Friday, August 19, 2016
by Tai Amri Spann-Wilson and Caleb Stephens
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” - James Baldwin
"I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life isn't worth living." - Harvey Milk
Tai Amri: Those who have heard me preach before know that I like to start my sermons with a song, usually The Prayer by Sweet Honey In The Rock. But this morning I need to start with a different song about staying woke. Often times, Brother Caleb and I have the misfortune of being the ones who have to wake people up, people seem so happy and blissful in their sleep and so angry to be woken up. We don’t even have to speak to wake people up, sometimes just being Black causes people to jump out of their seats. But the truth is, waking up is not as painful as we think it is, it actually is possible to wake into a world far better than the one we dream. So I invite you all to sing this song with me if you know it.
(Sings, “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom”)
Peace be with you,
That’s how we would start every service in my church in Oakland during the period of my life when I got woke. You might hear that saying a lot, stay woke. What that means to me is that this was the period in my life not when I realized that there was injustice, aimed at me, in the world, I knew that as soon as I knew I was Black, no this was the period in my life where I realized that in order to stop injustice I had to fight. That’s why we have to remind one another to stay woke, because just cause you read the newspaper and know what’s happening in the world, it doesn’t mean you realize that you have to get up and do something. Reading is reading, getting up and doing something, that’s woke. And living in Oakland, it didn’t take much to see in what direction the guns were pointed, mostly in the direction of poor Black and Brown children, so we said peace be with you to one another, as a prayer, as a hope. Lord knows there ain’t no peace without justice, and so I ask you to repeat this hope to me, peace be with you.
I’m going to apologize ahead of time because this sermon is going to be far longer than it’s supposed to be. It won’t be quite as long as the 40,000 word Black Lives Matter policy that was recently released and that everyone needs to read, but it will be long enough. I tried to cut out unnecessary parts, but please bear with us, we have a lot of work to do. Like that policy we have attempted to identify both the problems and their solutions. So let’s get started.
I’m an educator, and I need to come at you like a teacher for a moment and do some educating. I have come to understand that as a Black man, one of the reasons that the Black community has been able to survive through 400 years of the most horrific treatment in written history, is because of the word. I’m not talking about the Bible when I say the word, I’m talking about something that Black folks have referred to as Ashe. Ashe is the African concept that everything, seen and unseen, spoken and heard, has power. I am because of Ashe, and because of Ashe, I can also create. My daughter, Alanna Naledi, is a part of the creation of my Ashe, but I can also create through my words, which is another version of my Ashe. You know that thing that happens in the Black church where a preacher says something and people call out, “Amen!”? That is an act of Ashe. Calling out amen is a way of not only affirming what is being spoken, but an attempt to will it to be and a verbal commitment to actively help it to be. So for the rest of this sermon, if you haven’t already, I want you to participate in the African act of Ashe. Whenever you hear something you agree with or want to see come to be, say Ashe or Amen. Ashe? Amen?
Some people, when I told them that I get to live out a dream to be able to preach with my Brother Caleb, were surprised. If you meet me for a one on one conversation, I appear to be very quiet, peaceful and calm. Brother Caleb, depending on the day, might appear to you very differently. I jokingly said that Caleb and I preaching would be like Brother Malcolm and Brother Martin sharing a pulpit. I told my mother about this event, and how there is a perception that Caleb is angry and I am not. My mother, the embodiment of peace and calm herself, told me that I need to break that spell right away. So Brother Caleb, can I break it?
You see it’s like this, as an educator, for the past two years I have been educating very small children, 3 and 4 years old. It takes a certain temperment and patience to teach a child that age, and I have that temperment and patience. I’ve taught children as young as 2 and as old as 18 and what I’ve seen is this, some of the foulest oppressions in America are doled out on the young. If you work with youth in the system, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Poor children are forced fed the least nutritious food while rich children are treated like the puppets of capitalism, constantly having their desires manipulated by materialisic desires, and then you have Queer and Trans children and youth, on whom we target all of society’s most homophobic and transphobic tendencies, Brown immigrant children get labeled as anchoring leaches, and if you are a Black child, boy, girl or non-binary, you are considered a monstrous suspect as soon as you are born. If you think working with young children is all about fun-loving innocence and peace, then you have never had an undocumented child beg you with tears in their eyes not to vote for Mitt Romney because they don’t want their family to be deported, you have not heard the screams of orphaned Black boys and girls in locked rooms in our governemnt’s “improvement” on the orphanage system, girls and boys who have grown up locked in attics by neglectful caregivers, telling you stories of surviving from eating spiders, you have not had to explain why the next town over get’s new text books every year, but your class, you can just make do with the burnt rags of books that they hand you.
