Eric Garner, Michael Brown, You, and Me

justice ericgarner nyt

I am glad that Officer Daniel Pantaleo was acquitted in the death of Eric Garner.

No, I don’t mean that I’m glad Eric Garner died, or I’m glad that Pantaleo was declared innocent. What I mean is this:

You see, with Ferguson (the death of Michael Brown) there was a question of what exactly happened, since there were conflicting stories from eye witnesses. But there were two general perspectives about why Brown died at the hands of Officer Wilson:

  • White community: “Brown was a drugged-up and thuggish aggressor, and Wilson acted in self-defense. I don’t understand why everyone is so angry.”
  • Black community: “Wilson was acquitted of wrong-doing because the system is rigged against us. That is why we are frustrated.”

(Of course, I’m generalizing here, because the lines are not that clear. But you get the idea.)

What Happened

For those who need to catch up, Garner was a black man who was allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes in New York City this past summer. Panteleo and other officers questioned him, and then restrained him, using an unauthorized chokehold. The chokehold was the cause of Garner’s death.

The facts were clear here (as opposed to the Ferguson case), because it was all caught on camera. And that’s why I say I’m glad that he was acquitted. Because no one can make the case that this was self-defense. No one can make the case that the soon-to-be-dead man was aggressive. No one can make the case that being accused of selling cigarettes is any reason to have deadly force used against you.

We white people wondered about the rage expressed in Ferguson just a few weeks ago, having no context for the feelings that erupted. But now (to me, and to you, I hope) it makes sense. It should be quite obvious that something is wrong with our system and our culture.

One Perspective

A few days ago, in a conversation over social media (those are always helpful, right?) about Ferguson, someone made the remark that people need to “know how to respect the system.”

But what if “the system” has been rigged against me and my family for decades? What if the seeds of sin and decay did not change much from 1850 to 1950 to 1990, or (as I taught in my Social Studies class) that many of the injustice issues of 1904 are still present in 2014?

I’m not sure that I could respect a “system” that would allow a person of a certain ethnic group to kill one of my grandparents without reason, in cold blood, and then completely get away with it, based only on the color of their skin. I’m not sure I could respect a “system” that says “separate but equal” is a good thing. I’m not sure I could respect a system that perpetuates any division which the gospel fights against (Galatians 3:28).

I’m not saying that the system is bad, or that it’s ok to rebel against the system. I’m just saying I can see why some people would struggle to respect it.

. . . And Another

I asked a good friend of mine (a black guy whom I played football with in college) for his thoughts. He and I have had lots of conversations about racial issues, theology, and living missionally. Some of his comments were challenging and enlightening to me, and I think they will be for you, too:

“Our country has a history of discrimination and killing people for being black, a fact remembered with firsthand-knowledge by many who are still alive.”

“It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to watch “12 Years as a Slave” knowing you would have been treated like an animal for no other reason than for being black. Systematic racism has taken a serious toll on black people.”

“Why don’t white people riot? The answer is because white people have never been lynched en mass by blacks without a way to retaliate. Never have they been told they can’t go to school with black people. Never denied a water fountain reserved for black people. Never been in a long-standing inferior position with no hope of changing it. I think people assume the same home they have for a better future is held by poor black people. It’s just not. When people are hopeless, they riot.”

“When I watch a movie about slavery or the Civil Rights era, there is a feeling of intense anger. Funny thing is, it’s coupled with a strong sense of hurt and an absence of hope, at least for the immediate future. Maybe . . . Anger + Hurt + Hopelessness = Rioting.”

A Solution?

In another social media conversation (sigh…), I was accused of not providing a solution to the case of Eric Garner. And his accusation was accurate.

I do not have a simple solution, to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. I wish I did. I wish someone did. You wish someone did.

But I have some thoughts of what is needed. To move towards a hope-filled solution, we need more understanding. We have a bunch of people (white) saying, “Suck it up. It’s a good system,” without any effort to understand what other people are feeling.

We need more gospel truth brought to the table. Nothing breaks down divisions like the gospel of Jesus Chris.

We need people to actively seek friendships with people from a different ethnic and socioeconomic culture. And this must be done not with the intent to give and teach, but with the intent to learn and receive.

And I’m not saying that we white people (and I’m half-Colombian, half-Russian Jew, but I’ll put myself in the white category) need to make atonement for the sins of our ancestors over the past 200 years. But I am saying we have to seek to understand why black people are frustrated. To shrug it off is laziness at best, and arrogant indifference at worst.

Something is wrong with our “system.” But I won’t tell you to ignore your feelings and thoughts. I just ask that you make an effort to understand and sympathize with the feelings of someone who views this situation completely different than you.

And for bonus points, don’t limit your search for understanding to what you read on the internet, and especially not social media. Go talk with someone.

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4 thoughts on “Eric Garner, Michael Brown, You, and Me

  1. I love this Joey. I’ve always struggled with social injustice. I grew up in a very segregated town where our junior high and high schools crowned a “Miss White (grade level)” queen and “Miss Black (grade level)” queen, and the “bad kids” we’re the ones that were in interracial relationships. And I am 34! Not 74! Absolutely there are people in the world who still see people of a different race as inferior, and naturally when you are black and encounter that it leaves you frustrated. To me the problem has always seemed to stem from a lack of understanding of how the other side feels… arrogant indifference is an excellent way to describe it. And that is me too, because although it has always bothered me, I haven’t sought a gospel-centered approach either, I have just rolled my eyes at people who are “set in their ways.” Thanks for your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great points and very well said. I agree with every word of it. I keep seeing people post “what about this white person that was killed, what about this white kid that never saw justice” type defense and it drives me crazy. One wrong doesn’t negate another wrong. Injustice is injustice. And we need more people simply bothered by that and less bothered by rather or not our injustice is equal. not that it’s ok that It actually clearly isn’t, but we could actually rally together and speak out against injustice, period! It doesn’t have to be one side or the other. I say the same about the rioting- not a great choice as a response? Sure, but it actually has no baring at all on what is or isn’t right initially. Bad response to a bad problem. They don’t negate each other either.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great thoughts, Joey. It’s really difficult to break through the roots of racism in your life, regardless of who you are. I willingly admit as a pasty white guy that it is hard for me to understand the frustration of the black community. And much of why it’s hard is because I don’t have deep enough relationship with someone of another ethnicity so that I can hear their perspective. It is frustrating that there’s so much division in society, and in the church in particular – since all believers are one in Christ. You bring up great points, and have great advice here. I hope more people will heed this and take the opportunity to learn rather than pontificate. And it is my prayer that the hope of the gospel can bring healing to many people, and even to the broken system
    Thanks for your post.


    • Thanks, Jimmy. And as I’ve kept thinking about this issue today, and have had a few other conversations, I am convinced that it comes down to the need for the gospel to overcome divisions. If the gospel is about anything, it’s about healing relationships and destroying divisions.

      Thanks for your comments and wisdom!


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