Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Long Night

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

A few years back, I dropped cable television service and haven't gone to the trouble to figure out non-cable television options. For that reason, I sometimes miss the visuals that make it into our national news cycle.

I hadn't seen the video of Eric Garner's killing until of the day of the grand jury decision not to indict his killer, police officer Daniel Pantaleo. My Facebook feed filled up with reactions from friends and acquaintances near and far. I watched in utter horror at the sight of a completely non-combative man being surrounded by police and choked to death on a city street in broad daylight.

What could be more terrifying than being attacked by the very people one should be able to call for protection from such violence? And then to know that there would be no deeper investigation as to how such a thing could happen?

I couldn't think. Unlike Eric, I could breathe, but the air around me seemed very thin. And I could feel: my heart racing, my throat going dry, the tears spilling onto my cheeks. I couldn't write, but I shared a picture of myself from those moments on Facebook, as I changed my cover photo to one of Eric just before he was wrestled to the sidewalk, in the last seconds of his life.

As my ministerial colleagues have written and preached, I have struggled to find words to compose that capture even a fraction of what I feel. This is my first attempt.

Like Eric, I have literally been in the cross-hairs of the police, my life at risk simply because I was a black man at the wrong place at the wrong time. One night in the late 1980s, as I was waiting for a bus on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, a car pulled up toward me slowly. The next think I knew, the lights of the car were shining on me, and a police was leaning out of the car with a firearm pointed at me. "Get your hands up, mother-f**ker!" he shouted. I did as I was told. In moments, I was surrounded by police cars.

One of the officers pushed me onto the trunk of one of the cars. I was frisked and searched. I was asked what I was doing, why I was standing there. I told them the truth: I had just gotten out of church choir rehearsal and was trying to get home. The searched my coin purse, presumably for drugs. After they were done, I asked why they had chosen me. One of the officers said that they were looking for someone in a black jacket and blue jeans who was carrying a concealed weapon. When one car rear-ended another and fled on the opposite side of the street, they all sped away in pursuit.

I cried that night too ... Grateful to still be alive, that I hadn't made a false move, and that the cops had not been trigger-happy.

After the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case, I wondered what an appropriate response would be, one that might make a difference. I'm unsure of the efficacy of tactics used in the past. I understand boycotts and public protests, but I wonder if those of us today have the fortitude of the Montgomery bus boycotters, who forewent public transport for a year until their demands for equality were met. While I appreciate the commitment to keep these urgent concerns in the public eye, I have difficulty seeing what it will matter over the long-term.

I do believe that younger generations -- as Dr. King and his contemporaries were in the 50s and 60s -- hold keys to progress and need to be empowered by those of us who are older to lead. And I do believe that, as during the civil rights era, change will come as a result of the persistent efforts of courageous people working over a variety of fronts over time. I believe in the power of partnership and relationship -- as we say in one of our mottoes for the Southern Region, "We are better together."

With that in mind, I am co-facilitating a Region-wide conversation with Elandria Williams, a member of the Education Team of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. It was there that Rosa Parks received her training before becoming the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Elandria is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a passionate activist. I am grateful to have her as a colleague in justice work.

Directions for joining that conversation will be posted in the next Southern Region newsletter, and on the Southern Region Facebook page. We look forward to being on that call with you.

Also, in conjunction with our congregations in East Tennessee, I will lead a weekend workshop on Marshall Rosenberg's approach to Nonviolent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication, January 30-31. I believe that compassion for all people is going to make a difference in this present confusion. You can learn more and register for that event by clicking here.

My prayer is that love will guide us through this long, hard night in our nation's history. May we be willing to be saviors to each other, now and always.

God bless us, every one.