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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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 and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

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  • Excellent post. Perfectly puts into words what I’m unable to at the moment.

  • Aaron Anderson

    Very heartened by this piece, Jake. Well done.

  • Will

    I think we have an intersection of several problems. One, I have no doubt that race plays a role, but its probably not helpful or correct to say that cops are racist and leave it there. on the other hand, we entrust the police with the power of force and we should hold them to a higher standard with harsh punishments for violating those standards. We don’t do that, though. In fact, its just the opposit. We entrust them with power and just assume they are worthy of it. We actually have given them permission to confiscate property that may have been used in criminal activities or been purchased with the profits of criminal activities. That may is important. In many instances, they don’t need a conviction. This becomes a source of revenue for police departments and is clearly a corrupting influence. We give them more military type equipment all the time and train them to deal with military situations such as terrorist attacks. We really shouldn’t be surprised when they are quick on the trigger, but we damn well better start discussing what our police are for.

  • > through a rediscovery of neighborliness

    One a purely pragmatic note: if anyone is interested in trying to [re]build the neighborliness of a neighborhood the website/service “Nextdoor.com” is worth checking out. I used it to help create a ‘neighborhood’ in my neighborhood, and it has worked pretty well, slowly growing participation for the last couple of years. And next week every house in the neighborhood will receive a hand delivered invitation.

    This provides a non-confrontational way to try to ‘bootstrap’ the neighborhood. Invite a few people you know. Nextdoor will mail out a few postcard invitations for you. Find a few early adopters – perhaps as in my neighborhood there is a long-since moribund neighborhood association with a few board members still floating around. You can print flyers and distribute them.

    It isn’t Facebook – which many people are allergic too – and is a place where lots of incendiary crap flows through people’s feeds – limiting any sense of neighborliness. It is a stand-alone thing for one purpose. I’ve watched a few neighborhood efforts blown apart by what horrors people commit on Facebook.

    Nextdoor does get critized for people making posts like “i saw an african american man walking around suspiscously at 9pm last night”. That happens. I’ve seen it first hand. But it is interesting when someone replies “i think that was me, my cat got out of the house”. Awkward! But I personally find such an exchange to be **hopeful**; the alternative is that conversation *not* happening. That conversation is one tiny step in making the world a better place.

    My [mid-west] neighborhood is a downtown adjacent ‘streetcar suburb’ to which the streetcar never arrived. Then cut off from the business district by a racially routed intersate. Current povery rate is 24% and a 13% unemployment rate. We have a long-term elderly population [those who didn’t flee during the 60s & 70s], and an increasingly diverse younger generation. The deepest part of housing crisis was chilling – it was quiet enough at times that one could hear the street light buzzing. It has its troubles – – – but it is also a really great place to live.

    I would very much recommend active neighboring. It is a small thing you can do that can make a real difference. Selfishly – it prevented me from having to buy [and store] a wheelbarrow – as I discovered a neighbor from whom I could borrow one.

  • JohnM

    I am sorry to say this, but I fear that “resolutions” like the ones approved by the SBC and PCA, only voted this year, are too little and too late. Quite simply these denominations must put “boots on the ground” in the neighborhoods and cities where their inaction, if not outright complicity in the racism which has plagued the USA since the Civil War, needs to be dramatically and publicly reversed.

    Quoting one of your lines above, “If the American republic is dying, it’s because we, like the American evangelical church, deserve it.”

    Where was the evangelical church during the civil rights movement? Why did it take so long to join?

    Mark Noll published a book some years ago, The Civil War as Theological Crisis !!!
    http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7959.html

    Now we must have regular books and articles on “Racism as ongoing theological crisis”,
    and still more we must have lots of churches, dare I say all churches, all across the USA actively demonstrating in some visible way that this racism must stop, and that they are doing something to make that happen.

    • John – I don’t know enough about the SBC world to comment, but the PCA is doing those things. Matt Loftus’s church in Baltimore is a good example. South City in St Louis is another trying to address these issues. That said, it’s complicated: the PCA and SBC are both 80%+ white and having white planters and all white leadership for inner-city churches is usually a terrible approach, so right now we’re still in the “get more diverse leadership” phase of the project. Unfortunately, getting these issues right requires a lot of time.

