Resisting arrest

It was maybe ten years ago that I was in my apartment complex’s pool with a friend’s young daughter. She was not a good swimmer at all, and was reluctant to go into the deeper end of the pool without my help. At one point, I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, (I do have a habit, even to this day, of letting kids use my back as a surfboard in the pool. Note to self: just because you’re in the water does NOT mean it is not going to hurt like a @%# later.) but whatever we were doing, she was either on my back or on my shoulders. We crossed over the point between the shallow and the deep end, and in her panic, she was holding on to me more and more tightly, pushing me down underneath the water.

With my head under the water, I could not explain to her that she needed to let go so that I could get my footing and thereby get us both to safety. I have very little understanding of fear of water, having spent my summers swimming in my grandmother’s backyard pool since before I could remember, but I can understand that it must be terrifying. Her panic was palpable, and yet, in order for me to regain control of the situation, I had to wrest her hands away from my grasp.

It was probably a mere 15 seconds, and I don’t really think that we were ever in any serious danger, but it frightened me nonetheless.

My friend’s daughter was like any other human. When faced with an immediate threat, real or perceived, her mind and body reacted, and her only instinct was to stay alive. It’s an instinct all of us have. It’s what keeps people going in the face of almost impossible odds…it’s why we refer to people with cancer as “fighting bravely”…it’s what makes suicide more difficult than people who haven’t been in that place can imagine. We are human, and our instinct is to stay alive.

Which is why I am so, so tired of people saying, “well, if _______” (insert police brutality victim of the week here) “hadn’t been resisting arrest, they wouldn’t have had these problems”.

These words are usually spoken by people who, even if they were in an encounter with the police because they themselves had broken the law, would never have to experience the abject terror that people of color – whether they have or have not done anything wrong – face every time they have an encounter with the cops.

As a white woman, being stopped by the police is an annoyance at best, albeit triggering in terms of my unresolved crap with authority figures. However, I can think of very few situations in which a random (or not-so-random) police stop would leave me fearing for my life.

I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it is to feel some unidentifiable combination of anger and terror at the mere sight of someone in law enforcement. And because I don’t know what that feels like, I am in no position to say what I would or would not do in that situation.

If you know anything about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you know that it can lead to a state of constant fight-or-flight hyper-alertness. I imagine that living with the trauma of so many difficult encounters with police over time, either in one’s own life or as a witness to this violence, might lead someone to act unpredictably in the face of this threat. It’s not even accurate to say that this is a “perceived” threat, because for too many black and brown Americans, this is a reality borne by experience after experience after experience.

When my friend’s daughter was pushing down on me in that pool, pushing me further into the water, she was not trying to “resist” my instructions, or my efforts to contain her. She was, rather, trying to resist drowning, to somehow keep herself from the threat she was facing. That threat was very real to her in that moment, and so she thrashed and fought back against my efforts to free her hands from my shoulders and flailed and shouted.

She thought she was in immediate danger of dying, and her body reacted. She did what humans do. She fought for her life.

So now imagine that you are facing an immediate threat. Perhaps you are angry, and you don’t watch your words as closely as you should. Like a child talking back to a parent (unsettling image, but the power structure is set up in such a way that I’m often reminded of the children’s book Matilda: “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”), you open your mouth, or you move in the wrong direction, and you are suddenly and painfully aware that you have provoked the rage of this authority figure, and you may very well be killed.

Or maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity, and yet you are taken to a police station and repeatedly sodomized and beaten…or maybe you simply grew up in the shadow of incidents like these, both the larger cases that are publicized in the news as well as the ongoing narrative in your own community of confrontations large and small.

If you don’t know what it’s like to live in that world, then you ought not speak of “resisting arrest”.

What they are resisting is death. What they are fighting against is the generations of brutality and fear that are seared into the flesh of this nation’s history. However they are reacting, it is all they can do in that moment. When you have a police officer’s knee in your back, or his gun to your head, it is not the time for calm; it’s the time to figure out how to stay alive.

