through activism and education, with the support of The General Commission on Religion and Race.

This work will not be finished until everyone in our pulpits and in our pews understands that we stand as equals in front of both God and one another.

Furthermore, the work of many churches will not even begin until they recognize that this is a conversation that needs to be had. Five hundred years of racist theology being taught in this nation will not be undone in a mere fifty; furthermore, we would be foolish to believe that the teaching of racist theology ended fifty years ago.

So what can we do as leaders, and for many of us as specifically United Methodist leaders?

First, we must celebrate and learn from the “Counter-Reformation” that has been taking place within our churches for the past two hundred years. We must celebrate the work of those persons of indigenous descent that have labored and still labor to bring accountability within the United Methodist Church. We must celebrate the work of those African American leaders who have been and continue to be bold enough to speak truth to power. We must acknowledge that our institution’s problem with racism has received a new nuance every time a new group has arrived on our shores or borders; that leaders of many nationalities, all around the world, have been a part of demanding equality and justice; and that the growth of our Korean and Hispanic/Latino ministries within the United States should translate into representation in leadership. We must ask ourselves how a theology of the full humanity and sacred worth of every person should impact the current struggle over the full inclusivity of LGBTQ persons within our movement. Lastly, those of us who are allies must learn from the examples of those who have come before and remember their part in our history.

Second, we could start by shifting our perspective from desiring reunification, to first desiring reformation. We cannot approach any conversation about coming together without first doing the hard theological and practical work that cause denominations to part ways in the first place. We must address the reasons why leaders had to leave our churches to begin with – namely racism and racist teachings.

We must ask ourselves, is it more helpful and authentic to seek to undo the division or to seek to first undo what caused the division?

What would it look like if the United Methodist Church recognized that a Reformation has been taking place, and that perhaps our role is to listen to the call for justice and liberty given by our contemporary Reformers and submit to their leadership?

What if we focused on hearing the voices of young African American leaders in the AME, AMEZ, CME, and UMC the way that crowds from all communities in the 19th century focused on AME preacher Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth?

The sign of a great leader is their ability to follow those who know the terrain better than they do. It is the fastest and surest way of making progress.


 

PART 3: The American Reformation Continues

By the time 2014 came to a close, many were ready for it to be over. Within two weeks, the United States observed two non-indictments in high-profile killings of African American men by police officers. Just days before Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Michael Brown; and a week after Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Eric Garner.

The reason why this is important theologically for the church is because there is a tradition of impunity for white men who kill African American men that stretches back centuries. That tradition was supported by philosophers and theologians who, as discussed in Part 1, did not define African Americans or the Indigenous Peoples of America as human. While God claimed them as children and people of sacred worth, false teachings in universities, newspapers, books and pulpits claimed otherwise; and in so doing, made countless murders over the centuries state sanctioned and accepted.

Therefore, when we now see African American men and women killed in the streets, like Walter Scott, we have no reason to think that this is rooted in anything other than it ever has been – lack of respect, racism and the expectation of impunity.

Therefore, on December 10, 2014, the clarion call of the American Reformation was heard once again from those who still follow Richard Allen’s example over 200 years later.

The Young Adult leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church were unwilling to remain silent in the face of injustice.

Therefore, a week after the second non-indictment announcement, they penned a bold statement, encouraging their denomination to speak up.

We stand with our church leadership to follow the example of leadership of a young adult named Richard Allen who believed in a church that challenges sources of oppression and dares to believe that the United States should live up to its creed of “Liberty and justice for all.” …

“It is time that we push ourselves, our ministries, and our churches to walk out the liberating ministry of Jesus Christ.  The time is now for peaceful yet powerful protests to show our open dissent and demand that the voices of Mike Brown,Tamir, Tamika, McKenzie, and Eric are heard and not dismissed as their bodies were by those that saw them as disposable.”

Signed:

Felecia Commodore – Young Adult Rep. Connectional Lay Org.

Martinique Mix – President Connectional Richard Allen Young Adult Council

Erica Austin – Member At Large Women’s Missionary Society of the AMEC (WMS-AMEC)

Jon Ingraham – President Connectional Young People’s Division (YPD)

Those words, right there, that is the theological struggle that has defined this Reformation; the words that though blatantly obvious, are tragically necessary to say: black lives are not disposable. Black Lives Matter.

That is theology. That is revolution. That is reformation. That is truth.

Their words are a direct response to theologians like the 17th century’s Lancelot Andrews, and philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who denied that fact and wrote it into our history, culture and institutions.

We are not starting from a point of equality. We are starting from a point of tragedy. We are starting from a point of cruelty. We are starting from a point of heresy. We are working our way out of that.

We cannot, therefore, approach these issues as if those with power can be trusted, when they have never been worth trusting before. They were not worth trusting when persons of indigenous African descent were forced to cross the ocean in ships; and they were not worth trusting when religious leaders in Selma voluntarily crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Trust must be earned, it cannot possibly be assumed or expected. Having authority does not mean you cannot be trusted, but neither does possessing authority mean you can be trusted. Trust is earned.

What could be more true to this spirit of the movement then for the American Reformation to be driven forward by these young leaders’ observation of gross injustice and insistence that the church respond. In other words, their insistence that the church reveal what it really stands for and what its theology really is.

The demand for justice, the demand that the sacred value of lives be recognized is often hard for people of privilege to hear. It is hard for us to hear because our lives have been valued and protected, and so we have a hard time accepting that others have not. We have a hard time remembering that up until quite recently, a hierarchy of humanity was taught with us at the top, and a system that protected and promoted us. That teaching is not gone, it has merely gone underground. It must be unearthed from where it is hiding, challenged, and defeated.

Our discomfort with accepting that we have been treated differently, reveals that in the relationship between justice and reconciliation, the church has been far off course. Reconciliation, the restoration of trust, the coming together of what has been divided, is not truly possible without justice. Without justice, reconciliation is an act of silencing.

We, as people of privilege, want justice, but we want justice that does not cost us anything. That is not justice. The reality is that if we have more power, privilege, money, protection, opportunities than is our fair share in this world, then in order for things to be equal and just, we must have less of all of those things. Things cannot remain as they are.

Believing this to be true, Christians Uniting In Christ, an inter-denominational group that has a history of working against racism, responded to the letter from the young AMEC leaders. They worked with them to put together a gathering last month with representatives from many denominations to discuss the work that must be done (Video).

I have never felt more confident that the American Reformation is in good hands than when sitting beside some of those same young AMEC leaders and the Rev. Waltrina Middleton at “Truth to Power: Eradicating Racism” in Dallas, Texas on March 14, 2015.

Hearing from so many of my young peers, who have been keeping the American Reformation alive in the streets and in the pulpits, I knew I was looking at the next phase of this Reformation.