So let me tell you about the rags that they handed us. The rags that Brother Malcolm was nothing but violent, and Brother Martin was nothing but peaceful. No, it didn’t go down like that. Brother Malcolm utilized a multitude of nonviolent tactics in his struggle, and Brother Martin brought down fire when fire was needed. Like in the following quote, which he wrote after the immensely destructive Detroit Rebellion:
““I am not sad that Black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable. Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely.
Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity. Except for the Reconstruction years, they have never in their long history on American soil struggled with such creativity and courage for their freedom. These are our bright years of emergence; though they are painful ones, they cannot be avoided…In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws–racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.
America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned. America must change because twenty-three million black citizens will no longer live supinely in a wretched past. They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall. America must change.”
If you think that being peaceful means that you can’t be angry and fight, you’re wrong. If you think being angry means that you don’t want peace, you’re wrong. Me, I’ve looked in the eyes of a child and I felt fire. Brother Caleb, he’s worked with some youth as well, though in a different capacity than me, and so his expression is different. I want you to hear his words because we need Brother Martin, Brother Malcolm and all the sisters, brothers and others who are woke to stand up. Brother Caleb, tell ‘em somethin’.
Brother Caleb: Compassionate Bigotry is a term I have begun to understand throughout my time as an activist, and since I have woke up and Journeyed into my solidified identity as Black. The fear of the Journey is real, because of the weight the realities hold. My life has been a mirror of greatness, wealth, and prosperity, while being dead, decayed, and diseased on the inside. My Compassionate Bigotry was birthed at home, and lived throughout my life, be it from my experiences as a young black child in a white family, to when I was brought up in the realities of whiteness, something that I have never been able to fit Safely nor completely into. I have always been an outsider, always a loner, but always an entertainer, and someone who had to draw from the well of togetherness, so that I could create a place where I could be a part. This was both sovereign and devastating, and it was something that empowered and disassociated me from the Truth, in order to mask the pain.
Compassion is something we are taught from the youngest of ages, if we are privileged enough to be able to learn about something that encourages forgiveness, understanding, and “turning the other cheek.” You see, to understand that there are things that lead up to the way people act is something that is possible, as long as the actions aren’t the things that have already killed you or those you love. There isn’t much that can be done to bring back Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Pedro Villanueva, Melissa Ventura, Anthony Nuñez, Raul Saavedra-Vargas, and yes, even Dylan Noble, the white 24 year old, killed by the Police.
You see, we don’t forget those who are murdered by a system that wipes us away like a bugs on a windshield. We are more, and we are memorable, and we are dying.
Compassion is something that is taught to us and is to be applied when we see someone suffering. When we see someone injured, and when we see someone in a place that is painful, gloomy, saddened, or bothered. Compassion is something that we apply to those who have been injured, damaged, dismissed, hunted, and destroyed. Compassion is something that we apply like a bandage to the soul, one that covers the cuts, and compassion is sent in to mend the proverbial bones. Compassion is taught to us as something that is childlike, because it’s taught to us as children, to be utilized for children that we interact with. Compassion is the first step of caring for others, once we are able to recognize the emotions and behaviors of those around us.
Compassion is not something that we are brought into, understanding full-well that it’s going to fix something, because it is the introduction to the healing process, not the fulfillment, nor the end. Compassion is the warmth of a look, the touch of a hand, and the meeting of lives in a moment. Compassion is merely the beginning. Compassion does not heal, compassion begins the thought process.
There are many different ways of understanding compassion, and there are many ways that people get it wrong. To me, with the intersections that I carry, compassion is something that is devoid of my life by so many people. I see people with the same intersections that I have, Black, cishet, Male, who are not given anywhere near the compassion that we are expected to give out, much less the life expectancy of a cishet white male. I see the beginning of compassionate bigotry when I cry out in my room as a child in anger, feeling alone, desolate, and encumbered by the stillness of the loneliness and disconnect from the Love that we are taught to expect and explore in the world. I find myself feeling the same kind of compassionate bigotry when I share the death of people that look just like me, and I share how angry and how TIRED I am of dying each time I see one of us die.
I experience compassionate bigotry when I share my rage and my pain and those SAME people who have taught me so much about how Love is everywhere not understanding that my Love died out on the streets at 12:01pm on August 9, 2014, and was left out in the street for 4 hours.
