In a violent and fragmented society, sometimes the grief is so deep that I cannot help responding as a father as well as a Christian pastor and a political leader. All of the children are our children, whether it is a baby shot amid a senseless crime in Chapel Hill or a child shot in two seconds by a trigger-happy cop in Cleveland.
There is a time for prophetic grief. As I heard the news about the Ohio prosecutor’s decision to not bring charges against the police officers who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, I got a call from a friend asking for a comment on the death of Maleah Williams, a 1-year-old killed on Christmas Day by a drive-by shooting in a North Carolina housing project. I told him I could not comment. My rage and lamentation went beyond any words I could offer.
Though I had plenty to say, I could hear the Bible’s admonition against speaking out of wrath. I know, too, that grieving precedes but does not preclude moral action. As I hung up the phone, I let the tears flow and sat still as the reality of black death washed over me.
I picked up Dr. Cornel West’s Prophesy Deliverance and read that opening line in the third chapter which seared its truth upon my memory the first time I read it because the reality was already imprinted upon my soul: “The notion that black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West.”
Black people’s humanity is still at question in the stories so many of us hear and tell in America. For many with a badge, a gun, and the legal shield of the state, black men and women—even black children—are not humans. Instead, black bodies are threats and targets for rage, fear and racially justified execution. When an officer of the law exterminates on the spot, we must ask ourselves what he was shooting. In his mind, Tamir could not have been a boy. He could not have been human. What did he see? And who bewitched him (and us) to “see things” when we are entirely sober?
One of my friends, a prophetic journalist from Missouri, Rev. Carl Kenny, sent me this after a reader of his column told him the grand jury worked properly:
My reader is affirming this opinion in a way that challenges us to move beyond these incidents as individual cases. These deaths are not about the guilt of the victims or the innocence of the police. Tamir’s death may not be about his age or the fact the gun was a toy. These cases may involve the common sentiment among those chosen to rule on these cases.
Black people deserve to die.
Black people deserve to be punished for being black. The evidence doesn’t matter. The background of the person is insignificant. The experience and training of police officers fails to change the conclusion. What is the conclusion? In the minds of some who are called to serve and protect, it is a crime to be black. In the minds of some who serve on grand juries, when police kill a black person, they are simply doing their job.