The leaders of this movement are in many cities and many churches and many denominations. Whether or not they are Wesleyan, they are doing something very Wesleyan. They are taking their theology out into the streets.

John Wesley could not be confined by a pulpit in a building, but went into the streets, and the fields, and the prisons, and the mines, and the factories to bring a message of hope.

Richard Allen could not be confined to a pulpit that did not recognize his full humanity and equality in the eyes of God, and he walked his movement right out of the doors of the church and into the streets of Philadelphia.

The laity and clergy involved today in the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be confined to a pulpit when their peers are struggling in the streets. They have gone out; not months after tragedy, but hours after tragedies.

They go into the streets because they understand one very important thing: to say “Black Lives Matter” is like saying “God is love.” If everyone believed it already, we would not need to say it; yet, because they do not, we must keep saying it until they do. We must say “Black Lives Matter To God” because the heresy was once taught that they do not. That is the job of a preacher. That is the job of a theologian. That is the job of a reformer. We must set things right.

Our place is not only in the pulpit, not only in the pew.

Our place is in the streets. With John Wesley. With Richard Allen. With Traci Blackmon. With Waltrina Middleton. With Felecia Commodore.

With Sandra Bland.

The theological descendants of Richard Allen have issued a challenge to us, do we have the courage to answer that call? As leaders cross denominational lines to make this not merely a Wesleyan movement, but a Christian moment, will we be a part of finishing the work of this courageous American Reformation?


PART 4: The Next Chapter

Check back in a couple years. With the help of Methodist activist/evangelist Sandra Bland, we are busy living this right now.

Yvette Smith Verdict: No Comment Necessary

*Photo is of a building about 15 minutes from where Yvette Smith died, off the side of the road near the Bastrop County Line. It is the first significant building drivers see welcoming them to the County. 

Today Judge Albert M. McCaig, a Waller County Judge visiting for one case in Bastrop County, rendered verdict in the murder trial for ex-officer Daniel Willis’s killing of Yvette Smith. Beginning mid-May, he will oversee the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia on charges of perjury for lying about his arrest of Sandra Bland.

On April 16, 2014, Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call, calmly speaking to a man in the front yard when he got there who told him the situation was diffused. Getting a call on his radio that there was a gun in the house, he went and got his AR-15 assault rifle from his car, stood behind cover in his body armor, and waited. When the door opened shortly after, he yelled “Police!” and fired immediately without giving any warnings or commands, and without taking the necessary time to ascertaining if the small African American woman who had opened the door to check on her boyfriend was armed.

He killed Yvette Smith on the threshold of her own house.

Daniel Willis has never shown any signs of regret or remorse: neither in the dashcam footage at the scene, nor in the two years that followed. Today, his attorneys reiterated that he had no regrets and that if put in the same situation again, he would do it again.

Before concluding his remarks by honoring Daniel Willis as “the man in the arena” described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, Judge McCaig spoke for about ten minutes as Yvette Smith’s family clung to one another, two rows strong. In those ten minute remarks Judge McCaig made this statement: “So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom.”  Although our agenda is more of a communal one than a personal one, to honor the fact that black women’s lives matter, it seems wisest to take his words to heart. Therefore, the clearest way to communicate what took place today is to simply allow you to offer Yvette Smith’s family the solidarity they deserve by reading what Yvette Smith’s mother, identical twin sister, and son had to sit through: All of it. Every last word. Without commentary from me. You can draw your own conclusions. His words speak for themselves.

It would be very disingenuous of me, as well as very short-sighted, to believe that this case is nothing more than a routine case in which Daniel Willis is accused of murdering Yvette Smith. Since the law is certainly what I’m bound to follow, it is that, in simplified terms, the legal question is whether Daniel Willis knowingly [put to death?] Yvette Smith, or alternatively whether he did an act which is clearly dangerous to human life that caused her death. And the question of whether his conduct was objectively reasonable is the controlling issue. I fully understand the law, the indictment, the issues. I also understand the facts, having heard most of these facts through a total of almost three weeks of actually vigorous and well-presented trials of this case from both sides.

This case is also, as Mr. Sanderson had pointed out in his opening, about what we as a culture and as a society expect from our law enforcement officers. They do an incredibly difficult job often in very difficult and intense circumstances, and it is a tribute to the overall professionalism of the police in general that so few situation such as this one actually take place. But I’ll go a step further and say that its not only about what we expect from our law enforcement officers, but also what we should expect from ourselves. Each and every one of us as citizens of this great nation as we react to circumstances that occur within our society.

I’m fortunate in that I answer to very few people in this case. I’m a visiting judge and I don’t run for office over here in Bastrop County. In fact, I doubt if I’ll run for office again due to my age and the length of service that I already have. But regardless of the decision that I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary about what it is and those that are affected by this decision. And certainly all that I do is subject to review by our courts here in Texas and perhaps even higher.

I’m fortunate in that I do not answer to political correctness, I do not answer to the media, I do not answer to politicians. I answer to the law and to the facts as they relate to this case. Also, and I’m fortunate that I have the only other entity that I’m ultimately responsible to, that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but I do not invoke his great name in making my decision here today. I believe that would be very shallow and weak of me to do that. My decisions and my comments are my own and I stand by them on my own.

But before I go further, to the family of Ms. Yvette Smith, I tell you truthfully that I am sorry for your loss. I’ve come to find through these proceedings that she was indeed a good person, a kind person, and a gentle person trying to do the right thing. And I know that you will miss her greatly and will continue to miss her for the rest of your lives.

In this situation there is plenty of blame to go around, and there are several people beyond Daniel Willis who share this tragedy that eventually took the life of Yvette Smith. There may be those who may ask how would I dare judge the actions of those who were not on trial here today, but as the fact finder, and as the person rendering judgement on the law, that is what I am entitled to do. And as I look at the facts of this situation, I see that both Willie Thomas and Chris Thomas got a large part leading up to the events that evening. Had they not fought. Had one of them had the ability to walk away from the fight, ultimately that 911 call just after midnight on February 16 of 2014 would never have been made. Whether it was alcohol, fear, or passions, whatever the reason, each of them could have changed the outcome had they changed their actions.

I believe we can all certainly regret that Yvette Smith walked out that door. Yvette Smith is without a doubt the victim in this tragic situation.

