Before that morning, I’d never seen a real person bleed to death.
But on July 6, 2016, America watched Philando Castile breathe his last in front of his 4-year-old daughter and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds.
My turn to see it had come. I knew it.
Castile’s death on Facebook live followed a viral video of the police-involved death of Alton Sterling just one day before. So when I heard about another video of another tragic death circulating the internet, I refused to Google it.
“I’ve seen too much death this year,” I told myself. “It’s not healthy for people to see so much death.” But it began to feel irresponsible to continue to look away, fooling myself to think that avoiding the gruesome image was even possible. It wasn’t. Whenever I engaged the world again in any form, online, with my neighbor, in the news—he would surely be there. Moaning. His white shirt sopping wet with blood.
The cop that pulled Castile over said the young man fit the description of a robbery suspect. Castile had a “wide-set nose,” said the officer, a description as broad as the African diaspora. We all know that lots of black men have wide noses.
This was not about specific descriptions, obviously. Castile fit the general description of ‘criminal’: black, male, dreadlocks. Perhaps that is partly why I took his death so personally.
Learning Greek Does Not Make One Bulletproof.
I was in the final course of my seminary career when Castile’s death went viral: Beginning Greek. In the weeks that followed his murder, I remember sitting in that class thinking “Who the hell cares how to conjugate (or “decline” in academic jargon) a Greek verb?” Will the ability to translate a passage of Matthew from its original language to English protect me when my dreadlocks, or my wide-set nose, gets me into trouble? Not likely.
There were more salient subjects to study, like the prison industrial complex, of which police brutality is a symptom. I started a reading group on racial justice and social change via Facebook. We started with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. As we read, I learned in detail that the problem of racism was much more than simple, personal bias.
Reading didn’t convince me that racism was real. I already knew that. I grew up in a small town in Georgia, next door to a member of the Ku Klux Klan and pastored the church at the top of the road. That man held my brother at gunpoint one day for walking our dog through the neighborhood. So I’ve never had any illusions that racism was extinct. But studying helped me put my more subtle experiences of the world in context.
For instance, I was once looking for an apartment in Harlem, New York in 2008. My potential landlord was enthusiastic to hear a well-spoken, gainfully employed, gentleman (me) on the phone inquiring about his studio for rent. He broke a social taboo telling me that he doesn’t meet “decent people” like me very often. He even offered to be my friend. I also remember seeing his face sink in disappointment when he finally saw me. Even though I was clean cut at the time, in a button down and cardigan sweater, I was still black. He refused to rent the apartment to me.
In 2008, I just thought “How crazy is that!?” I knew, in an intuitive way, that I had experienced racism that day from that landlord. But in 2016, I learned that it wasn’t just a random, rare occurrence. I was learning things like, when non-white people are looking for housing, they are shown fewer housing options than white people. Studying helped me understand that racism doesn’t always glare down the barrel of a gun at you. That’s what allows it to be so resilient and pervasive.
Before then, I knew that black people were treated differently by police, via anecdote. But now I knew by research that black men were 5 times more likely to be brutalized than white men. I knew that black men were 7 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated on any given day. And I had a deep, growing sense that no matter how much Greek I knew, I could become a statistic or a hashtag for nothing more than my broad nose. And for the first time in my life, I felt existentially unsafe.
But I’m a Sane, Intelligent Person.
I had pretty much lost my appetite in the weeks that followed Castile’s death. But on July 25, I sat down and forced myself to eat. Just as I began to lift fork to mouth, I had a…daydream?
In the dream, I was walking next to a park in downtown Pasadena. From inside the park, I heard a street preacher. And though I’m not fond of street preachers, I was curious. So I went into the park to check it out.
I looked to where the voice was coming from and was surprised. The street preacher was me. I was standing next to a large boulder that had been painted white. Words like “mass incarceration,” and “police brutality,” were written on it. It was sitting on top of a kind of wagon.
Then I came back to myself, sitting over my plate of leftovers, and began to weep. I cried because I felt like the vision was an instruction and I did not want to do this thing.
“I’m a sane, intelligent person!” I thought to myself, “I am not dragging a stone around Los Angeles!”
But the next day, I was causing a commotion at the door of my Beginning Greek class as I tried to roll a wheeled platform across the threshhold with the largest boulder I could manage in tow.
"You Need to Check Yourself!”
For months, that rock went everywhere I did: work, dinners, job interviews, class, church, you name it. I walked around with that stone, singing as I went. I would fire up Facebook live as often as I had thoughts to share, which was almost daily.
I thought that people would be convinced when I told them my personal experiences of racism and shared my knowledge of the larger social context into which my stories fit. I was naiive and wrong.
“You should check yourself!” one person randomly wrote to me. It was the beginning of an avalanche of pushback, from old colleagues, friends, even extended family. But my biggest opposition would come from—to my surprise—pastors.
I was told that I was a troublemaker, a heretic, a race baiter, a radical, a liberal, hateful—that I’d “forsaken the second commandment to love thy neighbor,” that God did not care about racism, that the gospel does not include racial justice, that Christians shouldn’t be concerned with “political issues,” that racism was not actually a problem, and that God doesn’t save people from their earthly troubles.
One of the most often repeated objections was “What you’re doing is not helping!”
They were especially wrong about that last comment.
Bearing Witness to Justice
It’s true that I ticked a lot of people off by what I did and said, and the stone was just the beginning.
There isn’t room here to tell you about the days that followed, where I dressed for a funeral everyday to mourn the victims of state violence, with their names written on my suit. There isn’t room here to tell you about how my friends and I spent a year at the doors of the Pasadena Police Station in prayer to protest the police-involved death of one of my neighbors. Another time.
But I can confidently say that I know that some people’s minds have been changed because I said yes to an unusual idea—an idea that I hesitantly say may have come from beyond me. I know this because I have received messages and comments online to that affect. I’ve had people come up to me after speaking at some art show or performance or after a presentation in their classroom. I’ve spoken at churches and seen people walk down the aisle to confess that they see they’ve been complicit in white supremacy. I’m as confounded as I am honored to have been witness to these things, and to have participated in them.
I still have that boulder. It’s sitting in the backseat of my car with a new wagon in front of it. It’s still cumbersome: compromising my gas mileage and limiting my ability to participate in a carpool—still an appropriate, symbolic inconvenience to me. I don’t drag it out of the car every single day anymore, but I am ready to whenever the occasion may arise.
How do I know when it’s time? When the unaffected are comfortable while the affected grieve. When people settle into their post-racial illusions because they haven’t seen “Unarmed Black Man Dies In Police Custody” lately. When people forget that I can’t actually leave my burden in the car, it is time to remind them that racism hasn’t gone anywhere and I can feel it almost everywhere.
I’ve seen a glimpse of what can happen when we refuse to let the news cycle tell us when to care—what happens when we say “I must involve my actual body in the fight against oppression” I’ve seen what happens when someone gets the desire to bear witness to justice. And I am never going back to my life as it was before.