I wasn’t in the room

I was invited to a meeting of clergy at a church whose parking lot is the staging ground for a militarized police force in Sherman Park, the site of unrest in Milwaukee. The clergy meeting would be with Governor Scott Walker.

I considered going. Political leaders have power, and it is affirming to have churches recognized and brought into that sphere of influence. Its nice to be wanted. I thought maybe this would be a place to speak truth to power, to push the issues behind the violence: jobs, racism, police-community relations, racism, mistrust of youth, and racism.

But then I remembered Amos, and I stayed home.

A few hours later this picture emerged:


In good vauge-book fashion, I posted this:


Folks pretty quickly figured out what I was referencing.

God told the prophet Amos: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” There are places where power serves the empire and the work of the empire is not of God.

I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know what was said.

But I couldn’t do what was happening in this room. Not because Scott Walker is a republican and I’m not. I couldn’t do this because several of Walker’s policies – from defunding transit to assaults on voter rights to expanding attacks on public schools – created the conditions that led to a segment of Milwaukee feeling like they had nothing to loose. Because so much had already been taken.

No doubt you will quote to me, “Pray for your enemies.” I do pray for my enemies, but not with them. I will not let my voice be used to justify a curfew that vilifies youth or consents to the national guard being on call. I will not let my prayers be used as a talking point from the governor to the media. I will not say, “Peace, peace when there is no peace.”

The church is called to be the voice of liberation. Church leaders must follow the example of preaching good news to the poor. If it isn’t good to the poor, it isn’t the good news. And if it is good for the powerful, it usually is not good for the oppressed.



Psalm 30 #DontreDay

How long, O Lord? How long?

The common refrain of God’s people in the midst of suffering? How long will the oppressors win? How long will the enemies trample us? How long will our children be slaughtered? When will thy kingdom come? When will thy will be done?

2 years after the death of Dontre Hamilton, the city of Milwaukee and the nation continue to cry out: How long? How long until justice prevails in the land? How long until police and communities are no longer at odds with one another? How long until we stop hearing about the shooting death of an unarmed person of color? How long?

Perhaps this anniversary should be a day of lamentations. A day of wailing and grief.

Perhaps this day should be a day of righteous anger, of occupying public space and shutting down “business as usual.”

These reactions are justified. Anger and grief, rage and disbelief.

And yet the family of Dontre Hamilton cling instead to Psalm 30.

“ Then you changed my despair into a dance—
you stripped me of my death shroud
and clothed me with joy.” Psalm 30:11

There are still days of grief and rage. There will still be days of action and protest. But in the midst of death is life. The Milwaukee Police department decided 2 years ago that April 30th would be a day of violence. A day of injustice. A day of profiling. A day of death.

But with hope of a God who delivers full and complete justice, the Hamiltons will not allow the forces of death or powers and principalities to define this day. With a faith in God, this day of tragedy for the family has been given to the community in celebration.

Changing the meaning of April 30th to become a celebration of life, of One Love, of a Milwaukee that does better – this is radical and subversive. More than protesting Christmas tree ceremonies and shutting down freeways THIS is the thing that should terrify those against the movement. Because unity is more powerful than division. Dancing is more enticing than mourning. Love is stronger than hate.

When love, unity, and celebration define us… we win!



It was never just about Dontre

It was never just about Dontre.

After the killing for Dontre Hamilton in the shadows of city hall, a movement emerged. The Coaltion for Justice led matches in the streets. The governor feared the people and activated the national guard. The sheriff got to shuck and jive for Fox News. At times there have been arrests. Nate Hamilton, Dontre’s brother, cried out “Activate the power of the people” and Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre, has become a force on a national level.

We’ve rallied around “I can’t sleep.” We demanded the name of the officer be released. We got that. We demanded better training for crisis intervention and mental health training. We got that. When the local DA failed to prosecute, we demanded a federal investigation. We got that.

2 years after the fateful moment in Red Arrow Park, the citizens have seen progress in our struggle for justice.

But this was never just about Dontre.

If it was only focused on Dontre Hamilton, folks could say the movement failed. Chris Manney lost his job, but the PTSD from killing an innocent man allows him to collect disability checks. The local DA didn’t press charges. The DOJ didn’t press charges. We still don’t have a patterns and practice investigation of MPD. Chief Flynn still has his job.

Dontre in life promoted One Love. Dontre in death demands justice.

If I have learned anything from the amazing leaders locally and nationally it is that Black Lives Matter is not about surviving. It is about Black Lives Thriving.

This is why the stories of Derek Williams, Tony Robinson, Brandon Johnson, the treatment of Darius Simmons’ mother, and Corey Stingley are repeated. This isn’t one situation. It is systematic.

This is not just about Dontre because the need to not just “reform.” It is not a case of a “few bad apples.” The need to overhaul the Milwaukee Police stems from the days of Frank Jude. And longer.

This is not just about Dontre, because cutting funding for mental health services hurts our whole city.

Black Lives can’t thrive without economic justice so the Coaltion for Justice aligns with the fight for 15.

