24 hours from now

24 hours from now, the commemoration for the one year anniversary of Dontre’s death will be done. The crowds will disperse – back to their homes in every neighborhood of this city and many of the suburbs; or to find some place to talk over with friends what they saw, what they bore witness to, what they participated in. The planners will have lingered at the site, or hauled a few more things to the cars, but by now on their way as well. The overtime shifts for the police officers will be done. The nervousness of city officials will ease for the night.

Milwaukee will continue on. Fans will stream out of the Bradley Center. Bars will serve their drinks. Things will go on.

But 24 hours from now a family that has given so much to this city will not have the commotion of a massive gathering, will not have the buzz of planning or the adrenaline of the moment. They will soon be back in their homes recognizing a year has come and gone. They have given so much to the city and yet the city can never give back the one thing they lack: A son. A brother. A friend.

If you know it or not, Milwaukee is a better city for you – for all of us – because of the Hamiltons. Police will be better trained because of them. Mothers that have lost children stand not alone, but together for comfort, strength and power. Old school activists have been energized by a movement that continues a legacy pushing for racial justice. New school activists are finding out that they have power. Black lives and black wages are tied together. Black and brown coalitions are stronger. Students – at colleges and high schools – are bringing the struggle for justice to campus. Business as usual – for Fire and Police Commissioners, for officers, for elected officials – is put on notice. In a segregated city, a multi-racial movement is being led by strong black voices. Corporations are being confronted specifically on issues of racial profiling. An officer was held to some account by losing his job. The federal government is examining his case.

This is because of the Hamilton family. This is the impact we have made collectively, but that they have led. I am blessed to know them. I am honored to follow them.

They have done this for me, for my children, for our city.

Because of this, tomorrow Milwaukee will not burn. It will not look like Baltimore or Ferguson. Tomorrow will be peaceful. Because tomorrow is about honoring the family. Tomorrow is about remembering Dontre.

Milwaukee is a long way from justice. A summer of direct action and disruption should be anticipated. There will be actions and the movement will continue to grow. Civil disobedience will come.

But 24 hours from now, where will you be? What will you be thinking? “I should have gone.” “I wish I was there.” “I’m still mad at them.” “We need to turn-up like they’re doing across the country.”

Or will you recognize a family in the midst of their own grief continues to give and give for the sake of One Love and a better Milwaukee? Will you recognize that the family that gives to you and to me without needing to be asked, has asked of you only one thing: show up.

24 hours from now, will you say, “I was there. i was part of something beautiful. I gave the greatest gift – to stand with a family that buried their kin to remind them they are not alone. They are never alone.”

Join us tomorrow night: https://www.facebook.com/events/634141083384210/

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Protest. Vigil. Action.

Protest. Vigil. Action.

My city is in crisis. We are plagued with the demon of violence. All around us forces ensnare this city, our neighborhoods are choking on blood. We are not without power and recourse. There is a path forward: Protest, Vigil, Action.

Protest.

Time and time again I hear and read people say, “You can get hundreds of people to respond when a cop shoots someone but where are the protests when it is Black on Black crime?” First of all, stop using the term “black on black” crime. We don’t define other crimes this way. If a white dude shoots another white dude, we don’t call it white on white crime. Same with other people of color. When is the last time you heard someone talk about Hispanic on Hispanic crime? Black on black is meant to reinforce the spiteful notion that people of African descent are violent by nature and that the violence within the community is bred from within. (More on this in a moment).

But secondly, and more importantly, protest is a tool against someone or something. It is a resistance against a power structure. Protests are a resistance not against the status quo – not against the ideas or even the outcomes of the status quo – but against all that perpetuates it. Protests are a means toward change. Protests have a target. Civil disobedience has a target. Direct action has a target. Without a target, it is just a rally, a chance to encourage like-minded folks. But protests identify who and what has the power to bring about change. When policing looks more like an occupying army than officer friendly, there are protests directed at all that perpetuates that policing model: the mayor, the chief of police, the Fire and Police commission. When civil rights are violated protests target the justice system. When there is economic injustice the means and places of commerce are targeted, the CEOs of corporations are called out.

Protests have a target and that target must have the power to bring about change. Protests have the added impact of disrupting all that surrounds the people and power structures that perpetuate the status quo. If you have been silent about matters of policing or civil rights or economic rights then the protests might disrupt your unconscious flow within the status quo. Your traffic might get stopped. Your trip to see Santa might include a die-in. Your basketball game might be disrupted with #BlackLivesMatter chants. You might have to have an uncomfortable conversation with your child.

But even in these moments, YOU are not the target. It is not your commute that is the target – it is the ordinary flow of traffic that occurs everyday, that greatest symbol of status quo in the USA – which is the target. It is not your drive, your shopping trip, your entertainment that is being targeted. It is the recognition that until issues are dealt with, protesters have the power to impact normal conditions that support the unjust norms.

