Barack Obama Addresses the Killing of George Floyd and the Social Unrest it Has Precipitated

Peace Floyd

From Medium:

As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice, many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering.

First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.

On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Moreover, it’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices. When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.

It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.

But as a starting point, here’s a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated site at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years.

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.

Let’s get to work.

As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice, many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering.

First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.

On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobediencethat the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Moreover, it’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices. When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.

It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.

But as a starting point, here’s a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated site at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years.

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.

Let’s get to work.

Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

Hinton_Photo

Anthony Ray Hinton

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

Historical Thinking at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama

EJI 1Yesterday I was in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.  We spent a couple of hours at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.  Some of you may be familiar with his best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionEJI’s offices are located in the heart of Montgomery’s 19th-century slave trading market. This is a fitting location for an organization committed to fighting the narrative of racial difference in America.

During our visit we heard a presentation from two EJI “Law Fellows,” Luke Fredericks and Evan Milligan.  Fredericks started the presentation by describing four eras in the history of race in the United States.

  1. Slavery.  This was the period when the “narrative of racial difference” was born. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not erase this narrative. We are still dealing with the legacy of this narrative.
  2. Racial Terror:  This was the period between Reconstruction and the World War II when whites employed violence to keep the races separate.  EJI is particularly interested in the history of lynching in America.  It has uncovered 360 race-based lynchings in Alabama history.  In order to remember these lynchings, EJI has created an exhibit of glass jars filled with dirt and clay gathered from the sites where the lynchings took place (see picture below).  It is a powerful exhibit–perhaps one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen.  EJI is interested in lynching because it believes this practice was the historical antecedent to the death penalty.  Fredericks argued that sometime in the 1930s southern politicians realized that the practice of lynching was giving the South a bad name in the world.  In response, they used the death penalty as a means of dealing with the race problem in a more official and sanctioned way.  This, according to Fredericks, just might explain why a disproportionate number African Americans have been executed over the last 75 years. Since EJI lawyers are in the business of helping death row prisoners, the history of lynching in American is a usable one.
  3. Segregation
  4. Mass Incarceration.  Today 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison. Most of them are people of color.  EJI wants to address some of the systemic issues behind these statistics.

Fredericks, who was a history major at the University of Maryland, kept reminding us that the pursuit of justice does not happen in a vacuum. In the process, he put his history degree to good use by challenging us to understand the problems of race and mass incarceration in America through context, change over time, and continuity.

In order to provide such context, EJI is getting into the museum and monuments business.  It just released a new website on the history of lynching in America and will soon open a permanent exhibit on the subject.  EJI also plans to create a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery.

Everything about the work of EJI draws heavily on the skills and practices of historians. EJI’s legal activism relies on the connections between the past and the present.  Granted, history can only take us so far when it comes to changing the world (or advocating for death-row inmates), but activism is often superficial without understanding the historical context out of which social ills arise.  EJI uses archival research, oral history, and storytelling (“we use individual narratives to change the way people think and feel”) to provide the necessary context for its advocacy work on behalf of death-row inmates.

So if you want to change the world, start by reading history.

 

EJI 2

EJI 3

Lynching exhibit at EJI