systemic injustice

Logan's Failure of Imagination

I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.

What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.

Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.

Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.

21 Senators

I like to think that I’m not a natural curmudgeon. I enjoy hope; I revel in beauty; I seek out good things in life, both small and big.

But it’s important to be honest with yourself: I’m an asshole.

This doesn’t mean that the other stuff is untrue. It just means that my natural disposition toward the world is usually an obstacle for me. I’d like it to be otherwise, but, as some wise old Brits still say, you can’t always get what you want.

All that said, there are mornings when my natural lens through which I view reality is confirmed with serious force. For example, the first story I read this morning detailed how 21 United States senators chose to vote against a bipartisan bill to ban torture. Now keep in mind, this is America; torture isn’t going away. But at least the majority of our leaders feel (correctly) that there should be some explicit language against practicing it. That’s a good thing.

Unless you’re the worst.

Which is really the only way I can view the 21 human beings, charged with making policy decisions for millions of collective constituents, who openly voted to keep the right to treat other human beings worse than the law allows us to treat domesticated animals. Baffling, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s not baffling to you, though. Maybe you are still among those who feel that torture can serve the greater good, that it can lead to valuable information which protects the wider public. What’s wrecking one guy’s body when we’re talking about hundreds? Thousands? Millions?

But you’re wrong if you’re not baffled. I’m saying you’re wrong. I’m right. There aren't a lot of times in life when you can be confident, but about this, I am. We’ve seen time and time again that torture doesn’t work. It doesn’t get results. If your body was being pushed beyond all fathomable limits of pain and possibility, wouldn’t you say anything to get it to stop? That’s common sense, and common sense wins out in every reliable case we’ve seen.

Still, we’ve got 21 powerful leaders in this nation who feel fine with blatantly ignoring such evidence. I honestly wish I could be more cynical about this, because then at least I could believe that they’re only trying to win some shrewd political points with such a vote. But I’m not. As an asshole, what I’m seeing isn’t even through the lens of cynicism at this point. What I’m seeing is both the active and banal nature of evil at work. The warm light of hope is so far gone for me when I see a story like this that it’s hard for me to process. I mean, stuff shouldn’t line up with the way I tend to view the world because the way I tend to view the world sucks. But here we have it.

So what’s to be done? I don’t know. Elect different people? We can do that. We can take note of the specific individuals who think mangling the body and mind of another is fine if the perceived (but never actual) gains are big enough, and we can vote for someone else. We can keep our memories of their deeds sharp, never forgetting that their view of human life is straight up disturbing.

We can also remember the value of life, and the value of living it with purpose and hope in light of our reality as connected beings. That's the stuff of divinity. We can remember that we're humans, and as such, neighbors are our reality. We can live that out with some optimism for the good life to be shared by all. We can get upset when even the most jaded among us notice the imbalance of ethics and policy playing out in our public sphere.

We can desire the new and the good. And maybe this desire for transformation and change is part of being an asshole who wishes you weren’t; in any case, it sure makes you different than 21 senators.

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.