Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What to do when we know -- the cry of Florida, the cry of Cumru

As our great holiday commemorating our release from slavery in Egpyt approaches, it is a good time to ask ourselves what freedom means in our time and where can we find the struggle for it. Of course, there are no shortage of places around the world where people are struggling against violence and oppression. We read about Tibetians in such despair over Chinese government oppression that they are setting themselves on fire. A viral internet video raises our awareness about the enslavement and murder of children in Uganda. And, of course, it is impossible to turn on the television news right now without hearing that we may have come to a time in this country where a certain group of people can't walk to a convenience store in the rain without being pursued like an animal and killed by someone supposedly charged with protecting others.

But just as the Haggadah of our Passover seder challenges us by asking us to imagine that it is not just the distant Israelites who were redeemed from Egypt – but also our very selves – we must challenge ourselves to wonder whether there is oppression much closer to home than Florida or Uganda, oppression that it might be quite challenging for us to acknowledge and to do something about.

The biblical account (Ex. 2:23-25) tells us how God comes to choose the time for the redemption. It's a three-step process. First, the Israelites cry out to God from the pain of their bondage, and God hears this groaning. Second, God looks upon the people and sees. Finally, God knows (ויידע אלוהים).

It is only after this third step – the knowing – that action happens. I am not sure whether we – as a nation – have reached the state of knowing with the Trayvon Martin case. But we have certainly entered the states of hearing and of seeing in an extraordinary way. When people of all ages and colors express solidarity with the cause of a young black man by donning hoodies as part of an 'I am Trayvon Martin' campaign, we can see that something unprecedented is happening. We may be moving closer to being able to see everybody around us as human beings – and not to segregate some of them as merely dangerous animals just because of how they appear to us.

But I'm not sure that even those hearing and seeing steps are happening in Berks County, Pennsylvania where I live. Less than two months ago a 65-year old man used a “stand your ground” law similar to the one in Florida to claim self-defense when he shot and killed a 16-year old not far from my home. But unlike in Florida – where there has been a mass outcry to investigate the actions of the shooter, George Zimmerman – there has been no such outcry in the killing of Julius Johnson in a little patch of Cumru township by a fishing dock. The authorities haven't even seen fit to release the name of the shooter, not to mention release details of why they accepted his account. I don't know what to call it but a coverup.

But what really breaks my heart is that there has been no one in the community who has risen up to demand justice in the Julius Johnson case they way people are demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Quite the opposite, with one newspaper columnist, for example, defending the shooter's actions and the “stand your ground law by concluding a column with these words:

"Thankfully, in this country you have the right to bear arms and defend yourself."

Where are the community leaders in the city of Reading and in the surrounding Berks county? Who will cry out for justice? Who will help us hear and to see? Who might lead us even farther – to know?

And it's not just young men in hoodies who might be subject to vigilante justice if they're out walking. Shockingly, an innocent 58-year old man was assaulted less than a week ago in nearby Exeter township while out for his nightly walk by some neighborhood men under the impression – like Zimmerman was – that they were making their neighborhood safer. In this case, it was rumors posted on Facebook about a man stalking their neighborhood that sparked their attack (it turned out that the person who actually led to the suspicions was a man in his 70s with a tendency to sift through his neighbors garbage).

Luckily, there were no guns on either side in the Exeter incident and nobody died (although the victim did suffer broken ribs and had to go to the hospital).

The “stand your ground” laws are a unnecessary tragedy. Up until 2005, almost every place in the United States had the same standard for self-defense in public – if you felt threatened, you had a duty to retreat before using deadly force to protect yourself. It worked. There was no need to change it.

But ideology can lead to bad decisions. Powerful gun manufacturers and gun rights groups were looking for another victory in their ideological struggle to turn American into an armed camp no matter what the cost in human life. And so now we have these terrible laws in states across the country. Trayvon Martin might be alive today if George Zimmerman did not feel so empowered by the “stand your ground” law in his state.

The real problem, however, is not about guns. It's about attitudes. We live in an us-and-them culture. If we think someone is not part of our 'us' – maybe because they're wearing a hoodie or because of their skin color, or maybe because of something we read on Facebook – we dismiss them as other. We think we don't have to care about them. We think we don't have to do anything to help them or protect them. We just want to be safe in our own castle or our own gated neighborhood.

It has to stop. We have to start listening and seeing. And once we've done that, we need to move onto knowing. We need to fight to bring all our people out from the enslavement caused by hate and make this one country that serves all its people.

Do you know?

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