And now I do have to come to Daniel J. Willis. You know I was not there in the incident when Deputy Willis fired his weapon and took the life of Yvette Smith. Yet, I have heard a great deal of testimony from all of the witnesses. All of whom may have more experience than I do in highly charged, tense and stressful situations. You know I have had my share of intense situations in life, especially in my time in the military, but I have not personally dealt with a situation like this. I’ve seen the video and I’ve heard the audio many, many times and I’ve come to know it well. I do respect Ranger Verina and the balance he attempted to bring to these situations, attributing good police work and good police conduct to Mr. Willis when it was deserved, and clearly stating his disagreement with his actions in firing the fatal shots. Ranger Verina is also good enough to recognize that a lot of what was said by the other experts in this case was accurate and consistent with his own training. I believe it takes a very strong man to be able to agree with an opponent, and I congratulate you sir.

I appreciate what the other experts brought into this courtroom as they used their training, experience and education to try to make some logical sense from what can only be described as a chaotic and illogical situation. All of that added to my understanding of what happened, and ultimately was a great aid in my coming to a decision in this matter. The expert reports themselves were not all that persuasive, but the testimony of those experts and especially the vigorous cross examination from both sides certainly was very helpful. In retrospect, all of the officials actually agreed on many of the same points, they only differed in their conclusions. And as we all know this all boils down to a very few seconds.

We all know there was no weapon, but was there a reflection? Was there a piece of plastic? Was there a piece of junk on the porch? Was it a large and bright silver earring as those worn by Yvette Smith that reflected back the light from the flashlight? Or was it about the last radio message that Mr. Willis received, the man behind the door with a gun, that priming that was talked about by several of the witnesses. Those are questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. At least two of the professionals gave me an opinion that Daniel Willis should have waited longer before he fired. So my question to myself then became: do I convict a man based upon those opinions alone or do I look at the totality of the circumstances to find the proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. I had to look deeper, knowing it would be easier, literally, to sacrifice one person for the good of some others. 

So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom. The truth that both sides have been given a full and fair hearing of all of the available facts. Both sides have been represented by very competent, capable advocates, and no short cuts were taken by either side.

To the attorneys from both sides, you’ve done a tremendous job with a very difficult task and regardless of the ultimate ruling that I make, you may each look at this body of work with a great deal of satisfaction. None of us are rookie attorneys, but you have all truly done what we all dreamed about doing when we were back in law school. You have zealously, courageously advocated your positions with skill, knowledge, understanding, even coming whenever was necessary. And I do commend you for that. And I thank you for the trust that you have given me in allowing me to hear this case and render a verdict in this manner.

To everyone watching this case unfold, I know that you will each carry away from this courthouse your opinions of what I should have or could have done or not done. Frankly, we may agree or disagree on the ultimate decision, but frankly I’m pleased that you’ve come and watched regardless of your reasons for being here.

So Mr. McCabe, Ms. Jernigan, is there any legal reason why the court should not render its verdict in this case?

Will the defendant please stand.

And please bear with me as I read to you one of my life-long favorite passages from Theodore Roosevelt, from April 23 of 1910. It’s a really great passage. It goes this way: 

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mr. Daniel J. Willis, you are the man in that arena, and it is the verdict of this court that you were not guilty of the charges stated.

Yvette Smith: Why All Our Rights Are Lies

“Yvette hated guns. She never let her sons play with guns,” Yvette Smith’s mother said to me after Judge McCaig called a 20 minute break, part way through the afternoon of the second day of the defense arguments for ex-officer Daniel Willis murder trial for killing her daughter.

Yvette-SmithI knew what it was like to grow up in a household like that; a household where, as Yvette Smith’s son Anthony put it, the “mother was uneasy around guns.” I was never allowed to play with so much as a water pistol or a nerf gun, and to this day it has had a lasting psychological impact on me. I see guns as something that could wound or kill. My best friend’s father used to leave his guns on the dining room table, and it made my heart beat faster just to see it. I could never touch a gun. That’s how I was raised. That is how Yvette Smith was raised. That is how Yvette Smith raised her sons.

Now I live in a state where people care more about their right to open-carry, than about how it impacts other people and the stress and anxiety they cause. Now I live in a state where open-carry is a lie, because we know it really only applies to certain people. Some people – let me be clear: white men – have the right to carry machine guns openly on the streets, as I saw them do in Austin. Other people – let me be clear: Yvette Smith – will be killed merely because an officer imagined that she was carrying a gun inside of her own house.

“Stand your ground” does not apply to black teenagers.

“Innocent until proven guilty” does not apply black men. 

“Open carry” does not apply to black women.

Havin1403134974000-YVETTE-SMITH-2g all of those things apply to you and not to people of color is part of having white privilege. People who are white have the ability to observe that reality, to acknowledge it, and to work to undermine their own privilege in order that the rights our nation claims to hold as “self-evident” apply to all. If they do not apply to us all, they are not civil rights, by definition they are privileges. Privilege: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” If your race and/or ethnicity is a factor in whether you can assert your rights safely, which I believe it is, then civil rights exist only in our imagination.

Just as the gun that Daniel Willis claims Yvette Smith was holding existed only in his imagination. Listening to hours of taped interviews with him during the trial was nothing short of disturbing. Having watched the dash cam video of Yvette Smith’s killing, you see three things happen in three seconds.

First second: Yvette opens the door.

Second second: Daniel yells “Police.”

Third second: Daniel fires 2 quick shots from his personal AR-15 assault rifle into Yvette’s body with no warning, no commands, and no evaluation.

In lengthy explanations, he talks in the interviews shown at trial about how Yvette stepped onto the porch and was “indexing” with her gun. Aiming it at him and his partner. He talks about how he flashed his flashlight at her several times and she kept ducking out of the path of his light and repositioning her aim. He talks about how she had a small, shiny pistol; then a light colored, long barreled gun. He talks about her having a small, shiny L-shape in her hand, which out of his peripheral vision looked like a long gun, like the AR-15 assault rifle he was holding himself. He says he was afraid for his life; then he says he was never afraid for one single second; then he says he was afraid not for his life but for the other officer at the scene. He takes hours talking about things that never happened.

None of it happened. Sitting in the courtroom, we knew already. We had watched the dashcam. We had heard in rapid succession: Door opening, “Police”, BAM BAM. Even if Daniel Willis’ story was not so inconsistent, there was simply not time for any of it to have happened. All of it, and all of the different versions, were lies.

Yet with all the things he had to talk about, there were somethings he did not talk about:

  • He does not talk about the fact that he has night blindness and could not see and, yet, like many stubborn people chose to not wear his glasses while cocking an AR-15 in the dark.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was wearing body armor at in little danger.
  • He does not talk about the fact that his own body was safely behind his car. Nor does he talk about the fact that being behind “cover” was supposed to give him the opportunity to: a) take time to evaluate the situation b) yell commands, such as “drop the gun” c) call for back up.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he seemed eerily undisturbed after the shooting.
  • He does not talk about how he subtly threatened another woman while they waited for Yvette’s body to be taken away. She said, “don’t shoot me,” and he responded “Well, then don’t point anything shiny at me.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he has never shown any remorse or regret to Yvette’s family.
  • He does not talk about how after killing her he laughingly said “I didnt’ want to die.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was in no danger of dying: Yvette was.

