Alton Sterling’s Life Mattered

Last night, Alton Sterling was killed by police while selling CDs in front of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, LA. Police were called to the scene after receiving an anonymous tip that someone near the convenience store might have been carrying a firearm. While it is possible that Sterling did have a gun, disturbing video of the shooting makes clear that Sterling was not a threat to the police officers that shot him. Sterling was pinned to ground when an officer shot him at point blank range without warning or cause.

Shootings like this defy adequate words or explanation. It is not enough to simply offer thoughts and prayers to Sterling’s family, nor is enough to chalk up Sterling’s murder to the work of “a few bad apples.” Sterling’s death is yet another stark reminder that we must mobilize and demand comprehensive justice and police reform in the United States, and we must insist on confronting head-on the evil and powerful specter of racism that still exists in the United States today.

As disciples of a God who urges us to love all nations and all people as unconditionally as he loves, yet who also demonstrates special concern for the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden, it is our sacred responsibility to confront the evil and sinful factors that led to Sterling’s death.

While it is impossible to know what was in the officer’s heart when he shot Sterling, we know that hundreds of Black men and women die during encounters with the police every year. Disproportionately, Black and Brown victims of police violence are unarmed. In almost all cases, armed or not, police were capable of confronting the situation through non-lethal means but chose not to. While there is a disturbing trend of police violence against all people, Black and white, people of color are more likely to be confronted by police, and police are quicker to use lethal force against a person of color than a white person.

There should be little doubt, therefore, that Sterling’s death is the result of a racist justice system and racist policing practices. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Sterling’s killer was “racist” in the sense that he knowingly and maliciously harbors prejudice against African Americans. It does mean that as a result of implicit biases and ingrown stereotypes supported by media and culture, Sterling’s killer was more willing to pull the trigger on him than a white man. Alton Sterling’s life didn’t matter as much, because of the color of his skin.

No doubt, in the following days, the media will parade a negative narrative against Alton Sterling. The media will make Sterling out to be a “thug,” – a racial codeword that they will no doubt use. They will dig up past criminal accusations against Sterling and bring out acquaintances to say he was violent. They will focus on the gun that might have been in his pocket and speculate about whether there was marijuana in his system.

I’m not going to listen, because it doesn’t matter. Here’s the bottom line: Alton Sterling was a beloved child of God. A person who’s life was just as precious as any of ours.

I can’t pretend to understand how Sterling’s family feels after losing their loved one, nor can I pretend to know the fear and anxiety all people of color must feel when they see the police. I know that I will never be killed by police for selling CDs outside of a convenience store, regardless of what’s in my pocket.

All I can do is insist that my condolences are not enough. If I really grieve for Alton Sterling, if I really believed his life matters, I will do everything I can to see that real, substantive change comes not just to our laws but also to our hearts. Ultimately, I know that the degree to which I believe Alton Sterling matters is the same degree to which I believe God matters.

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Emmett Eldred is a senior Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.

 

 

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Ferguson, One Year Later

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. Michael, a young unarmed Black man, was shot by a police officer. Michael Brown’s death brought a new level of awareness to a serious epidemic in the United States: the abuse of deadly force by police officers in even routine community policing scenarios, particularly against unarmed Black men and women.

If there is one thing that we have witnessed since Michael Brown’s death, it is indelible proof that the justice system in the United States is deeply broken, and it has been broken along racial lines. There is a justice system that white Americans experience, and there is a profoundly different, decidedly more harsh justice system that Black Americans experience.

What we’ve known all along but are only now beginning to fully admit is that virtually every structure in our society, not just our justice system, aches to be healed of racial inequality. Our economy, our political system, our education system, our industry, our social lives, all afford advantages to white people and disadvantages to Black people.

This is the situation that the #BlackLivesMatters movement seeks to transform.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers on transforming our racist system or on any other aspect of the #BlackLivesMatters movement and the issues it seeks to address and overcome. What I do have is the willingness to listen to the organizers of the movement. I feel the prodding of Jesus through the Gospel to be an agent of inclusive peace. I ache to listen to the stories of deep pain and injustice that the Black community has been telling for generations, but that I have only now begun to hear in earnest. I seek now to understand, more than I seek to be understood.

