By Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick
In Dallas on October 1, a jury found a white Police officer guilty of murder in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a black man, in his own apartment on September 6, 2018. Had I been a part of the jury in the trial of Amber Guyger, it w ould have been difficult to lean any way different from the jury (after hearing much of the trial’s broadcasts) … but I was not on the jury, and I did not hear every witness or spokesperson. In our system, we must trust the jury’s decision and move forward.
Many loudly praised the jury for its wisdom in finding her guilty. Yet, one day later, the same voices that praised on Tuesday had bitter words and reactions on Wednesday when the same jury came back with the sentencing: 10 years. That sentence was “too low” for many.
It is interesting how we see cases so “black or white” and shout “We won!” or “We lost!” I take a different view now than I might have taken years ago: now I say, ALL of us lost. In some way, the whole community lost, and we will continue to lose unless we change drastically.
As now an elderly African American man – and I count age 67 as elderly – I know racial injustice. Born in Alabama, and having lived most of my life in the South, I have experienced firsthand racial injustice; it’s not just what I talk about, it’s what I know about. I know what it is – today – to have to walk in my own neighborhood with my driver’s license on me if it’s dark, because I know the wrong policeman may stop me and not believe me or give me the benefit of doubt. So, in that sense, I can understand how some heard what seemed impossible – a white officer who killed a black man was found guilty of murder rather than guilty of manslaughter (or just plain “not guilty”) – and rejoiced that the seemingly impossible had happened.
I can understand how the adrenaline flowed after that verdict … but until we realize that ALL of us lost, we cannot move forward to where we need to be.
Nobody wins when we send so many people to prisons today. We may believe we win, and some of us believe we are safer because of who is locked up, but the pains and pangs of incarceration deliver harms to the incarcerated and their families and take great tolls (no matter what our color or cultural background) beyond a generation.
My wife and I receive a weekly call from a prison, from a friend who was once an employee but who was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. She is now in her 13th year, and while “parole” may be possible for some people, if parole requires her to say that she is guilty of the crime she was charged with, I doubt if she will ever get to that point. To hear her talented voice living out her faith in God from the wilderness of her imprisonment is itself both challenging and encouraging. But there is still great loss.
There was some encouragement and hope, even from the experience of the trial in Dallas. Having watched much of the trial via wfaa.com, I was grateful for Judge Tammy Kemp’s demeanor, firmness, decisiveness, her judicial temperament, and yet her humanness during the trial. I was grateful to see in her “authority without pomposity.”
Later, as many of you know, the younger brother of the deceased victim “forgave” the convicted murderer on the stand, and in a dramatic moment, “hugged” her with the judge’s permission. When the trial was over, the judge went first to the family of the deceased, hugging them, and then later to the convicted murderer, hugging her as she spoke something into her ears, and then brought her a Bible. Now, that was too much for many people, but who knows if God was not at work?
What troubles me the most however, is that in the aftermath of this trial and sentencing, our racial divisiveness continued to show its head. I believe it will, for a long time, but there is the possibility of hope if we can do more than be divided … if we can do more than just say “this was better.”
Two years ago, I felt betrayed when the nation elected a President who espoused racist language, and I could not believe the “progress” of the last 60 years could be so easily forgotten. As I have mused during these last two years, I’ve come to believe that we did not make so much progress as we thought we had, and perhaps we did not make progress because we “glossed” over our real stories, and the wounds and hurts and misunderstandings on both sides (now three sides) of racial divides have continued to keep us divided.
I believe a way forward – away from repetitive losing – is for faith organizations in our cities in particular to create “safe places” for persons to speak to each other, listen to each other no matter what we say, and relate to each other in ways that go beyond being “publicly polite.” You and I know there is anger in the African American community; but there is anger in the Caucasian community as well. We are often “publicly polite,” yet we go home to our private dens and our cultural corners and exist in a world that the others may never understand.
We need genuine understanding that goes beyond being “polite,” or we will still be fighting the same battles another 50 years from now. We need the kind of understanding that can comes from victims and perpetrators (and many of us are on both sides) and innocent persons coming together and expressing our experiences, similar to the Faith and Reconciliation Commission’s work in South Africa. We need to begin to understand each other if we are to move forward.
Building understanding is tedious work. It is seldom exciting, except when there is a breakthrough. It takes time, patience, listening, and is sometimes enduring. But it is profitable.
We ALL lost in Dallas – from September 6, 2018, through October 2, 2019, and beyond: the victim, Botham Jean, will no more use his sought-after voice in his beloved Church of Christ, and he will no more grace the shores of his native St. Lucia; Amber Guyger, who sat on the “other side” of Court before, now must deal with the dynamics of prison life and will have to check the box “convicted felon” after she is released. Both of them lost. The Dallas County communities lost as well, for whether we saw a side of justice we wanted to see in the trial’s outcome or whether we were disappointed in the verdict and/or the sentence, well-meaning people are poorer that we are so divided in our expressions about it.
We have ALL lost, but we do not have to keep losing if we commit ourselves as faith leaders to creating these “safe spaces.”
Lawrence L. Reddick III