On Friday night, August 26, 2016, San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand by taking a knee.
Before a preseason game with the Green Bay Packers, as the national anthem was sung, Kaepernick sat by himself on the bench. An NFL reporter noticed, and asked Kaepernick for an explanation after the game. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” Kaepernick added, alluding to recent police shootings.
Kaepernick, the second best quarterback on his team, is now the most talked about quarterback in football. His number-seven 49ers jersey is the bestselling merchandise of any player in the league, a wearable icon of human dignity. He will appear, on one knee, on the October 3 cover of Time magazine.
At first, he was a controversial anomaly. Some said he was a disgrace to the flag and to those who died to make and keep America free. But recent police shootings of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte have led more athletes to speak up — and kneel down.
The digital age haunts us with viral videos of black bodies in the streets at the hands of police officers.
In 2014, we saw Tamir Rice (Ohio), age 12, holding a toy gun, shot in a public park. Three months earlier, John Crawford III (Ohio), 22, holding a BB gun, shot dead in a Walmart store.
In 2015, we all watched as police tackled Eric Garner (New York), 43, put him in a chokehold, and killed him on the streets of New York. A month later, we saw the dead body of Michael Brown (Missouri), 18, lying in the streets of Ferguson.
This year videos surfaced from two different 2013 cases: one of Cameron Massey (Alabama), 26, shot in the back and killed as he attempted to drive away from a cop, and one of Dontrell Stephens (Florida), 22, also shot in the back, now paralyzed.
Recently, we have been flooded with new video. We saw Charles Kinsey (Florida), 47, a black therapist, negotiating for his autistic patient next to him, lying on the ground with his arms raised up, when a cop shot him. He survived, unlike the rest.
We watched Walter Scott (South Carolina), 50, abandon his car and run away from a cop who unloaded his clip into Scott’s back.
Laquan McDonald (Chicago), 17 — accused of threatening cops with a knife, but proved otherwise by video — was walking down the street, away from the cops. Moments later, he was shot sixteen times, his body spiraling as he fell dead.
Multiple police body cameras captured the chase of Paul O’Neal (Chicago), 18, through a South Shore neighborhood. O’Neal was shot in the back and killed.
We saw Philando Castile (Minnesota), 32, leaning back in the passenger seat of a car, hand over his bloody abdomen, staring up into eternity. And we watched Jamar Clark (Minnesota), 24, loaded into an ambulance after he was tackled to the ground and shot in the head by a cop.
Maybe most graphic of all, we watched Alton Sterling (Louisiana), 37, tackled over a car hood, held down by two officers, and shot in the chest.
More recently, we watched Terence Crutcher (Oklahoma), 40, whose SUV broke down, approached and shot and killed by a female cop as a helicopter filmed his fall to the pavement.
Finally, Keith Lamont Scott (North Carolina), 43, was shot dead as he walked backwards facing the cops with his arms down, gun in a visible ankle holster. Scott was shot in front of his wife as she pled with police to de-escalate the tension.
Stack the videos, watch them one right after another, and be freshly agonized.
But as video cameras proliferate, these shootings seem to become more widespread, more unavoidable, and more potent markers of the racial tensions that divide us.
So Kaepernick kneels for the national anthem, and the frustrations mount. As Lecrae recently tweeted: “Take a knee . . . people riot. Take a bullet . . . people quiet.”
The sentiment has been retweeted 67,000 times.
The Other Side
There’s another side to these tragedies, depicted in the graphic 1998 murder of police officer Kyle Dinkheller (Georgia), 22, killed by a white army veteran, Andrew Brannan, after Dinkheller pulled him over. Videos like this one are unforgettable reminders of why police are trained to never allow suspects to return to their vehicles.
More than thirty cops have been killed in 2016, including the July shootout in Dallas, in which a peaceful protest in the streets was ended by a sniper, a black military vet, who murdered five white cops: Lorne Ahrens, 48, Michael Krol, 40, Michael Smith, 55, Patrick Zamarripa, 32, and Brent Thompson, 43, whose execution was broadcast live, shot in the back in a cold-blooded ambush.
These are the videos that haunt the spouses and children of police officers, reminding them that being a police officer is a demanding and dangerous job, full of pressures and growing expectations.
In the aftermath of the killing of five officers, Dallas police chief David Brown delivered a wearied plea, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.” Mental health funding is too low? Give it to the cops to solve. A stray dog problem in the city? Give it to the cops. School systems failing? Give it to the cops. Seventy percent of African-American children being raised without dads? Give the problem to the cops. “That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Problems on Other Fronts
Violence and race in America is a knotted mess. In Chicago, homicides are up from 492 in all of 2015, to 560 in 2016 (and counting).
According to Jill Leovy’s award-winning reporting in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, black-on-black urban crime is an epidemic with many overlaying complicating factors, and no easy fix. We are confronted with two glaring needs: 1) black communities must learn to trust and work with law enforcement, and 2) the law enforcement presence must be comprised of police and detectives who are eager to serve their precincts with care and precision in the search for justice. Neighborhoods need good cops, and good cops need willing neighborhoods.
Yet suspicions are growing. Citing a history of racial profiling by Boston police, last week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was compelled to reiterate that black men have the right to run away from cops. Trust is breaking down.
Down to the root of the issue, blacks and whites in this country cannot even agree on whether we are spending too much time or too little time talking about race, according to a Pew study this spring.
So how can we move forward, not just as fellow Americans, but in particular as brothers and sisters in Christ?
