Peacemaking in Killwaukee

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A major focus of my sabbatical is shalom through peacemaking. Today kicks-off a city-wide effort of politicians, police, and pastors called Ceasefire Week. After a week of events, there is a culmination with the 10th annual Ceasefire Sabbath, inviting all faith communities to preach (and practice) peace.

On the surface, this seems like an easy effort to support. Any effort towards peacemaking and curbing gun violence needs to be applauded. And on the surface I lend my voice in support of this. Pastors I work with, admire and support are at the forefront of this year’s efforts (See this write-up including Pastor Olson from Our Savior’s Lutheran Church). 

In years past, however, religious leaders from groups like MICAH have offered lukewarm support to Ceasefire Sabbath. Why? Why would justice-minded religious communities not step-up to support Ceasefire Sabbath? The answer is that violence is way deeper than the soundbites offered in these initiatives. Up until this year, this has been a media event with great talking points and no concrete actions toward curbing violence in Killwaukee.

At least this year is different. The Milwaukee Clergy Coalition, a collective of mostly Baptist congregations, is sponsoring a gun-buyback initiative. Original efforts pressed the city – specifically Mayor Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn – to authorize and implement the program. When the city refused to put-up money for the effort, the coalition raised their own funds to make it happen. I applaud this effort and the spirit of courageous leaders not waiting for others to do the hard work of peacemaking.

Apart from the gun-buy back effort of the Milwaukee Clergy Coalition, I am still left conflicted about this effort. I want a more peaceful city. I want members of my congregation and community to stop being terrorized by violence. Here’s how our police chief puts it:

“We need grownups, we need adults, we need a community that says, no! You’re a punk if you need a gun to win a fight. You’re a jerk if you shoot somebody and wreck your life and wreck their life. No, we don’t respect you. You don’t deserve a monument of wet teddy bears and empty beer bottles. No!” Flynn says.

Flynn, in his typical demeanor, insults the very residents he is sworn to serve and protect. (Now my feelings for Flynn are no secret, so perhaps this sounds like me spouting off from a bully pulpit – but hear me out). In this quote he blames the community that suffers from gun violence for this situation. “We need grownups, we need adults,” he says, as if the neighborhoods are run by children. This white cop is implying that these neighborhoods – primarily neighborhoods of color – are not mature. All I hear is a white man yelling, “Come here, boy.” If there is violence in our neighborhood it is because we aren’t “man enough” to handle it.

This is Flynn’s typical M.O. Whether speaking to congressmen or clergy, Flynn shows no respect for others in the room. His arrogance and brash personality no-doubt got him where he is, but is devastating to a city plagued by historical and current community-police relations (note that I fully agree with his positions stated in Congress, but thought his testimony revealed more about his character than his policy). His quotes about the community stepping-up are in this same vein. It assumes the community has been absent or negligent.

Instead of bashing the residents living with the reality of violence, let’s look at a broader context of this situation. First, residents are living in a divided city along racial and class lines. This division breeds racist and classist decisions and policies that hurt residents in Milwaukee. The city is starting with a stacked deck.

Now, let’s look at the sobering reality of incarceration rates for black males in Milwaukee. We’re #1! Wisconsin has the highest rate of black male incarceration (twice the national average) and that plays out in our neighborhoods to mean that more than half of all black men in their 30s and 40s had been incarcerated at some point (see data here).

Take this tinder-box of a situation and let’s add the gasoline of police-community relations in the city. Names ring out like Flynn’s old role-call methods conjuring ghosts that dared cross the thin blue line: Frank Jude. Ernest Lacy. Derek Williams. Dontre Hamilton. This is a culture of violence. This is not childish on the part of neighbors and residents. This is the fierce reality of life in Killwaukee.

So rather than blame the community for not doing enough, let’s engage this work with compassion and righteous anger. We need righteous anger toward the systems that exist making a life of crime more appealing – and certainly more accessible – than going legit. Let’s get angry about the struggle to even get a minimum wage job. Let’s work toward banning the box. Let’s be honest about what living in poverty is like instead of blaming those in the struggle.

And let’s show compassion for those who in the midst of impossible circumstances make horrific and violent choices. Let’s realize that for some little boys playing cops and robbers in Milwaukee the hero isn’t the one with the badge. Let’s build stronger relationships between police and citizen, to show that not all cops are bad and not all people of color are criminals. Let’s bring healing into our city. Let’s bring jobs. Let’s care for those who bring violence upon our city. Let us pray for our enemies.

