I’m a white suburban mom, and I must speak out for justice for Freddie Gray
I’ve written this blog in my head hundreds of times since Sunday night, since I saw the rioting in Baltimore one week after Freddie Gray’s death due to severe spinal injury following an arrest and ill-fated wagon ride with the Baltimore police.
I wrote a few sentences when I heard a friend from church say: “Did you see that video of the mom beating her son? I loved it! Wasn’t that great? This is happening because the youths have gone crazy.”
I told him he was wrong, but I didn’t tell him the video made me want to cry. A mom myself, I could only imagine her pain. Her desperation. That her son might not die, like so many others who shared his skin color. Why were we cheering the beating of a child, of another young black male? Did we so desire his humiliation?
I wrote a few more sentences when I heard well-meaning Christians lift up prayers for peace in Baltimore – that they couldn’t understand people destroying their own community – that everyone just needed to calm down.
I was haunted by a friend’s post the first evening of the riots: “An African-American is killed by the police in Baltimore under suspicious circumstances and only the black people on my (Facebook) timeline seem to care. The protests about the aforementioned death turn violent and then everyone has a hot take. Thanks.”
Did property damage matter more than a young man’s life?
I read and read and read and prayed and prayed and prayed and hugged my son. So much powerful journalism, from WBAL’s Deborah Weiner, who interviewed gang members in Baltimore.
Another friend from church said breathlessly that the riots were brought about by gangs, who gathered together with their hoodies pulled tight and colluded to kill police.
“That’s not right, ” the Bloods said on WBAL. They weren’t there to be violent. They wanted justice for Freddie Gray. They came together so that unlike Michael Brown in Ferguson, someone might be held accountable for this young black man’s death at the hands of the police.
It wasn’t as simple as Ferguson: many of Baltimore’s leading officials and police officers are themselves black – and yet, in a part of town where thousands suffer lead poisoning and a third of the population over 25 doesn’t have a high school diploma, this was also about money and class.
It was about a people forgotten, left to go to jail or die.
“They treat us like animals, ” a member of the Bloods told WBAL’s Weiner. “And now we’re acting like animals … I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.”
The gang members spoke of unity, of their cause of justice lifting them out of the turf wars and causing them to shake hands with rival gangs – not to kill cops, but to protest peacefully, united together as black men who didn’t want to die or go to jail.
“They’ve looked at us this way for so long, ” another said, and I kept replaying his words.
I was the “they.” The white suburban homogeneous masses who pack organic snacks for their children and watch baseball practice and hockey games and worry about vaccinations, not lead poisoning.
The “they” who offer platitudes for peace but neglect the righteous cause of justice.
The “they” who dutifully attend church every Sunday but fail to care about the oppression of our black brothers and sisters across town and across the world.
The “they” who say, “well, we don’t really have any black people in our church or in our community, so it just doesn’t really affect us. We’re here for Jesus, not to talk about race.”
I have so many times felt that pull into suburban silence, the right perhaps to post about gay rights but not about race, to say oh that’s very sad but not take it any deeper.
I’ve felt odd, wondering about my place at the table among my activist friends: white and black, who live in neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray grew up. What could I possibly have to say, typing on my MacBook, sitting on my Crate and Barrel couch wearing JCrew flats? The pressure is to keep the status quo. Perhaps to say: I’m praying for peace in Baltimore, and sip my latte.
On Monday night as I read about the riots and watched the unfolding news coverage, my Facebook News Feed bombarded with posts both from activists and from folks who hated the rioting but didn’t care about Freddie Gray, I thought about saying a prayer for peace.
I started to pray, but God interrupted me, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying ‘Peace, peace, ‘ when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully. They committed abomination.
Yet they were not ashamed.
Was I the they?
Who were God’s people?
There is no peace in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore today. Perhaps it has never known peace, since or before the April riots 47 years ago after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.
Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin users in the country. To be born into Sandtown-Winchester is to be born into a neighborhood where your own home might literally poison you, where 1/3 of homes are abandoned, where murder happens at twice the city’s already high average.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are Freddie Gray. You were born two months early and spent the first five months of your life in the hospital, before heading to a home with dangerous levels of lead. There are few trees, parks. Your mom can’t afford swimming lessons or tee ball or toys. The adults you know either barely get by on assistance or low-paying jobs, or they become a part of the neighborhood’s most viable industry: the drug trade.
What do you do? College – heck, high school – is out of the question. You survive. You live. You sell and use a little marijuana, maybe a little heroin – because who wouldn’t want to escape? You get arrested and instead of rehab or treatment you go straight to jail, where you learn more about criminality and become more hardened. The Baltimore of the waterfront, Camden Yards, the museums, Johns Hopkins University – it may as well have been Paris. You’ve never left the West Side.
Now the stories are floating out. Freddie Gray already had a spinal condition. Freddie Gray injured himself. The rioters are thugs.
It sounds like a dismissal. Who is responsible? Anyone but me. I am not a part of this. I am above it.
“They treat us like animals, ” said the young man on WBAL.
Freddie Gray died, and we didn’t care.
But why would they destroy that business?
We say that the protesters in Sandtown-Winchester need to be peaceful; we pray for peace on Baltimore’s West Side – as if when the rioting stops and all goes back to “normal” it will be peaceful.
We say we don’t understand why they would ruin their own neighborhood – as if their neighborhood wasn’t already ruined, by disrepair and disregard by the city, by a blind eye, by failing schools and laws that punish blacks and whites differently when it comes to drugs.
We speak as though they are rioting in Central Park, and if they’d just stop rioting, the flowers would bloom and wouldn’t it be lovely again in Sandtown- Winchester.
The riots are a symptom not a cause. The cause is deeper, rooted in classism and racism and legions of young people America forgot, left to languish in houses full of lead and overcrowded, angry jails full of young black men who never got a chance.
It’s not about race in the same way Ferguson was about race, and yet race colors everything we say about Freddie Gray and about Baltimore.
Blogger and author Jen Hatmaker became one of the first prominent white Christian voices to speak up about Freddie Gray. The title of her article in the Washington Post called her “a white mom of two black children.” She took a brave stand, to pledge her support and alliance to the cause of racial justice.
Unlike Hatmaker, I will never have to have “the talk” with my pale-skinned, redheaded son. I am a Lutheran Pastor of a predominately white congregation on Chicago’s North Shore. What have I to say? My son benefits from the same policies that led to Freddie Gray’s death.
But as a white mom of a white son in the white suburbs – as a woman who would dare to call myself a disciple of Jesus – I am compelled to speak by the same Bible that resists calling for Peace where there is no Peace … I am compelled to speak by the same Jesus who said He came so that the oppressed may go free, the captives may be released, and good news might come to the poor.
As long as the struggle for racial justice is only a black and brown struggle, it will be incomplete.
My struggle is not that of the African-American mother, struggling to save her son from being unjustly accused, imprisoned, or maybe even killed.
But as a follower of Jesus, I must struggle with her. I must lift my voice and say that what is happening in Sandtown-Winchester – what happened to Freddie Gray – what happened to Eric Garner – what happened to Michael Brown – what happens to young black men across the United States each and every day is not right. It is not just. It is not constitutional. It is not what Jesus would have done.
We have been comfortable out here, isolated and at peace in the suburbs, for far too long. We must become uncomfortable, as our brothers and sisters of color have been, for far too long.
May we become bothered and begin to pray – not for peace but for justice – not when riots begin and property is damaged, but every time a young black man dies.