July 16, 2013 @ 04:45 pm by Jacqui Lewis
Late Sunday night, John got a call from his 38-year-old son, now mine. Joel was walking home late with his girlfriend on a quiet street in Brooklyn, when he was assaulted by an African American man who seemed to be Joel's age. He punched Joel in the head behind his ear-"clocked me" to use Joel's words-and then ran around in front of Joel, ready to fight. Why? It seemed to be a reaction to the Zimmerman trial. That is what Joel thinks.
Joel said, "You could see it in his eyes, it was nothing but anger. There were words, but what I remember most is motherf&%#@r, over and over again. It was like there was a conversation happening, like there were paragraphs that happened before he got to me. I was inserted into something that was already ongoing. You know how you walk by a conversation and you catch a piece of it? I caught a piece of his conversation."
That man does not know our Joel, could not know our Joel, who as a little boy lived with and among all sorts of people and who inherited his father's sense of doing the just and right thing. Our Joel, whose hobby as an adult has been to travel to places like Australia, Viet Nam, and South Africa to solidify his sense of world citizenry. Our Joel, whose image went national at our first hoodie Sunday last spring; who as a Buddhist has found a home in our congregation because he loves the work we do for LGBTI/gender, racial, and economic justice. Our Joel was assaulted for being who he is: a straight, White man out walking with his girlfriend.
Perhaps the man suspected that Joel was like one of the countless, nameless White folk he has encountered who do not value the lives of Black and Brown men; the countless, nameless White men who, in their privilege, disregard those on the margins. He does not know, could not know our Joel, nor the man I love named John who raised this son I love and respect. Joel was an object of his anger, an object of his frustration, an object on which to show his rage at what hundreds of thousands of people believe to be an inappropriate response to the death of a Black boy. "White folks" did this, I imagine him thinking, and then picking one to punch.
Joel is all right. Stunned by the punch in his head, he still had the presence of mind to drop his backpack, get his love behind him, and stand prepared to defend himself with the only weapons he had: his fists and his intellect. When an ambulance pulled in the street, Joel used the latter, and waved down the drivers. The man ran away.
We are all so thankful that the assailant had no gun with which to shoot our beloved.
Among the many things I love about Joel is this: Even though he was assaulted, he said, "Not for nothing, but I get it. I totally get the frustration and I get the anger. I don't know enough about the law, but what happened is not right. When you get out of a car and provoke someone and get away with killing them, that does not make sense to me."
I am with Joel. I don't know enough about the law. I don't know enough about the prosecutors' strategy, or if Zimmerman was "overcharged." What I do know is that every life is valued, and Trayvon Martin is dead. What I think I know is that the decisions that were made by George Zimmerman on the way to the scuffle he had with this 17-year-old are ultimately responsible for the bullet in the heart. Stay in the car, like you are told. Don't follow the person you suspect. Drive away. Each of us has the opportunity to make decisions daily that can lead to violence or peace.
We can escalate a conflicted conversation or ask for time to think. We can call or write to loved ones when we are really angry and assault them with our rage, or we can write a letter, hold onto it, and reread it, and then send our feelings packaged in more love. We can spank our children when they spill milk or hit the puppy, or we can pull them close, look into their eyes, and tell them in a soft voice to be careful or that pets, like people, deserve kindness.
We can clump Black folk, White folk, Asian folk, Hispanic folk, Gay folk, Muslim folk, or Women folk into a group, assume that the group is good or evil or superior or inferior because of a particular experience with a particular person or some rumor we heard, OR we can stretch our hearts and minds to regard the particularity of each human being with curiosity. We will be surprised, then, by the unique way they are created and the gifts they bring to the human family.
So many of my friends and colleagues have said they were not surprised at the trial outcome. They expected that, because of the state of our union, it was likely that a Black teen's too-soon-cut-short life was not as valuable as Zimmerman's freedom. I am still totally shocked and unprepared for this outcome. Like my son, I feel sucker-punched in the head, and my head and heart are still hurting.
And, also like Joel, I am standing ready to fight. I am standing ready to use the weapons at my disposal: my intellect, my passion, my pen, my faith, and the almost inconsolable grief I feel at what seems to me like the systematic dismantling of the civil rights for which so many before me have fought. These are the weapons with which I go into battle.
Recently the Reverend Jesse Jackson said, "It if is a moment, we go home. If it is a movement, we go to war." This is a movement, friends, a movement for justice for all who are on the margins in our nation. As Dr. King often said, "Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere."
I don't want to incite violence with my choice of language. In fact, I am a woman who covers her eyes if fists or guns are raised in films. I flashback to my Chicago childhood, and the scene I witnessed of our neighbor thrown against a car and beaten with billy clubs when police came to arrest him. His crime: outstanding parking tickets. I was nine years old, and not too young to connect the dots in my mind to bullets aimed a Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, and Martin King. I was not too young to be horrified at the ways people can hurt each other when they are angry and afraid.
We are at war. We are engaged in a war of ideals. A war of values. A war of theology and ethics. We are in a war in which we need to raise our voices against injustice. We must use our tweets and texts and social media sites to engage in a conversation that leads to the overturning of unjust laws on our books, laws created to protect the status quo, not the people. We are in a war in which we must get educated and exercise our right to vote. We are in a war in which the civil rights of American citizens are at stake.
Someone asked me today, "Can something like this happen in New York?" Of course it can. Marc Carson was followed, stalked, harassed, and fatally shot in the face on May 18, 2013 a few blocks from Middle Church. He was gay. He was also Black.
It can happen anywhere. Anywhere fear and hatred blind the eyes of the powerful to the humanity of the other. Anyplace where unjust laws, planted in the putrid soil of oppression, go unchecked like poison fruit and are not cut down. It can happen, and it will happen, until those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear tune in to the plight of the vulnerable and the marginalized, and work in solidarity with one another to do something, because we can and we must.
Many of us are still grieving, still stunned. But with broken hearts bandaged, it is time to join the fight. Raise your voice and sign this petition circulated by the NAACP. Come worship with us this Sunday at 11:15 at Middle Church and wear your hoodie. Then join Chad Tanaka Pack for a conversation about these justice issues. Come and share your feelings and your insights. Tweet and post in your networks about a place called Middle Church, a place in which the radically welcoming love of God is extended to all. And share that we will take that healing love into the streets!
We are taking a group to the historic 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 24. We are collaborating with leaders across the nation to galvanize a movement that includes addressing gun control, the school-to-prison pipeline, and racial tensions in our nation. And, I am on study leave, writing furiously, to use my voice in service of healed souls who can work to heal the world.
We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes. And to quote an old protest song, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round ... I'm gonna keep on walkin', keep on talkin', marchin' up to freedom land."
About This Blog
Preparing ethical leaders for a just society. Posts by Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister.