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Monday, December 28, 2015

Racial Profiling and Public Safety

Today I am thinking about Tamir Rice and yet another family of color dealing with a lack of justice for their dead son.

Last night I saw racial profiling happen before my very eyes. I am having a hard time uploading my video onto my blog, but last night (December 28) I was in my car port smoking a cigar when I saw a young man who was Latino walking home after parking his car on our block. There are low income apartments a block or so away from us and a lot of folks park on our street because the apartments have expensive parking charges.

As he was walking home a police car pulled up in front of our house and the police officer started talking to the young man. The young man walked over to the car and the police officer immediately started taking his bag and his phone from him and then had him get spread eagle on the front hood of the car and he handcuffed him. This seemed to be a pretty quick response to me so I walked toward them, though remaining on my sidewalk at a safe distance, and I started taping the incident.

The police office got in his car to run the young man’s information and when he noticed me taping him he turned on his spotlight in my face, making it difficult for me to tape him. He asked me who I was and what I was doing and I told him I didn’t have to answer any questions. He called for backup and two officers shortly arrived.

One of the officers came over to me to ask me who I was and what I was doing and I told him I did not have to answer any questions, though he kept trying. I remained respectful towards him though I maintained my right not to answer any questions.

After at least 15-20 minutes, with the young man handcuffed the entire time, the officer finally found out what the young man had been telling him all along – that he had done nothing wrong and was just walking home. So, he was released. The young man thanked me for taping the incident and walked home.

Yet, I feel sure this incident will scar this young man for quite some time. All because he parked on our street and was trying to walk home, he was handcuffed for 20 minutes, had his bag and his phone taken from him, and he was treated like a criminal. He will be much less trusting of law enforcement even though the majority of law enforcement persons, in my opinion, are certainly worthy of our trust and respect.

However, the young man, his family, and his community will be less likely to want to cooperate with law enforcement. This is the damage done by racial profiling. This is why racial profiling is not just immoral and unethical; it is damaging to public safety therefore, damaging to all of us including those of us who will never be racially profiled because we are members of the dominant culture. When relationships with law enforcement are hurt, the entire community – all of society actually – are hurt as well.

This is also why Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and the other presidential candidates calling for the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants make for good sound-bites and loud cheers at big rallies, but they actually work against public safety. Public safety is certainly among the top of concerns for people in the United States these days, but it is remarkable to me how some of the politicians who seem to be the most focused on this – namely Trump and Cruz among others – call for policies that will do more to undermine public safety than preserve it. They are unthinking politicians and they are calling for horrible and senseless policies.

You cannot attain public safety without public trust, and so when you racially profile people – or in Trump’s idiotic call for religiously profiling Muslims to prevent them from entering the U.S. and to look at mosques “more closely” – you alienate some of the very people with whom trust must and should be built.

This is why most law enforcement persons are adamantly against racial profiling and the policies like forcing local law enforcement to act as immigration agents that promote racial profiling. Enforcing the law and maintaining public safety are not mutually exclusive. Instead they are interdependent on one another. The police needs an engaged citizenry willing to pray for their safety and hold them accountable. A truly safe and secure public needs this too.

It is time those of us who proclaim to follow the Prince of Peace to do both – to pray AND hold the police accountable for racially profiling our neighbors and members of our communities. And when our political “leaders” holler and scream about public safety, but in reality, are using those words as a very thin veil for racial and ethnic demonization, then we should clearly and loudly, if necessary, point that out too. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What's Missing in the Church's Response to Syrian Refugees

I have been both encouraged and deeply concerned by the Church’s response to the issue of welcoming in Syrian refugees in recent weeks. In response to the demonization of Syrian refugees for the purpose of scoring cheap political points by so-called political “leaders”, numerous church leaders, Bishops, and other clergy have issued statements that correctly state that the essence of our faith is to welcome and love the sojourner. 

I have read many statements that remind us, especially as have entered into Advent, that Jesus was forced to flee for his safety when he was a baby; that Jesus was a refugee himself. Resounding throughout Scripture is God’s call to welcome those in need. Thus, as followers of Jesus it should be in our DNA to welcome our sisters and brothers from Syria, particularly when refugees entering into the U.S. are the most scrutinized people allowed in. This is not an issue of public safety, but one of faithfulness. 

The demonization of refugees and immigrants is nothing new, sad to say. The Trumps, Cruz’s, Carson’s, and other “leaders” of the world always have and always will step on the backs of the most voiceless and powerless to increase their political popularity. It is sickening to watch because while they mask their statements with language of security, it is merely thinly veiled hateful rhetoric aimed at immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. The voice of the Church must be antithetical to these voices of hate and with one major missing ingredient, I am thankful for what I have heard. 

The truth is however, the messages of loving and welcoming the sojourner emanating from the offices of church leaders are missing the vital element of advocating for justice, rendering those messages weak and largely ineffective. Except for a rare few, most statements have not included any mention of the need for followers of Jesus to advocate to our political leaders to support policies that allow in Syrian refugees. 

President Obama has stated that he plans on allowing in 10,000 Syrian refugees but this is peanuts in comparison to what other countries are doing – countries without anywhere near the level of capacity of the United States. We should be taking in a minimum of 60,000 Syrians this year alone. There are four million Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland for fear of death and persecution. There have been over 250,000 Syrian deaths. In response to a terrorist in Paris who posed as refugee, the US House of Representatives, in their infinite wisdom (laugh here), passed a bill which would essentially grind the refugee process to a halt and add nothing to public safety. I pray the Senate will choose authentic wisdom over hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric and reject this legislation outright. But they desperately need to be told this by their constituents. Our church leaders should be mobilizing folks to do so and we just haven’t. 

The Church must recognize the context and speak truth no matter how uncomfortable it might make a few people. Church leaders simply have not done this, by and large. If Congress shuts down the refugee system and if we follow the shameful and racist historical examples from our past like refusing entry to Jews fleeing the Holocaust during World War II or internment camps for Japanese citizens, then there will not be any Syrian refugees to love and welcome. Without an effective mobilization of our church members to engage in political advocacy on behalf of the Syrian refugees who are awaiting entry, all of the messages of love and welcome are just spiritual fluff. They make us feel good, righteous even. But the messages are rendered meaningless if no one is allowed in. 

The problem is that spiritual fluff is simply easier to message. We offend less people. But love without justice is body without a skeleton. It’s virtually worthless. Symbolic perhaps, but Syrian refugees don’t need platitudes or empty symbols. They need safe havens and our loving rhetoric is simply not enough. The bifurcation within the Church between justice and mercy has been talked about ad nauseam. Loving people without advocating for their entry is yet another example of it. But yet, this is also an opportunity for us to finally begin to live it out the love we proclaim so easily. Yes, Jesus was a refugee. Yes, we are called to love and welcome the sojourner. But here is how we can do it: we need to call our Congressional representatives and our Governors daily and demand they allow our refugee system to function properly and to allow in at least 60,000 Syrian refugees. We need to tell them that our churches stand ready to provide the support our refugee sisters and brothers need so quit demonizing them and let them in!

I am hoping our Church leaders will begin to incorporate the steps for how justice can be accomplished into the many statements that are being released. If we can live out this kind of justice then the love we speak of so often can finally be a reality and not just more empty rhetoric.