Yesterday, I preached at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. This was the same church where I delivered the eulogy for Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager killed by police officer Darren Wilson. In the front row sat his mother and father, just as they sat in the front row during his funeral. I addressed the congregants and the community this weekend after a grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson, and after he announced his resignation from the Ferguson police department (who say he will not receive a severance). As I stated then, the issue is not Wilson's job; the issue is justice for Brown, and the fact that a grand jury was used more as a trial jury to give a view on guilt or innocence rather than to see if there was a basis for a trial. In my view, the prosecutor was so determined not to move forward with this case that he misused a grand jury and therefore dealt a setback as to how we deal with police accountability in this country. Even Supreme Court Justice Scalia has been clear on what a grand jury is and is not. As I said in my sermon, and as I will say in the White House meeting today, there must be sustained nonviolent protest because we are still grappling with the very real issue of police misconduct and fairness within the criminal justice system. And until there is substantive federal oversight, we will not stop marching and raising our voices.
The issue of police brutality is nothing new. I have been dealing with case after case for decades, listening as mothers and fathers bury their young and search for answers as to how those hired to protect and serve instead ended their child's life. Let me be clear, as I have said repeatedly, I do not believe that all police officers are bad; nor do I believe that most are bad. But there must be a transparent, impartial and fair system to judge those that engage in criminal or unethical acts. Local prosecutors work alongside local police officers on a regular basis and are therefore conflicted when it comes to prosecuting those same officers. They are under extreme pressure from local police unions and from rank-and-file cops. The Justice Department must set up an apparatus to protect citizens from this mechanism that fails to protect them and their civil rights.
Many right-wing pundits and people spewing misinformation on television and elsewhere would have us believe that this issue is not that serious, or that it isn't a national dilemma. But all across this country, we are watching troubling scenarios involving police officers play out over and over again. In addition to the Brown tragedy, it's the chokehold case in Staten Island (that grand jury may come back in a matter of days or weeks). It's the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland killed by police as he played with a toy gun. It's the case of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old who was shot and killed by police as he walked in the hallway of public housing building in Brooklyn. Authorities immediately called his death a tragic accident even before a thorough investigation was complete. And these are a few of the cases that have made headlines; there are countless others that take place on a regular basis that we never even hear about. As a country, we must do better.
When people discuss the 1960s and the great civil rights era, they often speak in romantic terms as if there wasn't immense work put in, and as if there wasn't immense sacrifice that took place. But none of those battles were easily fought and won; there were sustained movements behind them. For example, the historic Montgomery bus boycotts started in December of 1955, but we didn't get the Civil Rights Act until nine years later in 1964. We are in an era where we once again need a peaceful push for change to tackle modern-day civil rights violations. Demonstrations must be dignified and nonviolent, as the overwhelming protests in Ferguson and Staten Island have been. Do not confuse anarchists who don't want the system to work, and thugs who want to exploit a situation with the majority who from day one have operated with impeccable nonviolence and clear goals.
Change is undeniably hard. Progress is not an exercise in expediency. But if you are committed, then you will understand that you have no choice but to keep going not to see if you will win, but until you win. We must garner more than media attention; true reform is necessary and urgent. And we cannot heal leaving the injured out of the process. We must demand federal intervention for their sake because an unjust society is simply not an option.