I was with a group of clergy asked to serve as a buffer between the police and the marchers during some of the recent demonstrations in Charlotte to protest the killing of Keith Lamont Scott. Disruptions had occurred several nights in a row. Tensions were high.
A Black Lives Matter group and other concerned citizens had gathered in an area in Uptown Charlotte called Marshall Park to prepare for that night’s demonstration. Emotions were on edge but controlled. One of the BLM leaders looked in our direction and said: “Here are the preachers. Could you have a prayer for us?”
One of our group, an African-American female minister was handed the megaphone. As she began to pray, there was silence. Then, voices of the crowd began to rise with hers, encouraging, hopeful, responsive, energetic, appreciative. As she finished the prayer, several surrounded her and walked with us as we made our way up to the street encouraged. We were there to “bear witness,” and things already felt fruitful and hopeful.
Police in shorts and on bikes met us. They were calm. So were the marchers. Then orders came: “Move to the sidewalk!”
This order appeared provocative and angry. It made little sense to me. The crowd was peaceful. The streets were clear. Still, the demonstrators obeyed, moving from the street and on to the sidewalk. City buses suddenly arrived. The doors burst open and riot police dressed in black body armor and large batons piled off. Line after line, row after row.
We were wearing clergy stoles over our shoulders and yellow ribbons tied on our arms. Our clergy group was following orders like everyone else. An African-American pastor walking directly behind me had not yet made it all the way to the sidewalk – there seemed to be no rush. Besides, we were there to help. We were the good guys trying to offer a calming presence.
But not calming enough apparently. One of the riot police just off the bus picked out the African-American pastor behind me. In a threatening voice yelled: “I said get on the sidewalk!” The baton waved a little menacingly …
The verbal exchange and threatening stance continued. The pastor stopped. Getting on the sidewalk was no longer the issue. The real problem was disrespect and complete disregard for the very reason for these protests. The white policeman was determined to demonstrate authority, to show who was boss. The pastor, nicely dressed, a yellow ribbon prominently displayed on his arm, showed dignity. He clearly was there to help and yet was spoken to like a disobedient child. Why?
What had been a fairly peaceful group united by prayer only five minutes earlier, now became angry and amped up by these seemingly counterproductive threats from the police.
The brief window into a few of the interactions that occurred on the street between white officers and multiethnic protestors, even pastors attempting to assist with peace-keeping, was highly disconcerting. During the four hours of the demonstration, some white officers were also being kind and helpful. Sadly, those acts were largely overridden by the negative encounters like this very first one. And such behavior simply reinforced the current narrative felt so deeply in the black community: white police officers disrespect black people.
The white community hopes this is not true. Often, we cling to the narrative that the police officers in our communities are doing the best they can, putting their lives on the line for little pay. Thousands of times a week, all across our country, officers make arrests with no incidents. They are helpful and kind. They often have only seconds to make life and death decisions. Occasionally, they make a tragic mistake. This feels more comfortable to believe. I pray that this is more the norm. But with so many incidents recently, we wonder.
Surely with each tragic encounter like Keith Lamont Scott’s, police departments are attempting to be more proactive at community engagement. Surely with better training, they will promote more understanding and less fear. But somehow, city after city, these horrible encounters continue.
African-Americans have long expressed concern about treatment when stopped by police. Today social media and cell phones with video technology confirm many of the complaints. Now, we also have statistics. From the Washington Post:
“White people make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those who are killed by police officers. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population … that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.”
Two and a half times more likely to be shot if I am Black; this is in general and possibly if a crime has been committed. But as the article continues, the issue switches to those of us, black or white, who are unarmed.
“U.S. police officers have shot and killed the exact same number of unarmed white people as they have unarmed black people: 50 each. But because the white population is approximately five times larger than the black population, that means unarmed black Americans were five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.”
Five times more likely to be shot if I am black and unarmed is a frightening statistic. What I witnessed in Uptown Charlotte last Sunday night came in the midst of much broader unease and followed several days of intense protests. The police were tired and so were the protestors. Emotions were frayed, tensions were high. But statistics related to police responses seem to indicate we have serious problems that must be addressed.
African-Americans have every right to be hurt, angry, and suspicious.
We need to work for healing. We can begin by acknowledging our own prejudice and confessing our own sin. It’s there. We can also educate ourselves about the systemic racism that has gone on too long and too deeply in our nation. The evidence is there. Therefore, all of us must work together to improve how we relate to each other, support each other, and look out for each other with authentic concern. The Bible has words for times such as these: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9).
Let us do our best to make it be so.
For the rest of the article in the Washington Post, see:
[Unarmed and black: Police are still killing unarmed black men at higher rates than whites]