Ironically, his lawyers then used that as his defense. They had a forensic psychiatrist testify that because there was an officer outside, Yvette Smith exhibited impaired judgement by opening the door.

Yes. That is the defense. That a black woman is responsible for her own death because she opened her door when there was a police officer outside. 

Are the lives of black women in so much danger in this nation that there are responsible for their own deaths if they are foolish enough to leave their own house?

Nay, not to leave their own house; if they are foolish enough to open their door.

Foolish enough to claim to have rights? Foolish enough to drink a beer in their own home, or smoke a cigarette in their own car? Foolish enough to think they were citizens? Foolish enough to think they were children of God, and their bodies sacred and powerful vessels?

If a black woman’s life does not have value in our nation, than nothing that we believe about ourselves or our country is true. We have no civil rights, we only have privileges awarded to the few. We are not free, we are not safe, we are not good.

This week, perhaps even today, a verdict will come forth from Judge McCaig. Daniel Willis has waived his right to a jury trial in this retrial; his attorneys citing their absolute certainty that McCaig would give them a “Not Guilty” verdict.

If his attorneys are correct and a “Not Guilty” verdict comes in, before Judge McCaig moves on to the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia, will we be silent? What will we do? Or, as Sandra Bland was known to say, “What will you do? What will you do Queen? What will you do King?” What will you do to show the truth that the lives of black women are sacred indeed?

Sacred beyond measure. Sacred beyond comprehension. Powerful enough to strike fear into the heart of a man holding a taser, a man holding an assault rifle. Powerful enough to make him claim that he was the victim and that you, unarmed black woman, were a threat to him, well-armed and equipped with body armor.

…and you are. A threat to him. Not a threat to his life, but to his power, his comfort, his privilege. The end has already been written, and justice will win. White supremacy knows in its heart that it will be you, black woman, that will bring it down. Its fear and violence is only increasing to keep pace with the increase of your power and confidence. It knows its end is near. Do not give up.

“For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).

 

White Fear & the Hate Next Door

Recently a Facebook Group was brought to my attention by a friend. Before I could read the title, I was struck by the images of my face photoshopped.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 4.29.14 PM

10513491_1109615835756114_6654035767011217024_nThe photo of me reading scripture at the celebration service of Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, her Bishop’s crook carefully photoshopped out and my nose elongated as a reference to deceit.

The photo of me throwing my head back and laughing while holding my friend’s niece, her curly black baby hair rising up to almost touch my chin. The baby had been carefully deleted from the p1915561_1109614982422866_1961854907786616656_nhoto and my face altered, once again, transforming my joyful smile into more of a menacing appearance.

The first feeling that I had was violation. That someone would search me out, and go through my photos dating back several years. The second feeling that I felt was a cold child, that someone could do all of that and not be impacted in the least by those images of my humanity, my moments of joy and closeness with loved ones. It was chilling that the their sense of hatred and anger was in no way dampened by examining who I am and the people who have made me that person. Instead, they chose to distort some of the most joyful and intimate moments of my life into images of hate.

There was a mixture of horror and humor from those that saw it. Some finding the pettiness of it amusing, others finding the heartlessness of it frightening. One person commented that it must have been a “band of wretched psychos” who had put the group together.

What is truly frightening, however, is that it was not psychos. What was truly disturbing was not my altered photos, but their unaltered photos. When you clicked on the link to see the members of the group, the pictures were very similar to my own photos before they had distorted them. The people in the group were someone’s grandmother, someone’s mommy, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. They were your neighbor. They were your church member. They were the person next to you at the rodeo, the woman cheering at your son’s baseball game. They were your brother’s boss, and your sister’s jogging buddy. They were that grandmother whose cookies you can never resist at the church baked good’s fundraiser. They were the Judge who you let kiss your baby when he was running for election.

names removed group

They were not psychos. They were us. They were white America. Terrified of losing “our” country to the people who had lived there before any white people arrived. Terrified that “our” way of doing things would not be allowed to continue. Terrified of what it meant for that way of life when a woman like Sandra Bland could expect her legal rights to be respected regardless of her mood or her cigarette; and when a white woman would break ranks with them to stand with Sandra instead, calling that same Sandra Bland they had linked to drugs and disorderly conduct an evangelist and an activist instead.

They were white America. Terrified that the word “reconciliation” would be torn from the grip and control of the white America who had worked so hard to domesticate it, changing it’s meaning to “peace” and the ability to live together in comfort; terrified that the word would be taken back by the same kind of people who had used it to indicate radical change during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s; terrified that reconciliation, once set free, would be reunited inseparably with its partner justice, making it impossible to have one without the other.

The only face that I recognized of the group was a man who represents the face of Justice in Waller County, Judge Trey Duhon, who I have been told is a member of a local congregation of the United Methodist Church, as well as a member of the Texas Bar Association. The fact that he would choose, as an elected official, to be a member of a group whose banner said of me, “I hope you choke on your lies,” seemed odd. What made it stranger was that he had reportedly written himself, around the time of joining the group, to a woman named Dottie Moore, in a letter that she made public to her friends on Facebook on August 27, 2015, and as a result of tagging a friend of mine made it visible to me as well. In his letter Judge Trey Duhon wrote:

As you can see, it bothersome that someone wearing a minister’s collar is engaging in potential slander. You would think that she, more than anyone, would be familiar with scripture like the following:

James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Proverbs 6:16-19 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Or how about:

Matthew 7:1-29 Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. …

I really don’t want to sue Ms Bonner for slander and I really don’t want to give her more publicity either.

Judge Trey Duhon was correct: I am indeed very familiar with those verses. In fact, I memorized them as a child and they became part of the infrastructure of my decision making. I am also very familiar with the fact that whether we can quote them is much less important than whether we can live them, and that the truth of our words and of our hearts will most assuredly be known by our fruit.

Our nation is on the brink of a change. People are fighting for their lives to be valued, while others are fighting back, afraid of what that will mean for our way of life. There is confusion, as people grapple with seeing things they do not understand.

White people who are any measure of woke: talk to your neighbors, to your brother, to your grandmother; talk to the woman who is proud of her cookies, the woman who is proud of her grandkids, and the woman who is proud of her guns.

If our country misses the opportunity to make this nation a more just place that honors God by honoring the sacredness of each of God’s children, it will not be because of those on the fringes yelling out the N-word into the open air. It will be because of us, our grandmothers, our brothers, and our children. It will be because enough of us were silent when the time came to speak up. It will be because enough of us quietly stood still when it was time to step out and break ranks to go where God called us.