I will add a disclaimer before I reach the main section of this article. The Dunker Punks movement values racial diversity and aims to be racially diverse. However, as a movement within the Church of the Brethren, it is a sad reality that we, like the COB are mostly white. This article reflects that reality by speaking specifically to what white Dunker Punks can do to be partners in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is my hope that regardless of your racial identity, you may be enriched and energized by this article, as it reflects our dream of justice and our commitment to seek peace and pursue it.

So, humbly, I present just one step that we Dunker Punks (specifically white Dunker Punks) must take to continue to work for true racial justice and reconciliation, one year after Michael Brown’s death.

We must admit our sin. 

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1: 7-10

It’s easy and natural for someone like me, a socially-conscious, Jesus-loving, justice-seeking, white person to try to absolve myself from the sin of racism. I bet a lot of you reading this blog fit into all of those categories as well, so I think you can relate. We correct even the subtlest of racial bias in ourselves in others, we actively strive to create an environment of inclusive language and attitudes, and we are quick to admonish phrases or actions that cut against those goals. We attend protests for racial justice, we wag our fingers at Confederate flags. We say all the right things, do all the right things.

So I can’t possibly be a racist, right?

Wrong.

I think the first step that I have to take to be a more active and genuine advocate for racial justice is to admit my sin to myself, to my brothers and sisters in Christ, and to God: I am a racist.

And you probably are one too.

I know that that is a highly controversial statement.
I know that you are flooding to the comment section and to Twitter and to Facebook to say mean things about me.
Please, let me explain.

In our modern political discussions about racism, we have backed racism into a dark corner where we can stand a safe distance from it, point our finger at it, and feel morally superior because it doesn’t apply to us.

In the United States, we easily understand our history of racism. Slavery was racist. The confederacy was racist. Jim Crow was racist. Segregation was racist. But that was yesterday! Those days are in the past! Right?

Wrong. There are still structures within our society that are racist. I believe that the first step to overcoming my own racism is to better understand what racism looks like in the 21st century. We’ve conflated racism with racial bias and racial hatred. They are not the same thing.

Racism is a system of advantage (and disadvantage) based on race. On Earth Peace often explains it this way on social media: “racism = racial bias + the misuse of systemic power.” Racism is when some people have advantages, and others disadvantages, based on their race.

Understanding it this way, it becomes pretty obvious that we in the United States live in a racist system. By just about any social marker, the average white person experiences major advantages over the average Black person, in terms of wealth, income, social status, education, environment, as well as social perceptions. And of course, the justice system.

That’s a racist system. And since I benefit from it because of my race, doesn’t that, at least in some sense, make me a racist? I think so. An unintentional racist, to be sure. An unwilling racist. But a racist.

So, when I say that you might be a racist, too, I’m not accusing you of harboring racial bias or racial hatred. I’m inviting you to admit that if you are white, you have benefited from our racist system. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, nor does it diminish the struggles that you face in life or the hard work you’ve put into your successes. But it is a reality we must oppose and for which we must repent.

You might say that it’s fine to admit our role in racial injustice, but what does that actually solve vis-a-vis Michael Brown and #BlackLivesMatter? How does admitting our racism progress us towards the goal of racial justice?

We might remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 7: 3-5:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

As white partners in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we need to call out racism in our society and in others, but we must first and continuously call out racism in ourselves. Otherwise, our efforts will be undone by hypocrisy and a lack of perspective.

If we fail to address our own racism, we haven’t identified racism wherever it exists, and we can’t fully eradicate it. It’s like when you count all the people in your group, but you forget to count yourself. It’s not complete.

1 John 1: 9 says that if we confess our sins, not only are we forgiven, but we have the chance to be cleansed from our unrighteousness. When we confess our sin, it becomes possible for us to move past that sin and sin no more. If we can summon the courage to admit that we are racist, we can begin the work of racial reconciliation until we are no longer racist because racism no longer exists.

In practical terms, I’m repeating that old addict’s adage: the first step to solving a problem is admitting that we have one. I am admitting that I am a racist, in hopes that I can be some small part in solving the problem of racism.

It is time to stop being defensive. It is time to stop voicing support for racial justice in one breath, while hedging our own culpability for racial injustice with the next breath. I believe that peace, justice, and reconciliation can blossom and thrive. And let it begin with me.

To quote Amos:

“Let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream!”

And let it begin with me. Amen.


Emmett Eldred - Hollidaysburg COB, Middle PA District

Emmett Eldred is a junior Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.