My Love died when it broke its own neck on August 12, 2015. My Love was shot through its child on August 1, 2016. My Love died when it was shot, after running into fear on February 26, 2015. You see, my Love dies over and over again, in front of those who say they Love me, traumatizing them. But my Love dying isn’t enough to prompt the teachers of that Love to move to sustain my Love. My Love dies because your Love is more important. And I’m not talking about more important as in more valuable in reality, but your Love is more important because you are both the teacher and the sustainer of a Love birthed within Compassionate Bigotry, a lovechild of White Supremacy. You see, under the guise of Compassionate Bigotry, you’re welcome to care about me with all of your heart, to shower me with compliments, and to hold my body close to yours.
But, if you do not move, if you are not willing to move and be moved by MY LOVE, then your Love will also be what’s holding a body where I used to live, and a Love that I used to hold within the walls of this body. If you are not willing to move out of your Love, recognize the differences in the Love that I require, your actions will always be too late. Because if you move you think you need to move, you will continue to miss the call, and you will continue to watch as those who you Love with the Love that YOU know, are swept away. And I’m here to tell you that you DO have a say, you DO have power, and you DO have control.
You see, though my Love died all those times, though I have become a stomping ground for death, despair, and traumatic departures from those who I love so dearly, the absolute rage has become a catalyst for the fight for our lives. Compassion is taught to those, as a way of replacing the anger that we may understand. But the Rage is not to be pushed away any longer. Compassionate Bigotry tells us that we can care, and we can care for just the right amount of time, until we don’t need to anymore, and certainly not long enough to act on it.
You see, there is no escape from the realities of WHAT COULD get us killed. There is no half-truth that is going to be able to explain yet shield your child from the realities of this, if you are in any kind of caretaking position with a child. Compassionate Bigotry keeps those who are young in the dark, and then kills them instantly like Tamir. If you believe that it can’t happen in Lawrence, you don’t understand the ways that we are able be murdered. Spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. To strangle us with the convictions of “goodness” and “opportunity” as the city of Lawrence does, while not teaching us anything about who we are, and rather, teaching us the opposite of who we are, while showing us the captivity that we have been brought up in, and having to research those who raped, pillaged, murdered, and assimilated our ancestors is devastating. The police aren’t the only professions that are committing genocide. Teachers, doctors, clergy, librarians, counselors, dieticians, professors, speakers, parents, partners, and individuals of influence in our lives. We are living lives where a good day is when we see someone who looks like us at the bus stop, flipping through an article, or on TV, and they aren’t dead or in trouble.
You see, Compassionate Bigotry is what keeps you satisfied as having done enough, when what you did was acknowledge that someone was hurt, keep yourself away from the problem, and then go on about your way. Just because you turn your back doesn’t mean I’m done bleeding out. Compassion is not enough to keep the bigotry from killing me. So as you cry with me and do nothing, know that I will die alone, if you refuse to act in accordance to solidarity in the fight that I am having with this world. Compassionate Bigotry is not in big acts of calling me a Nigger, it’s in bringing me in close so that I expose my heart and my pain, and you giving me a pat on the back, as if to say that you’ll either make it or you won’t, but I won’t be there with you, because it costs me too much. And in that moment, you both condemn yourself to life, and you condemn me to death.
Compassion is not my hero, you will not save me with it, you will walk me right up to the death that has been created for me. And, as I believe in the realities of Truth, as much as it hurts and is alarming to hear that in a church, understand that we’ve been dying in the back of places just like this for 500 years. It hurts me to speak on this, it hurts me to be real with this, and it hurts me, because I know that the vast majority of you will be hurt by this, rather than engulfed in the passionate resonance of your call to stand with the marginalized and oppressed, as your calling as a person who teaches about Love, but also as a person who is called in Love by the Universe. But don’t mistake Love for sedentary revolution. My Love was born of the ashes leftover from the fire that engulfed my innocence, those days, when I was crying myself to sleep in my room. So here I am, this is me. The grown up crying Black child, speaking out to his family, requiring that the fight doesn’t begin and end with me.
Tai Amri: As a teacher, I’ve seen a lot of problems with how our children are being raised. One of those problems is that many of our children are being raised without any knowledge of racism whatsoever, as if not talking about racism with our children will somehow prevent it from existing. I guarantee you this is not the case. Think back to your own education, how many times can you remember talking about racism in any of your classes, including history? If you’re like me, you might have read about a paragraph on slavery in the 10th grade. Now, look around you, how much racism have you seen in America, in Kansas, in Lawrence? Our children are being underserved by our refusal to talk about the issues.