That does not have to be the story of white people in America. We can change this. We can make a difference.

“I can’t do this alone. I need you. I need y’all’s help. I need you.” -Sandra Bland

 

‘The Next Generation of Waller County’

Tomorrow marks the first day of a new month, and it could be the first day of a new chapter in Waller County’s history. That will only come to pass, however, if the people of Waller County want it.

Primary elections for both the Democratic and Republican parties will be held on March 1st, and on the ticket for Sheriff, you will still find Sheriff R. Glenn Smith.

Yes, that Sheriff Smith.

What truly made me marvel was not that Sheriff Smith was still running even after a year full of highly public mishaps that embarrassed the County. Instead, it was the slogan that his supporters had chosen: “Keep R. Glenn Smith Sheriff – Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.”

Driving past these signs on the backroads of Waller County, as I journeyed to help facilitate a leadership retreat for some of our nation’s most promising young minds, the irony of those words was not lost on me.

Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.

I can and do understand how people have felt offended that rightful criticism of the Sheriff reflected on their County, and I do understand how that has made people defensive at times. It is one thing, however, to defend what you have; it is quite another thing to not want something better for your children. It is one thing to resist chaos by trying to protect the stability of your community from what you see as outside forces; it is another thing to reject change when it is handed to you and all you have to do is take it with your ballot.

You see that “Next Generation of Waller County” is my generation and my nieces’ generation. A generation is not bound by County lines, it is bound by common experience and common calling. It is bound by the fact that as time goes on, we will have to figure out together what to do with the messes and the blessings that others have left behind for us. Our responsibility to one another is not now, nor will it be in the future, limited by County, State or even National boundaries.

As Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

My responsibility to my generation lies in my concern not only for the magnificent Prairie View A&M students, but also for the young, local white man their age who came to the jail once and spent the day sitting with me just because he wanted to know for himself whether we were the monsters people said we were. We gave him water, and laughter, and friendship, and I respected his courage to sit out there with us, just to know for himself what was going on. I have a responsibility to the young, local white woman, whose pastor brought her to meet the “Wicked Witch of Waller” so that she could know for herself whether I was truly what people said I was. I have a responsibility to the young woman who came to the jail the day after Sheriff R. Glenn Smith threatened us and told me to go back to the Church of Satan; she came to me with tears in her eyes and begged me to be careful, telling me that I was in more danger than I thought. I have a responsibility to the young men and women who lived around the jail and truly loved me and truly were concerned whether I had enough water and food and strength.

Yet, perhaps even more than to them, I have a responsibility to the young woman who tried to lure me to a local restaurant for who knows what reason when folks were looking for me to “confront” me. And I have a responsibility to the young mothers, women in my generation, who sat at home and commented on posts about Sandra, or about those holding vigil, or reported when and where they had last seen my car, concerned that their way of life was being threatened by calls for justice. I was tired, but I could have done better by them. I could have tried harder to find a way to communicate to them that God’s justice is for their children as well and that we are all in this together.

As Ephesians 2:19 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household…”

For them, for their children, I believe that God has something better in store for them than the kind of repetitive injustice, threats, and danger that many before them have already known. I believe that Justice for Sandra Bland, also means Justice for them and for their neighbors. I believe that we are all connected in a web of mutual responsibility.

God has something better for “The Next Generation of Waller County” than what has come before because we are called not to fear the future and protect the ways of the past, but to serve a God who promises to “make all things new.”

Even as voices continue to seek justice, transparency and answers, the people of Waller County have an opportunity themselves to quite easily, without investigation or legal case, offer accountability for the way they have been represented. Vote.

How they vote will show us whether R. Glenn Smith represents who they are and who they want to be, or whether he does not.

I pray that they will show us that they truly do want something better for “The Next Generation of Waller County.”

Sandra Bland: Justice Delayed, Not Denied

Sitting in Judge Hitner’s Courtroom in the Bob E. Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, Texas on February 18th, you would quickly realize that the level of transparency and honesty that each lawyer was willing to offer could be measured by the size of their smile.

For those of you who have read about the past hearings, you already know that the state attorney, Seth Dennis, representing Brian Encinia, has a quirky approach to lawyering in which he pretends he does not know anything while smiling largely at the judge in the traditional bromance courting ritual of white men seeking to remind one another of their common stake in maintaining injustice through the ‘good ol’ boy’ system. For instance, saying he does not know when Brian Encinia’s arraignment in the Criminal Trial is; when everyone else in the room seems to have heard it was first March 23, and then moved to March 22. Thus far, it does not seem to be working. Outwardly, Judge Hitner seems to have no time for the games and arrogance he receives from the state attorney, but only time will tell. Only through concrete rulings that compel action will we know that his refusal to enter into the flirtation is secure.

There were several topics discussed, most notably perhaps was the fact that the civil trial was not dismissed.

The attorneys for Geneva Reed-Veal, Cannon Lambert and Larry Rogers, Jr., all business as usual, were seeking access to the original video footage both from Sandra’s arrest and from the hours that she spent inside of the Waller County Jail. To which the state attorney replied, “It’s all over the internet. It’s on YouTube” as his justification for resisting doing so. In some way, it seemed that both the original footage and the Texas Rangers Report were being tied up by the Criminal Case of perjury against Brian Encinia. The judge said that the attorneys will be given access to view the footage but not remove it from the possession of the state.

Speaking only for myself, it is my impression that the relatively minor charge of perjury is the state’s way of delaying the civil trial, and not in any way a real pursuit of justice in the death of Sandra Bland on the part of the state. If they have charged him with lying in saying he had reason to pull Sandra from her car, then logic would follow that they should charge him with wrongful arrest, official oppression and assault & battery for what followed. Seeing as they have not done that, I am left to conclude that the slap-on-the-wrist charge they have entered against him is only means of delaying the justice that others seek through a civil trial, as well as distracting from calls for a DOJ investigation.

It is to be noted that the Criminal Trial and whether it will be completed in a timely manner is also cause for concern. Currently, Brian Encinia is set to be arraigned in the courtroom of Judge McCaig. This seems to be necessary because Brian Encinia’s attorney, Larkin Eakin, is husband to the County Court at Law Judge June Jackson. As a result, it appears that Encinia’s criminal trial needed to be moved to the District Courtroom of Judge Albert McCaig, who was elected on a tea party ticket that espoused racism and xenophobia, and was also the judge who recently oversaw the mistrial in the officer involved homicide of Yvette Smith in Bastrop County. One must wonder why, if he lives in Katy and is based out of Austin DPS, would Brian Encinia choose a Hempstead attorney who was married to the County Court at Law Judge if not to precipitate this series of events.