Let’s move beyond talking points. Let’s DO the work of peacemaking. Shalom is not established by a wish or waiting for someone else. It is about that place where shalom and tsadaq embrace (Psalm 85). That means peace and justice are together. Until there is justice in our city – around race and class and police/community relations – until that justice is established there will be no peace. Let’s follow the efforts of the Milwaukee Clergy Coalition and be makers of peace.

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Why Flynn has to go

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Photo by fox6now.com

Why Flynn has to go

In the days since a coalition of civil rights and religious leaders – along with cries from many citizens and neighbors – have asked for Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn’s removal from his job many folks have asked “Why?”

This is a fair question. With all of the reports coming out concerning Milwaukee’s police, can’t it be chalked up to the proverbial few bad apples? Has Chief Flynn himself done anything that warrants his resignation or termination? Isn’t the job of our police hard enough without divisiveness from citizens? These and other questions are valid.

I have supported the community and coalition calls for Chief Flynn to go because of what I see as a pattern of disregard supported by his leadership. This pattern begins with criminals.

The actions of some officers have shown a disregard for individuals that are under arrest. This is seen most graphically and most vividly in the squad car video of Derek Williams, Jr. Officers showed disregard for his health emergency with a justification of “that’s how we treat the bad guys.” Explanations include how criminals always fake health emergencies to get out of going to jail. We see the same thinking in the illegal body cavity search that produced drugs. Since the individual was a criminal, the actions of the officers are easier to gloss over. Sure he was a bad cop, but not as bad as the drug dealer/user.

Since criminals are already operating outside the norms of society it is easy to further marginalize them. Flynn can say that the officers in Derek Williams case did nothing criminal under the cover of the wrong Williams did in fleeing from police. While this is unjust, it is easy to see how a divided city would still side with those who are called to serve and protect.

But Flynn’s leadership also is willing to disregard whole communities within this city. His recent remarks that college students are guests of Milwaukee and not citizens show how those without traditional power can be dismissed. He is willing to paint a whole demographic with the paintbrush of reckless lawbreakers. I have heard him describe the areas in the city with concentrated crime with the same disregard and broad strokes. And I have heard him describe Milwaukee’s youth in the same manner. Again, these are folks marginalized by their age, their income, their race. Now they are marginalized by the words and leadership of Chief Flynn.

Again, these are circumstances backed up with examples. Yes, students on the East side are sometimes disruptive. Yes, poor black neighborhoods have higher crime rates. Yes, youth are involved in crime. But this is the same argument that is at the core of our prejudices. Stereotypes often begin with a small reality and exaggerate it to a level where the extreme trumps the truth. Students are bad. Poor black neighborhoods (and neighbors) are unsafe. Youth can’t be trusted.

This is difficult enough, but the disregard doesn’t end there. In what is perhaps most troubling, Flynn is comfortable with disregard for victims. It is not the criminals or their communities alone that are dismissed, it is the victims of crime themselves. When crimes are misreported the victims suffer. When aggravated assault is called a minor crime, that’s a problem. When sexual assaults are called minor crimes, that is a huge problem. Violent crime has increased when Milwaukee Police’s statistics are correctly reported. Under reporting means victims suffer.

With the individuals that were innocent in the illegal strip searches, these victims clearly suffered. But it was Flynn’s inaction for years that allowed more victims to suffer. He said he waited for a pattern to emerge; apparently, 1 sexual assault by an officer does not warrant action. Victims suffer.

We see this in the story of Patricia Larry, mother of Darius Simmons, who was treated like a criminal rather than a victim. But the department says no rules were broken. Chief Flynn himself said of the Simmons care, “Six months from now, when our detectives are on the witness stand, no one’s going to care how compassionate they were at the crime scene.”  The Fire and Police commission report said, “mistakes we made, but…” All of the errors were in judgment but not in outcome. The report acknowledges the possible perception of racism while not admitting the actions of the police were indeed racist. Racism is typically not rooted in the intention (no one wakes up saying I’m going to be racist today); racism is in the action. This racism means victims suffer.

Chief Flynn is willing through his words, his inaction and his support of officer actions to disregard so many. If we allow this to remain a conversation of “us and them” his attitude can stay. But if we instead see the whole city as subject to this attitude, then we can work together to heal our city. This is not a black issue, a youth issue, a northside issue. This is a Milwaukee issue. The whole city is impacted by this. We are all involved.

Chief Flynn’s leadership sets a tone for the department and for police-community relations. His resignation or removal will not fix all the problems. It will not erase the reality of crime, the division in our city and the presence of bad cops. It will however send a clear message that we support the hard work our officers do. It says we will not allow the disregard of an appointed leader to jeopardize the work of those police on the street. It says we will hold bad cops accountable and we will value every member of the city of Milwaukee.