The second thing I find problematic with how our children are being raised is this, when trying to explain and understand Black people, we need to stop starting with slavery, that is NOT where our history begins. This idea had not become so clear to me until I heard an interview with The New Jim Crow author, Michelle Alexander, where she shared the difficulty that her daughter had in school during the portion of history class that slavery was being discussed. Do we need to talk about slavery? Of course. But if the only time we talk about Black people is when we are explaining our subjugation and traumatization through chattel slavery, or when we are being murdered, then we need to just stop talking about Black people all together. This is not helpful. We need to talk about the love and beauty of Black culture, and I’m not talking about celebrity Black culture.
One way we see Ashe at work in the Black Lives Matter movement is when we are asked to say the name of someone who has fallen due to police violence. All of these people were beautiful, and all of their deaths are tragic. There is a Sanskrit word,Smriti, that describes this act perfectly, it means, “That which is remembered lives.” This is why we vigil, we honor our ancestors, the new and the old, so that they won’t be forgotten, so that they can live through us. So I invite you, let our ancestors live through us now, after I say a name of someone who has died of police violence, I want you to participate in Ashe and repeat their name back to me:
Amber Monroe (say their name), Detroit, Michigan, a transgender woman and beloved member of the Palmer Park community where she was known as a lover of dancing who wanted to educate her community about HIV prevention and treatment. Shot and killed in 2015 her murder is still unsolved, but we know that this was the third time she was shot and the first two times went unreported because she did not trust the police who misgendered and misnamed her after her death, making her more difficult to find by loved ones. We remember her first as we remember that there is no identity more targeted than trans people of color.
Kayden Clarke (say their name), Arizona, a 24 year old autistic transgender man, who in December of 2015 was ecstatic to find out his health insurance would cover 100% of his gender reassignment surgery. In February, police were called to his house as he was having a suicidal episode, and knowing that he was suicidal and autistic, used excessive force when he came at them with a knife. We remember him because like the case of, Charles Kinsey and Arnoldo Soto, autism is used as an alibi for the use of deadly force
Korryn Gaines (say their name), Baltimore, Maryland, a 23 year old mother who raised her 5 year old son to be free an independent. Both her and her son were shot by the police in August 2016 after refusing them entry for a traffic warrant, she was shot and killed.
Deanne Choate (say their name), Gardner, Kansas, grandmother and factory worker. Shot and killed by police in 2015 after being woken up and asked to produce a gun when her boyfriend called police during a domestic dispute. We remember her because excessive force is also used against white people and not just against people far, far away.
Joseph Jennings (say their name), Ottawa Kansas, an 18 year old suicidal teen. He was shot 16 times in 2014 after his aunt called police to help stop him from committing suicide. We remember him because when teenagers want to die, police shouldn’t help them.
Amadou Diallo (say their name), Bronx, New York, asylum seeking African refugee and prospective college student. In 1999, police fired 41 shots killing Diallo who they claimed fit a description of a rapist, after Diallo pulled his wallet out of his pocket. We remember that immigrants often receive the full brunt of criminal justice oppression.
Oscar Grant (say their name), Oakland, California, he was a father who was trying to support his family legally despite not having any college education. In 2009, on New Year’s Eve, he was shot by BART public transportation police on a train platform with his hands cuffed behind his back. We remember him because even immobility does not stop excessive force.
Philando Castille (say their name), Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a 32 year old nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School. He was shot four times by Minnesota police after being stopped under suspicion of a robbery because he had a “wide set nose” (like most Black people) as he was reaching for his license and registration and informed the officer he was carrying a licensed gun. He died in front of his girlfriend, her four year old daughter, and a live stream on facebook. We remember that even though he was a “good” Black man who followed the instructions of the law, he still died.
All that is remembered lives. Ashe?
I don’t want to give you the impression that the only problem is the police. The problem is the entire justice system, from police to social welfare, from legislators to lawyers and judges. From “the man” to us.
We need a re-imagining of law enforcement. What we have now is not working, no one is safer, not the civilians or the police. In order for this re-imagining to happen however, I believe that three things are necessary:
1) We need truth and reconciliation between Police and Civilians
2) We need to heal from the traumas of violence
3) Community Control of Law Enforcement
I know that many people in this country praised the work in Wichita where the local police department invited themselves to a rally against police violence by offering to cook food and spend time listening to activists. But for many more of us who have, as activists Shaun King said, hit our tipping point with police violence, we are not at the place where having a barbecue with an entire police department sounds like a good idea. Besides the fact that there is still so much broken within the criminal justice system, the fact that there has never been any effort by local and national police departments and political leadership to even take the first step of admitting to that brokenness, means that on a national level, we have a lot more work to do. How can you ask a mother, a brother, a lover, who has lost someone to police violence or has been violated by the police, to have a party with them? This is akin to asking a survivor to go out on a date with their abuser.