If you resist, they may kill you. If you don’t resist, they still may kill you. And the definition of “resisting” is ever-broadening and not easily defined. And if you are a young black or brown man in this country, you don’t stand a chance against these changing definitions. You certainly do not have the luxury of trying to guess whether this is the day you will die at the hands of the officer who is approaching you.

They aren’t resisting arrest. They are trying to stay alive.

And they are doing this because this is what humans do.

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Just showing up

“Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

The doubts came on almost instantly, brought about, no doubt, by the fact that I wasn’t seeing as many familiar faces as I would have liked or expected to see. (Cue social awkwardness in 3…2…1)

The church was emptier than I had anticipated. Not an aching, slap-in-the-face empty like Marlene’s funeral had been, but my guess would be that there were not more than 200 people present. It didn’t feel like it was enough.

It also felt so disjointed in a way that I don’t think Rick would have wanted it to be. Skot Welch‘s eulogy gave much honor to Rick’s work, but I felt like the message of racial reconciliation was too sanitized overall…as if the message was muted. Dear God, at my funeral I want people to be pounding their fists on the table, shouting against injustice, breaking the uninitiated out of their kum-ba-yah complacency.

(Someone later pointed out to me that this wasn’t Rick’s way…he approached these issues with grace and gentleness…so probably this is my bias. Also, I do need to acknowledge that some people (most normal people?!) would think that this was not the time or the place for such a rant.)

But if others I’d been expecting to see weren’t there, should I really be? I started to doubt myself. I had asked to leave work early so that I could sleep a few extra hours before the funeral. I had struggled to articulate to my boss the relationship I had with this…friend? colleague?  We had worked together, had common passions, spoke the same “language” when it came to issues of white privilege and injustice. But sitting there, alone, I was starting to feel like a fraud.

I’ve long wrestled with the vagaries of funeral rituals. The question I posed once of whether it’s more appropriate for a casual acquaintance to go to the wake* or the funeral itself was never quite resolved, with people landing solidly on either side of the issue. Today’s funeral was one of the type that seems to be more common this days…no separate visitation time, just a time to greet the family in the hour preceding the funeral. I debated whether or not to come and “greet the family”. I’ve never met the family…except for his “brother” and co-host Skot Welch. I came most of all because I wanted to hug Skot, to tell him how very much I ache for him, how I of all people understand how important friends are, and that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. If I could do that one thing, perhaps my presence there could be redeemed.

I wrote most of this (up until this point) during the funeral…on my phone. I imagine that the people sitting behind me were glaring at me disapprovingly, thinking I was on Facebook or some such nonsense. How to explain to them–to anyone, really–that I need to write in order to process?

The service was over, right on the hour, and I made my way out of the sanctuary. Skot was standing right near the door, and in my typical rude fashion, I cut in on a conversation he was having to give him a hug and to tell him how sorry I was. I ran into a few other friends, brothers and sisters in this work.  I almost felt redeemed. I was simply showing up. Whether or not I felt I had the “right” to be there, it was done. I had been there.

And hopefully, just showing up was enough.

*I had a friend tell me that calling it a “wake” is antiquated and conjures up images of drunken Irishmen. East Coast friends would disagree, and old habits die hard.

Food for thought

I am not sure who the original author of this piece is; it came from an e-newsletter from The Micah Center in Grand Rapids, MI. But given the things that are going on around our country (and indeed, around the world), I thought it was important to share this.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
The fight by the rich and powerful against the middle class and working poor continues.  Their strategy is to blame complex economic problems on one of three scapegoats: teachers, immigrants, or government employees.  And unfortunately, it offers politicians an easy way out.  At a time when our country is in grave distress, they can pick out a select group and blame all of our problems on them. From a distance, the tactics being pursued in different states look diverse and varied.  But their three-pronged attack suggests a national strategy.

