Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

That's a Catch

You know how in football sometimes we watch a wide receiver make a spectacular catch, but due to the rules laid down before the season began it isn't a catch? We see the replay over and over, and by the rules of common sense it's a catch. It's totally a catch. If you and I were out at a park playing a friendly game of gridiron and your friend Wyatt made the same catch it would totally be a catch. And not only that, everyone would be filled with glee because it was such a great catch, and even if you're on defense you can't help but be happy to have been a part of something so good.

But a professional sport doesn't work like that. It isn't self-policed the way our friendly game is. There are rules.

Last November twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer while holding a pellet gun. On Friday, the city of Cleveland produced court documents that argue Tamir was responsible for his own death. Specifically, they argue that Tamir "failed to exercise due care"[^1] in order to avoid injury.[^2]

There's a video of Tamir being killed. Normally I avoid watching these videos. I'm sensitive or afraid. I don't want to see someone be killed. But I watched this one.

Mark has written about it before: how Tamir played with snow and crushed ice under his feet, how he wandered around for minutes at a time, how he should have been afraid to be a twelve-year-old boy.

I watched the video knowing how it would end, but I was still shocked when the squad car burst into frame and a police officer shot Tamir not two seconds after opening the door. I don't know what I expected. Some kind of movie stand-off, I guess.

"Don't move! Show me your hands! Drop the gun!" A tense silence. Tamir makes the wrong move. Bang. Cue the music.

I was expecting something that conformed to common sense. Except the rules aren't based on common sense.

Sometimes a catch it isn't a catch and sometimes a twelve-year-old boy is responsible for his own murder. The only difference is, in the NFL everyone knows the rules and they apply the same to everybody.

  • [^1]: A phrase I will never forget.
  • [^2]: "Being shot in the stomach."

Ferguson

Ok, I lied. I'm a liar. I said we were taking the week off, but it's hard when news hits that riles you and enrages you and stifles you all at the same time.

A kid got shot by a cop. The kid didn't have a gun. The cop had a gun. Maybe the kid was gonna run away or maybe he tried to fight the cop. Don't get hung up on those opposing ideas, please, or we'll never get anywhere. The thing is, he got shot and he's dead. MLK Jr. had a lovely saying about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. Maybe it does, but Mike Brown didn't benefit. He's dead. The stories around what happened are muddy because someone's lying, maybe lots of people, but that's what happens when the stakes are high. People lie.

Fortunately, we have a trial system to sort out the lies and try to figure out the most likely truth so that we might pronounce innocence or guilt. Unfortunately, the grand jury and the prosecutor more or less robbed the Brown family and the public of that process. Whether you believe that Darren Wilson acted wrongly, the hazy nature of the events should have convinced everybody to take this matter to trial. It's what we have trials for. To look at all the evidence and make a decision. This is not what grand juries are for.

Grand juries look at the broad information, including cut and dry pieces of damning evidence, and say whether there's enough murkiness to warrant a trial. If Wilson had had a body camera on, or if the cruiser camera had caught anything, or if a bystander had be taking a video on their phone and taped the whole exchange, the grand jury would be within its authority to say "This happened this way, and nothing illegal happened." Of course, that evidence didn't exist in this case. Lots of people failed to do their jobs, so we're left with more questions than we should ever have when a person sworn to serve and protect kills another person.

At the bottom of all this, I'm tired. I'm worn out from my own cynicism, and equally worn out from clinging to bits of hope that things might turn out differently this time. I'm from Alabama, the land of this kind of injustice. I grew up seeing those images of cops beyond the law, especially in racially charged situations. As a teenager, I saw some of the more covert versions with my own eyes. It's tough to be this cynical about the moral universe. I wish I could believe as strongly as Dr. King did. I can't imagine what the Brown family must believe. I wish I could believe those religious leaders I respect who cry prophetically that "love and justice always win." Except they didn't for this kid. He's dead. They don't win for a lot of people.

I don't know exactly what happened the day Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. You don't either. That's what trials are for in this country, but we won't get one of those. Instead we'll have the rage of those who feel like their lives are worth less, the naive belief of some who feel law enforcement can do no wrong, the insidious joy of those who cannot empathize, the weary voices who still try to proclaim the good news, the sighing of we who don't know how it could get better, and the racial tension you could cut with a knife. But probably a bullet.