For this reason, I agree with Fania Davis, half sister of Black activist Angela Davis and a leader in the seminal restorative justice movement in Oakland, California, who suggests this country needs a truth and reconciliation commissioning. This process, used in South Africa by President Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the fall of apartheid, was used to allow the voices of those who suffer oppression to be amplified in community spaces when their perpetrators were present, and it allowed perpetrators to be able to admit and deconstruct their own roles in community. As one brother at Lawrence’s last march for justice put it, how can we trust the police when they won’t call out a single mistake by another officer or department, whether or not that mistake was purposeful or accidental? How can we ever be asked to care about blue lives when blue lives so rarely show any care for the lives who have been harmed and destroyed by excessive force? Once we see a national acceptance by law enforcement, and not just police, for their role in harm and destruction, and once law enforcement and political leaders begin to listen to our long list of grievances, then we will begin to see a world where police and activist barbecues are possible.
But right now there is far too much grief and trauma in this world to get to that place. Here’s the thing about healing and violence, Black people have been healing ourselves and one another for thousands of years, and you might be shocked to hear that Facebook is not a traditional African remedy for physical and emotional trauma. The problem is two-fold, first, Black people in particular suffer from over 500 years of collective trauma, from the false promises of those who “bought” and sold us, to the exploitation and genocide of African colonizers, to the ten million thrown overboard during the Middle Passage, to the babies who died along the way, to the rapes and murders of our mothers, sisters and daughters. But secondly, the methodology for grief in this country does not fit the Black experience. Black grief is a purge, a wringing out of everything toxic within us that has no timeline, at a minimum it lasts hours, but mourning can continue for years. The way we grieve in this country, is to take a “moment” of silence. It does not matter how many posts you make on Facebook, you cannot purge the toxicity of oppression through an update.
Recently I wrote an article explaining how I do not believe police officers are the problem, the problem is far bigger than them. Our police officers also experience trauma whenever they are witnesses to or complicit in heinous crimes and violent accidents. Indeed, many police officers come into the force already traumatized, some from their own experiences of racism and others from experiences in America wars. Yet few are given any resources to heal their traumas. And thus all of us have the potential spread our trauma all over the globe as we have.
The spiritual teacher, Malidoma Some of the African Dagara Tribe described the funerals for individuals within his tribe as including all of the Dagara people, whether or not they knew that individual. The funeral rites served as a way to allow every ounce of grief from every realm of life to be present, for multiple days. To forego the grieving process was seen as a detriment to the entire community. An individual who does not properly grieve loss and trauma was seen as an individual who had the potential to commit dangerous and evil acts. The African in Black people still knows this grieving process to be a necessary part of our survival, but the American part of us often does not allow us to participate fully in this process. What is more, if all people, Black, Euro, Native, Asian, Latin@, do not learn methods of fully purging the traumas of our history of oppression in this country, we will never be free, we will remain slave to it. Knowledge of our oppressions is the first step, but the second is to ACknowledge, in physical community rather than virtual ones, that this trauma exists within us and because of our unwillingness to fully deal with it. We can fully heal once the community physically embraces us and lifts us up.
And while police work on taking accountability and undoing the harms for the injustices that they perpetrate and witness, and while those who have been traumatized by law enforcement work on healing that trauma, our national and local political leaders need to work on placing the control and review of law enforcement back into the hands of the people. For too long police have been allowed to police themselves, allowing the bad apples to get off and often times get promoted, when they damn well shouldn’t be. While some people, namely the wealthy and the white, might benefit from the protection of law enforcement, too many are terrorized by the criminal justice system, with impunity. This reality can only function when the people have no say over how or who polices them. Lawrence likes to call itself a liberal and progressive bastion in a “Free State”, but how can we be free if we can’t even control our own police department?
Newark, New Jersey, my mama’s place of origin, a city that has been known for corruption and racism since long before the 1967 rebellion that left 26 people dead, now has an independent community board that oversees all police complaints. This is in alignment with the Black Lives Matter policy statement that states that communities should have hiring and firing abilities and the ability to affect the policies of everyone in the police department all the way to the chief. There is no reason why we in Lawrence should not have a say in who we want to police us and what weapons they use, there is no reason why we should not be able to ban police trainings that encourage racial bias and excuse all forms of excessive force, there is no reason that we not be providing multiple resources for police to heal from their traumas. Instead, we need to create a police force governed by truth, justice, and the healing of communal traumas. Ashe?