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Monday, November 9, 2015

The "Bonhoeffer Warning"


What will it take?  Must we each be pummeled in order to understand fully the devastating effects of brutal over-reaction by some police?  The October 26th attack by a white police officer against a (supposedly) resistant and disruptive student of color in Columbia, South Carolina is not an isolated incidence, but one more link in the chain of institutionalized racism.  The police officer himself has a spotty record of accusations of similar acts against Black persons.  Like others of this limited group of a similar ilk, he has been exonerated in the past, but still has at least one complaint by a Black male student left to be adjudicated.   The latest incident is under investigation by the federal government to determine if the civil rights of the young female student were violated.  As you know, the officer, Ben Fields, has been fired from his job with the sheriff’s office.

We are seeing what would amount to an epidemic if such incidents occurred as often in predominately-white suburbs, white schools, or white churches. This incident is more significant than it first seems,and that’s the point -- we still don’t seem to understand in an incisive way, and why I write about it now, almost two weeks later.  We tend to think and feel that “life goes on.”  Our experiences, and our contacts, tell us “not to get involved” in things we can’t change.  We continue to position ourselves in such a way that we cannot be touched, or harmed, or involved beyond our means.  We mostly “go along to get along.”  But, these attacks – both those that involve random gun violence in schools, churches and theaters, and those that involve police harming or killing people of color under suspicious circumstances – these acts are no longer isolated; they are seemingly becoming a part of daily life.  They are pernicious, totally invasive and completely disruptive of freedom, and of life itself.   Understanding you want to ask “WHY?” I have to take a major detour at this point to get at the core of the matter.

Slavery of black Africans was initially established in this country around 1600 when White European landowners decided that Native Americans would not serve their purposes. We need to remember that the white settlers of Jamestown and the Massachusetts colony were seeking religious freedom, but some of their Christian concepts were arguably twisted and misguided.  They believed that non-Christians were inferior pagans and  savages, even sub-human.  They believed such aborigines needed the transforming influences of the Gospel that Puritans and Pilgrims too often associated with order, discipline, holiness and destiny.  Their destiny they believed was to establish a righteous kingdom on this earth so that God’s will might be done.  Mix those ingredients with a sense of racial superiority and a desperate need and desire for land and property, protection and survival, as well as a hope for prosperity, and you have the makings for a division of races and something like a caste system, or at least a system of elites and undesirables; conquerors and vanquished.  Slavery of Black men and women was not only an extension of those concepts; it was an inevitable result of those precepts. 

According to Howard Zinn’s Untold History, a ship arrived in 1619 at Jamestown in the colony of Virginia flying a Dutch flag.  Her cargo included twenty Black slaves from Africa.  Although they might have been servants similar to some white servants under indenture to a ‘master’, they were treated differently.  They were sold as objects and property; torn from their land and culture and forced into a situation where the heritage of language, dress, custom, family relations were bit by bit obliterated except for some remnants that Blacks held onto through sheer persistence.  In European countries, where the idea of private property was becoming powerful, theft was brutally punished. 

In the Congo, where the idea of private property was a strange one and communal life was favored, thieves were punished less stringently.  Slavery did exist in the African states, and this was sometimes used by Europeans to justify their own slave trade.  However, as the author points out, servants or slaves in Africa were altogether different from the human cattle of the slave ships and of the American plantations.  “African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the cruelest form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status.”

 There was a relentless caste system built upon color, where white was master; black was slave.  Such a system was built around control: the master controlling every aspect of the slave’s life so that the owner’s property was secure and compliant.

What does all this history have to do with our premise?  Simple: the Emancipation Proclamation may have freed slaves, but the effects of slavery upon our nation and our people have persisted throughout our history and into present-day life and institutions.  We may have made some strides in race relations by means of changes in certain patterns of conduct and passage of certain civil rights laws and rules, or by electing black men and women to office (particularly by electing Barack Obama to the Presidency).  However, that does not change the fact that a caste system continues to exist. 

“Superior” versus “inferior” is still a prevalent concept and an active profile by which we conduct our “business” in too many respects.  Our predominantly White power structure has been able to rid our nation of slavery, but we have not delivered ourselves from the protection of a privileged position or status, and the fear of losing the same.  The means used to protect White power and  supremacy – suppression of civil rights, racial separation and segregation notably in housing, inadequate schools for Black children, lack of jobs and union memberships for Black men and women, uneven justice for racial minorities, incarceration beyond reason for non-violent crime committed by Black men -- are all in place and are indicative of the suppression, control and punishment left over from slavery and its successors like Jim Crow laws and the War on Drugs.

