The Meaning of #Ferguson

Generally I write about things on my blog that are not the same things as I'm preaching on -- the blog is an outlet for thoughts that aren't about something I will be preaching on, but still want to get out there.  This past week, I threw out my regularly scheduled sermon to write about Ferguson, as many ministers did around the country.  Because I was channeling all my reading and research and thoughts into the sermon, however, it meant a lack of blog writing on the subject.  For those not in my pews, therefore, I realize it can feel like I've been silent on the subject.  So I'm doing what I don't very often do, and posting my entire sermon, lightly edited, to this blog.  The sermon I was to give was a reprise of one I did post to this blog, a sermon entirely in rhyme about Earth Day and The Lorax.  It's the tenth anniversary of my call to the church, and I had asked people to vote on their favorite sermons of ones I have given over the past ten years.  So during announcements, I announced the change thusly:
There once was a minister who planned far ahead,
Not knowing that current events would instead
Make her wish her week’s sermon was not planned
So that she could respond to events in our land.

She had planned to give her whole sermon in rhyme.
When she gave it before, it was liked at the time.
It was a sermon that was given for a holiday, Earth Day,
And speaking in rhyme was an unusual way
To bring attention to the message of global warming
And all the climate trouble that’s forming

It’s still a relevant message, so she’ll give it next week,
But if it was next week’s sermon on art that you seek,
Well, don’t fret, because it’s likely a topic this year.
Ann Green, you see, is likely to steer
The sermon she purchased at auction that way.
And, so the message that you’ll hear today
Is not the one that was in your Bellnote.
Not the one that got the vote,
That was submitted when Cindy asked for your choice
Of sermon for her anniversary to voice.

Nevertheless, there’s more ways to celebrate,
This ten-year occasion, than just when we congregate.
A party at Elissa’s is coming on Saturday at seven.
Or seven thirty, either way, it’s sure to be heaven.
We’ll hope to see you there.  And again, come next week,
If it was the Lorax/Earth sermon you came here to seek.

It was a light moment in an otherwise solemn service.  The reading was "A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes.  And here's the sermon.  Please forgive that my footnotes are not all in Chicago Style, and that it's still a little bit rough.  Sermons are an oral presentation style, not a written one.  The hashtag in the title is a reference, of course, to the role of Twitter in getting this story out.  There are many things I haven't covered in this sermon -- how the rights of the press have been suppressed, the discussion that's being had about the militarization of the police, and how the media covers the deaths of young, black men (although I mention this briefly).  Those are all important subjects to look at, and I hope I will, in time.

"The Meaning of #Ferguson"

Ninety-five years ago, in the summer of 1919, which would come to be known as the “Red Summer,” race riots broke out in cities across this country – in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Connecticut, Tennessee, Maryland,  Arizona, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas, you get the picture.  Not here, but Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In Chicago, they started when a young black man was stoned while swimming in an area reserved for whites, and drowned, and Chicago police refused to arrest those who did the stoning.[i]  The Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay wrote a poem for that summer, “If We Must Die,”  The poem reads:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Fifty years ago was the summer known as Freedom Summer, a summer devoted to registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi.  It was then and there that three young civil rights workers were killed – twenty-one-year old James Earl Chaney, an African American young man from Mississippi, and two Caucasian young men from New York, 20-year-old Andrew Goodman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner.  Paul Simon was a classmate of Andrew Goodman, and he dedicated a song he had written before the death, “He Was My Brother,” to Goodman:
He was my brother
Five years older than I
He was my brother
Twenty-three years old the day he died
Freedom rider
They cursed my brother to his face
“Go home, outsider,
This town is gonna be your buryin’ place
The folk-singer Tom Paxton wrote, similarly:
Calm desperation and flickering hope,
Reality grapples like a hand on the throat.
For you live in the shadow of ten feet of rope,
If you're Goodman and Schwerner and Chaney.

A lot of things have changed since 95 years ago and 50 years ago.  But this summer, the way things have erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s bringing those summers back to mind.  There are no songs or poetry emerging yet that I’ve heard, although time will tell.  What we have, in the internet age, is a hashtag -- #iftheygunnedmedown.  What the hashtag is about is young African-American men and women posting two different pictures of themselves on Twitter.  One is a picture of them in college or high school graduation robes, or in military uniform.  The other is in street clothes, flashing a gang sign.  And the question is, if they gunned me down, which picture would the media use? 

This sermon is not about the details, and about whether this young man, Michael Brown, was a good kid or a thug.  What I have to say today is about why this case has become so important, why we’re talking about this young man’s death at all, and why there is protesting still going on down in Ferguson.

