Talking About Baltimore

We have all watched the protests and riots taking place in Baltimore and elsewhere this year with many different painful emotions. These protests raise issues that are divisive and difficult to talk about, but I feel that as a Christian community it’s important to try and put them into perspective and discuss them.

Our struggle to talk about these specific protests and racial tensions in general means that we are both unable to hear what is being said to us, and that what we have to say is unable to be heard by others because we unwittingly step on deeply painful wounds.

Therefore, I offer this as a way to consider these difficult issues and to initiate discussions. It is meant to highlight some of the biggest sticking points. It is not an exhaustive list, nor does it attempt to solve the problems we face—it is meant only to help in the dialogue that needs to happen. If there’s enough interest, I would be happy to lead a discussion within our St. Stephen’s community.

Riots are “Senseless Violence”

There are many code words in our vocabulary that keep us from seeing the real issues, and the media’s bias toward sensationalism helps reinforce them. “Senseless violence” is one of those code words, as are most of the terms in this list. We can all agree that violence is never a good solution to a problem, and yet in our move to condemn the riots, it is easy for us to overlook some important issues:

First, both the media and we ourselves are quick to focus all our attention on the actions of a relatively small group of rioters and ignore the many thousands of people who peacefully demonstrated in Baltimore. In our dismay at the violence of the few, we dismiss the plight and the message of the many.

Second, we must acknowledge that our society reacts differently to riots involving white people than we do to riots involving black people. When we speak of “riots” these days, we think of Baltimore and Ferguson, or perhaps we think back to the race riots of the 1960’s. We almost universally forget all the other riots that happen on a regular basis and largely involve white people over inconsequential issues such as sports, college parties, or festivals that get out of hand. Even though people have died in these riots, even though countless people are injured, even though police were targeted in some of these riots, and even though millions of dollars in damage are caused to property, they rarely receive much attention outside of the immediate region in which they occur.

Contrast that to the attention received by riots occurring because of the serious and consequential issues of civil and human rights involving black people. The loss of life, the number of injuries, and the damage to property are comparable, but our reactions to them are very different. Why? The single biggest reason is that as a society, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are afraid of black people and we are even more afraid of black people expressing anger.

Third, unlike the riots that come as a result sporting events or drunk people, riots that arise over issues of civil and human rights are a result of voices that have been unheard and ignored for too long. To quote Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up; Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags; Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

An oft-repeated sentiment that I have seen and heard in one form or another is, “Don’t they know that people would listen to them if they were peaceful?” Such a sentiment is blind to the fact that these communities have been trying to be heard around these issues and conversations for years and even decades, and their words that have been met with deaf ears and blind eyes. Of course, violence is never a desirable solution, and to quote the lyrics of “Mathematics” by Mos Def:

Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
the million other straws underneath it – its all mathematics

Fourth, if we are going to condemn the violence of a riot, then we must also condemn the violence that precipitated the riot. Riots are always reactionary, and in the case of Baltimore, Fergusson, and others like them, they are a reaction to a systematic violence that has been perpetrated against an entire group of people for decades in the form of police brutality and a legal system that allows for it. Violence begets violence, and we must remember that these riots are the violence that is begotten, not the violence that begat.

Property Matters & Human Lives Matter More

Another very common sentiment that I encounter in discussions about the riots is along the lines of, “What about all the damage to property?” One of the distasteful aspects of protests is that there are some people who attend simply to instigate violence so that they can loot and damage property. They are not there because of the underlying issues; they are simply there for personal gain. One of the tragic outcomes is that the communities that often suffer the most from property damage during riots are the same communities that are least able to recover from the property damage. In the wake of the 1960’s riots, property damage occurred that scarred certain communities in Baltimore, scars that to this day have not been fully repaired. What’s worse, these new riots are causing damages in those same communities again. The residents are rightfully afraid that they will have to endure another generation of almost non-existent recovery.

So, yes, property matters, and the damage and loss of property have very real consequences on the lives of people. However, when damage to property is the first thing we focus on when speaking about the riots, we are sending a message to black people that we value personal property over their lives. It may not be the message we are intending to give, but it is the message that is being received. When we are trying to engage with the issues being raised in these protests and when we are trying to speak about the riots that are occurring, we must take a moment and remind ourselves that while property matters, human lives matter more.

All Lives Matter, but Who is “All?”

