Is there any fairness in the American justice system? Can people of every racial/ethnic group be confident that they will receive equal treatment under the law? The shooting of Michael Brown raises these questions and more.
Unfortunately, how you answer these questions is largely determined by your race, your upbringing, and where you grew up in the world. These factors and others shape the way we view the world. Remember the Rodney King police brutality case and the O.J. Simpson murder trial? It was amazing that people who watched exactly the same evidence often came to entirely different conclusions.
Before I say more about the Michael Brown shooting, let me share my story. It will help you better understand my standpoint.
I had just finished preaching at a church near Fayetteville, NC several years ago, when two other men and I packed into my Mercedes to began our trip back home along some dark country roads in the middle of nowhere.
For reasons still unclear to me, a police cruiser behind me activated its swirling lights in an effort to get me to pull over. Okay, you probably would have complied immediately, but I decided to continue driving slowly until we reached a well-lit gas station several miles ahead. I had seen enough questionable behavior by law enforcement officials to be a little nervous about encountering one on a narrow, pitch-black road.
To my astonishment, when I pulled into the Kangaroo gas station, I wasn't just greeted by one cruiser. The officer had called for backup and four other cruisers surrounded my car as if I was a notorious drug dealer or terrorist.
I was a bit alarmed at this point, but I knew how to handle the situation. I told the other two men to remain calm and put their hands in plain view so the officers could clearly see them. The guy in the front passenger seat listened to me. The one in the back didn't. He had a criminal record from his previous lifestyle, and he became really agitated during subsequently encounters with police.
After the officer asked for my license and registration, he shined his flashlight directly into the eyes of Edward, the man in the back. That made Edward angrier. Things got completely out of hand when the officer commanded us all to get out of the car.
At this, Edward became increasingly ballistic. Loudly protesting, he cussed at the officer with all kinds of speech not befitting a Christian. The officer saw how unhinged Edward was becoming, and he chose to use his stun gun on all three of us!
Fortunately, it was just a Taser, not a billy club or pistol. It was painful and degrading nevertheless -- an experience I will never forget. We were taken to the police station and released after a few hours. The magistrate on duty recognized me and was sympathetic to my explanation of how we were treated.
The officer who took us into custody made a rather lame attempt at an apology saying, "If I knew who you were, I would have handled things differently." That statement has stuck in my mind ever since, and I find it very troubling.
In essence, the officer was saying he would have treated me with more courtesy if he had known who I was, but it was perfectly fine to treat other suspected criminals the way he did (especially if they are black!). Is that the kind of criminal justice system we want in this country?
When I think about the tragic death of Michael Brown, it's hard for me not to view it through the eyes of my aforementioned experience with "law enforcement." Had the officers "profiled" the three of us in the car that night? Perhaps they impulsively concluded, "Three black men in a Mercedes late at night -- something's fishy here."
Hopefully, you've never had this kind of experience with the police, but, like me, many black people have, especially if we've spent any time in the inner city.
Perhaps you don't think my story or the death of Michael Brown is relevant to you at all. Yet, If you only care about getting justice for yourself, your perspective is both selfish and shortsighted. We should all be challenged by these powerful words credited to Martin Niemöller, a German church leader who stood with Dietrich Bonhoeffer against Hitler's control of the church before and during World War II:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.*
By speaking out against Nazi injustice, Niemöller landed himself in the Dachau concentration camp -- other church leaders cowered before the injustices of the Third Reich. Change won't come without struggle. Change will come at a personal cost. Yet, change is worth it.
My friend, I challenge you to care about injustice wherever you find it and to call it out. When you see people mishandling their authority, call it out. Call it out on personal, social and at institutional levels. Likewise, search your heart to expose any hidden bias. Make sure that you're not hastily profiling people because of the color of their skin, the car that they drive, or the clothes that they wear.
Let us continue to pray for both the Brown and Wilson families. Although I've pretty much recovered from my ordeal with the police near Fayetteville, the lives of the Brown and Wilson families will never be the same.
*Littell, F. "First They Came for the Jews." Christian Ethics Today 3, no.1, (February 1997).