      • The situation in the SBC is much the same as in the PCA—if anything, it’s probably a few years ahead in terms of developing the leadership. As Jake says, this is largely something that’s going to take a generational turnover to accomplish—not in the sense of getting out bad old leaders (there’s a little of that but it’s no longer the primary issue) but in the sense of having confessionally and institutionally non-white leaders into places of prominence as seminary professors, high-profile and much celebrated pastors, and so on. The SBC elected a black convention president two years ago, and the first crop of black SBC seminary profs is coming of age now. It’s a tragic reality that it’s taken us this long to get here, but we *are* getting here, and leadership from e.g. Moore and Akin is a big part of that: leaders from two and one generations before mine advocating for and making way for these changes at institutional levels. The sea change that involves (and, sadly, the amount of hostility they’ve been subject to for it) is pretty massive.

        If, Lord willing, the SBC is still here in ten years, I think you’ll see a very different picture—and, if the Lord is gracious to the denomination, I think the story in a couple generations will be *very* different, in the best way. Most non-legacy churches, and probably a majority even of legacy churches, in the SBC treat this as a serious priority and recognize it as a major stumbling block for real flourishing and gospel fidelity.

        So again: we are getting there. Is it late coming? Yes. Has it been far too slow? Yes. Is there need for ongoing corporate repentance about that, and about the extent to which there is still active, unrepentant racism in some churches in the denomination? Absolutely. (We need a far stronger kind of confessionalism, of which this should be one part; but that’s for another time.) But the good news is that we are getting there, by the grace of God.

        A small but telling picture of that: our lead pastor—very white, very much from the South, and very representative of many mid-30s pastors in the SBC—sent an email to the whole congregation this morning pleading with us to grieve with the black community, to pray, and to look for ways to help, and noting that we will treat the topic directly and grieve publicly as a congregation in our worship on Sunday. That would have been nearly unheard of a generation back; now it’s normal across a wide variety of kinds of congregations (we saw the same in a different church with very different cultural makeup than this one a year ago after another of these tragedies).

        • JohnM

          Jake and Kris,

          Thank you Jake for your essay, and to both of you for your responses.
          However, they do highlight the point I made about “too little too late” !!! People, groups, organizations, theological formulations, et al are not in place to act strongly right this very minute, to continue work that has long been done, to lead congregations into new actions this moment of crisis.

          Yes, it is good to see that things are now in motion. But, the crisis is right now, right this very minute, everywhere in the USA. Big denominations do not change on a dime, but this is one of those times when that might be exactly what is needed.

          To get there may require a number of extraordinary meetings, academic, and congregational conferences to do the theological and Jesus Christ apprenticeship [Dallas Willard] work that is needed now. Depending on change over a generation is not an option that will do much to help matters rights now.

          “Slow but sure” will likely mean that people soon forget the problem, and we land in the mess we have today, yet again. Not a good option.

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  • Victoria Vista

    Thank you for this article, Jake. Thank you for not adopting a defensive posture. Thank you for not engaging in the logical fallacy of proof by example. Those things said, it’s not Ferguson and the surrounding counties’ police who alone who have toyed and unjustly manhandled the scales of sacred justice, rather whole god-damned, bloody cities in the area have engaged in malfeasance and nonfeasance: the court system, the DAs, the bonds system and the private legal practice. All these actors have colluded to make the lives of Ferguson’s poor wretched and miserable. Read this link by Balko:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/

    I never thought I would say this: I now understand the untramelled rage of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

  • Greywolf

    “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.”

    I don’t disagree that we see this often…but is it only because it’s what the media wants us to see? How often do we hear about good things done by good police officers. I for one am firmly convinced that our national media is no longer just about reporting the news, but pushing a narrative and agenda.

    I’m not denying that bad apples exist in many police departments and other government agencies or organizations. No ones who take seriously the sinfulness of man would deny this. I’m suggesting that our culture could benefit from hearing about the good things happening as well. It could go a long way to healing race relations. In addition to, as you noted, an emphasis on neighborliness.

    I offer this post on RedState for some additional perspective.

    http://www.redstate.com/sweetie15/2016/07/09/shoot/

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