Want to contribute? Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and/or email Emmett at dunkerpunks2014@gmail.com.

Views expressed on the Dunker Punks blog do not necessarily reflect the views of everyone within the Dunker Punks movement. We are a diverse group united by Christ, not uniform in agreement. 

One Dunker Punk’s Thoughts On Protest

Last night, a crowd of 300-500 nonviolent protesters gathered in the cold rain in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to peacefully voice their anger, anguish, and fear after several recent high profile instances of police killing uprotest7narmed black men. The protest was organized by several Pittsburgh high school students, and it was attended by mostly high school and college students, with some adults. It was one of dozens of #ShutItDown protests taking place across the country: peaceful protesters gathering, rallying, and then marching down the street. I was one of the protesters, and I wanted to share my experiences and thoughts with all my Dunker Punks friends.

First, here’s how things went down for me:

I arrived at approximately 5:05 PM, about 5 minutes after the protest was scheduled to begin. The protest took place in a public area called Schenley Plaza. The people were packed around a series of speakers using a megaphone. By the time I got there, the crowd was too large to even see the people speaking, so I circled the crowd taking pictures.

At around 5:45, we began theprotest3 “Shut It Down” part of the protest. We made a loop around two city blocks, marching on the two major streets in this area of Pittsburgh, and chanting phrases like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter.” This took all of about 15 minutes, but it sent a powerful message, and onlookers joined the crowd as we continued to march.

When we returned to Schenley Plaza, we made a circle in the intersection. The organizers stood in the middle of the circle, and led us in a few chants. After the organizers left the circle, the protesters joined in an impromptu “die in,” where they laid on the ground for a few minutes in the intersection. The organizers came back, and asked the crowd to peacefully disperse. We had made our point, and it was time to be cooperative and respectful, especially since the people of Pittsburgh and the police had been cooperative and respectful to us.

At this point, I left, which leads me to my thoughts: 

First of all, this was an entirely student led protest. It was organized by a group of high school students. They saw something wrong with the world, and they decided to do something about it. That’s Dunker Punk level leadership, and it’s also a Dunker Punks challenge. If you think you’re too young to make a difference or take leadership, look at all the amazing young people across the world who are doing just that.

I also want to make it clear that the Pittsburgh Police were exemplary in this protest, protest13and they deserve a lot of credit for the actions they took. Though the police responded to the situation, they did so in a calm, measured, and respectful way. It became immediately clear to me that they were concerned with protecting our safety and our right to protest, rather than with clearing the protest so that the city could return to its business. The police cleared the streets and stopped traffic so that we wouldn’t be in danger of oncoming cars.

These protests are not to say that all police are bad. We know that all police aren’t bad, and everyone at this protest saw it first hand. These protests are to say that there are bad police who use bad tactics, tactics that are far too forceful, and tactics that have very clear racial bias to them. These protests are to say that there is a system in place that protects the bad police, rather than encouraging all police to be like the good ones. These protests are to say that the system acts as if black lives do not matter. These protests are to say that there are people in this country who feel afraid and demonized by the people who are supposed to protect and serve them. These protests are to say that the black community is deeply hurting at the loss of its loved ones. And that’s why I joined the protest. I’ve never felt afraid or untrusting of the police. I’ve never been hurt by the police. And I think everyone deserves to live in a world where they can feel that way. If I was a good police officer, I would feel outraged at the bad police officers who are tarnishing my efforts and commitment to protect people and make them feel safe.

And that takes me to some of the negatives that I saw in the protest:

First: the crowd was very exprotest12cited, and it was getting a lot of positive energy from the people speaking. Until this one guy took the megaphone. Whereas every other speaker was a black man or woman (they were mostly women), this guy was a white man. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’ll get to that in a moment), but his message was bad. He took this opportunity in front of hundreds of people to promote his own political organization. He talked at length about what his organization does and when and where they meet. You could feel the crowd deflating. In terms of energy, it was the low point of the night.

Second: There are chants that I think are productive, and there are chants that I think are counterintuitive. I like chants like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter” and “Shut It Down.” These chants are all peaceful and nonviolent. They call attention to injustice, while elevating the conversation to a higher standard. I don’t like chants like “No Justice, No Peace” or chants about individual racist police officers or chants that use profanity. These chants still highlight the injustice, but they make it hard for the protesters to separate themselves from the injustice that they are protesting.

