On Saturday several Lydians and I attended a march on Staten Island
to stand with the family of Eric Garner,
who was killed as a result of an illegal chokehold used by a police officer.
We were there for Eric Garner,
but in being there for him and his family,
we were there for something bigger:
a legacy in our country of violence toward African American people,
especially young African American men,
perpetrated in our country, espeically by law enforcement.
David Paterson, former governor of New York, was one of the speakers at the rally.
During his speech he told the story of his father, Basil Paterson,
who in 1942, at the age of 16,
was pistol whipped by Harlem policeman for no discernible reason
in front of friends and neighbors.
Paterson then went on to list the names of the men and boys in our city
who have died as a result of police violence.
He spoke of James Powell,
who was shot by an officer in 1964, sparking the Harlem riots.
Of Nichaloas Heyward Jr.,
the 13 year old who was shot and killed just blocks from here
in the Gowanus houses in 1994
while playing cops and robbers with his friends in a stairwell.
Of Amadou Diallo, 23, killed in 1999
when police fired 41 shots, 19 of which hit him.
Of Timothy Stansbury, shot in 2004
on the roof of a housing project in Bed Stuy.
Of Sean Bell, shot in 2005 the night before his wedding.
Of Ramarley Graham, shot in his own bathroom, at 18 years old in 2012.
Of Kimani Gray, 16 years old, shot in 2014.
And now Eric Garner,
dead through the use of an illegal choke hold,
his last words, “I can’t breathe.”
As Patterson listed these names,
the protestors around me urged him on, saying,
“Name them, name them.”
This morning I read of a study conducted by the organization ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter
which found that, in the 10 largest citied in the US,
African Americans comprise a disproportionally large percentage of those killed by police.
In cities with the greatest racial disparity, the percentage of black people
killed was at least twice that of their percentage of the city’s population.
How long, O Lord, how long?
How long must we bear this pain in our soul?
That’s one question we ask.
The other one is “why?”
This morning I worshiped with the congregation of Cuyler Warren Street Methodist Church,
our neighbors just three block north of here.
We’ve been connected to this church for about a year and a half,
and attended this morning to bring greetings, let them know that our new place is very close-by,
and to invite them to walk with us in our Vigil Walk tonight
in solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson.
Sitting in worship listening to the readings, I think I heard a piece of the answer to that question:
The lesson from the Hebrew Bible read this morning at Cuyler Warren
and in many churches this morning
was taken from the first chapter of the of the book of Exodus.
and see if it reminds you of anything:
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Does anything about this story sound familiar?
I cannot help but think of a certain time in our country’s history
when reading this passage.
A time when Americans, like Pharaoh,
made the lives of enslaved Africans bitter with hard service.
So what can we see in Pharaoh's stance toward the Hebrew people?
I see three familiar elements that, together,
seem to comprise the necessary ingredients for the oppression of a people.
Pharaoh is afraid that the Hebrew people
will grow more numerous than he.
Pharaoh uses the Hebrew people for labor, therefore the Egyptian economy depends on them.
Phraroah’s wealth depends on their poverty.
And third, power:
Pharaoh worries that the Hebrew people are more powerful than he is.
If they were to fight against him in a war,
it is possible that they would win.
But the story goes on:
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’
Fear, economy, and power.
All threatened apparently by one thing:
the innocent male child.
Pharaoh believes that to keep the Hebrew people
firmly under his thumb,
he must strike at that which he fears most:
the untapped power of the young male.
The reading resonates sickeningly with our nation’s current situation.
Like Pharaoh, our country seems to believe we have something to fear.
We may not have commanded midwives to kill black male babies.
Instead we have sanctioned the shooting of black boys and men.
I do not believe that the shooting deaths of young black men
at the hands of police in our country
are the result of “a few bad apples,” or of “killer cops.”
Weed the bad ones out and police violence against black people will cease.
Nope. I don’t think that’s it.
I believe these deaths are the result of those three familiar elements
that are the necessary ingredients for the oppression of a people:
Our country operates on a convenient myth
designed to keep our economic structures firmly in place:
the myth of the young, black man
as dangerous, criminal, and worthy of fear.
And when this myth has settled in the hearts and minds
of you or me,
or a policeman,
we act in ways that reflect that myth.
We act in ways that indicate some lives are somehow worth more than others.
Why the litany of names?
Why the loss of so many innocents?
This is why:
Because we have made it so.
Because we, in this country, have been like Pharaoh,
afraid to share our power,
afraid to loosen our hold on wealth,
keeping the people in chains.
Those chains may no longer be forged of metal.
They are forged instead of a lack of access:
And those chains are not getting any lighter.
Craig Steven Wilder is the author of “A Covenant of Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn,”
a book that tells the story of the ghettoization of our own borough.
In it, he writes,
“After all, the ghetto is not so much a place as it is a relationship --
the physical manifestation of a perverse imbalance of social power.
The ghetto is not the cause of social pathology,
it is its destination...
It cannot be defined by the people who occupy it
but by the struggles that place them there.
It is not social inequality but the attempt to predetermine
the burden of social inequality.”
How long, Oh lord, how long?
How long will we sing this song?
How long until we can cease the litany of names?
It is not better cops that will get us there
or better-policed neighborhoods.
It is a radical shift in the scaffolding of our nation:
the structures of power and wealth,
the patterns of haves and have-nots.
It is the dismantling of the myth
that keep it all in place.
And that means those who are in power,
even those who have some power, some privilege:
people like me,
letting go of those ingredients necessary for the oppression of a people:
So what does that look like?
I’m not totally sure.
But I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Certainly, I think part of it is about holding our elected officials to task.
Walking up to Pharaoh and saying, “Let our people go.”
I think part of it is about supporting the resistance of those who are oppressed and who mount a resistance.
Supporting the Shiphrahs and Puahs -- the midwives who resist Pharoah’s instructions.
Who follow God’s call and refuse to participate in the destruction of their people.
I think part of it is about listening.
Listening to the stories of all those who have been treated ruthlessly.
But part of it, too, I think,
is about giving something up.
Part of it is about giving up some of what we cling so tightly to:
those three ingredience of fear, economy, and power.
It could be giving up the idea that we got where we are all by ourselves,
forgetting that some of us were helped along the way
by the color of our skin
or the connections of our parents.
It could be giving up being in charge of everything all the time
and giving another person -- someone’s whose voice is less often heard --
the chance to lead.
It could be about giving up wealth,
not for charity but for empowerment.
Not to sustain the system but to disrupt it.
If you are a person of any level of privilege --
and it's different for each person in this room --
to give up, to let go,
is a spiritual practice.
It nurtures a humble heart.
The story God tells is a story of liberation.
A story of the Hebrew people
brought safely out of captivity and through the Red Sea.
A story of the powerful brought down from their thrones
of the lowly lifted up.
Of the hungry filled with good things.
Of the proud scattered in the thoughts of their hearts.
And it is perhaps our hearts that are the most important,
that need the most care and tending.
It was Pharaoh’s heart that hardened against Moses
when Moses implored him, “Let my people go.”
It is our hearts
that can be filled with sorrow,
or calcified against the pain of our neighbors.
Our hearts that can be humble or proud.
Our hearts that can grab power or wealth
or relinquish them.
Our hearts that can erect barriers or fear,
or dismantle them, stone by stone.
Our hearts that can witnesses terrible sorrow,
but also find that they can sing.