Answering the Bell

A few weeks ago, Mr. Wesley Bell was declared the winner of a local city council election. In most cases, local elections do not warrant national press; however, this city was ground zero for protest against police brutality for the past year. Ferguson, Missouri has been scrutinized and criticized for it lack of diversity in position of power and thinly veiled oppressive practices that filled municipal coffers with revenues raised by exploitive police practices. Mr. Bell has worked to be part of the solution as he was a calming force in the streets and decided to lead by example. In short, he answered the bell by serving the community and then running to lead it through public service. The leadership in Ferguson has a different hue and there is a ray of hope for a new day. Michael Brown did not die in vain. The events surrounding the tragic and premature end to his life rang a bell much like Dap Dunlap in School Daze telling America in general and Black America in particular to wake up.

Since then we have witnessed a number of tragic deaths of black males. The age of the victims ranged from early adolescents (Tamir Rice) to middle age (Wesley Scott); however the offender was the same, a police officer. The offenses bringing police officers to the scene were minor but the consequences were heartbreakingly monumental as gunshots from those who pledged to protect and serve the public ended lives of those were not threats to themselves or others. The victims of these police shootings were imperfect as we all are; however, death was not an appropriate response to a traffic stop or a tense interaction. We have yet to learn the lessons from Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and Charleston because Baltimore is now on fire. Bells are ringing loudly for those of sound minds and sincere sensibilities to step forward to be our brothers and sisters keepers. It is an assumption of social scientists that human beings are social beings; therefore, we need others to help us grow, learn, and love so that a society of imperfect people can strive towards a more perfect union that is indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

John Donne penned a meditation that was reshaped into a poem that is hauntingly appropriate for this day and age.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

The Cost of Free Speech

The whole world has been contemplating the horrific murders in Paris and some commentators have been discussing the idea of free speech. Much of the discussion in my estimation has focused on the political and legal aspects of this ideal. However, it might also be wise to consider the social dimensions “free speech.” The basic premise is that individuals have a legally protected right to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences through words. The implicit assumption is that words can stir debate and dialogue that can move communities and nations forward. This is a noble idea; however, the right to free speech also allows for the expression of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and other forms hatred that can denigrate a people and damage relations between individuals, communities, religions, and nations. The freedom to express ideas is precious; however, it is not free. Free speech is quite expensive.

Over the past weekend, we have celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His speeches and papers are a treasure trove of inspirational and aspiration words and ideas that continue to fuel individuals to press for freedom and justice for all people in the United States and beyond. Selma, the motion picture, has raised the profile of Dr. King’s words this year. There is an opportunity to consider the price that he and countless others paid to speak truth to power. The cost was quite high as tears, blood, and lives were lost as an oppressed people stood together to make their case for full citizenship. In this case, free speech was priceless.

It should be noted that words and images have power, and they are not weighted equally. The grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner cases demonstrate how the unequal weighting of words can lead to unjust decisions that prevent the responsible parties from facing a jury of their peers in a public setting. The Tamir Rice incident highlights how words from a news organization can obscure the tragedy that a single child with a toy gun was killed by armed men who took oaths to protect and serve the public. News organizations have the right to print information even it is not pertinent. However we must remember that free speech does not absolve news organizations from their responsibility to their consumers and their respective communities.

Free speech is a constitutional right that protects the expression of the thoughts above. I am protected from legal prosecution but I do have a social responsibility to govern my words. As a descendant of grown men and women who were called “boy” and “gal” all of their lives, I am well aware of the how words can deny humanity and destroy dreams. It is time that we think before we speak. Perhaps we should consider the following quote from a sermon preached this Sunday by my pastor, Reverend Reginald Buckley. He said, “just because you have the right to say it, does not mean that it is right to say.”

The Paradox and Challenge of Our Time

Every generation in the United States has moments when the state of race relations becomes painfully obvious to everyone. In the middle 20th century, it was Emmitt Till. In the late 20th century, it was Amadou Diallo. Last year it was Trayvon Martin. This year, it has been Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. The tragedies associated with the demise of Mr. Brown, Mr. Garner, and Master Rice are exacerbated by the fact that they were killed by individuals who took oaths to protect and serve the public. In two cases, grand juries made decisions that harkened back to the Jim Crow era when Caucasian males could kill their African American counterparts without worry of arrest much less prosecution or conviction. The hopes of a post-racial society that were ushered in with the election of the nation’s first African American president have been brutally dashed as the events over the past few weeks force us to inhale the vile stench of racial injustice and inequality that has been festering throughout the history of this country.

Prophetic visionaries throughout our existence as a nation have challenged citizens to clean and dress deep wounds caused by practices such as slavery or policies based on a “separate but equal” doctrine. Unfortunately, we have responded to these calls for action with benign neglect. As a result, our collective capacity for greatness has eroded because some of our best and brightest lights have been extinguished by social policies and practices that prosecute too much and provide too little care.

In times like these, it is tempting to give in to the cynicism, apathy and nihilism that appear to be ever-present. However, times of great challenge are also times of great opportunity. The events in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland have motivated individuals from all walks of life to protest, march, and chant, “Black lives Matter”. The sparks of activism and advocacy have flared up and only time will tell if these sparks will coalesce into a multicultural movement for justice. It is my hope that posts on this forum will contribute to this movement is some small way through ideas that illuminate, encourage, and challenge us to see the humanity in mankind with greater clarity and to seek solutions to our social ills with fervor.

It is important to understand that social transformation does not come without sacrifice. Some people will have to give up time. Others will have to sacrifice money. Still others will have to give up a way of life that may have existed for generations. This is the price of social change. African Americans who preceded us have paid the price for racial minorities and women to have the lives we have today. The torch has been passed to us and we have a great opportunity to challenge this country to live up to its creed and create space for all children regardless of social background and/or social standing to grow up to be whole, healthy, and productive citizens. The question is, are we willing to do the work?