The incident in Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC is one more illustration of the far-reaching effects of slavery and the suppression needed to keep slaves “in their place.”  It is said that the young black teenage woman attacked by the white police officer talked back and refused to follow what she was told to do.  It is also said that she ‘touched’ (maybe ‘struck’) the officer when he approached her (or was it a simple defensive reaction?).  No matter.  There is nothing she did that warrants the over-reaction of that officer.  He was asserting nothing less than the “control and suppression” that has been used to subjugate blacks to whites throughout our history.   Beatings and forms of lynching are still used as deterrents; so are  attacks on fundamental rights like the vote, free speech and the right to be safe in one’s own home.  Moreover,  removal of supports like government-led social programs, the waging of a War on Drugs and disproportionate punishment for non-violent offenses  -- these are all alive, well and flourishing under the leading proponents of superior versus inferior – the right wing of the Republican Party.

One more major Point:  one citizen or non-citizen denied rights or opportunity because of race, national origin or ethnicity is equivalent to all of us being denied those rights.  We can’t ignore, overlook, or escape what is unjust and unfair, or damaging to others.   This is what too many voters fail to realize and address.  Attacks on rights, equality, justice, and equal opportunities --  whether perpetrated on individuals or on institutions and organizations like Labor and Planned Parenthood – must be addressed.  If citizens do not speak out, act upon, or protest in some way when others are attacked, be aware of the warning given by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian, in regard to the Nazis: 

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

What hurts one individual or group will eventually hurt us all.  For we are not simply a gathering of separate individuals, walled-off by certain characteristics.  We are a nation; we are a People; we are a commonwealth.  We are a community of inter-connected individuals bound together by our human nature and unalienable rights.    

Here is your chance: speak out just as classmate Niya Kennedy did.  Speak out about the unlimited power and lack of oversight of police forces and the unlimited discretion given to district attorney’s offices.  We cannot tolerate:
·         denial of a person’s rights and freedoms
·         militarized police forces whose purpose is not to protect but to attack
·         unsupervised and unrestricted police, DAs, and judges, as well as inadequate public defenders and lack of mentors
·         armored police vehicles and police forces separated from the communities they serve
·         the abuse of our children by police, teachers, education administrators, or anyone in public office, including legislators who write and pass legislation antithetical to the health and well-being of children
·         the alarming rate of  incarceration of people of color for non-violent crimes for which they are disproportionately sentenced, and then made to pay for the rest of their lives with the label of “felon.”   

That teenage girl you saw violently flipped out of her chair and then tossed across the room toward the door – that girl – Shakira - is the daughter of us all.  She deserves our support and our commitment to speak out when the White power bloc denigrates her personhood with physical abuse and then places blame upon her for being “disruptive.”  We cannot tolerate such abuse for it is not only contrary to our principles; it is not in our best interest. As injustice and intolerance always do – they catch up to us and take away something precious from our lives and from the ideals upon which this nation was founded.  The path to destruction of our ideals and our principles is strewn with lost opportunities for protest and redress of grievances.  We cannot maintain our form of democracy by ignoring threats to liberty, equality and justice for all.    

The subject of Civil Rights is never just about people of color.  My civil rights, Shakira’s civil rights and your Civil Rights are inextricably intertwined.  Restricting the ability of certain groups to cast a ballot in a free and unfettered process is anathema to a democracy.  What’s more, when African and Hispanic Americans (and others, like students and some workers) are denied their right to vote because of petty nuances and strictures -- such as government-approved ID cards and the closing of registration offices in particular neighborhoods -- such actions diminish my vote.  Why? Because it means I am a privileged voter in a democracy that has no place for such elitism.  It means that I have cast a vote that outweighs the effect of someone else’s vote, which therefore makes my vote a dishonest and unjust vote. 

When the Supreme Court justified the rapacious removal of a part of the Voting Rights Act “because we don’t need it anymore,” the Court took part in thievery, inequality and injustice.   When the Court decided that the federal government no longer needs to pre-test the efficacy of state voting laws and practices, it laid the scourge of disenfranchisement back upon those who are not protected by their own state government.  Accepting that particular ruling of the Court means that when I go to vote, I am unwittingly supporting and condoning not only the Court’s neglect of the voting rights of certain citizens, but of all citizens.

 Civil Rights and Voting Rights are not “passing fancies.”  These rights go to the essence of our form of governing.  We must act toward them as Guardians of our Republic, not as Protectors-at-all-costs of a political Party.  Likewise, when we see what happened to that young teenager in South Carolina, we must recognize its universality, for it happened to us all.  Our Civil Rights were abrogated; our bodies were slammed.  Our sense of equal justice and of human dignity was brought low.  We were all attacked because she was attacked. 


Speak out now, for tomorrow may be too late and you and I could have no one left to speak on our behalf when our rights are trampled and denied.