The inhuman treatment of migrants through ICE raids and Milwaukee Sheriff’s actions reveal the fault of putting police at odds with whole groups of citizens.

This is not just about seeing Christopher Manney in jail. That is one objective, but it isn’t the end game.

A city where black lives thrive has always been the goal. Policing, economics, education, mental health services, environmental justice, leadership that serves the citizens: all of these are issues tied up in the struggle for Milwaukee’s liberation.

Dontre inspires this work. Dontre demands this work. The Hamilton family activates this. The city of Milwaukee deserves this.


An all too familiar story

It is a story that sounds all too familiar. Those who were assigned to keep the peace. Those whose job it was to enforce law and order. Those who had power, position and authority, they saw a man. But they didn’t actually see a man, what they saw was a thug. They didn’t need to know the whole story. They didn’t need to know everything that had led up to that moment. All they saw was a thug and so with justice deferred and an unrighteous act, an innocent man is killed. Killed by those who are in charge. Killed by those with power. An innocent man executed by state sponsored violence. His crimes did not warrant a death sentence and yet innocent blood was shed.

A story that sounds too familiar.

From the very beginning he was profiled. Not just him, but his kinfolks as well. Anyone who looked like him was seen as a threat. And so even as a baby, this one who would be called a thug would be profiled. Because of the family he came from. Because of the town he lived in. This is how folks saw him and treated him. He was a target in his own country – a land that never fully belonged to him and his people. From the very beginning his life was at risk. Everything was stacked against him.

A story that sounds too familiar.

This thug, this one who was innocent and killed was the Christ.

Around this time of year it is easy to get caught up in the twinkling lights, the majesty of the story, everything being beautiful, where memories are forged and memories recalled. We gather together. We want to join in Mary’s praise and pondering. We want to be in the magical, mystical moment of Christmas.

But we are drawn always, even when we look to the manger, we are drawn to the cross. We are brought to that place of suffering and pain. Of a world that could not understand the good news of Jesus.

The cross comes, even in our Christmastide, compelling us to not look away. This is not a time to ignore the violence and brokenness. This is not a time to wish away injustice. We cannot just live in a candy cane fantasy. We must see the whole story. We see the places where Christ is crucified again and again by racism, nationalism, nihilism.

We cannot turn away because in the midst of the pain, we find the triumph. There are healers in our midst. There are those that can overcome divisions. There are messengers among us uniting communities. There are prophets today striving for justice. There are glimpses of hope even when it looks like a losing cause. Peace comes to a violent world. These are the places where we witness Emmanuel, God with us.

It is in reconciliation we see God and it is in reparations. It is in grace that we feel God’s presence and in the act of forgiving and being forgiven that Christ is born anew. It is the light in the darkness, it is the city on the hill, it is salt and light, it is shepherds and fishermen. It is not the glory of the extraordinary but the humble and the meek. It is in everyday folk and everyday acts where the walls that divide get chipped away. Where the systems that kill are dismantled. Where a new world is possible

This good news comes to us; as sure as the choir of angels proclaims it.

But we need to place ourselves in the presence of the revelation. And so even on Christmas we are drawn to the cross. Even in this holiday of Joy to the World, we see how desperately the world is hurting and need that joy. We proclaim Christ crucified.

The cross it makes no sense to non-believers. It makes no sense to the world. It makes no sense to glorify this act of violence.

But when we know, when we know how Jesus came, how he has torn down the walls between us. When we see that Jesus has brought us close – those that were near and those that were far off. When we see the healing he has brought and that by his stripes we are healed. When we see that he came to fulfill the Law and establish divine justice. When we praise the Prince of Peace. THEN, then the story of the cross makes sense. Then we can revel in the glory of the death and resurrection, of life and life everlasting.

It sounds so familiar.

And then we know. We know why the twinkling lights are so important. We know why the gospel we have heard year after year still rings true for us and gives us a new message. It is what allows us to go into a cold and unloving world full of violence, profiling, injustice, division and brokenness to say there is one who traveled this path already.

There is one who has bore the sin of a fallen world.

There is one who has come to redeem all the broken places of the world and of our lives.

There is one being born among us over and over and over.

His name is Emmanuel. God is with us.

It is so familiar.

And it is our good news.

Black Solidarity Sunday – 1 year later


Yesterday Facebook reminded me that a year-ago was the national Black Solidarity Sunday. This was organized by historically African-American congregations. It was a remarkable moment that connected Sunday morning sermons with afternoon marches and protests.

Of all the actions and rallies under the banner of Black Lives Matter, this was one of the largest seen in Milwaukee. It was by far the largest moment of participation by faith leaders and clergy. When the pastor, priest, rabbi or imam show up, they usually bring members of their congregations. People that would never shut down a freeway or disrupt a Christmas tree ceremony still found it worthy to stand together in the bitter December winds of downtown Milwaukee. It was a powerful moment.

But was it a moment or a movement? Did the call for action just fade into the holiday season or did it do any good?

The Impact

Any time large numbers are mobilized, leaders take notice. We can’t know for sure if the consistent presence of protesters joined with church-folk impacted what happened 8 days later. When Milwaukee’s District Attorney said he would not press charges in the murder of Dontre Hamilton, the DOJ immediately announced a federal investigation.

