The Streets of Ferguson, Cleveland, NYC, Minneapolis

A 19 year-old African American walks into the Legal Rights Center (LRC). He insists on seeing the Executive Director.

He’s a large man, his speech is fast, his eyes are angry. He pulls up his shirt to show the swastika he alleges the police carved on his back while he lay on the street in North Minneapolis.

There are witnesses. Three women and a man who saw it happen  during another man’s arrest. “Raymond”, we’ll call him, was objecting to the arrest when two officers took him down to the pavement, face down, while one of the officers used his key to etch the Swastika into his flesh. He was not arrested.

Police abuse of power, racial profiling, the use of unreasonable force, shootings, and prosecutors and grand juries looking the other way always have been the way it is in America.  What’s new is the public outcry, the jarring of consciousness and conscience among those who do not live in places like North Minneapolis, Ferguson, or one of the poorer African-American neighborhoods in Cleveland or New York City.

After several years of the LRC Executive Director referring complainants to the Minneapolis Police Civilian Review Board without satisfaction of remedy, I proposed something out of the ordinary. We went directly to the commanding officer of the 4th Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The Commander’s attention seemed to wander as I introduced myself and Raymond until Raymond pulled up his shirt. The Commander asked if Raymond got the number of the squad car or remembered the badges of the officers. He didn’t. The Commander then, to my great surprise, named a number of officers, asking if Raymond recognized any of the names. Those officers were well-known for terrorizing the North Minneapolis African-American community.

“This is way beyond Internal Investigation,” he said. “You need to take this to the F.B.I.”

Raymond didn’t trust the F.B.I. any more than he trusted the Minneapolis Police Department. He decided to let it go.

Lots of people like Raymond have decided over the years to let it go. Until Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson and a grand jury decided not to indict him. Until 12-year old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in Cleveland. Until Eric Garner died of a police officer’s choke hold saying, “I can’t breath!” The inferno of anger boiling over across the streets of America is new only in the breadth of consciousness and conscience.

It will take time. It will take a change of heart and mind. But, mostly, it will NOT change until America gets it straight that for most African-Americans being black is also an issue of class. Class is about power and powerlessness. Only when what we call “the middle class” understands that its interests lie with African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, NYC, and Minneapolis will thing change in America.

Attorney General Eric Holder just released a Department of Justice Investigation report. Click HERE for the story.

It’s all about the economics: up or down. There really is no middle. “Hands up!” “I can’t breath!”

“Homeland” Militarization

Thanks to MinnPost for publishing Views fro the Edge‘s submission this morning.

Click Homeland militarization — tanks in Ferguson, Blackhawks in Minneapolis — must be stopped to read, like, or comment on MinnPost’s site.

One of the more informed responses to this piece came in a personal email rather than through the MinnPost site. It’s worth sharing here.

“About 15 years ago, there were articles in the NYT about new, non-lethal, technologies for subduing criminals and quelling riots. They were clever, stuff like a slime-cannon that basically lobbed a ball of K-Y jelly into a crowd, making it impossible to walk, run, or even get up off the ground. Or sticky webs that wrap around the target with tenacity enough to immobilize an All-Star wrestler. But why mess with all that when you can really send a message?

“The six shots that murdered Michael Brown were an act of terror; and so is all the police combat drag, including the assault rifles and armored personnel carriers. H.L. Mencken once said about a Baltimore cop, with a wink, “He loved a long, hard chase almost as much as a quick, brisk, clubbing.” These are different times. They still love clubbings, and a little pepper spray in the face while your hands are zip-tied, but the number of police killings using insanely unnecessary levels of force these days broadcasts notice that, no matter what they’re doing to you at this moment, anything less than complete submission could cost you your life. Everybody should know by now that you could cross a cop in your birthday suit and have your birthday taken away by six rounds from a 9-millimeter.

“Do you know much about the 1967 riots on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis? I don’t really know what set it all off. Stores were burned and looted, and yet it all hardly drew mention in the national press, overshadowed, maybe, by the really angry riots in Watts and Detroit and on the East Coast. There was a war on then, too, but it’s said the National Guardsmen who were called in carried rifles with empty magazines.

“Today, everybody who complains that Americans never had to give up their domestic comforts during more than a decade of war should get some grim satisfaction out of the black helicopters and armored personnel carriers in the cops’ garages. Isn’t it ironic, when we remember how everybody likes to praise the warriors who fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘to keep us free’?”

