“It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.” John Kenneth Galbraith
Some many years ago I was walking home from school in Seattle and, as was my custom, stopped in at the local grocery store to pick up something to munch on. As I scoured the candy rack for something sweet enough to keep the family dentist in business, the shop-keeper and a customer were watching the news on a little black and white television set behind the counter. There was some sort of report involving the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wasn’t paying much attention, but the shop-owner snarled mid-report and said, “Somebody ought to shoot that (man).”
I was shocked. First, I had always considered the owner of the store to be a nice guy. Secondly, while I didn’t know much about Dr. King, I knew that his focus was on improving relations between white people and black people through just and peaceable means.
I was shocked and wondered why anyone would want to kill a man of peace. That was insanity and in good conscience I could not and would not spend another dime in that store ever again.
(1974, Spokane, WA I was part of Spokane PD's
Larceny Squad - patroling from a Vespa)
After I graduated from college and before I went off to seminary, I was a police officer in the city of Spokane. One night my partner and I responded to a silent alarm call on the city’s south hill. It was winter; it was a moonless night (about 1 a.m.), and despite the snow that lay upon the ground, it was quite dark. We pulled up to the address of an antique shop and my partner went one way on foot around the building while I went the other.
As I rounded the corner I confronted a man standing at a window in back. He was dressed in a dark coat and wore a knitted ski-cap pulled down low. He hadn’t heard my approach, but when I saw him I drew my weapon, identified myself, and ordered him to freeze.
Startled, he turned and I glimpsed a silver flash in the beam of my flashlight. I tensed, applied several pounds of pressure to my Smith and Wesson’s trigger (which takes three pounds of pressure to fire) and ordered him to drop his gun NOW! I suspect there might have been an expletive or two thrown in for good measure – and it worked.
He dropped his weapon. It turned out to be a screwdriver he was using to pry open the window of the shop he was burgling. He came within a half-pound of trigger pull of being shot.
Looking back, I find myself wondering if I would have exercised the same level of restraint on my trigger if he had been black. I like to think I am color blind when it comes to race, but I also know that racism is not a matter of the intellect, but of the gut. If he had been black, this story might have ended differently; I cannot dismiss that possibility.
When the adrenaline pumps, humans shift gears from the intellectual brain to the more primal, ancient, reptilian brain – the Fight/Flight center. We are afraid of that which we do not know or understand, and so we react out of that fear. Racism is rooted in xenophobia (fear of the stranger) and we need to quit denying it exists. If we acknowledge it, we can begin work needed to overcome it – like most any defect of character.
I don’t know precisely what happened in Ferguson that fateful day. I hope, pray, and expect the investigators will be thorough and that justice will prevail, but I hope, too, that each of us will look deep within ourselves and know just how far we have yet to go.
I am human. I am fearful, and ugliness of thought and deed are very much alive and well in this soul of mine.
We can overcome our baser instincts, but first we’ve got to face reality, admit the problem, and then be willing to seek solutions and work together to achieve them in this, our valley (and beyond).