Saprotest8ying “no justice, no peace” is to say, “I have been treated wrongly, so I will respond with wrongdoing.” It’s a promise, or at least an invitation, to violence. And it’s not what is needed. Talking about individual racist police officers makes the conversation about vindication and vengeance, rather than about seeking to dissolve injustice. There is absolutely a big racial bias in our justice system, and the presence of racism needs to be addressed. But making it about individual racist police diminishes the problem and represents only a narrow conception of justice. I’m not offended when I hear profanity, but using profanity allows critics of these protests to make it about the language that the protesters are using, rather than the change they are seeking. Don’t give critics that ammo. Use language that is becoming of the change you wish to enact.

Nonviolent protest is effective because it draws a contrast between the victims and the perpetrators. It highlights the depravity of violence and injustice. It showcases the suffering caused by oppression. If your protest against injustice comes with the promise of acts of violence, or even the suggestion that that is acceptable, you are defeating yourself.

Finally, the protest continued after I left. I’m not against a long-winded protest, but I do think it was wrong in this case to continue, only because the organizers of the protest had asked the crowd to disperse or at least return to the sidewalk. As I was walking away, I turned around to see the protesters again heading down the street, except this time it was a much smaller, much whiter crowd. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a protest, and that’s ok, but I do think protests should remain respectful to their organizers. The students who marched down the street a second time effectively demonstrated that they did not respect the leadership of the organizers. They hijacked the protest for their own reasons. But I want to be clear that my objection to this second protest was not because of the disruption it caused to traffic, but because it was outside the scope and leadership of the protest, and I’ll explain why shortly.

This brings me to my last section, tips for Dunker Punks if you want to join a protest: 

Tip #1: Listen to the organizers, and respect their leadership. Chances are, your protest will be organized by black men and women, and chances are, if you’re a Dunker Punk, you are probably white. Not all Dunker Punks are white. We’re a diverse group, but in general the Churcprotest17h of the Brethren in the United States is a very white denomination. This is something we should fix, but it’s also just a true statement for the purposes of this article.

If you’re white, you’re more than welcome to get involved and protest. I’m white. It’s important that Dunker Punks care about these issues. But if you’re white, you have to take extra care to take a supportive and not leading role in protests like these that have racial motivations. It’s great that you want to get involved and make a difference, but if you become so dominant that you are usurping control of the situation, you are in effect reinforcing the influence of white supremacy in our society. White people aren’t supreme, but they have been raised in an environment that encourages them to take control of situations and be leaders. In this case, take care to be a follower, and if you see other white people doing this, say something to them. They probably don’t realize that their good intentions are being expressed in the wrong way. Remember that I said that the second protest was predominantly white, whereas the first was predominantly black. And remember that white guy who took the megaphone and promoted his own organization and cause. If you’re white, support, be empathetic, take leadership when it is appropriate, but don’t usurp leadership from black organizers.

Additionally, listening to the organizers is the best way to ensure that the protest stays under control. If the protest gets out of control, that when it can get violent or destructive.

protest4Tip #2: Research the protest beforehand. As Dunker Punks, we should feel compelled to make a difference in the things that matter to us, but we must also be sure that we are using the proper, Christlike channels. Our motivation is not simply to seek out change, but to seek out change that looks like Jesus, in ways that look like Jesus. Please research to make sure the organizers of your protest are clear about keeping this nonviolent. In my case, the organizers were clear in inviting others to the protest that it was strictly nonviolent, and no violence would be tolerated.

Tip #3: Look like Jesus at the protest. If your protest is large enough, there will be people who believe in using violent measures to get what they want. There are always extremists. But we aren’t extremists, we’re radicals. And as radical Christians, we must look at the roots of our faith, where we see Jesus, who very clearly condemns violence, especially in response to injustice. Follow Jesus at your protests, don’t chant “No Justice, No Peace.” More importantly, don’t believe it. Don’t incite violence, and stop violence if you see it happening. Be peaceful, be nonviolent, but never keep your eye off the goal of stopping injustice. That’s how we enact cross-shaped change.

How are you making the world look more like Jesus? Use #DunkerPunksCare, or fill out a Dunker Punks profile!


Emmett Eldred - Hollidaysburg COB, Middle PA DistrictEmmett Eldred is a sophomore Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.