“The Birth of Freedom” and the NYSE

The New York Stock Exchange was closed down. For two full days the trading bell on Wall Street did not ring. But on Main Street the bells that mis-identify American freedom with Wall Street were ringing in our living rooms, flooding the airwaves with campaign ads about freedom and the loss of it.

In front of Westminster Presbyterian Church on the Nicollet Mall at the heart of downtown Minneapolis stands an eye-catching sculpture called “The Birth of Freedom.”. The figures are naked, emerging from primal slime, evolving, reaching toward the heavens.

The Birth of Freedom, Paul Granlund

The late Paul Granlund was the sculptor. Westminster commissioned him to give visual expression to the words of the Apostle Paul:

“For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

There is a freedom from and there is a freedom for.

“For your were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” (Letter to the Galatians 5:13-15)

I listen to the campaign speeches. I hear the freedom talk. I see crowds cheering. I hear loud applause. And I wonder…what kind of freedom is being cheered? What kind of slavery is feared?

The advertisers who write the ads for the candidates and the PACs know the answers to these questions. They know that the psyche of American generations that grew up in the Cold War defines freedom as freedom from “Communism” or “Socialism.” They also know that the Christian Right fears submission to the “godless” whom they believe threatens their religious freedom.

But no one can take away my freedom or yours, and it is misleading to paint one’s political opponent as intending to take it way. For me, as a Christian, the freedom for which we are released (set free) is not freedom from but freedom for communion with my neighbors. It applies not only to personal relationships. It applies equally to the political and economic systems.

This morning the bell rang again at the stock exchange. The biting, devouring, and consuming of each other becomes a way of life again, the adored substitute for freedom. To condone it is to submit again to a yoke of slavery, the most widespread violence where, to quote Jacques Ellul,

“in this competition ‘the best man wins’ – and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive people necessarily lose.

The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when a superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence.”

– Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, 1969.

Meanwhile Paul Granlund’s “The Birth of Freedom” still stands silently in downtown Minneapolis, calling for the birth of something as yet beyond our imagination.  “Stand fast therefore [in the freedom for which Christ has set you free], and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Apostle Paul often wrote his letters from jail cells, charged with disturbing the Pax Romana.

Take Away our Numbness – A Memorial to Sydney Mahkuk

These words were spoken on the sidewalk where 12-year-old Sydney Mahkuk died. Community leaders and Sydney’s family asked me to bring some kind of meaning and hope to the sidewalk where Sydney had been dumped from a car by the side of the funeral home.

November 4, 2005

Gordon C. Stewart

Executive Director, Legal Rights Center, Inc.

Once upon a time a proud people lived on this land. They called themselves Ojibwe, Anishinabe, Dakota, Lakota, and Winnebago. Occasionally a Menominee would visit.  They lived close to the land.  They hunted. They fished. They gave thanks to the Great Spirit for every day.  They saw themselves as part of nature. They rose with the sun. When the sun went down, they gathered in a circle by the light of the campfire.  By the light of the campfire, they listened to the elders, whose stories broke the silence to told the children who they were.  The children went to bed in safety.

Shabbona, Potawatami Chief, c. 1775 – 1859

They were people of great dignity.  Their ways were good ways.  They respected the land. They respected each other.  They honored their elders.  They cared for the children.  They trained their youth to become adults.  They died with dignity.  They were buried with honor. Earth was their mother. Gitchi Manitu, Wakan Tonka, the Great Spirit, was the common Grandfather of them all.

Then something terrible happened.  A plague came across their land.  It took their land.  It stole their culture.  It laughed at their spiritual practices.  It called them names.  It tore down their tepees, their longhouses and their sweat lodges.  And in their places the plague built big buildings – tall buildings, arrogant buildings, skyscrapers, they called them, that invaded the sky, turning the land into something it is not.  The Ojibwe and Dakota who lived here no longer rose with the sun.  They no longer gathered around the campfire.  They no longer heard the stories of who they were.  They knew only what the white plague had taught them – that unless they joined the plague, they were nobody, and that if they challenged it, they would lose.  They would die.