The second topic of discussion that I discerned in the Civil Trial status hearing yesterday was the long disputed Rangers Report. The FBI was in possession of a copy of the report that they had brought with them. Yet, in opening it, Judge Hitner discovered that it was excessively redacted, blacking out even the name of the officer at the scene, and told them to diminish the redactions and bring him a better copy on Monday. The FBI agreed to do so.

The third topic of discussion was the state’s desire to sever Brian Encinia from Waller County and cause there to be two separate trials. One trial against Waller County and the other against Brian Encinia. The attorney for Waller County argued that this was necessary with a deeply flawed analogy. He said that keeping the charges against Waller County connected to the charges against Brian Encinia was like holding an officer who had picked up an injured person and driven them to the hospital responsible for their injuries if they slipped and fell at the hospital. Larry Rogers, Jr., pointed out much more calmly than I would have done, that this was one sustained continuum not separate incidences. The reality was that the Waller County’s attorney’s analogy was erroneous because Brian Enicinia did not pick up an injured Sandra Bland in order to help her and give her a ride; he injured her and arrested her in order to justify doing so; creating the circumstances under which she was held unjustly and lost her life.

The third topic of discussion I discerned was the fact that the attorney for Waller County and for the state were demanding the depositions of Sandra’s mother and sisters. It was particularly painful to hear him say that he did not care where the depositions took place, “as long as it is not in Chicago.” In other words, as long as it is not in a place where the women will feel comfortable.

Concurrently, the attorneys for Geneva Reed-Veal were continuing to request the original copy of the Rangers Report that lies in their possession as is appropriate to review before the depositions. The state’s attorney was once again resistant to turning over the Rangers Report; protesting – as he had when saying the videos were already on YouTube – that the FBI was already delivering a copy of the report. It is important, however, to have both copies; especially as it is possible that they do not match.

Leaving, it seemed like a lot was still up in the air as this trial moves forward at a snail’s pace. On we journey in observing a trial between one of the large economies of the world, the state of Texas, and a grieving mother. The odds may be stacked against her, but never underestimate the power of a mother’s love and the determination of the truth to be seen and recognized. Truth is the thing, the Gospel of John says, that will set us free.

Justice delayed is not justice denied.

An Open Letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson

Dear DA Devon Anderson,

I am writing to you because I remain in possession of one of the many lives you put at risk when you and Sheriff Hickman blamed the shooting of Deputy Goforth on #BlackLivesMatter, resulting in threats being directed towards those holding vigil for Sandra Bland at the Waller County Jail.

Now, today, the Houston NAACP is honoring you as a white ally in naming you one of the 2016 Alex Award recipients for an outstanding commitment to Equal Justice and Legal Excellence.

All of the discussion that this has prompted has brought back unpleasant memories of those days of my life that caused my mother the most anxiety. Let me explain.

On July 13, when Sandra Bland’s friends found out that she had died, it caused great pain in our community of Houston. Many Houston residents were Prairie View alumni who knew, or knew of, Sandra Bland. She was the type of woman who made an impression. As uproar grew, one of those Prairie View alum, my friend Jeremyah, continuously peppered my phone with comments from his friends, and his own concerns, as well as the hashtag #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. My spirit sat heavy within me; I was deep in prayer all afternoon on July 15th, until late in the evening, my friends Nina and Rhys agreed to go out with me to the jail where Sandra died. It was simple. We lit a candle and we prayed.

Yet, that simple act became contagious. Others joined in, everyone from local farmers to a Lutheran Bishop, and we kept vigil there for 80 days. Intimidation attempts from Sheriff R. Glenn Smith escalated after the first month, and he earned himself a spot in the 2016 Texas Bum Steer Awards when he told me to go back to the Church of Satan. There was risk involved, yet what truly intensified the risk was your words on August 29th.

That week, on August 27 a member of the Katy Fire Department began toIMG_8892 publicize in a private Waller County group, the Waller County News, that he was lying in wait for us at the Waller County Jail. Other members of the group tried to help him find me by telling him what kind of car I drove, and one messaged me and tried to lure me to a local restaurant to trap me. Unfortunately for him, there was a health emergency with my Aunt Jackie that had called me away and he did not find me there. They assumed it was cowardice, my mother claimed it as Divine Providence. He returned the next day, the 28th, and did not find me then either.

That same evening, however, another family was deprived of their father and husband in the tragic and unexpected shooting of Deputy Darren Goforth.

There were clues from the outset that Deputy Goforth was actually at the gas station with his mistress, not on patrol; yet, rather than investigating that aspect, officials rushed quickly to the promote the idea that #BlackLivesMatter was at fault, which provided what they thought would be an acceptable catharsis for them in the midst of building tensions and grief.

Perhaps this decision was affected by the fact that the Officer investigating the shooting of Deputy Goforth, Sgt. Craig Clopton, was having a sexual relationship with Deputy Goforth’s mistress himself, as was Deputy Marc DeLeon and potentially others. How might that have affected their investigation? Knowing that the eyewitness to the crime was someone multiple officers were involved with. I can imagine they might want to divert attention from that fact.

The next day, on August 29th, you did a press Conference in which you and Sheriff Ron Hickman blamed the shooting on #BlackLivesMatter activists with no proof for your accusation except that Darren Goforth had his uniform on while meeting up with his mistress and the man who shot him happened to be black. Your careless rush to judgment and your call upon “the silent majority in America to support law enforcement” put many lives at risk.

The very next day, Breitbart seized upon the opportunity that your words had given them. For more than a month, we had seen reporters Lana Shadwick and Bob Price come around the Waller County Jail. All that we had given to them, however, was an unapologetic solidarity with Sandra Bland and an unapologetic commitment to the rights of people of color. We did not give them the material that they wanted in order to distort the #BlackLivesMatter movement as built on hatred of white people rather than a love for black people.

Your words gave them the excuse they had been waiting for, however, as they pulled out photos almost a month old and wrote a scathing and dishonest article about what had been going on at the Waller County Jail. They drew from what had happened on two days of what was close to 50 days to perpetrate a lie, creating a false impression that it was protestors and not Sheriff R. Glenn Smith that were carrying arsenals of machine guns around in their trucks on a daily basis.

Following that, retired law enforcement officer Nathan Ener put out a highly publicized video encouraging people to drive away or kill the #BlackLivesMatter activists at the Waller County Jail. The lack of consequences that resulted from his threats exhibited how socially acceptable racism is amongst law enforcement and officials. For Texas officials to allow that to pass only two months after Dylann Roof carried out similar orders, inspired by similar videos, at a church in Charleston was callous beyond belief.

Yet, you know who was out there in front of the Waller County Jail in the line of fire that next week? A bunch of pastors and farmers and activists. That day. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day… because Sandra Bland does not have justice yet, and her life matters.

