At the point of the writing of this article, it has been 124 days since unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Blocks from the spot where Brown lay dead in the tightknit Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo., protestors filled West Florissant Avenue, where Brown had been only minutes before his death. They were met by the local police force decked out in camouflage and body armor, armed to the gills with military-grade weapons, and rolling around in armored cars. Many commented that the streets of Ferguson looked like Fallujah.
It was both shocking and clarifying at once.
For the first time, Americans witnessed real-time outcomes of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funnels military weapons left over from past wars to local police municipalities across the country — in theory, to fortify local efforts in America’s drug war. Cable news cameras swarmed as wartime weapons, tactics, and protocols were enacted on unarmed, mostly black citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble and exercise free speech.
Here’s the thing about war: There are only enemies and allies. There is no in-between.
In a 2011 Skype interview for my book, Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, Gerald Staberock, current Secretary General of the Switzerland-based World Organisation Against Torture, explained to me: “The war paradigm works on an ‘us vs. them’ framework … if you speak in the terms of war, you only have friends and enemies.”
Even though a 2013 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found whites and blacks consume drugs at similar rates, black people have borne the brunt of drug policing in the War on Drugs. According to a Drug Policy Alliance report, while blacks comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up nearly one third (31 percent) of all drug arrests and more than 40 percent of all people actually incarcerated on drug charges.
The outcome of the National Defense Authorization Act is that black communities became war zones in practice, and local peace officers shifted into war mode. Black communities, and by extension, black people became enemies of the state.
In her Huffington Post article, “Ferguson Upheaval Has Roots in America’s War on Drugs,” Yolande Cadore of The Drug Policy Alliance said it well: “Other than slavery and Jim Crow laws, no other social policy has served to devalue Black lives more than America's drug war.”
Slavery and Jim Crow.
More than 100 days after Michael Brown’s blood seeped into the street in the middle of Canfield Drive for four and a half hours, Sojourners convened more than 50 national and local faith leaders to learn the lessons of Ferguson in preparation for national action to correct America’s broken justice system.
We learned many things in our two days together. Rev. Traci Blackmon, a leading faith voice in Ferguson’s struggle for justice, brought together a panel to help set the context of our journey.
Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis, explained that the St. Louis region is a service-oriented one with few organizations equipped to address systemic and structural issues like the ones presented in Ferguson in August 2014.
Leon Sharpe, founder and principal of The Praxis Group in St. Louis, explained that Ferguson is a border town located near the hub of St. Louis’ antebellum slave trade and the center of white flight. He explained that over time, black people have been intentionally separated from whites, separated from quality education, and contained (a wartime tactic) by policy.
Sharpe talked about the unconscious biases that have shaped policy in and around Fergusons saying: “Your pathology doesn’t get to be my policy.”
The delegation of faith leaders embarked on a pilgrimage through St. Louis to understand the historic and structural foundations of separation and containment.
One of the most clarifying moments came as we stood on the steps of the historic Old Courthouse, the place where the Dred Scott case was originally fought, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that blacks were not citizens and therefore “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
It was on those same steps, in the days when Mr. Scott fought for his freedom, where black people would look out and see the Mississippi River — free federal territory. And they would see Illinois just across the river — a free state. And they would hear the auctioneer selling them into slavery. According to an exhibit inside the courthouse, the steps were a common spot for slave auctions in antebellum days.
Imagine that: The place where justice is legally defined is also the place that enacts and upholds the gravest injustice — slavery.
This is why black people don’t always trust the arbiters of the law to be arbiters of justice.
On day 108, St. Louis County’s grand jury announced its decision not to indict Wilson.
On day 117, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan announced the grand jury had decided not to indict.
On day 122, the New York Daily News reported that, over the past 15 years, 179 people have been killed by on-duty NYPD officers. Three of those officers were indicted; one of the indicted was convicted. That officer never did jail time. This isn’t surprising — Americans rarely try their own soldiers for acts done in wartime.
The Ferguson police response in conjunction with ongoing police killings and grand jury decisions are revealing something deep and dark about our nation: We are at war with the image of God in black and brown bodies. In black and brown communities, police are not peace officers; they are the first introduction to a justice system that may now believe black and brown people have no rights the state is bound to respect.
It is Advent. This is a season about waiting with expectation and hope. I confess. It has been hard for me to hope recently. But then I remember the historical context of Advent.
Mary sang her Magnificat in the context of a police state called Rome. She belonged to a contained and threatened people. She waited and celebrated the day when her womb would birth hope for the oppressed and the lifting up of those tread down.
This year I have come to understand Advent as protest — protest against the wartime impulse of men to tread down God’s image on earth.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.