With the rise of the saying, “Black Lives Matter,” came a number of counter-sayings that are all variations on each other: “All Lives Matter,” or “Human Lives Matter,” or “Police Lives Matter,” or even “White Lives Matter.”

These are all true statements. They are all statements that run deeply through our own Christian beliefs. After all, Jesus lived among us, taught us, died for us, and was raised from the dead, not just for some of us, but for all people. All lives matter, all lives bear the image of the Creator, and in all lives we find Christ revealed to us.

All lives matter, period. The trouble is that we don’t need to be reminded of that fact, we don’t need to be convinced that it is true. Individually and as a society, we deeply believe that all lives matter: we believe already that police lives matter, and watching any news channel will quickly put to rest any doubts that you might have that we believe that white lives matter.

We all agree that, “all lives matter.” The question is, who do we mean by, “all?” Even though we may believe individually that black lives are included in that “all,” when you look at the big picture, the way that black people are treated as a group by our government, by our legal system, by our economic system, by our educational system, and by the opportunities and privileges that are not given to them, it is clear that as a society we don’t believe that “black lives” are a part of “all lives”—or at least we don’t actually live that way.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement began as a response to the overall lack of interest in our society over the fact that black people, and black men more specifically, are being killed by our law enforcement at an alarmingly high rate. It is a movement that arose in response to the unwillingness of our society to engage in the systematic and prolonged problems facing black people in our country.

All lives matter, absolutely, and the originators and proponents of the “Black Lives Matter” movement know and believe that too. However, that is not what we need to be reminded of; rather, as a society, we must be reminded that black lives matter too. What is vitally important for us to understand is that when “Black Lives Matter” is countered with, “All Lives Matter,” or some variation thereof, the impact of that move—whether we intend it or not—is to send the message that, once again, black lives don’t matter.

The Problem of “Thugs”

In the Baltimore protests and riots we have often heard the label “thugs,” typically used when speaking about the rioters specifically, but also the protestors more broadly. My sisters and my brothers, I plead with you to resist using “thugs” when speaking about people in Baltimore. Whether we realize it or not, “thugs” is a derogatory term being used to dehumanize and dismiss the people who fall under its label.

When racial slurs, such as the “n-word” became socially unacceptable to use, our society developed a seemingly endless variety of coded words to accomplish the same thing. “Thugs” is simply the latest in a long line of racially loaded terms that are used today to speak pejoratively about an entire group of people, to justify the treatment that black people are receiving, and to dismiss the very real suffering and fear that black Americans live with in our society.

There are not thugs on the streets of Baltimore or Fergusson—there are angry people.

Human Dignity & Value

What all this comes down to is that when we engage in conversations around race, police brutality, or protests and riots, we must start from a place of human dignity and value. These two things form the basis of the founding documents of our country. More importantly, they are a part of the deep foundation of our faith as Christians.

The protests and riots in Baltimore, the protests and riots in Fergusson, the ongoing string of black people who are dying because of the inequalities within our society, and the nature and tenor of the conversation that is going on in our media all point to very real problems in our country and very real conversations that must happen. There is a moral crisis in our midst and we are bound as citizens of this country to engage with it. More importantly, we are bound as followers of Jesus to enter into these deep conversations.

This can only be done if we are willing to recognize the basic human dignity and value in all people, and especially in black people for whom dignity and value are so often denied by society. It is the only way that we will be able to truly listen and hear the witness of the real, lived experiences of black people in our country; it is the only way that we will be able to recognize and engage with the systematic racism that still racks our nation and the unconscious racism in which we all take part.

In closing, I offer you this prayer from the Rev. Dr. Canon Sandye Wilson, an Episcopal clergy person in Baltimore:

We pray for the lives lost, businesses destroyed and dreams deferred. We pray for all who live in fear. We give thanks for the leadership of Baltimore City, for those with enough moral courage to speak truth to power, for law enforcement officials who did show restraint. We are grateful for the men of the community, the ministers and the members of the Nation of Islam who stood together to help bring order to the neighborhoods.

We give thanks for allies and all who care about the city where I was born and ALL of its citizens.

May the God of peace help us to find peace again. There will be no peace in the world until there is peace in the nation; no peace in the nation until there is peace in the community; no peace in the community until there is peace in the family and no peace in the family until there is peace within each of us. Amen.

God Bless,