I'm breaking a personal rule I try to follow with stories like this one: Don't say anything publicly for a week. But the point I want to make is relatively simple so hopefully the lack of time to think won't cause me to say something stupid.
When I first sat down to write this post, the title was "On Alton Sterling." But before I could even hit "publish" on this post another shooting happened. And this time it happened a few miles from where I used to live in St Paul, MN to a man named Philando Castile. According to what we know so far, Castile was calm and complied with the police officer's request. And he, like Sterling, is now dead.
Sterling's case is, admittedly, more complicated. The videos we have so far are inconclusive. It doesn't appear that he was reaching for the gun in his pocket and the eyewitness says he was not. That said, it's hard to be certain based on the evidence that is available so far. It is no less tragic for being complicated, of course, but there is enough ambiguity to it that we should probably not rush to conclusions concerning who is responsible for what. If we consider Sterling's case by itself, what we have is a complex tragedy.
But, of course, with race relations in America and especially with race relations between African Americans and cops, you cannot treat any single incident in isolation in that way. This is the point many white people failed to understand in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. What was at issue in that debate was not simply the specific case with Michael Brown, which was far more ambiguous as to who was responsible for what in the events that led to Brown's death. The larger issue was the horrifying record that the Ferguson PD had of abusing African Americans—a record that the Department of Justice laid out in no uncertain terms in their report.
If you did not read it at the time, here are some of the most alarming excerpts:
Even relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated. For example, in the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification.
Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights.
In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.
We spoke, for example, with an African-American woman who has a still-pending case stemming from 2007, when, on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally. She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. The woman, who experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, was charged with seven Failure to Appear offenses for missing court dates or fine payments on her parking tickets between 2007 and 2010. For each Failure to Appear, the court issued an arrest warrant and imposed new fines and fees.
From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking. Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full. One of those payments was later accepted, but only after the court’s letter rejecting payment by money order was returned as undeliverable. This woman is now making regular payments on the fine. As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.
At times, the constitutional violations are even more blatant. An African-American man recounted to us an experience he had while sitting at a bus stop near Canfield Drive. According to the man, an FPD patrol car abruptly pulled up in front of him. The officer inside, a patrol lieutenant, rolled down his window and addressed the man:
Lieutenant: Get over here. Bus Patron: Me? Lieutenant: Get the f*** over here. Yeah, you. Bus Patron: Why? What did I do? Lieutenant: Give me your ID. Bus Patron: Why? Lieutenant: Stop being a smart ass and give me your ID.
The lieutenant ran the man’s name for warrants. Finding none, he returned the ID and said, “get the hell out of my face.” These allegations are consistent with other, independent allegations of misconduct that we heard about this particular lieutenant, and reflect the routinely disrespectful treatment many African Americans say they have come to expect from Ferguson police. That a lieutenant with supervisory responsibilities allegedly engaged in this conduct is further cause for concern.
In December 2011, officers deployed a canine to bite an unarmed 14-year-old AfricanAmerican boy who was waiting in an abandoned house for his friends. Four officers, including a 32 canine officer, responded to the house mid-morning after a caller reported that people had gone inside. Officers arrested one boy on the ground level. Describing the offense as a burglary in progress even though the facts showed that the only plausible offense was trespassing, the canine officer’s report stated that the dog located a second boy hiding in a storage closet under the stairs in the basement. The officer peeked into the space and saw the boy, who was 5’5” and 140 pounds, curled up in a ball, hiding. According to the officer, the boy would not show his hands despite being warned that the officer would use the dog. The officer then deployed the dog, which bit the boy’s arm, causing puncture wounds.
According to the boy, with whom we spoke, he never hid in a storage space and he never heard any police warnings. He told us that he was waiting for his friends in the basement of the house, a vacant building where they would go when they skipped school. The boy approached the stairs when he heard footsteps on the upper level, thinking his friends had arrived. When he saw the dog at the top of the steps, he turned to run, but the dog quickly bit him on the ankle and then the thigh, causing him to fall to the floor. The dog was about to bite his face or neck but instead got his left arm, which the boy had raised to protect himself. FPD officers struck him while he was on the ground, one of them putting a boot on the side of his head. He recalled the officers laughing about the incident afterward.