That’s the question I asked Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr., who has studied racial injustice for decades. He has both a practical and academic background in these issues: Ellis marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and studied under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri. He is a graduate of Westminster Seminary.
Ellis, 69, now serves as Academic Dean of Makazi Institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is the author of the important 1996 book Free at Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience. (John Piper read the book in 2001, and it so moved him that it sparked Desiring God’s 2002 Conference for Pastors: “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic.”)
Today, helping black and white Christians understand each other requires some explaining of the black experience in America, Ellis told me. He uses a schoolroom image.
If we graded police departments in the 1950s or 1960s, there would be failing grades, he said. Imagine two students, who each take ten tests over the course of a semester. Student A scores results of 10%, 20%, 30% . . . gradually improving to 100% on the final test. His grade for the year is 55% and he fails. Student B scores 80% or 90% on each test, and also scores 100% on the final. The students end on the same note, but student B finishes with an 88% grade overall and passes.
To the African-American community, looking back over history, student A represents the narrative of interaction with police in this country from the 1950s to present. Thankfully, police are now far above the 10% or 20% failing scores of the 1950s, Ellis says, but even if the score this year is 90%, for a generation of African Americans, the overall grade is still a failing grade. The history cannot be easily shaken off.
“From an African American point of view,” Ellis says, “there’s a collective memory that is passed down through the generations. There was a time in many parts of this country when you couldn’t find justice, because certain departments were corrupt and tied up with the Klan. Generally speaking, overall the African American experience with police is like the first student’s scores.”
Racism is hardly the only factor facing the black community, says Ellis, citing debilitating internal problems that should warrant all our prayers and concern. He reiterates that, thankfully, police relations are much improved in the last two decades. “This is why some people point out statistics and they say: There are no current statistics to justify saying that police are out to get unarmed black men. And it is true.”
Even the statistics cited by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court are debated, whether or not they prove racial profiling.
“But that is just one side of the story,” said Ellis. “You also have to appreciate the memories. Everything negative that happens today brings those memories back to times when the police were scoring 10%, 20%, and 30% on the tests.”
When he sees viral videos online, Ellis freshly relives specific memories. Like 1964, when Ellis, at the age of 17, was living in Gary, Indiana. He recalls a time he was driving two of his friends, minding his own business. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I was pulled over, surrounded by cops, guns drawn, hauled out of the car by one officer, who slammed me across the hood of the car and put a gun to my temple and demanded that I confess to a crime that I had nothing to do with. Nothing. Zero. And he held me there for a couple of hours. It was the most terrifying thing of my life. Even today, if I get pulled over by a cop, I get trepidations.”
For many of our African-American brothers and sisters, the viral videos on the screen recall a collective memory and open the wounds of specific, and personal, memories.
Police-shooting videos are a new digital reality for us, and their very presence ignites cultural tensions. In the wake of the recent Charlotte, North Carolina, shooting of Keith Scott, Hillary Clinton took to Twitter to ask the police department to release the video, to “ensure justice and work to bridge divides.” On the other side of the issue, a forthcoming law in North Carolina (set to begin October 1) will block the public from seeing police video — an act, Gov. Pat McCrory told CNN, to balance “the constitutional rights of the officer.” In the pursuit of justice, Clinton and McCrory are set at odds.
Police videos raise a number of other questions:
- Does the immediate release of police video footage de-escalate what could become a riot (for example, what we saw in Charlotte, compared to the relative calm of Tulsa)?
- In videos where it appears that the police shooting is unjustified, is it better to make the video public immediately, or better to wait until more detail is available?
- Should officers be given a chance to speak in public immediately?
- How much does pushing for immediate release of video concede justice to the “jury” of social media?
- What effects, either positive or negative, will these videos have on institutions of justice?
- Will the videos promote reform in police departments?
- Will scrutiny over the videos discourage bad recruits from joining police academies? What about good recruits?
- Will these videos be increasingly seen as atomized events, or as echoes of a broader American experience?
- And how do the videos affect us? Will these videos, which capture millions of viewers within minutes, eventually desensitize all of us to the tragedies they capture? And how will they affect our souls?
The fight over videos will continue to play out between the populous “now” of social media and the glacial pace of large cultural institutions. Police departments will continue to try to preserve a chance for a full internal investigation of a case, knowing that withholding video may only incite more public mistrust and rioting in the streets.
With all these questions in the air, we in the church should be especially sensitive to the racial tensions in the history of America, and how quickly old wounds can be reopened. We weep with those who weep. Often that’s the only thing we can do after watching the latest dash-cam video. We grieve for the families now left without sons and husbands and fathers. We call for prayer. And we must remember. There is a history to this country that will not be easily forgotten. We have a long way to go, but we have a gospel to guide our way — and a justice-seeking Savior who reigns today, and extends hope to all who would surrender to him.
We all need to learn to empathize — with African-American history in this country, on the one hand, and with the pressures faced by police officers, on the other.
As Matt Chandler said in a sermon this summer, “There has been no ethnic group that has borne the brunt of the brokenness of systems and structures in the United States of America like our African American brothers and sisters have. We do not have equal historical place in America. History shows, on repeat, the betrayal of African Americans by the very systems and structures that were meant to protect them.”
And in his next sermon, he said, “The job of first responders is surely one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in America. They have courtside seats for the most deplorable, evil, despicable things imaginable. They deal routinely with the violent, the mentally ill, and the desperate.”
We are all learning how to empathize in two directions at the same time. And we do so in hope that God would give us wisdom as we continue to work together toward specific resolutions, collective peace, and meaningful justice.