So, briefly, what we think we know, for those who haven’t been following the news, is that a young man, 18-years-old and college bound, African-American, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson.  It looks like, based on the latest news, that Michael Brown may have stolen some cigarettes or cigars from a local store.  It was reportedly a strong-arm robbery, which means the thief was unarmed.  It would be shoplifting, but it appears was a tussle with the store owner who tried to stop the thief, which would make it strong-arm robbery by definition.  This robber is alleged to be Michael Brown, but that’s not completely proven.  [Update: It’s now being reported that the shopkeepers didn’t call in to 911, that Michael Brown paid for his purchases, and that a call was made by another shopper.]  It then appears that as Michael Brown was walking somewhere, a police officer ordered him to get out of the street and stop walking in the street.  One witness says they then ran, another witness says she saw Michael Brown struggling to get away from the police officer who had grabbed him through his window.  It also seems that while the stop was unrelated to the robbery, by this point the officer may have linked Brown to the robbery.  Brown then, according to a witness, breaks away and runs away, and is shot.  He then spins around, holds his hands up in the air to surrender, and is shot several more times.  He then is left, dying or dead, for quite a while, untouched, with a crowd gathering, until an ambulance arrives. 

So Michael Brown was not, possibly, a perfect citizen for us to be rallying around.  Or maybe he was just an 18-year-old kid out for a walk.  Whether he was or was not does not matter.  It’s really beside the point.  As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow:
When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards—or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do—shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices—often for less compelling reasons—are in fact going to college. The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners.  All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives.[ii]
In Michael Brown’s situation, his mistakes, if he made any, didn’t lead to his incarceration, but to his death.  Here in 2014, it seems that this young man’s life, Michael Brown’s life, matters beyond his family, but to the nation.  Why? 

This story of Michael Brown came on the heels of another African-American man, Eric Garner, who was killed this summer by the police, in New York City.[iii]  An asthmatic, he was put in an illegal choke hold and died on the street.  Also this summer, John Crawford, in Ohio, was shot and killed inside a Walmart.  Unlike Michael Brown and Eric Garner, he was armed.  Armed with a BB gun he picked up on the shelf in Wal-Mart, with intent to, perhaps, purchase.  And Ezell Ford, in California, was killed this summer.  Also unarmed, it’s reported he was shot in the back while lying on the ground.  Dante Taylor, in California, this week, was unarmed, tazed by the police when he resisted arrest, and died.  A robbery suspect had ridden away on a bicycle, and Dante Taylor was on a bicycle.  Many of these African-American men didn’t behave perfectly in the situation.  But they were all unarmed, all African-American, all dead at the hands of police. 
What is true in this country is that white Americans and black Americans have a very different experience of law enforcement in this country, and very different expectations of how we’ll be treated in encounters with them.  White Americans, largely, are taught that police are to be respected, admired, and are there to protect you.  Police can be expected to come when you call, to respond to you politely, and to treat you with respect.  Police are not expected to hassle you or stop you when you’re walking down the street or driving down the street, unless you’re speeding.  And when you are stopped for speeding you have a polite chat, get your ticket, and drive on your way.  White people can reasonably expect when they’re in a store and walking out that they will not be stopped; even if the security alarm buzzes as you go out, you’ll be waved on your way.  How many of you watch Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC?  Did you know she is a Unitarian Universalist?  Melissa Harris-Perry reports that a black person is killed by a white police officer at least twice a week from 2006-2012.[iv]

The protests in Ferguson have taken up the chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as reportedly Michael Brown had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” 

After Trayvon Martin, we heard a lot in the media about how African-American men are socialized in this country – told respect and not challenge law enforcement in any way, because those encounters, in the African-American community, are considered to be encounters that can easily become deadly.  It’s hard for white people to understand the reality of growing up and living in a way where the police aren’t your protectors, they’re your antagonists, where you might be stopped and detained regularly for no reason. 
This isn’t new.  In 2001, talking about a man who attempted to get into the White House when George W. Bush was president, with a gun, comedian Chris Rock said, on the Daily Show, “That's right. That guy jumped the fence or whatever and they shot him…  I knew it wasn't a brother, because they shot him in the leg. It's like, 'Oh, they shot him in the leg? Must've been a white guy.'"[v]

In American, when you’re white, you can carry your gun around with you, and have encounters with the police where they merely ask you for your concealed carry license.  If you’re black, you can’t pick up a BB gun off the shelf in Wal-Mart.  That’s the perspective of African-Americans in this country.  After Trayvon, Etan Thomas, an NBA player, wrote, “Very soon, I have to ruin my son's rose-colored glasses view of the world we live in. I have to teach him that...[i]f the police stop you, make sure you stop in a well-lit area and don't make any sudden moves. Keep your hands visible. Avoid putting them in your pockets.”[vi]  Actor Levar Burton, from Reading Rainbow and Star Trek the Next Generation, has said:
Listen, I’m gonna be honest with you, and this is a practice I engage in every time I’m stopped by law enforcement. And I taught this to my son who is now 33 as part of my duty as a father to ensure that he knows the kind of world in which he is growing up. So when I get stopped by the police, I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger’s side, I roll down my window, I take my hands, I stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver’s side because I want that officer to be relaxed as possible when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America.[vii]
Contrast that to what you might expect from police, if you’re white.  Tim Wise, who is a white author, has written this:
One day I locked myself out of my car on Roberts Street and so I’m trying to break into my car with a coat hanger and a cop comes up. And he sees me doing it. He does not even ask me for ID or proof that that’s my car. Literally, the NOPD was like, hey you’re breaking into the car the wrong way. Let me help you. The cop was trying to help me break in. Now there is not a black man in this country 23 [years old] for whom that would’ve been the reaction.[viii]
In fact, I watched a video where they recreated exactly this sort of thing.  They had an African-American man and a white man, both dressed in t-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap, both trying to free a bicycle that had been locked up with bolt cutters.[ix]  The white guy got asked if it was his bike, but out of a hundred people who pass by, only one tries to stop him.  With the African-American guy, he’s stopped repeatedly right away.  And when it was a blond-haired white girl, openly telling people she was stealing it, people helped her.

