Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Crazy Week … and It’s Only Tuesday

Like so many others, I’m trying to sort out and understand the ongoing events in Baltimore. That’s our neighboring presbytery, and many friends and colleagues work in the areas torn apart by the strife and struggle.
I wish I had some profound wisdom to offer that would make a difference, but my thoughts are just about as profound and organized as a Facebook feed. Indeed, from that confused feed I pull down these random thoughts and observations:
A colleague in California who observes:
When Hungarians took to the streets in 1956, with fire and violence, it was called a "revolution" and hailed in Western news sources. When African Americans take to the streets, with fire and violence, it's called a "riot."
A local colleague who notes:
Have been reflecting on how many people I know who have spent their daily lives for years working in different ways to affirm that Baltimore's#BlackLivesMatter, and how much those people inspired me growing up to become an activist.
A colleague in Baltimore wrote:
The African-American activist and public intellectual, Cornel West, says that “justice is what love looks like in public.” For me last week, putting love into action looked like joining in a nonviolent march for justice for Freddie Gray. We were black and white, young and old, Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all marching together.
Another colleague in Baltimore posted:
Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men.
My own status today reads:
Trying to understand violence is not the same thing as justifying it.
I was born in 1959, in Jim Crow Alabama. My parents moved the family from Tuscaloosa in the midst of the long and sometimes violent effort to desegregate the University of Alabama in part to get away from the violence. I remember the long hot summers of the mid-1960s and the fires in the streets following King’s assassination in 1968. I didn’t understand, of course, because I was a child. I remember the fires in the streets following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. I’m not sure I understood much then, either, and I don’t pretend to any great understanding at this point.
I do think that pointing at the violence of looters and asking “why?” is asking the wrong question of the wrong people. For one thing, there’s a great deal of social science and even brain research into mob behavior that explains some of what we see: the anonymity and collective responsibility of crowds – “everybody was doing it” – are well-understood aspects of crowd behavior.
As reported by MIT News last year, the journal Nueroimage published an article in which researchers noted that "A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into 'mobs' that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality." This is especially apparent in emotionally charged situations.
The research showed changes in brain activity that help explain what social-scientists call “deindividuation” experienced in mob behavior.
In other words, if you ask people who participate in looting why they did it they’ll probably point to the same sorts of personal responses in the midst of the experience that eventually rest on some combination of the observations of social scientists: everybody was doing it; I got swept up in the crowd.
In a society that so richly values the right of the people to assemble, these observations are not a lot of help. After all, it does great violence to our most cherished values to say, “don’t assemble,” even though we know – scientifically as well as intuitively – that assembled crowds may not behave in ways that we like or approve or even in ways that the individuals who comprise the assembled crowd approve.
I write this at the very moment when a lot of other friends and colleagues are, in fact, assembling (and also posting about it on Facebook) in front of the United States Supreme Court as the court hears arguments on the same-sex marriage case before it. I didn’t go down to the court this time (largely because I had a really “on” weekend, and I desperately needed some introvert time today) but I’ve been part of the mob scene on the occasions of other marriage equality hearings and decisions, as well as countless other marches and demonstrations.
A few commentators have noted the contrast between the peaceful gathering in front of the court today and the instances of violence just a few miles up the road in Baltimore.
Such observations are strikingly ahistorical. After all, the modern GLBT rights movement began with the Stonewall riots in 1969.
The difference today is that GLBT people have a voice and the political, economic, and cultural power to amplify that voice all the way to the Supreme Court. Thanks be to God, the voices of those long silenced are now being heard in the halls of power.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed in 1968 about disturbances in American cities over the previous several summers, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” King said,
I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.
In Baltimore in 2015 the conditions are as clear and obvious as the flames:
  •  As reported last fall by the Baltimore Sun, “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won [a total of $5.7 million in] court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.”
  •  According to the ACLU, from 2010 to 2014, 31 people died following encounters with the Baltimore police.

This violence at the hands of those charged with keeping the peace continues to be an ongoing fact of life in a community that has also suffered greatly from economic conditions over which they have no control caused by economic policies and practices in which they have no voice. These are the “contingent, intolerable conditions” that must be the acknowledged context for any conversation about what is happening this week in the streets of Baltimore.
What does the church have to offer to any of this? Following King, we can and we must witness to the power of nonviolence. However, the witness to nonviolence loses all its moral authority when it becomes a too easily employed scolding judgment on the desperate actions of victims of such systems and structures. As King so clearly understood, that witness must come in practices of solidarity with the oppressed and in acts of disruption targeted carefully at systems and structures of injustice. In other words, the witness to nonviolence cannot be confined to lofty observations from the safety of pulpits (or blogs or Facebook), it must be incarnate in the street.

For the God of the oppressed is already in the streets.