With relations between the Black community and the Police in the US at breaking point, Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts explores the rise of racism around the world, and shares how churches can make a difference
“I can’t breathe!” These were the final words of Eric Garner, as he lay on the floor, gasping for breath. Garner, 43, suffered a heart attack during a confrontation with officers from the New York Department Police (NYPD), who were attempting to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes outside a beauty parlour on Staten Island.
Two plain clothed officers confronted the six-foot man, who had denied the charges and refused to be handcuffed. One of the officers placed him in a chokehold, wrestled him to the ground with the assistance of at least four other officers – ignoring his pleas for oxygen. Garner lost consciousness and died.
Even though Garner had been arrested 31 times since 1988, on charges such as drug possession, selling untaxed cigarettes and assault, on this occasion, his treatment by the police was disproportionate and uncalled for. He – like many African-American men before him – will be remembered as dispensable commodities, prematurely swallowed by death for having a pigmentation, which symbolised the absence of privilege.
A White police officer killing yet another unarmed Black teenager, aspiring college student Michael Brown, sparked 10 days of riots during August in Ferguson, Missouri. The decision not to indict the police officer responsible, Darren Wilson, sent shock waves throughout America, and reinforced the country’s racial divide. Three months later, another unarmed Black man, Akai Gurley, 28 and father of a young daughter, was shot by a White officer, who opened fire in a dimly lit staircase at a Brooklyn New York apartment block. On the day of his funeral service, December 7, New Yorkers expressed their dissent by taking to the streets to denounce the unlawful killing. Just when you thought the standoff between American police officers and young Black men could not get worse, a newspaper headline read: ‘Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, shot dead by a police officer for carrying a replica gun’. With attacks by police officers on young Black men refusing to abate, in December a police officer shot dead an African-American teenager in the town of Berkley, near Ferguson. Their defense: ‘The teen was carrying a hand gun at the petrol station’. Retribution, in view of escalating Black deaths, was more certain than uncertain and, on December 20, an African-American gunman, with what seemed to be a grudge against the police for killing Black boys with impunity, killed two New York police officers.
Not surprisingly, post-racist rhetoric reached new heights when Obama became America’s first ever Black President. On the day of his inauguration – an event for people of colour to rightly celebrate – social media was awash with positivity; the global family delighted that good had triumphed over evil, at last. According to many, his constant visibility in the corridors of power confirmed that racism does not have to have the final word. This is true. But what is not true is that his presence in the White House is confirmation that we live in a post-racist society. The irony of the ‘not true’ is obvious to those able to read the times. Since Obama’s ascendency, racism appears to have also been on the ascendency too, particularly in parts of Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East. While it is difficult to provide immediate empirical evidence for this apparent correlation, anecdotal evidence suggests people of colour cannot afford to sit on their laurels. A British passport cannot shield us from racism’s lethal lashes. Increasingly, it appears, the world is becoming a less comfortable place for many people of colour. In parts of Europe, laws are being penned that might unwittingly normalise racism.
While I do not have the temerity to claim to be an authority on race relations in America, I am left with an impression that the dispensability of young Black men verses the indispensability of young White men might be a factor at the heart of America’s problem. Even if partly correct, Britain and America have yet another thing in common: the indiscriminate death of young Black men. I, like many others, can wax lyrical about the under achievement of young Black men – a ubiquitous problem in our criminal justice and educational systems – in particular. But words are not enough. To simply decry, a rather benign and perhaps therapeutic exercise, the American and British systems that keep many young Black men institutionally colonised should have had its day long ago.
Increasing numbers of Christians need to initiate and participate in long-term strategies that seek to support and empower young Black men. This should not only be the responsibility of the State, but also the responsibility of the Church. God will not only blame those in power for the displacement of the sons of our Black churches, but also Christian congregations and those Christian leaders who could have and should have assiduously worked to address this now endemic problem.
Our prayer must surely be for an increase in Black Christians willing to work with the displaced sons of the Church, too, for Christians to make the necessary sacrifices that will minimise the death (psychological and physical) of our young Black men, preventing, if not too late, an occurrence of America’s most recent nightmare.