First, under the guise of targeting “lazy” and “overpaid” teachers, the rich and powerful with the help of the politicians, are working to dismantle public education.

Second, as they talk about balancing state budgets, these same folks are trying to undermine the public sector’s role in providing critically important public services.  A bill in Michigan would privatize support services to public schools.  Again, the goal is to strengthen corporations and disempower organized workers in the political realm.

Third, this same wealth/power group attempts to block the voice of immigrants in our country’s politics.  Various attempts are being made to create barriers to voting and to discourage people not yet registered from exercising their legal rights.

Now it’s up to us.  Those of us who are concerned, disgusted, and outraged that our democracy is being taken over by multi-national, big, big corporate money  need to step up.

We should not allow the wealthy, powerful, and yes, greedy to ride roughshod over the needy of our land.  In Psalm 72 we see God’s picture of a good governmental leader:  “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”  May those types of leaders soon be raised up to save our democracy!!

Sunday blogging against racism–Haiti, again.

This hits very close to home for me. As a white adoptee, I have found my voice in the voices of transracial/transcultural adoptees, even as I have had to acknowledge how much more difficult their journeys have been than my own.

This blog post captures so much of how I feel about international adoption, even though I have considered it myself. If I do ever pursue adoption, I pray that I will have the courage to ask myself the questions that this writer poses, and to look honestly at the answers. I KNOW that I would surround myself with people who could hold me accountable to respecting my child’s original culture.

You should read the whole post, but if you don’t, here’s an excerpt:

Let me try another analogy. Let’s say you live with your child in a house that burns down. You’re dazed, confused, and burned. Your neighbor says, “I think I should take care of your child”. You say, “Thanks for your offer. But my child really needs me now, and I think they wouldn’t sleep well in a strange house. If you could just give us a tent and some food and some bandages so we can camp out while I get better and look into rebuilding, we’ll be OK.” Your neighbor says, “that’s too logistically complicated and I’m concerned about the security situation. I just want your child.” You say, “Thanks again for your concern and I’m grateful for any help you can give me. If you’re so worried about my child, maybe you could let both of us stay in your guestroom for a while? That way my child could be safe and would sleep well too.” Your neighbor says, “No, we have an interdiction-at-sea policy and visa restrictions will not be relaxed. Just give me your child. Actually, nevermind. I don’t even need your permission anymore. I’ll just take them.”

Think about  it . . .

Sunday blogging against racism–wrestling with the Haiti question.

Like the rest of you, my heart has been heavy in the past few days with the news of the disaster in Haiti. The immediate gut reaction of most has been, “We just have to help them”. And yes, we do . . . but I have not been able to shake a vague sense that there is something that “we” (particularly the United States) have been doing that left Haiti so vulnerable to such a disaster.

I already knew some of the history of how Haiti came to be. I also knew that the country has struggled mightily ever since. And while my local “Christian” radio station opined that the  DR has prospered where Haiti has failed because the former is a “Christian” country, I was more inclined to believe that the difference in skin color had much to do with it. I also couldn’t shake a nagging sense that there has been a “get back in your place, boy!” kind of attitude on the part of the white, Western world towards a black people that would dare assert that justice and freedom ought to be their birthright.

So I had to do some reading . . . and I found this article.

The part that took my breath away was this paragraph:

Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor–by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank.

I want to read more . . . I want to educate myself further. Yes, please give to relief efforts, choosing wisely as you do . . . but stop and ask yourself just how we got here . . . not the earthquake itself (which was NOT God’s judgment on anyone!), but the tenuous infrastructure of a nation ill-equipped to face such a disaster.

We cry at pictures now . . . we whip out our cell phones and send ten dollars their way . . . but are we looking at ourselves? At our nation, and its role in paralyzing Haiti up until this point?

Not easy questions . . . but I will continue to wrestle with them, and I hope you will join me.