My four year-old daughter covers her ears at the sound of the thunder and says, “I wish I didn’t have ears.” We snuggle under her Great Grammy’s “crazy” quilt, and I hold her close. But my mind drifts miles and years away. The ceiling fan is a helicopter, the flashes of lightning a searchlight outside my window.
We were used to police helicopters flying low and shining lights in the alleys of our West Philadelphia neighborhood, but around 4am one April morning in 2010 the intensity was abnormally high. Multiple choppers filled the predawn sky. Our three young kids crawled into bed and asked what was happening? We didn’t have any answers. I was four days away from giving birth.
It’s hard enough as parents of young kids to have your sleep disturbed by labor pains, vomit, wet beds and bad dreams. But it’s even worse to be awakened by a living nightmare.
As the first rays of morning dispelled the shadows of night, the story took shape. A white police sergeant named Robert Ralston claimed that a young black man with cornrows and a mark under his left eye had held a gun to his head. The officer had brushed it away and suffered a graze wound to his shoulder. Ralston said that he shot his assailant, but the man ran away and was still at large. Every young black man in a five-mile radius of the incident was a potential suspect as police with dogs scoured the neighborhood. Thankfully, the police never encountered a man who fit that exact description. Lord only knows what would have happened if they did.
As the investigation wore on, forensic evidence made it clear that the only weapon that was discharged at the scene was the officer’s and the only blood was his own. Maybe he thought it would be an easy way to get an extended paid vacation, maybe he wanted to be seen as a hero, but for reasons still not clear, the 21-year veteran of the force shot himself in the shoulder and blamed it on an imaginary black man.
By early May, Ralston confessed to his lie in exchange for immunity. He retired before being fired, so even though he was sued by the city in 2011 for $11, 000, he did not lose his pension of around $24, 000 a year. He faced no criminal charges and is still being paid today by tax dollars.
When talking about the cost of massive police activity, it is usually in terms of helicopters dispatched, tear gas fired, rubber bullets spent, and salaries for officers on duty. But who is counting the cost of interrupted sleep, eroded trust, and constant fear from living in a war zone?
I grew up in a neighborhood in Washington, DC, where the National Guard came in during the 1990’s to scare away the drug activity and violence. As a young teen, I felt the strange mixture of terror and relief when troops were there at the end of the block. It has taken a long time for me to realize that my trouble sleeping, irritability, hyper-vigilance and flashbacks triggered by fans during a thunderstorm might be a form of PTSD.
As a mere bystander and onlooker, I am still healing. But what about my neighbor whose son was shot and killed by a police officer? What memories has this past week triggered for her?
It will take a long time for young children who duck when they see the “po-po” coming to believe that the police are there to protect them. It will take a deep commitment to screening the mental health of on-duty officers and taking their guns away before they shoot. It will take a commitment from police forces to insist that officers of the law be held fully accountable for the laws they are intended to protect. It will take the courage of leaders in law enforcement to employ methods of research-based tactics that are caring and not militaristic to build a sense of trust. It will take caring teachers and counselors to allow kids to grieve and process the terrifying reality of being considered a suspect by the mere fact of living in their skin.
It may take a miracle.
But this change can only start when we all open our eyes and acknowledge the truth of injustice that has been played out for way too long by local police forces across the country. We can’t just cover our ears and eyes and hope this storm goes away.
The great civil rights leader Ella Baker said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” It has been hard to sleep this week thinking about what many Americans are still sleeping through. Some wonder why the protesters won’t just be quiet and go home. Some think that this is all being blown out of proportion.
But some of us think it’s time to wake up and face the reality of racial disparity that will not go away. As the church, we have the power to bring these wicked deeds to the light and work for change. Ephesians 5:14 says, “Awake, O sleeper rise, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” May Christ’s light heal the brokenness and lead us forward together into a new day.