Crazy Making: The Short Road from Boston to Ferguson

Crispus AttucksOctober 22, 2014 is the 19th Annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.  This day has received renewed interest in light of the events at Ferguson, Missouri this year and because we are finally hearing the real stories of police brutality against people of color. Men, women and children of color as well as transgender men and women, people with physical and mental disabilities  who have suffered at the hands of those who are being paid to serve and protect are finally being seen and heard.  Sadly however, too many of their voices are being heard only after they have been silenced.  We are all called to action to fight the institutionalized oppression by militarized police that has been at work much too long in the United States.

On October 18, I attended the 59th Annual Freedom Fund Dinner of the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP and I was particularly grateful for the keynote speaker, Professor Theodore M. Shaw from the University of North Carolina School of Law. During this distinguished and much lauded professor’s address, he used an expression that immediately made me perk up: “Crazy Making.” This is a common urban slang expression that I also often use to describe the effect of insane, repetitive behavior, and I’m sure I got the expression from a sitcom or at least from pop culture somewhere. He said it several times to great effect speaking about the state of black people in America: the continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men is “crazy making”; if you come from a legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual, it is “crazy making”; to be viewed as a monster by a culture…”crazy making.” He’s right; it’s a wonder more of us aren’t truly insane.

The events this summer in Ferguson, Missouri have become another touchstone in what seems to be an ongoing pattern of police targeting black youths with excessive gun violence. There are those who have already written off the court case, believing that the accused murderer Darren Wilson will be acquitted. But the sad truth is, not only is this not new, but there is an eerie precedent going back nearly 250 years that makes it clear the degree to which this situation is status quo in America. In 1770, John Adams, future President of the United States, stood in court and defended 6 British soldiers who had fired upon and killed a number of unarmed men in what would be called the Boston Massacre. Most specifically, one of the casualties was a black runaway slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. We often get the picture of the men killed in the massacre (including Samuel Gray, James Caldwell and ultimately Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr) as being heroes of the early American Revolution. In addition, we also think of John Adams as a man who dedicated his life and career to “liberty.” But the historical data comes across a bit differently. Adams’ words from the original court documents describing the crowd that attacked the soldiers say a great deal about his opinion of the accused:

“We have been entertained with a great variety of phrases, to avoid calling this sort of people a mob.-Some call them shavers, some call them genius’s. -The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.-And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them: The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers”[1]

Further on in the court documents we also find this assessment of Attucks (who was classed as ‘mulatto’) by Adams:

“[…]this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.”[2] 

Crispus Attucks had escaped from his enslaver some 20 years previous and had endured not only the persecution of being black in a slave economy, but the continued fear of being caught as a fugitive. His post slavery career had been spent largely at sea where, again, he was always subject to oppression and threat of recapture. By the night he was killed, Attucks had banded with a group of other seamen, and by dint of their trade they had an already contentious relationship with the British Army. But as an escaped slave, Attucks was particularly at risk of being pressed into service in the army at any time against his will. Simply put, by any standard, the life that Crispus Attucks had led to this point would have been “crazy making.”

Michael Brown was killed on August 9, 2014 for walking in the street. But video footage shows him having a confrontation with a convenience store clerk over cigars just prior to his murder. Darren Wilson’s traffic stop was unrelated to this at the time alleged theft, but certainly Michael Brown was carrying the awareness of his  previous interaction with the store clerk with him. The court will now try to paint Brown as someone who was dangerous and “worth” killing. Brown was headed to college in a few days and by all reasonable character accounts, had a clear sense of wanting and knowing how to manifest a productive future. So why have a confrontation with a store clerk over cigars (note: video footage shows he actually paid for them)? Why put up even a slight fight against an armed and clearly confrontational officer? The continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men…the legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual…being viewed as a monster by a culture…it is all “crazy making.”

I won’t ever claim that black men are not to be held accountable for their actions. Nor do I intend to make the point that all black men are crazy or that we all steal. But to think that black men have had a 200+ year history of being public targets for various kinds of police brutality in the United States is astonishing. Both Crispus Attucks and Michael Brown are regarded as martyrs, but for very different reasons. We are taught to look at Crispus Attucks through the rosy view of his contribution to the American Revolutionary War. Clearly by John Adams account, there were those who would prefer to have seen him as the 18th century equivalent of a “thug” just as some would like to paint Michael Brown the same way today. Part of me has to believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions actually had little or nothing to do with feeling a patriotic kinship with a nation and people who would enslave him, make him a 20 year fugitive and keep his life in constant threat. I believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions had more in common with Michael Brown in that moment when he had the altercation in the convenience store. These are both acts of social disobedience that say to a hostile American culture, “I am not a slave in body or in spirit! I am here! I am real!  I am a human being!” These are both men demanding a place in their world and willing to do something crazy as a way to show it.  But in the end, the only truly crazy ones are us if we don’t use their legacies to end the real “crazy making” policies, systems and psychologies that plague people of color and primarily black men in this country.

End racialized police brutality NOW!

National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, October 22, 2014 – #O22

[1] http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/

[2] Ibid.

Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People

The Chicken or the Cart?

The sermon below was delivered to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Bay in San Diego, California on October 12, 2014.  The sermon is based on the monthly theme of “chaos.”

The title of this sermon actually comes from my experience of receiving text messages from people that are either illogical or partial…because they were written when someone was distracted.  It is a combination of the two expressions “Which came first the chicken or the egg” and “Putting the cart before the horse.”  As a culture, we are in a state of perpetual multi-tasking.

But what does multi-tasking say about us spiritually?  Does our tendency toward wanting to have multiple focuses have any important lessons for us as we try to embrace a truly multi-cultural spiritual world?

Also, check out this article in Bloomberg Business week…surprisingly spiritual for a business journal! (Continuous Partial Attention – Not the Same as Multi-Tasking) I think Linda Stone gets at the core of where I’m going.

Peace,

Adam