Monday, April 27, 2015
Understanding Events in Baltimore
Today the news is dominated by what's going on in Baltimore. In response to still one more senseless death at the hands of police, despite the wishes of the family and local leaders, violence broke out. Police cars burned, several officers injured, businesses sacked and burned. Even as I write, it continues.
It occurs to me that it's so very easy for those of us who did not grow up in poverty, those of us not under constant scrutiny in the face of ongoing systemic racism, those of us who are not stopped regularly and often for "walking while black" or "loitering" when waiting at a bus stop, so easy for us to point and make snap judgements. I think doing that would be exactly the wrong response.
So last night, I was listening to a woman speak on a local channel about poverty. She related to her own experience. How she saw no hope herself because there was nothing in her experience to justify it. A community surrounded by poverty, people being incarcerated. She reflected how her mom never went to the PTA meetings. Not because she didn't love her children, but because she felt she couldn't tell them anything about education because she never had any herself. What changed for her was someone who intervened at the age of 26, and she completed her high school degree, then got college degree and her masters. In short, she had been offered opportunity. Not just basic assistance, but something greater that considered her larger situation. Most of our poverty programs don't do that of course.
Baltimore police have a long and tragic record in this neighborhood. Freddie Grey is not the only case of police overreach there by any stretch, and in local reporting, no one has to date among police offenders ever been held accountable. No, this sort of violence does not help, but hurts the cause, permitting the cops to carry out even more violence. But most of these offenders are in that crazy time between ages 15 and 18. I found myself reflecting back to my own teen years. Impulse control was not a strong suit, and looking back, it is by grace alone I did not get into some serious trouble back then. Toss in a sense that there is no hope and the system is stacked against you, and in the case of this neighborhood it really is. Factor in the commonly held judgment of people living in this area that they are somehow unworthy and guilty for their own poverty. Despite ample evidence of people who with opportunity have broken loose from those shackles imposed by their circumstance and the uncaring of a world outside of the hood.
Dr. King said that "a riot is the language of the unheard." I would add to that, unfelt. Where is the empathy that leads us to extend opportunity, to inform through love and compassion, and I might add, to openly listen to their own wisdom that comes from their experience for all of us have something to bring to the table. WE forget this is NOT a new story. Dr. King had to confront the tendency towards violence, especially among the young in his day. How tragic is it that the same young people disenfranchised back then, the same neighborhoods, are still feeling hopeless. We know it is not race and yet racism remains a constant contributor. We know there is nothing inherently wrong with people who are poor, no matter what the latest Republican talking points may be. We know that in study after study, crime occurs in various communities, but enforcement is overwhelmingly against communities of color. We know that studies show that children in pre-school and elementary school are disproportionately expelled in those same neighborhoods. I read an interesting report that came out here in Mpls recently where the majority of people arrested in drug buys in our poorest neighborhood (Northside) are from the wealthier suburbs. We know arrests for low level crimes like loitering etc happen in poor neighborhoods. We know that poverty in those neighborhoods are double the rest of the population.
So... Rioting is wrong. Police cannot stand by when it happens. But neither is this something new. We know why it happens and we understand that our willingness to continue ignoring the racism and poverty that surrounds us and is in fact growing at alarming rates will only ensure the violence continues. My dream and my prayer is a simple one. It's a dream of compassion, and a prayer for shared lives. Healing a society demands participation of all of us. We've got to learn to look into the eyes of our poor and see our own poverty within. Our systems often constrain entire groups, and we have to change those systems to work for all of us. It's not time for pointing fingers, but time for embracing each other. Imagine if we devoted anything near the energy that went to put people on the moon, or to fight in foreign wars like Iraq and instead worked to heal our neighborhoods and lift up our own people. I know this. As long as the hate and division is allowed to prevail, many good people will fall victim in the violence that ensues. It's time to remove our ostrich like heads from the sand and begin to heal ourselves, sooner rather than later.