Children crying Aurora — “Do not [handcuff] them”
So runs my dream, but what am I? An infant crying in the night An infant crying for the light And with no language but a cry. -- Alfred Tennyson,"In Memoriam"
Some things change; some things stay the same
George Floyd died face-down under a police officer’s knee, his hands in handcuffs behind his back, crying for help. Without the video taken by a distraught citizen, neither George Floyd’s cries nor the Minneapolis police officers’ behavior would have come to the world’s attention. The cries from pavements, walking paths, and apartments in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Aurora and elsewhere in the U.S.A. are nothing new. What’s different now is that we have mobile phones with cameras.
What has not changed is Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples. Children raised in a Christian tradition, no matter how different their doctrines and practices, hear the story early in life. The story of Jesus’s love of children and rebuke of his disciples is a source of comfort. The story stayed with me through 40 years of ministry in higher education and prominent Presbyterian churches until life took a turn that led from the pulpit to the streets.
The Crosshairs of Race and Class
Legal Rights Center is the storied institution founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and African American civil rights activists with the go-to street lawyer for Black and urban Indian communities of Hennepin County, Doug Hall. Legal Rights Center was one of a kind — an independent law office that belongs to communities of color for the purposes of social advocacy for and quality legal representation of low-income people of color that challenged the explicit and implicit white racism embedded in the court system. Seven years as Legal Rights Center’s executive director put me in the cross-hairs of systemic racism and the Minneapolis Police Department.
The Swastika on a Black man’s back
A young Black man comes to the Legal Rights Center to tell his story. All LRC attorneys and community advocates are in court. “Would you like to speak with the executive director?” asks the receptionist.
In the privacy of my office, he pulls up his shirt to show the swastika a police officer etched into his back.
The swastika, he says, was etched into his flesh after he had witnessed two MPD Fourth Precinct officers’ necessary use force during an arrest. No police officer wants a witness; no cop wants a complaint to be filed. The officers threw him, the witness, to the street and held him face-down. One of the officers took out his keys and scratched something into his back.
You should take this to the FBI
After the young man and I have reviewed his options, he chooses to do the unthinkable: tell his case directly to the Commander of the MPD Fourth Precinct. At Fourth Precinct headquarters, the commander leads us back to his office and asks what brought us there. I introduce myself as LRC’s new executive director and tell him why we’re there. The commander rarely looks up, takes phone calls, and shuffles papers on his desk. Just another Black kid who hates cops; just another clueless white do-gooder. Until the young man stands, turns his back to the commander’s desk, pulls up his shirt and shows him.
The swastika gets his full attention. He asks for information. Did he get the badge numbers or the squad car number? Did he hear any names? “Are you sure you can’t remember? Did one of the names begins with a ‘B’?”
“This goes way beyond Internal Affairs,” he says. “You should take this to the FBI.” The young man trusts the FBI no more than the Minneapolis Police Department. End of story.
Urination on an Ojibwe back
Residents of Little Earth of United Tribes housing report an incident involving an off duty Minneapolis Police Department officer working a second job as a Little Earth nightshift security officer. The outside temperature was below zero when the officer drove into the back parking lot and turned out the lights. Through their apartment window they watch him throw an inebriated man and woman onto the snow-covered pavement. The woman manages to run to an abandoned car. The man is lying on his back. The officer stands over the man, unzips his fly, and relieves himself. The witnesses do not recognize the man or the woman as Little Earth residents.
The Little Earth housing director reported the incident to Clyde Bellecourt (pictured here on the left), Vice President of the Legal Rights Center Board. Two days later Clyde learns the man’s identity and brings him to a small gathering to tell his story.
He’s not sure the blue denim jacket he’s wearing is the one on which the officer relieved himself at Little Earth. It could be someone else’s jacket. There are lots of blue denim jackets at detox. They try to give you the right one when you leave, but it’s not a clothing store. There’s no guarantee. All he can say is it looks like his. Even so, in hopes the jacket is the same, snd that it may provide DNA evidence matching the officer’s, the jacket is placed in our hands for safe-keeping. We put the jacket in an air-tight sealable bag, take it to a secure place no one will suspect (the trunk of my old Toyota) and proceed to arrange a meeting with the MPD Chief of Police.
The meeting is more than we expected. Eight senior officers, including the Deputy responsible for Internal Affairs. This is not normal. Somebody smells a rat. The police union has the MPD and the city administration in a strangle hold. The Chief agrees to get a urine sample from the officer in question and consents, with no protest, to our proposal that the DNA be done out of state at the MPD’s expense. During the two-hour meeting, we have the distinct feeling that the Chief has reasons to seek evidence of this officer’s alleged behavior. The urine sample and the jacket are sent to an independent lab in Maryland for DNA testing.
The report from the lab seems to disappoint the Chief as much as it does us. The jacket has been compromised by multiple layers of vomit and other materials accumulated over a number of years. The lab cannot establish evidence of a match. We return to the initial question whether the jacket given him when he left detox belonged to someone else. The detox center coatrack is filled with frayed blue denim jackets from Goodwill or Catholic Charities. A cashmere overcoat from Nordstrom’s never hangs on the detox rack.
Until broken systems cease to be
Unlike the more recent scene from Aurora, neither George Floyd, nor the man whose back now carries a swastika, nor the man and woman dumped in the dimly-lit parking lot at Little Earth was a child, but they were all met with the same condescension that Jesus rebuked. People with ears to hear recognize the echo and those with trained eyes see the distant light from another time and place. The rebuked disciples of Jesus know what Tennyson knew and live toward day this winter turns to spring when no child of God is hindered, “…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to these.” (Matthew 19:14b)
Our little systems have their day; They have their day and cease to be: They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, O Lord, art more than they. -- Alfred Tennyson, "In Memoriam" (Prelude)
Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, August 9, 2020.