And so they lived in grief.  A sorrow too hard to bear.  A loss too great to carry.  And the plague offered them relief to numb the pain – firewater that would make them happy in spite of their despair.  Drugs to drive away the memories of who they were.  Escapes to make them numb.  To numb the pain.  Opiates to freeze their tongues.

The elders no longer acted like elders.  The parents were numb with grief.  There were no aunts.  No uncles. No cousins.  No grandparents.  Nobody dared to be a neighbor.  The children were left with no campfire at night – no community to tell them the stories of who they were and who they were not – and so the children and the youth drifted out into the night in search of themselves.  Locked in lonely prisons of confusion, the youth no longer knew Mother Earth as their Mother; they no longer knew how to give thanks to the Great Spirit for the day.  They no longer went to bed with the sun.  They wandered the night in search of the community they had lost and never known.  And the gangs and the drugs and the alcohol offered them the promises of a better life that was the kiss of death.  Ecstasy was no longer a way of life – it was a pill that would make them higher than the skyscrapers that ruined the once humble landscape.  And sometimes the alcohol and the drugs and the gangs that had promised to numb their pain took their lives and they were found in the morning as the sun came up.  They were found by strangers.

Sydney Mahkuk, RIP

Then one day a girl named Sidney, a 12 year-old Menominee-Portawatami, was found beside a funeral home on Columbus Avenue. How she got there nobody knew.  How she died, nobody knew.  But everybody knew why.

The community had unravelled.  It had become dry bones in the valley.

But on that day that the people gathered on the sidewalk on Columbus Avenue to mourn her death, there was a sound from heaven – a rattling, the sound of dry bones coming together, a resurrection of the once proud community. And as a result Sidney Mahkuk’s tragic death the community came together as it had not come together since the plague had begun.

On the day they gathered on Columbus Avenue – a street named after the European explorer who had not discovered their land – on that day, the community woke from its sleep.  It came together – Ojibwe, Dakota, Menominee, Potawatami, Lakota, African-American, Somali, Hispanic, Hmong …and, yes, even the descendants of Columbus.  And on that day, because of a little girl’s unexplained death, they stood together arm in arm and said “Enough” to the plague.  “Enough” to numbness.  They said, “No more. No more. No more death on Columbus’s Avenue.”  And it was more than words.  They looked up at the sun again and really saw it…as if for the first time. They looked down at Mother Earth and saw it, as if for the first time.  And they gave thanks.  Then they looked at each other and they said, “We are a proud people.  We will take back this land.  We will be the people who honor our elders.  We will be the people who support the parents and care for the children.  We will be the people who guide the youth.  We will be a people of hope, not despair.  We will be a people of love, not hate.  We are all Menominee-Potawatami. We are all grandchildren of one Grandfather.  We are the people who care for each other.  We are the people who refuse to go numb.  We are the people who will teach the children of Columbus – starting right here, right now… on Columbus Avenue – how to live in a good way with Mother Earth, in a good way with Iraq, in a good way with the rivers and the sky, the ozone and the sun.  We are the people whose spirituality will help to cure the cancer of the spiritual and economic plague that has left our people in despair.

From that day on, November 4, 2005 at twelve noon, 12 year-old Sidney Mahkuk – our daughter, our granddaughter, our little sister, our friend, our neighbor – would be forever remembered as the one whose deadly silence on this sidewalk spoke so loudly that we could not stay numb.  And we took the city back and brought it back to life.

Merciful God – Wakon Tonka, Gitchi Manitu, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah, Grandfather, Great Spirit who breathes life into all things and receives all life at the end – Your’s is the air we breath, the land on which we walk.  Assure us that your love is stronger than every power to divide or hurt us.  Receive your child Sidney into your eternal care.  Wrap your arms around Glenda, around Sidney’s brothers and sisters, around all the defenseless children of the night, around all of us who mourn their plight and mourn Sidney’s death.  Re-kindle the light of faith and hope. Take from our souls the plague of hate, self-hatred and despair.  Take away the numbness and the apathy.  Make us a people of healing.  A humble and quiet people, but a proud people of love and spiritual strength. A people who are not afraid to feel the pain, who really feel the loss, who feel our feelings and do not fear them.  A people who dare to believe that every tear that falls from our eyes flows into the common stream of human suffering that leads into the ocean of community restored.  A people secure in the knowledge of your love.  Amen.