Perhaps that is something you can think about as you receive this award for a Commitment to Equal Justice from the NAACP today. Look around you at the beautiful lives that surround you and ask yourself, do they have equal justice? Are they as safe in Texas as you are? There is room in the movement for everyone, and it is never too late to start to say: Black Lives Matter. It is never too late for true repentance, a changing of actions and not merely words.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to #SayHerName #SandraBland and demand the Department of Justice investigate Waller County. Just a thought.

Sincerely,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

“Dear Fellow White People”: An Appeal For Sustained Discomfort

*First posted on UMCLead.com on Feb. 10, 2015. Revised and updated… still unapologetic.

#BlackLivesMatter makes a lot of white people uncomfortable. The impulse of many is to soothe us. Please don’t. We need sustained discomfort. There are a lot of people in this nation who have been very uncomfortable for a very long time. Those of us who have privilege and have been sitting in denial about that, need to feel this discomfort, need to feel this moment.

Sustained discomfort. Sit with that for a minute. Better yet, don’t sit with it: commit to it. Refuse to allow the media to redirect your attention. Refuse to allow the passage of time to diminish the ache in your soul when the world watched that video of Eric Garner’s life slipping out of him; that video of Sandra Bland’s freedom being taken from her. Refuse to be that person who looks back in twenty years with regret. Refuse to be the pastor who was silent.

Know your history. Remember that the protection of all peoples’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been hampered since the beginning of our nation by two things, among many. First, the fact that while we proclaimed the fundamental equality of all people, we simultaneously and ironically denied that equality to many – African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, women, etc. Second, since that time, change has been delayed by the inability of people of privilege who disagree with injustice to endure the lifestyle required to exchange that cultural lie for the truth, both in our cultural philosophy and in our systemic structures.

To put it more simply: we have had equality in word but not in deed, and we have not maintained the solidarity necessary to change that.

To put it even more simply: do not change the channel.

Now is the time. As the movement that has endured in our country for hundreds of years takes on new energy and strategies, we have the opportunity to see change.

However, we must acknowledge that we live in an era when that potential is threatened. We live in an era when news has become entertainment. We live in an era when justice issues have become an ever-changing cycle of temporary fads that we can exchange one for another as soon as something more trendy comes along. We check social media to see what the cool thing to care about is today.

This rapid exchange rate allows those of us who have privilege within this culture to endure sympathetic pangs of sorrow and discomfort in small, manageable doses. We change the channel before it gets to be too much; throwing our attention into a new direction that promises a rush of energy to replace the frustration of that “other” situation we could not change. Or rather, that situation we did not have the patience, stamina, and determination to change.

Our very ability to choose what “causes” to give our attention reveals our privilege. The very fact that we have the option to give up and walk away from a struggle, is the very reason why those who cannot walk away from the struggle struggle to trust us – and with good reason.

What if, instead, we did not approach phrases like “Black Lives Matter” as causes and fads, but as fundamental truths. Truths that are so important that life is simply intolerable for us if they are not universally recognized and implemented.

This is important because so many of these “causes”, both local and global, have at their root the same denial, subtle or outright, of one fundamental truth: black lives matter. To understand the pervasiveness of this, we must examine why our nation is more comfortable with crowds of white men walking the streets in displays of “open carry” then it is with an African American man shopping for a toy gun. To understand the subtlety of this, we must examine why our news media and world leaders paid so much more attention to terrorism in France, than to mass killings in Nigeria. To understand the danger of this, we need look no further than Tamir Rice.

Intersectionality exists in these justice issues, and we must name and acknowledge the connection between violence against Black bodies and violence against Queer bodies and violence against the bodies of 43 teachers below the border in Mexico. All of these lives matter, and all are connected because all pose a threat to power, to privilege and to the status quo. However, while we name intersectionality, we cannot allow that reality to become confused with our channel-changing, issue-switching culture, and cause us to remove our foot from the gas pedal that is driving this movement.

I understand that leaders throughout our nation, in many walks of life, seem to have a general consensus that change should take place – if it takes place – at a gradual rate that people can tolerate.

The reality, however, is that while some of us seek change that takes place at a rate we can tolerate, many have been forced to come to this nation and live in this nation under conditions that have been intolerable from the start. Intolerable is the status quo for many in this nation.

So the real question is whose comfort, whose pace, whose toleration are we talking about?

While we wait for that answer, people are actually dying.

Friends, we cannot endure this pace any longer. The time has come to commit to sustained discomfort. To refuse to shift our attention as the fads come and go. To understand that our very ability to choose to do so reveals our privilege, and our very willingness to do so reveals the fragility of our solidarity with those who have no choice in the matter.

True solidarity means we do not get to make the decisions and we do not get to walk away; we must follow the lead of those most impacted by the injustice in our system, and see it through to the end.

We must plant our feet, and refuse to be moved. Speak our truth, and refuse to be silenced.

We must commit to sustained discomfort not only for ourselves but for all around us, until we are no longer able to endure the denigration of our own humanity that takes place when any one of our brothers and sisters is put down, put in their place, or put away.

Change is coming, and you have a role to play. Do not walk away.

The Postmortem Prosecution of Sandra Bland

On February 2, 2016, the world finally got to hear some of the “investigation” interviews concerning the death of Sandra Bland. In audio obtained from the state of Texas and released by the Bland family and their attorneys, an investigator asks inmates who had been in cells close to Sandra nothing of substance beyond repeated questions about whether they thought she could have smoked marijuana in her cell. To which the answer was a clear and confident: no.

This confirmed something many of us have known since Day 1: Officials in Waller County have not been investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland’s death, they have been prosecuting Sandra Bland in the imaginations of Waller County residents.

They have been doing so in order to avoid their own actual prosecution, because they never believed it would go this far. They never believed that a family in Chicago saying they did not believe their daughter/sister had committed suicide, alumni of Prairie View tweeting #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, and a rag tag group of die hard supporters sitting in front of a jail for 80 days could turn into a national uproar.

But it did. They overplayed their hand. They did not know the power of Sandy’s voice.

In frantic, sloppy and ill-advised attempts to avoid offering real justice in the courts, they chose instead to prosecute the victim, Sandra Bland, in the court of public opinion. They chose poorly and they have been beaten most profoundly, soundly and deeply, by no other voice than her own.

In attempting to understand this choice, we must ask ourselves why a Sheriff and District Attorney, whose own relatives are said to have been arrested for drug use, would focus in upon marijuana as the most prominent and pertinent topic to publicize.

To understand that, you have to understand the trigger that the word marijuana is, as well as the generational divide around the topic.