This documentary evidence of explicit racial bias is consistent with reports from community members indicating that some FPD officers use racial epithets in dealing with members of the public. We spoke with one African-American man who, in August 2014, had an argument in his apartment to which FPD officers responded, and was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. After telling the officer, “you don’t have a reason to lock me up,” he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” When the man responded, “good luck with that,” the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, “don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.” Another young man described walking with friends in July 2014 past a group of FPD officers who shouted racial epithets at them as they passed.
You really should just read the whole report. If you need more personal articles about this issue, there's plenty of them:
There are far fewer ambiguities in the Philando Castile shooting. Castile was simply driving his car in the suburbs of St Paul. He was pulled over in a routine traffic stop, much like Sandra Bland was in Texas. Like Bland, the situation appears to have been needlessly escalated by an overly aggressive cop. And like Bland, Castile is now dead. His girlfriend and her daughter watched him die.
The problem here is not simply with Sterling or with Castile, both of whom may turn out to be wholly innocent of any wrongdoing in their cases. (At the very least, it looks at present like Castile was completely innocent of wrongdoing.) It is, rather, with two other disturbing things: First, we have in this country a consistent pattern of police escalating rather than de-escalating encounters with black Americans. The question is not if these killings are legal, although the Castile shooting appears to be every bit as appallingly unjust as the Tamir Rice shooting. (Of course, we know how that ended.) The question is if these killings are preventable. And all the evidence to date says first that they are and, second, that we don't care enough to do what's required to prevent them. If we are living in the days of the shattering of the American republic, and I am increasingly of the view that we are, then there is every reason to see it as a sign of divine judgment. If the American republic is dying, it's because we, like the American evangelical church, deserve it.
Second, we should look more broadly and see that we are experiencing a crisis of neighborliness in America today. Most of the people we see day-to-day are neighbors in no more than a physical, objective sense: They happen to live near us. But there are no common objects of love, no shared knowledge that we collectively steward and pass on, no shared affections that organize and shape our life as a community. The result is an epidemic of mistrust and suspicion. This being America, that mistrust and suspicion is only aggravated when race enters the picture as our nation has always been and still is deeply hostile to African Americans.
To wrap up this brief post, there are two obvious things that need to happen. The first thing is that white people need to listen to our black neighbors when they tell us that they are afraid of the cops—and we shouldn't assume the worst when we hear them say that. Indeed, the Castile shooting seems to be something of a perfect rebuttal to all the people who have, so far, tried to dismiss the other shootings as results of individuals not complying with police. Castile was calm, disclosed to the officer that he had a gun, and was reaching for his license and registration when shot. You cannot simply cite the more ambiguous cases, like Michael Brown, and act as if that solves the issue. It doesn't at all. There are plenty of examples that adequately explain why a completely innocent African American, and especially an African American man, would still feel afraid when they see a cop. The links above provide some. If you need more, read up on Castile or Eric Garner.
The good news here is that there is positive movement happening on race issues within evangelicalism. The SBC and PCA, two of the more influential denominations within evangelicalism, are taking serious steps to address race issues. But there are still significant problems on this point within our movement, as recent comments by James White illustrate.
Second, we need to think carefully about how we as individuals can work to create actual neighborhoods and actually be neighbors to one another. And then we need to start doing those things. (We'd also do well to listen to folks already doing that work. Matthew Loftus's old Fare Forward post linked above is helpful on this point.) There are policy-level things that will help with these problems—body cams and dashboard cams in police officers and their vehicles are good ideas. Training police in deescalation is a good idea.
But ultimately those things simply help avert crisis when a tense situation has already arisen. We also need a way of having fewer tense situations arise in the first place. And the way we get there will not be via policy fixes, but through a rediscovery of neighborliness and, with it, a renewed social trust between citizens and law enforcement officers. So while we should pursue policies that will help address these problems, we must also cultivate again the virtue of neighborliness so that we can begin to repair the fraying social fabric that no longer holds our nation together.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).