We do not protest in our neighborhoods because there is not a target. Those that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence do not live in our neighborhoods. Again – those that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence do not live our neighborhoods.

Those that make guns. Those that sell guns. Those that make a living protecting gun rights. Law makers that are funded by groups or paid off with endorsements from groups that make a living protecting gun rights. These are targets that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence.

Those that benefit from poverty. Those that operate on markets of scale. Those that shut down factories, outsource jobs. Those that prey on the needs of the vulnerable. I’m talking about CEO’s, corporations, payday lenders, check cashing stations. I’m talking about politicians that are happy to ghettoize certain neighborhoods so that they can keep the “good parts of the city” or the region or the state “good.” I’m talking about those that keep power by cutting bus service to jobs. I’m talking about real estate brokers and bankers the disinvest in communities. These are targets that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence.

It is not the drug dealer that creates the conditions that encourage gun violence. The drug dealer is living in the midst of conditions created by generations of disenfranchisement and perpetuated by a criminal justice system and drug policies that benefit from having drug dealers in our neighborhoods.

Protests need targets that can change the status quo. Those pulling the trigger in our streets did not create the conditions that encourage them to do so. That’s why we don’t protest in our neighborhoods.

Vigil.

Vigil means keeping watch. It means staying awake. It is connected deeply to the midnight worship services that welcome holy days (Christmas Eve’s midnight mass is a vigil; Easter has a vigil). Our vigils have prayers, sometimes readings and speaking and memories.

I don’t like to call our events prayer vigils. Prayer is what we do during them, but I prefer to name that which we are seeking. If we are keeping watch, for what do we watch? We have vigils for peace. We have vigils for justice.

The vigil is a powerful response to violence. It says that we have not lost sight of the hope and the promise for our communities. We are keeping watch for Peace because we expect it to come. We are keeping watch for justice, because we have not lost hope. We will not turn away even though tragedy is right in front of us.

The vigil is a spiritual connecting point. We become united in a common hope. Lines of differences fade away as we unite in a shared yearning.

Vigils bring healing. They bring comfort. Vigils remind us that we are not in our struggle alone. None of us bears the burden of violence by ourselves. We share the load. We bear one another’s burdens. It is a tangible sign of our connected lives.

Families are comforted by the solidarity expressed in vigils. Mourners are encouraged by the power of a vigil.

Vigils can heal us and do confront the violence that plagues our city. It is not just an empty prayer, it is not another tragedy for the news to cover. It is the hope for peace and justice. It is the comfort in our grief. And it is the commitment to stay woke. It is the promise we make that we will not grow weary, we will not turn back, we will not be discouraged, we will not give up hope. We keep watch. We hold vigil.

Action.

Vigils are encouraging and encouragement is necessary. But encouragement and watching for peace is not enough. If we want peace in our streets we must be active.

Jesus said Blessed are the Peacemakers not the peace-lovers. Anyone can love peace. Anyone can talk about peace. But the Makers of the Peace are the ones that will be blessed.

This is where, as my good friend says, we activate the power of the people. Wringing our hands, worrying about what’s happening, posting SMDH – this is not action. Walking around your block is action. Mentoring a student is action. Supporting a local business is action. Starting your own business is action. Providing positive opportunities for youth is action. Putting your money where your mouth is, is action. Voting is action. Policing our own communities is action. Safe Zones are action. Supporting jobs, creating jobs, encouraging the development of jobs are actions. Advocating for legislative change is action. Praying is action. Riding your bike, planting a garden or even a flower, showing up for work every damn day, checking homework, these are actions. Listening to the elders is actions. Following the youth is action. Being unafraid is action.

And loving is the greatest action.

Imagine the power of love. Not the lust that has fellas hollering out the window to a woman walking down the street (by the way, stop that). Not the happily ever after myth that gets churned out by entertainment moguls. But real deep love. The love that says I will honor and respect you and the divine within you.

What if we loved the drug dealer? Some of us do because he is our son, she is our cousin, they go to my church. But what if the neighborhood loved the dealer, even those who have no personal connection? What if even those that are terrorized by the actions of those doing harm can act from a place of love? What if our police saw not just the rap sheet but instead loved this sister and brother? What if our police chief or sheriff looked at our neighborhoods not out of the blight and crime but out of the capacity to love?

And what if we loved ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to be loved?

So much of our violence is rooted in a history of hatred. You cannot have the worst outcomes for African Americans – education, incarceration, employment, and on and on and on – and expect peace. You cannot expect to love and be loved when the conditions of our neighborhoods are built upon hatred.

This is not a moral crisis. Morals are shaped by the conditions of the time. Morality shifts. Everything from tattoos to taboos change from generation to generation. We cannot say, “The city has lost its moral compass.” We cannot call this a crisis of faith or a failure of parents. This is not the fault of single moms.