Only Three

Please also see Logan's post on this issue.

I'm sure you've seen the news lately. It's been in the Facebook news feed sidebar thing, so don't lie and say you haven't seen it. You have. It's the story of a 90-year-old Florida man and two pastors being cited for breaking Fort Lauderdale law by feeding the homeless. There are a lot of emotions at play in a story like this, and there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case. However, it makes it difficult to form rational thoughts about the event and the issues it raises that are more nuanced than "Wuuuuut. Nuh uh. Nuh. Uh."

So rather than offering an intense examination of the effects of marginalization on the wider social fabric, the economic factors that lead to homelessness and keep people there, the political structures that offer success for cruelty to and dehumanization of the least of these and political doom for those who actually want to make things better…instead of all that, let's keep it simple.

Regulated

Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old WWII veteran, now a chef, has been serving the homeless meals for 23 years. In 1999, he faced opposition and subsequently sued the city of Fort Lauderdale to allow food service at a public beach. He won, and has been serving weekly meals to the city's homeless ever since. On October 22, at a past-midnight session, the city passed an ordinance "regulating" such activity. According to the Sun Sentinel, the measure "limits where outdoor feeding sites can be located, requires the permission of property owners, and says the groups have to provide portable toilets, hand-washing stations and maintain the food at precisely regulated temperatures."

At the beginning of November, Abbott and two members of the clergy who were assisting him serve food were ordered to stop and immediately issued a citation carrying a potential $500 fine and up to 60 days of jail time. A few days later, they were again ticketed for serving meals (though the police at the scene allowed them to serve food for about 45 minutes first). No one has been jailed or arrested as of this writing.

That's where we are. We've got a guy serving the homeless food, and a city punishing him and others like him for doing so. It's important to keep in mind that this isn't a unique story. According to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless "since 2013, 31 cities across the United States have attempted to pass new laws that restrict organizations and individuals from sharing food with people experiencing homelessness." They've passed in 21.

So maybe we're paying attention to this particular story because it's an old guy, a reportedly good old guy, getting hassled by the government. He's not hurting anyone. He's trying to help, and the MAN won't let him. People are upset with the city of Fort Lauderdale. They've written letters to the mayor (and gotten form letters back), been outraged on social media, and righteously skewered the situation because they're named Stephen Colbert.

Something interesting happened

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this story, thinking about the social, political, economic, and theological implications. I've tried to think about it from a lot of angles so that I could form an intelligent opinion and write a comprehensive look at the situation that might cause you to say, "Pretty smart, book-learn'd guy." But here's the thing—I couldn't. I couldn't weave together all the threads without feeling overwhelmed. Part of what made it difficult was that I was angry at the city for passing something I saw as so amoral. It struck me as so vile that I all I could do was throw my hands in the air and say "Well what the hell do you do with that?"

But then something interesting happened. When I calmed down, I realized that I was still upset—but not with the city. Yeah, it's awful that feeding the homeless in 21 cities is illegal, but governments aren't moral or just. We'd like them to be, and we should do all we can to hold them to the highest ethical standards, but let's be real. Governments are corrupt and amoral because people are corrupt and amoral. Ruling bodies are human institutions, so flaws abound. Jesus knew that about Rome, and we know it now. What's keeping me upset, the really bad thing here, is that Jesus said to look that reality in the eye and follow him anyway.

So where was everyone? Only three people were cited. An old guy and two pastors. Why not more? It's not like this was a new setup. Abbott has been running these weekly meals for fifteen years. Also, I highly doubt those two pastors are the only ones in the area. Why isn't this a story about an entire community of pastors and lay persons each receiving a citation for civil disobedience? They didn't show, because getting people to do the work of Christ involves asking them to dig through muck, mire, pain, suffering, sweat, and frustration for someone else. For not-them. A call to that kind of binding to another, that kind of fellowship, won't be as sanitized and safe as the latest renovated sanctuary offering individual communion packets. And because it's tough, the turnout's bound to be low.

There were only three, and I wasn't one of them. I feel shame for all that I've not done for my neighbor[^1], for all I've failed to do for those who need help, my help. There have to be more than three. I can at least be the fourth. It's as simple as something Arnold Abbott said: "Why do I keep doing this? Because these are my people and they deserve to be fed."[^2]