Sandra Bland, myself, and nearly all Millennials have never lived a day outside of the New Jim Crow, a system of creating criminal records for people of color in order to maintain our nation’s historic pattern of creating different prospects and opportunities based on race.

The generations that preceded GenX and the Millennials had been able to rely upon Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation, separation, and increased opportunities for white people to advance. When that legal system was dismantled, however, anxiety built, in much the same way that we now observe it doing so among Trump supporters that flock to his racist pronouncements like moths to a flame. Enter the revival in the early 80’s of the “War on Drugs.”

Less than three weeks before I was born in 1982, Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs, such as marijuana, to be a threat to national security. Being a threat to national security elevated them in the psyche of white America from being the naughty pastime of hippies in the 60’s, and rock gods in the 70’s to a sinister force. Without diminishing the real harm done to lives through addiction and drug-related violence, it is crucial to understand how these policies have been racialized both in their enforcement and in the imagination of Americans.

No one explains it better than Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow” a taste of which she gave us in her 2011 HuffPo piece: “From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.  The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.”

Now, place a campus full of Millennials, a generation with a 68% statistical preference for the legalization of marijuana, in the middle of a community with a significantly older and more traditional demographic, and you will quickly find the same situation that you find in communities all around the world: drug use and differing perspectives on it lead to significant inter-generational tensions and concern from the community.

Consequently, you create a local populace who is very sensitive to certain trigger words, and one especially: Marijuana.

Officials in Waller County thought that associating the word marijuana with Sandra Bland’s name would be sufficient to turn the populace against her, triggering generational tensions in some cases and racial prejudices in others, and silencing the topic of her mysterious death.

They were wrong.

They thought that they could continue to pass off white people’s involvement in drug trafficking as “adorable” mistakes and aberrations from the norm, while framing Sandra Bland as the impetus for her own demise.

They were wrong.

They thought that at the word “Marijuana” Sandra’s voice would be silenced, and her supporters would scurry away in shame.

They were wrong.

Seeing as they have not done a real investigation, I am going to tell you just two of the countless things I observed during those 80 days outside the jail:

No women were released during the first couple weeks to walk out the front door where supporters could see or interact with them, only men who would not have been in cells close to Sandra at the end. The woman who they did release was first spotted instead in front of a news camera on another local street telling a version of Sandra’s last hours that matched the false portrayal of Sandra by officials much better than it matched the character known to family, friends, and even the casual #SandySpeaks viewer.

The men who did come out spoke of Sandra Bland as the woman whose arm was hurt, not as the woman who was using drugs. Since the pain she was experiencing seemed to be pretty public knowledge in the jail, one must ask why that wasn’t what the investigators asked about?

The answer is simple: they were not investigating Sandra Bland’s death, they were prosecuting her life.

Sandra Bland Believed in You

*Cover photo by Lamarcus Feggins, @differentworldimages

On January 14, 2015, a bold, brilliant, 28 year old African American woman held a phone up in front of her face and began to speak. “Hey, y’all… so… I don’t know where to look…” she said with a smile that could charm the sting off a bee. Rarely has such an important act in history taken place with so much casual and unscripted authenticity.

We all have moments in our lives, where we feel a great sense of urgency that we are supposed to do something. Whether it is calling that friend who you have not heard from in a concerning amount of time; pulling out your cell phone at just the right minute to film an arrest; or raising your hand in class to say that thing that has to be said. The difference in our lives, and potentially the lives of many others, is made in the little moments, the little choices, the decisions to say ‘yes.’

When Sandra Bland’s moment came, she said yes. The calling to begin making her #SandySpeaks videos was weighing so heavy on her that night of January 14, that she began at the end of a long day with a dying phone battery and curlers in her hair. The gravity of the calling left no time for vanity.

Sandy set out to explain that she was not making her videos to hear herself talk: Sandy spoke so that others would be heard. Sandy spoke so that those who were silenced would be seen. And through her videos, Sandy still speaks.

She began, “I wanted to make this video message and plant my seed of #SandySpeaks… with police brutality and everything going on in the news, a lot of people have been making noise and expressing their opinions about how they feel, and somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten about an important group which are the kids… I want to get some dialogue started with them, i want to see how they feel.”

While the ethos that children are “to be seen and not heard” still echoes in our society, Sandra was determined to lift up even the smallest voice, such as the voice of her two year old niece, whom she mentioned with such reverence.

Sandy believed that she could make a difference, as she said, “I’m here to change history”; but more importantly, she believed that that we could make a difference, saying, “If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.” 

Pronouns are important, if I have learned nothing else this year, it is that. Sandra Bland used them to perfection. She knew what she could do. She knew what we could do. She knew what you could do.

Sandra Bland believed in you. It may sound odd, but it is true. Not only is it true, it was at the very core of her mission. It is why she always began her videos after this one with, “Good morning my Kings and Queens.”

Sandra Bland knew what she could do: “Laugh all you want to, say what you want, but I’m here to change history. I am ready to do what I need to do for this next generation. It’s time. It’s time for me to do God’s work, at the end of the day.”

Sandra Bland knew what we could do: “God has truly opened my eyes and shown me that there is something out there that we can do. We can stop sitting around and saying, “well maybe next time” or “Oh, well, we knew that was going to happen.” It’s time to stop knowing that that was going to happen, and its time to start doing something.”

Sandra Bland knew what you could do: “We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen. We sit out here and talk about, ‘we need the next so and so and this and that’ no you don’t. No you don’t. Start in your own home. Start with you. You start being that one to want to make that change.”

Sandra Bland sat there, with her curlers in her hair, and her phone battery dying, and she started a revolution. Why? Because she believed in you just that much. She believed that we would do it, because she believed that you could do it. She believed that we would change history, because she believed that you could change history and she could change history.

Maybe when no one else believed in you, she believed in you; and she trusted you to do something. While the confidence of a woman who is loved by her family, devoted to God, and aware of her worth exuded from her smile, she also clearly understood that she would not be able to carry out her calling alone.

As she said, “I need you. I need y’all’s help. I can’t do this by myself. I need you.”

She knew that she had to take action, and she was ready to lead by example; but she also knew that she could not do it alone.

When Sandra Bland’s friends and family woke up on January 15, 2015, they discovered the video that Sandra had posted the night before at 12:04 am. Many of them recognized the passion in her voice and responded. Yet, none of them could have known how sacred this record of her calling would become to millions of people around the world until they woke up on yet another morning, only two days shy of six months later: July 13, 2015.

So, as you wake up today, and as we return full circle to January 15, I leave you with her words:

“It’s time y’all, it’s time. This thing that I’m holding in my hand – this telephone, this camera – is quite powerful. Social media is quite powerful. We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.”FamFull

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 3.03.00 AM