This week's portion: cut away the calluses on your heart
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Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men


I've watched with grief and horror this week as stories have emerged of police shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Ezell Ford was shot by police in Los Angeles. Both of these deaths come on the heels of the death of Eric Garner, strangled by police in New York, only a few weeks ago. Mother Jones reports Four Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police In The Last Month.

I've been following the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter. "If the police shot me," ask those who tweet with this hashtag, "what photograph of me would the news reports show?" The subtext is often: the news media would choose a photo which makes the victim look "like a thug," as though that justified the killing of an unarmed human being. (See the pair of photos enclosed in this post for an example of what that means.)

Bu7pN-ZIAAAmx_PI've been reading the essays which smart friends have shared, among them Black kids don't have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. Jasmine Banks writes:

Let me be clear: Unarmed college hopefuls don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids heading to work or trade school don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids floundering aimlessly through life don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids who have been in trouble—even those who have been nothing but trouble—don't deserve to be shot.

The act of pinning the tragedy of a dead black teen to his potential future success, to his respectability, to his "good"-ness, is done with all the best intentions. But if you read between the lines, aren't we really saying that had he not been on his way to college, there'd be less to mourn?

Also The death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in black America. In that essay, Mychal Denzel Smith writes:

Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?...

Counting the bodies is draining. With every black life we lose, we end up saying the same things. We plead for our humanity to be recognized. We pray for the lives of our young people. We remind everyone of our history. And then another black person dies.

In my Yom Kippur sermon last year I spoke about the murder of  Trayvon Martin. This week I find myself thinking again of Trayvon and of those who grieve him. This week's news seems somehow "worse," as though it were possible to rank this kind of outrage and grief, because this week's killings were committed by police offers. Here is an excerpt from last fall's sermon -- I'm not sure I can say it better now than I did then:

I am the mother of a boy. Someday he will be a teenager. Someday he will walk the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood in the dark. He might even be wearing a hoodie, or whatever item of clothing teenaged boys think is cool in another twelve or fifteen years. And the odds of someone deciding that he is a threat, and (God forbid) shooting him, are vanishingly slim. Because my son is white.

Because my son is white, if he's pulled over while driving his car, he's not likely to be searched, or to be mistreated by the police. His African American and Latino friends will be three times more likely to be searched and frisked -- at least if things stay the way they are now. Right now, African Americans are almost four times as likely as white Americans to experience the use of force from police. [Source] ...

I am grateful that my son will enjoy the blessings of liberty and autonomy. But I am angry and appalled that other people's children don't have them, simply by virtue of the color of their skin. Every child deserves the privileges I want for my son.

And every parent deserves to live secure in the knowledge that their child can walk the streets safely without being killed. Period.


These deaths are not isolated incidents. They're part of a bigger pattern of systemic racism which is a cancer eating at the heart of my country. In every sphere of life, white Americans are treated differently than Americans of color. (I wrote a little bit about my own process of coming-to-terms with this for Zeek earlier this year -- New Depths in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue: Jewish Privilege.) And this difference in how we are treated, how we are regarded, how we are valued, extends to what assumptions police make about us and how likely they are to shoot.

This is unbearable. This is not the America I want to live in. And as a religious Jew, I'm conscious of the disjunctions between this reality and what Torah teaches. Time and again Torah reminds us not to treat the rich differently than the poor, because that would be a perversion of justice. But what is today's American reality if not precisely that -- breaking down not necessarily along lines of class and wealth (though that happens too) but lines of race and color? We aspire to liberty and justice for all, but black kids and white kids don't experience the same justice, and as a result we don't have the same liberty.

Because American racism is so systemic, it can be difficult to figure out where to begin to approach it. It's woven deep into the fabric of our culture; how shold we begin to go about pulling out those threads? I asked Twitter what I/we might do to make a difference right now, and got some smart suggestions, among them:

  • support the ACLU in Missouri to help those who were arrested for peaceful protesting & can’t afford their legal costs
  • contribute to the bail and legal fund for those arrested in Ferguson protesting Michael's killing
  • listen to, and amplify, black voices speaking about their experience (be prepared to be quiet and learn)
  • hold our media accountable for telling the real story intead of buying in to predictable and biased narratives (see News reports on Michael Brown's death: how do mourners become a mob?, Ethan Zuckerman)
  • protest the militarization of police (I'm not sure our tiny rural police department has been part of this trend, but I appreciate the suggestion)
  • don't forget about this next week when the next sensationalist story hits the front page -- keep pushing for real change

I welcome further suggestions in comments.

My heart goes out to the family of Michael Brown. The family of Ezell Ford. The family of Eric Garner. And all those whose names I do not know. May the Source of Peace bring them comfort along with all who mourn.



Further reading:

Things To Stop Being Distracted By When Another Black Person Gets Murdered By Police, Mia McKenzie

Unarmed Black Men Killed by Law Enforcement, Jenée Desmond-Harris

Do Black Lives Matter In Our Community, Nekima Levy-Pounds

What white people can do about the killing of black men in America, Paul Raushenbush

America Is Not For Black People, Greg Howard

Becoming A White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder, Janee Woods