I have never watched an ISIS beheading video. I have never subjected myself to nasty medical videos. I don’t even watch sad movies. My own life is filled with more than enough sorrow and heartache; I don’t need to add more.
But last year, I watched the video of Tamir Rice’s encounter with the police, where he, a twelve year old child playing by himself with a toy gun, was shot by a police officer who had barely stepped away from a still moving police car. I watched for four more minutes as no one even stooped to tell the child help was coming.
Then I watched Eric Garner’s death. This was one big, tough, scary looking guy who was resisting arrest. But even big men beg for their lives. I heard it. I watched this man use his last breath to beg a policeman for another.
Then I watched Alton Sterling get tazed, tackled, and pinned to the ground while he was trying to sell CD’s outside his friend’s convenience store. I watched two pretty tough looking police officers pin him to the ground. I watched the officer’s gun being pulled and pressed into the man’s chest. Then I heard the shots with no doubt of the outcome.
Then I watched the second video of Alton Sterling’s struggle with two police officers, which, from a different angle, showed more. He lost the struggle with the police officers. That was clear. Then he was shot, four or six times, I am not sure. Then began Alton’s final struggle. For his life. I watched him slowly moving. I heard him groaning. I watched his blood pooling. I saw him losing his struggle to keep living.
Then I watched the press conference with Alton Sterling’s son losing control that no fifteen year old boy should be expected to maintain. I heard this child weeping. Repeating that he just wants his daddy. I saw his real heart-wrenching sorrow, put on display for all of us to watch. And I wept with him. Even as I write this now, my throat is tight, my eyes are filled. But I can maintain some sort of control, because I am not a kid. And I can still talk to my dad, my biggest hero.
Wednesday morning, the day after the videos of Alton made waves in America, I told my wife, that I am so tired of seeing these young men dying in the midst of such ambiguous circumstances. I am so tired of being reprimanded by my white friends for jumping to conclusions or ignoring the facts when I express sorrow over the death of another black man at the hands of the police. I am so tired of seeing people line up to protect “the facts” when their brothers and sisters are begging for sympathy. I told her I am so tired of these racial wars we start every time someone dies at the hands of the police.
Then, Wednesday night, I watched the video of Philando Castille’s struggle for life, which he lost. There is a lot of ambiguity in this story, because it is still so fresh. What is not ambiguous: I watched a man, shot four times, bleeding to death in his girlfriend’s car while a policeman shouted at him under gun point. That went on for two minutes. Until finally, the police took more action than shooting and shouting: they arrested the dying man’s girlfriend. Did I mention the man was dying while he was being shouted at? Did I mention detaining the supremely poised and calm girlfriend took higher precedence than checking on the man who is bleeding out in the car?
Did I mention the four year old girl sitting in the car watching it all?
I wonder what damage it does to watch your mom’s boyfriend groaning for two minutes after being shot while the man with the gun shouts at him? I wonder how many dreams will be tainted by the image of his blood spreading across his spotless white t-shirt? I wonder how you will ever trust a policeman again, when their shouts for your mother to get on the ground drown out the sound of a dying man’s weakening breath?
I wonder what it is like to be black in America, and to have a mental checklist of how to keep your children safe from the police? Does this toy gun look fake enough that a policeman will at least speak with my son before shooting? Should I teach my son to slouch when police approach, since he is kind of big for his age? Should I teach my kids that whatever policemen tell you to do, you do, regardless of mistreatment, violation of rights, and fear for his safety?
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.
That is why I have started to watch these videos. And I encourage every white person to watch them as well. This is the first step many of us need to take in addressing the racial polarization in our country. Stop acting as though a hashtag connects you to what is happening. You need to see the faces. You need to hear the moaning.
You need to weep with Alton Sterling’s son as he desperately weeps for his father. Even if it is in the privacy of your own home, you need to connect with what is happening.
Then I have a few quick thoughts which are working to frame my plan of action for the future.
- The church, with a strong belief in the imago dei, the fall, and the universal call to repentance, is the only venue with any sort of coherent framework to begin these dialogues.
- There is no quick fix, because each new spate of violence merely hints at the ongoing issues under the surface. It is sort of like walking through a dust storm where you occasionally have deal with a grain of sand in your eye. That grain is a real problem, but not the problem.
- Both white people and people of color need to agree to enter into serious conversations, knowing they will hurt, and willing to give grace.
- A new world, free from the stain of sin and suffering is our only hope for the eradication of racial tension, but we must begin rooting out racial injustice.
- A monumental change will come when people stop thinking that a hashtag is activism, because only personal action brings any change.
The first action I recommend: invite someone of another race to come into your house, eat dinner with your family, and befriend your kids.
Hashtagging is a start, but activism is about action. It’s time to do something.