In the wake of last month’s rioting, Christian voices are calling for reform and reconciliation.
FERGUSON, Mo. — The turmoil that has engulfed Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown has stirred Americans — from President Barack Obama down to the local community — to take action to try to prevent similar tragedies from taking place.
For their part, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis and other local Catholic leaders are seeking to serve as agents of reconciliation and reform in this St. Louis suburb, where the unarmed 18-year-old African-American youth was shot and killed last August by white police officer Darren Wilson during a failed arrest attempt.
In the wake of devastating local riots that ensued following the Nov. 24 decision by a grand jury not to indict Wilson, the White House announced Dec. 1 that the federal government would be taking new steps to help law enforcement agencies strengthen their relationships with the communities they serve.
The president’s plan includes setting aside $75 million to equip 50,000 police officers with body cameras; a task force on building public trust with law enforcement, while reducing crime; and reforming how the federal government supplies police departments with excess military equipment.
“Our police officers cannot be seen as an occupying force disconnected from the communities they serve,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who revealed the Justice Department would soon be unveiling guidelines to help police departments end the practice of racial profiling. “Bonds that have been broken must be restored. Bonds that never existed must now be created.”
Holder, speaking Dec. 1 in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where civil-rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, said the issues raised in Ferguson “are truly national in scope and [ones] that threaten the entire nation.”
Convulsed With Pain
The Obama administration’s announcements came a week after riots were triggered when the grand jury found “no probable cause” to indict Wilson.
“It doesn’t lessen this tragedy by the fact that it was a justifiable use of force or self-defense,” said prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch, as he announced the grand jury’s findings in the early evening of Nov. 24. “There’s still a loss of life here.”
McCulloch urged the community to not let the opportunity slip to discuss and act on the root causes of such tragic shootings.
“I don’t want to ever have to be back here, so we have to keep that discussion going.”
The night, however, soon turned ugly. Brown’s distraught mother, Lesley McSpadden, fainted when she heard the grand-jury decision. In a fit of rage, Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, screamed, “Burn this [expletive] down!” Police are investigating whether Head intended to incite a riot.
At the end of the night, 25 businesses (most of which were owned by minorities) were damaged and destroyed by fire, along with cars that were either torched or overturned in the chaos.
While businesses were being looted, one man was shot to death in another part of Ferguson, and arsonists burned down Michael Brown Sr.’s home church. Most of those arrested by police were from outside of Ferguson.
Gov. Jay Nixon brought in more than 2,200 National Guard troops to keep the peace in Ferguson in the wake of the riots, but those numbers were being reduced at press time, as conditions have improved.
“It was disheartening to see the shops, the people whose lives have been shattered,” said Father Robert “Rosy” Rosebrough, pastor of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, which serves the Ferguson community. He said close to 500 people might have lost their jobs. Members of his parish spent part of the morning after the riots picking up the pieces of broken glass in the streets.
Archbishop Carlson appealed to people to “choose peace” during a prayer service in Ferguson, timed to coincide with the grand-jury announcement, warning against the temptation to let their thirst for justice become “blinded by the poisonous desire for vengeance.”
“I implore each of you: Choose peace! Reject any false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence,” he said in a statement that recommitted the archdiocese to be a partner in addressing the underlying social and spiritual issues, such as poverty, racism and lack of opportunity, in the area. “Let’s work for a better, stronger, more holy community — one founded upon respect for each other, respect for life and our shared responsibility for the common good.”
Archbishop Carlson said communities, cities, states and the nation will only know peace when it begins in the home.
“If your homes are full of forgiveness, they will be temples of peace,” he said.
Catholic leaders nationwide joined the St. Louis shepherd in calling for changes to address the underlying problems that contributed to Brown’s death.
“The racial divide that exists between blacks and whites is not addressed adequately except when tragedies such as this happen,” Bishop Emeritus John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., the president of the National Black Catholic Congress, told Catholic News Service on Nov. 25.
Discussing the Ferguson issue on CBS’ Face the Nation on Nov. 30, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago commented, “There is suffering on all sides here. And we need to do a better job not just in terms of justice to make sure that those who are involved in law enforcement conduct themselves in a proper way, but also that we deal with the deep, serious social problems that provide a context of unrest whenever tragedies like this happen.”
President Obama and Attorney General Holder have placed changes in the way policing is conducted in minority communities atop the administration’s reform agenda.
Norman White, a criminology professor at St. Louis University, agrees that the “antagonistic” attitudes between the police and the community need to be changed in favor of “human dignity and respect.”
“Someone needs to speak to this: that there needs to be something of civility learned, in terms of [police] interacting with the people,” said the professor at the Jesuit university.
White said he knows policing is an “extraordinarily hard job” — one of his students went into policing and nearly died from a gunshot wound sustained during a traffic stop.