I took a test earlier this month, for a inter-cultural competency inventory that the MidAmerica Board is all talking together.  I’ll find out next month where I stand.  But this model that we’re using is called the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity[x], and it says that intercultural sensitivity is something people can and do learn.  In it, people move from Denial to Polarization to Minimization to Acceptance to Adaptation.  In the Denial stage, people would say that there is no racism, no difference between the races.  We’re all human, that’s all that matters.  To some extent, our Unitarian Universalist theology encourages a level of denial, to ignore differences and look at our common humanity.  In this stage, we have one size fits all solutions.  Laws are laws, crime is crime, the police are the police, end of story.  The next stage is polarization.  It’s us vs. them.  And we defend ourselves at that stage through fear and anger – distrust of others, denigration of others, feeling our way of life is threatened.  We can see some of that in the police response in Ferguson – meeting protest with tear gas.  We can see that kind of response in the arguments around immigration earlier in this summer.

Minimization, the next step, returns to a “deep down we’re all the same” point of view. W e avoid stereotypes, and we’re consistently, and insistently nice, avoiding anger.  Lots of us UUs find ourselves here.  We can recognize differences, but we minimize them.  We want to assume we’re all the same deep down and focus on that and ignore, or minimize, the difference.  Our response to Ferguson here is to use expert data – most of those young men who were killed were troublemakers.  The police are really here to serve and protect.  People need to just avoid conflict.  Everything will be okay.  Minimization.  We just all need to follow the golden rule.

The next step in intercultural growth is Acceptance.  Everything becomes relative at this point.  Behaviors are relative, values are relative.  We have a curiosity about other cultures without evaluating them.  We assess communities in their own communities, rather than applying global rules.  So a response to Ferguson at this level might take into more account of the socio-economic and historical struggle of Ferguson, and say, no the experience of the police in that community is not the same as it is here in my community.  At the same time in Acceptance, you can realize that values are relative, but hold onto your own – I value peace, and nonviolence.  I can see that others are responding differently, and understand why, but without giving up my ethical commitment to nonviolence. 

The last stage is Adaptation.  At this stage, we begin to adapt our own culture and change it in response to others.  This is where we need to get to, as a movement, as a faith, and as an entire country, with Ferguson.  We need to adapt our American culture to understand the lived and very different experience African-Americans have had in this culture.  Adaptation is shifting to be more effective in the situation, not changing permanently, necessarily.  It was adaptation to bring in a different person, an African American officer, to lead the police in Ferguson.  Another example of adaptation: my colleague Tom Shade wrote an article this week in which he charged us, as a movement to do three things in response to Ferguson – Learn, Re-Think, and Teach.  In talking about re-thinking, which is adaptation, he asked what it would mean for us to move from thinking “#notallcops” in response to Ferguson to thinking “#yesallblackmen.”[xi]  What that means is what is your first reaction to the story?  Do you jump first to saying, "Not all cops are like that?" Or do you jump first to saying, "Yes, that's the experience of all black men in our society, for the most part."

Another example of that charge comes from 48 years ago, but it’s a charge directly to us.  In 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  The Ware Lecture is where basically we, as a movement, invite an outsider to come in and tell us something we need to hear.  In his lecture, titled “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” Dr. King said these words, that I think speak to us today about moving from denial to adaptation, and about how to respond to not just Ferguson, but police violence, and also the New Jim Crow today.  This is a long quote, and I’ll close with his words.  He said:
…certainly we all want to live the well adjusted and avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I'm proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry .I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence….  Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, cried out in words that echo across the centuries—"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, cried in words lifted to cosmic proportions—"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.[xii]
May it be so, my friends.  May we be amazing maladjusted to the troubles of our day.

[ii] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition (p. 205).
[iv] Harris-Perry, Melissa,, August 17, 2014
[x] Information taken from presentation to the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, Fall Chapter Meeting 2013.  More on the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity can be found at
[xii] King, Martin Luther.  Ware Lecture, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1966.


Anonymous said…
Hear, hear! Well written, Rev. Cyn!

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