Invalidating the Pain

Dee McIntosh, who is in the initial stages of planting Lighthouse Covenant Church in Minneapolis, organized clergy during a vigil Thursday night at the school where Philando Castile worked. She is one of the core leaders of Black Clergy United for Change and Black Lives Matter in the city. Photo by Dan Collison

Dee McIntosh, who is in the initial stages of planting Lighthouse Covenant Church in Minneapolis, organized clergy during a vigil Thursday night at the school where Philando Castile worked. She is one of the core leaders of Black Clergy United for Change and Black Lives Matter in the city. Photo by Dan Collison

As I write this, the nation is in shocked dismay over the killings of five police officers in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter rally. These murders are an immense tragedy and horrific. No one in any of my circles or leaders of rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement would say otherwise. We know that the law enforcement officers in Dallas were there protecting people marching to protest police brutality. We know that the lives of police officers matter.

I work as a 911 operator, and the lives of the men and women I work with matter. I’ve had numerous friends at various points in my life who are officers, including one veteran officer in Portland’s Gang Enforcement Team with whom I grew up in the same neighborhood. As we were so brutally reminded last night, law enforcement officers face difficult, treacherous circumstances every day, and many of them are slain while protecting the public.

Therefore, regarding the recent officer-involved shootings in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I’m willing for now to concede the possibility that there may have been a modicum of legal justification for the action of the officers involved. If and when there are verdicts, indictments or announcements regarding the legality of these officer-involved shootings, I likely will discuss those then.

But I want to state now to my white friends who think people complain too much about racism, that people don’t get shot if they comply with police, who want people to get all the facts before they rush to judgment, who hasten to inform Black Lives Matter protesters that all lives matter, my message to you is simple: Stop talking.

Whatever happened in Dallas, or whatever happened in the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or more than 120 blacks so far this year, does not make it OK to intrude into our conversation to tell us that all lives matter. We know all lives matter. That is why we are upset in the first place.

So if it doesn’t upset you that black men and women continued to be gunned down and/or brutally mistreated by law enforcement officials who are agents of the state, you might have a good reason to be indifferent, confused, and/or ambivalent, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not spill your defensive attitude and/or ignorance into the conversations of others who are mourning, who are angry, and who are seeking justice.

Covenant ministers and members were among a group protesting the shooting death of Philando Castile. Photo by Dan Collison

Covenant ministers and members were among a group protesting the shooting death of Philando Castile. Photo by Dan Collison

Injecting your “all lives matter!” in response to our outcry does not make you a truth-teller, or levelheaded. It makes you a jerk. It’s like showing up to a funeral and telling the family to stop grieving because, “well my grandma died too, grandmas die all the time!”

If you disagree with African American claims of injustice and are looking to have a more nuanced discussion about how to move forward, how police and communities of color can have improved relationships with each other, then that discussion can be had. But it can’t happen when you choose to insert your calloused, privileged perspective into a situation where and when it’s not helpful.

Ever heard the axiom, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care?” You don’t get to tell us in our community how to prioritize our concerns if you’re not a part of it and don’t know what we’re going through or what we’re doing to fix it.

If you’re wondering whether African-Americans are also upset and leading protests about the violent crime in our own neighborhoods, it’s not hard to find out. Ask someone. Use Google. But if you have no interest in the pursuit of equal rights for African-Americans, you have no right to criticize our resistance.

And contrary to what you might have been told, it is possible to have respect and admiration for police officers and still want them held to a higher standard of conduct than what has become the status quo. As a matter of fact, it is precisely because of the importance of the job and the impact – quite literally -that officers can have upon their constituents that this issue is so pressing and important.

We know all lives matter. That is why we are upset in the first place.

Regardless of the legality of these most recent shootings, what many in and outside of the black community are outraged about is the lack of accountability and the combination of irrational fear and casual disregard for human life. They result in an unnecessarily combative and disproportionately hostile attitude that makes it possible for so many law enforcement officers to shoot black people to death without exhausting every other option available.

This is not simply a problem of one or two problem officers that should be disciplined – though that may also be the case – but rather, an entrenched culture in law enforcement of distrust toward the communities they serve. The net effect is a collective cheapening of black life.

Even if you disagree with some of what I’ve said thus far, I’m not saying you can’t have a different opinion. I’m not saying you don’t get to have your own perspective. I’m saying don’t be a jerk while my friends and family are grieving over an ongoing pattern of tragic incidents where there seems to be no end in sight. If you want to engage in the conversation, do so cautiously, respectfully, and with a desire to promote unity prioritized over a desire to make your point.

If you are incapable of that, then by all means, spout away. Just don’t be surprised when other people identify your behavior as calloused, privileged, and yes, racist.

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4 Comments

  1. This is an outstanding piece written by Jelani. And as I, one pastor, sit behind a computer terminal on Saturday afternoon post Dallas searching for a word of gospel to offer a congregation tomorrow morning, the article offers crucial insights along with needed strength and courage. Jelani’s words lay bare ugly truths of life in America while peeling back the complexity of issues. I especially appreciated his refusal to hold back passion for it is critical to the conversation. As a married, heterosexual, white, male who has spent far too much time on the summit of social privilege, the injunction to “stop talking” is well taken. My place is to do a lot more listening – actively, not passively. Tomorrow’s gospel story has a lawyer/scribe asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? followed by, “And who is my neighbor?” More than enough grist for the first Sunday post Dallas, Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge.

  2. Thank you for helping me think about grief vs. conversation. But could some of the grief you express here be interpreted by those mourning the police deaths as the same calloused interjections that you warn against? And could many of the interjections that offend you really be expressions of others’ grief? God, please help us all.

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