If morality is built upon the conditions that surround us, why should we expect a moral righteousness that values life? Does Milwaukee value Black lives? Does Milwaukee value the lives of people in poverty? Does Wisconsin value people of color? If media and educational systems and employers and police leadership and frightened neighbors and every message surrounding our city is about all that is wrong and terrible and violent then I would say the violence we see in the streets is directly inline with our current moral conditions.

It is not a crisis of morality, but it is indeed a crisis. I call it a crisis of unbelief. This is not a religious unbelief. We have come to believe the lies and reject the truth.

We believe that our lives are not valuable. We believe that others’ lives are not valuable. We believe that we are better than someone. We believe that someone – or everyone – is better than us. We believe that it isn’t our problem. We believe that it isn’t our place. We believe that there’s nothing we can do. We believe that we don’t have power. We believe we’re above the law. We believe that things will always be this way. We believe that if it isn’t in my neighborhood – or on my block – then it isn’t my problem. We believe we can isolate our selves from the suffering. We believe that we can medicate ourselves from the suffering. We believe we can convince ourselves that we aren’t suffering. We believe someone else can do something, should do something, will do something. We believe a block party won’t make a difference. Or picking up a piece of trash. Or going to school. Or going to church. Or going to make sure our neighbor is ok. We believe the only way to protect honor is to escalate the situation. We believe that when the city turns its back on us they have good reason. We believe we’re the exception.

THESE ARE ALL LIES.

The truth is we all deserve love. The truth is we all have the ability to give love. The truth is it doesn’t have to be like this, it wasn’t always like this and it won’t always be like this. The truth is we are powerful. The truth is we can be weak and even our weakness can manifest greatness. The truth is we have all we need. The truth is we are better than this moment. The truth is we know better. The truth is our actions do bring about change. The truth is someone is praying for you…right now. The truth is our elders have the wisdom we seek in this moment. The truth is the youth have the energy to deliver us. The truth is we are loved. The truth is we are love. The truth is that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. The truth is the fire refines us like gold. The truth is we can learn from our mistakes. The truth is we are more than what is wrong with us. The truth is the revolution has not stopped, the dream is not deferred. “Sí se puede” es la verdad. The truth is our actions make a difference. The truth is we can educate our communities. The truth is we can organize our communities. The truth is our parks can be safe. The truth is we are winning. The truth is we are winning. The truth is we are winning. The truth is that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The truth is that good triumphs over evil. The truth is you can be a man and walk away. The truth is your worth as a woman is not tied exclusively to your sexuality. The truth is a change is gonna come. The truth is you’ve made it this far. The truth is you are loved. The truth is you are love. The truth is you can be the best person you desire to be. The truth is that being your best does not mean being perfect. The truth is mountains tremble because of your faith. The truth is you do not have to hate your enemy. The truth is we are not alone. The truth is you can act now. The truth is we need you to act now. The truth is you have been acting now. The truth is your actions make peace. The truth is you are loved. The truth is you are love.

The truth is we don’t need that status quo to change for us to change our own conditions.

The truth is we can create our new normal.

The truth is we don’t need perfect and lasting peace to arrive before we see peace in our midst.

The truth is that love is action.

And we shall know the truth and it shall set us free.

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.

Just another victim

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It happened again. After the fact, I find out a member of my church has been shot. The good news is that he lived.

The good news is that he lived.

This is what it has come down to in our community. If he ain’t dead, it’s all good. The text said, “…was shot at. He’s fine. Bullet grazed him.”

He’s fine.

Washington is in an uproar about gun control. Next week recommendations will come out. Next week the NRA will blather on about infringement of rights. Next week congress will probably have a press conference.

And next week I’ll go to another hearing to support the family of Darius Simmons. And next week I’ll be praying with the young man who should not in anyway be “fine” after being shot but who in all actuality probably is “fine.” And next week there will be suicides and domestic violence involving guns. And next week, as it was this week and last week, if they live it is good news.

I know how we protect our young men, giving them hope and a future. I know how we break the cycle of violence that plagues our city. I know how we move from a desensitized people that says a bullet grazing is fine. I know it because I see a different story lived out all the time. It begins with jobs. It begins with schools. It begins with role models. It begins with high expectations. It begins with positive places to be. It begins with men leading our communities and showing boys and teens what it really means to be a man. It begins with gun control. It begins with mental health care. It begins with a community and a Church that stands on the corners where the gun shells falls and says, “We do not give up this space. It is ours.” That says, “Not one more young man, not one more victim.”

I know all this. And still, tonight, I am comforted by the good news that he lived. And I ask how will we ever keep our young men safe? How will we break the cycle? How do we stop being fine?

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.