“Every encounter could be a deadly encounter,” he said. “But, somehow, we have to make it so that it is not the overriding mantra as you’re interacting with people.”
Roger Goldman, Callis Family Professor of Law Emeritus at SLU’s School of Law, said improvements need to be made to help police departments “mirror” the makeup of their communities, noting that, so far, only 1 out of 60 St. Louis County departments — the University City force — has achieved that.
Goldman said his worry is that many in the black community would think even less of joining the police at a time when their presence is most needed in poor areas to protect them from crime.
“We absolutely have to figure out a way to get a handle on it,” he said.
Goldman said the federal government should use its grants to police — including any provision of military equipment — as a “carrot” for better professional training, organization and management.
“If you’re hiring new police, make sure they know how not to use excessive force” and how to engage mentally ill suspects, he said.
Tackling Thorny Issues
At the same time, the local community is also beginning to wrestle with other thorny issues associated with the unrest. A 16-member Ferguson Commission appointed by the governor met Dec. 1 for the first time to discuss how to address underlying economic and social conditions.
Father Art Cavitt, an African-American Catholic priest and executive director of the St. Charles Lwanga Center, is meeting with Archbishop Carlson to discuss concrete solutions to these problems. The center currently has two programs aimed at giving hope to at-risk youth and an awareness of God in their lives: a youth-ministry program and its Kujenga (“Build” in Swahili) youth conferences.
Father Cavitt said that while police injustice against African-Americans is one major problem, there are also “all these murder sprees” that occur in black communities that are associated with drug abuse, violence and family breakdown — a “barrage of self-destruction.”
Such crimes are symptomatic of deeper problems, he said, both individual and systemic. Many people, suffering from a lack of skills and opportunities, struggle with a lack of purpose or sense of self-worth that negatively impacts their behavior: “There’s nothing for you to lose; there’s nothing for you to gain; there’s nothing for you to have anyway.”
On the systemic side, Father Cavitt said educational and economic avenues out of poverty need to be created, and racist attitudes must be combated. He also said there is a pressing need to change the “distorted views” of manhood and womanhood — such as having children without taking responsibility — that afflict much of contemporary American culture, not merely the nation’s black communities.
“Part of what we’re trying to do at the St. Charles Lwanga Center is to give people a different view of life and one’s life — to break the cycle that maybe they were even born into,” said Father Cavitt, “to try to show people that there are other possibilities in life that some folks may not have had exposure to.”
Conversion of Heart
Benjamin Watson, a professional football player with the New Orleans Saints, posted his thoughts in a widely applauded post on Facebook (see following sidebar), which ran from anger to confusion to ultimate hope in Christ as the solution to the brokenness of society.
“God has provided a solution for sin through his Son, Jesus, and with it, a transformed heart and mind,” Watson wrote, “one that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being.
“The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’m encouraged, because the Gospel gives mankind hope.”
For his part, Ferguson’s Catholic pastor, Father Rosebrough, said his community is a sort of “New Bethlehem,” where many people both there and elsewhere are looking for change because “it means hope for their cities.”
“This is happening all over the area, but this is the place where we’re chosen to change and make a difference,” he said.
Conversion of heart is needed, the priest stressed.
People should imagine what their days would be like if the Good Shepherd put them on his shoulders and walked with them.
“Would your life be different that day? Would you listen differently? Would you see people differently because the Good Shepherd’s with you? If that’s the case, why can’t we (now)?”
Father Rosebrough said he has seen many people decide to come into the local church since August, seeing the church’s witness through the community’s ordeal.
“Faith speaks,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of answers, but prayer is powerful, and people keep giving witness and signs that Christ is alive in our hearts.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.
‘The Gospel Gives Mankind Hope’
BY BENJAMIN WATSON
At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:
I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.
I’M FRUSTRATED because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police-citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from the safety of movie sets and music studios.
I’M FEARFUL because, in the back of my mind, I know that, although I’m a law-abiding citizen, I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.
I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests and law breaking only confirm and, in the minds of many, validate the stereotypes, and thus the inferior treatment.
I’M SAD because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.
I’M SYMPATHETIC because I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self-defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now, he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.
I’M OFFENDED because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.
I’M CONFUSED because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policemen abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.
I’M INTROSPECTIVE because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.
I’M HOPELESS because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised, and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.
I’M HOPEFUL because I know that, while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I’M ENCOURAGED because, ultimately, the problem is not a SKIN problem; it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his Son, Jesus, and with it, a transformed heart and mind, one that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.
Benjamin Watson, a professional football player for the New Orleans Saints, published this entry on Facebook Nov. 25. It has since gone viral on the Internet.
- archbishop robert carlson
- barack obama
- benjamin watson
- darren wilson
- eric holder
- father art cavitt
- father robert rosebrough
- michael brown