We also saw a city-wide effort led by Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn Assembly of God and Pastor Matt Erikson of Eastbrook to work toward racial reconciliation. The adoption of the Milwaukee Declaration tells the heart of pastors for things to be different.

Black Solidarity Sunday also reinforced the public cries for racial justice across the country, the need to address disparities in all sectors of society. It gave a choir to preach to.

And yet

And yet, it has had so little systemic impact. The federal investigation of Dontre’s death did not lead to charges. Instead of the long-standing cry for a pattern-and-practice investigation of the Milwaukee Police Department, we now learn the DOJ will do a voluntary, non-binding review of the department. Communities of color are still policed differently. Students of color are failed by a failing education system. Economic investment steers clear of communities of color – unless it is to gentrify the neighborhood. Incarceration. Poverty. Health Disparities.

In my own church fellowship – the whitest in the nation – race and racism permeate the institution. The Church actively works against the stated principles of desiring a more diverse denomination. I doubt most even knew there was a Black Solidarity Sunday last year. And am convinced that had it been preached in every pulpit it would not have been met with simple indifference by active resistance. That is the sin-sick soul of the ELCA.

Other churches – of every ethnic background – preach a feel-good gospel that never engages the prophetic call toward Justice rolling down like waters. I went to a funeral for a victim of gun violence. The preacher talked about the “unfortunate way she died,” but never said the words gun or bullets. Nothing was directly said about the plague of violence in our city. But you better damn well believe the sinners prayer was offered and folks were invited to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (language intentional). How are going to save somebody’s soul and not care about the conditions they are living in?

Where do we go

The movement continues. Activists will lead. Mobilized people, led by young people, queer people, people of color, will agitate, disrupt, deconstruction and continue building an alternative community rooted in justice. People of faith will be there – we always are. There will be good, church going folk hanging out with the resisters. Clergy will show up.

But until Black Solidarity is more than a Sunday, until white denominations aren’t afraid of the phrase Black Lives Matter, until a slumbering sanctuary awakens – this civil rights movement will write off faith communities. If you’re in the pews on Sunday, you’ll still see me. But if we’re in the streets on Tuesday, that’s where I’ll be too.

PC: Overpass Light Brigade (probably Joe Brusky)

Why disrupt the tree lighting?

The reaction to a protest at Red Arrow Park, the site of the killing of Dontre Hamilton, during the city/county tree lighting ceremony has folks, especially city leaders, asking “Why?” Why disrupt a family friendly event?

The greater question is why does Milwaukee tolerate a police force that acts unjustly? When even city aldermen and alderwomen, a US representative and a US Senator have called for a patterns and practice review of the way people of color are policed in this city, why do we allow it? Where are our leaders? Where is the federal investigation?

Tonight was about Dontre and about so much more. Many of us that have walked with the Hamilton’s were devastated, even if we weren’t surprised, that there would be no charges brought by the Department of Justice. It has been routine in Milwaukee and across this country to piece out incidents and to look at them in the narrowest of scope to justify police actions. DA Chisholm did not consider the events that began with former Officer Manney’s interactions with Dontre. It was only the exact moment before he shot him 14 times that was evaluated. This tunnel vision never brings justice. Similarly, if you only look at the story of Dontre, the local and federal prosecutors see no case to bring.

But let’s put Dontre in the landscape of Milwaukee. Policing here includes Derek Williams’ death in police custody; illegal strip searches and sexual assaults; the detaining of Patricia Larry, Darius Simmons’ mother, while her baby bled out in the street; a police officer raping a woman calling for help; and racial disparities in arrests. This is a pattern of abuse.

The Department of Justice has dragged its feet in this issue. The pattern of unjust policing continues unchecked. The practices of policing people of color (notice only African Americans were arrested tonight) continue.

The patterns and practices must be disrupted. Business as usual cannot continue. The police instigated this unrest. The mayor and the DOJ are the agitators.

How can the mayor speak of holiday cheer while the city crumbles? How can we watch silently when so many are suffering?

Why disrupt the tree lighting ceremony?

Because Red Arrow Park still cries with the blood of Dontre.

Because the DOJ has still not acted on the request for a Patterns and Practice review of MPD abuses.

Because Mayor Barrett has kept vacant seats on the Fire and Police Commission, the citizen’s oversight panel of MPD.

Because we are still waiting for justice.

Because there is no Merry Christmas for those that have suffered at the hands of the MPD.

Because disruption reminds people what’s going on.

Because protest is the most American thing to do.

Because Milwaukee stands with the movements for justice and peace around the country.

Because most of the families there have had to have “the talk” with their students of color when it comes to interacting with police.

Because direct action shows the city how strong we are, how we can change the systems.

Because this will not be a silent night.

Contact Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the US Attorney General Gregory Haanstad

and tell them the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division should sue the Milwaukee Police Department for their history of racial profiling, searches and seizures without probable cause, the targeting of minority populations for harassment, and excessive use of force. 





U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

photo credits: C.M. DeSpears