By Eric Mitchell
I was at a gathering of national faith leaders in St. Louis, Mo., last week discussing criminal justice reform following the Ferguson decision, when I heard the news that a grand jury in Staten Island, N.Y., would not indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
The fact that a Staten Island grand jury made the same decision as the Ferguson grand jury sucked the air out of the room. An hour later, a young man who had been actively involved with the Ferguson protests broke down crying and left the room.
In pain, he passionately yelled out, “what more do they need?” referring to the Staten Island grand jury decision. “What did we do to deserve this?” He then declared that he doesn’t even want to have children with all that’s going on in the world. Holding back my own tears, all I could do was hug him and whisper into his ear that he is a King (in control of his life), and that he cannot let anyone break him, regardless of the circumstance.
How did we get to this point? When a young African-American man, who wants to have children, is afraid to bring life into this world? What is he experiencing that has led him to this decision? What really hit me was not the tears, but what this young man was saying. I am the father of two beautiful girls. It may sound cliché, but it is my daughters who drive me to be a better husband, a better father, and a better person. I can’t imagine how empty my life would be without them.
What happened in Ferguson and Staten Island is not unique to those cities. A grand jury in Cincinnati, Ohio, decided not to indict police officers for fatally shooting John Crawford III at a Wal-Mart. These cases have brought national attention to the injustices that many African-Americans have experienced for decades.
Racism is America’s cancer. Slavery and Jim Crow laws gave this disease time to fester and mature in the body of America. During the last 50 years, there has been great improvement to ensure equality for African-Americans, but the disease of racism has had time to infiltrate other aspects of American culture, the same way cancer attacks different organs. And unless this cancer is treated aggressively, it will slowly and painfully destroy this country.
While I don’t have the answers on how to cure us of this disease, I do know that it can no longer be ignored or written off. While in St. Louis, I joined many of the young people at the federal courthouse to protest the injustice that many African-Americans have experienced at the hands of law enforcement. And while the recent decisions moved me to go, I was also there to speak out against my own experiences of bigotry as an African-American man in this country. What I witnessed was that we were not out there just to speak out on the injustice of police harassment, but we were speaking out against injustice – period! We were calling for the right to employment and fair pay, access to quality housing and education, and an elimination of the prison industrial complex. These are demands that transcend race, and are not unique to Ferguson.
What we have seen over the past week are African-Americans, whites, Hispanics, Asians, and others standing up to the injustice and inequalities that still exist. In the Christian faith, which has in the past helped to perpetuate the sins of this country, we are seeing white Christians speaking out and standing with African-American Christians. In my own experience, over the last week, a number of my white colleagues and friends (conservative and liberal alike) have come to me expressing their frustration about the lack of justice as it relates to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. These events have opened the eyes of many white Americans.
Regardless of where you stand on the specifics of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we have to recognize that inequality still exists in this country, and that it will take a collective of people to change it. Apathy is the biggest threat to any movement. While meeting with some of the leaders of the Ferguson movement, they challenged us to find our own Ferguson. There are injustices happening everywhere, whether it is Ferguson, Staten Island, or Cincinnati. And it’s not just the criminal justice system. The remnants of America’s cancer has affected other areas such as hunger, public health, education, wages and employment, and housing. Find your movement. Civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis often reminds us that “you have to get in the way.” This is our moment to let the powers that be know that we are speaking up and speaking out. It’s our moment to get in the way.
Eric Mitchell is the director of government relations at Bread for the World.
This blog was originally published at Bread for the World website: