By Pastor Matthew V. Johnson Sr., PhD.
Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Pratt City, Birmingham, Alabama
In late January 2017, armored vehicles were deployed in Pratt City, Birmingham, Alabama, where I serve as pastor of the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, as support in serving a warrant on suspected “gun dealers.” The deeply troubled community was further traumatized and alienated by what many called an unnecessary and excessive threat of force largely experienced as directed at the Black community as a whole.
Gradually, other less celebrated voices emerged, expressing a profound ambivalence toward what had crystalized all to easily into a them versus us scenario.
More recently, the Greater Birmingham community was again stunned by a Black Friday shooting in a popular mall in the affluent suburb of Hoover, Alabama. This incident involved a police shooting and summary execution of a Black suspect that turned out to be the wrong man.
While the air across the country is filled with legitimate accusations of excessive force and police brutality largely directed at minority communities, we seldom get at the root of the problem. It is my firm conviction that we will not solve this problem until we come to terms with a fundamental problematic that has plagued our Republic since its inception.
In April of 1963 (and, not incidentally, on Good Friday of that year), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested here in Birmingham for defying a broad injunction issued against any effective form of public protest. At the time, Birmingham was, by many accounts, the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.
In a sense, Birmingham was “the belly of the beast,” in the ongoing war against the legal, institutional and hence systemic manifestation of American racism during the era. There have been some changes and, most would argue, some significant progress in Birmingham since then. One of the most significant changes has been the acquisition of the vote for struggling African Americans determined to live a better life and advance the cause of justice.
The vote is a form of voice in America.
Without the vote, one is virtually shut out of the fruits of life in a democratic order; not the least of which is the right to self-rule and the implicit right of self-determination. Implicit within a democratic framework is the equality of all persons before the law and, what is more, in life. It should have become apparent by now to most, if not all, reasonable people that the mere acquisition of the vote is no guarantee of equal treatment before the law, self-determination or justice.
The vote in America is the necessary but insufficient condition for freedom, equality and the pursuit happiness.
The whole apparatus of a democratic order rests upon one inviolable principle. The moral bedrock of its claims is the intrinsic worth and inherent value of each individual human being. The preservation of this fundamental and essentially spiritual insight is absolutely essential to the creation and sustenance of democracy. It is the genius and salvation of Western Democracy to have established itself on this morally unimpeachable claim.
This is why racism in any form or manifestation is the express enemy of democracy and freedom and is therefore, quintessentially un-American. It is the great national heresy that eats like a cancer at the very heart of our form of life.
It was Dr. King’s conviction that the very criteria for determining a just or unjust law and whether it should be obeyed was related to the notion of the inviolability of human personality. This inviolability rested on, and was an expression of, the intrinsic worth of human being.
He wrote, in his classic Letter from A Birmingham Jail, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” The same can be said not only of law but indeed of any public policy or political platform.
I have no doubt that current policing practices are deeply rooted in the historic social configurations that emerged from a thoroughly racist system that was predicated on White Supremacy. I have no doubt that the whole notion of policing in the deep south, and policing policies as they have evolved in many, if not all, urban centers around the country where there were large African American populations, was predicated on policies of racial containment.
These approaches to policing and government were and remain suffused with the aims and objectives entailed in maintaining and promoting the prevailing system of racial hierarchy.
Both the methods employed and the objective of pacification through intimidation, bear the fruit of the poison tree. Like firemen guarding the line of a controlled burn, they preserve prevailing boundaries of the racial status quo through aggressive policing, while the pernicious dynamics of systemic degradation unfold in Black and poor communities with a deadening and deadly logic. In the end, leaving behind the charred remains of burnt out lives, potential productivity, dreams and aspirations on a scorched landscape of systemic violence and terror.
For the law abiding, hardworking struggling men, women and families who are forced to inhabit this landscape, the violence and terror track them like carrion dogs within and predators from without.
The carrion dogs within are those that avail themselves of the criminal path and the black-market economy that arises in the starved and desperate conditions within the community. They wait for the vulnerable to fall prey to the internal stressors that saturate their lives, lived under the duress of this terror-scape.
Drug dealers, thieves, gangs, those willing to risk the employment of violence in pursuit of survival and gain, prey on those who weaken under the duress of adherence to a value system designed primarily for the cozy comforts of White middle-class life in a deeply racialized society.
Commitment to the standard Judeo-Christian-Moslem value system (to the degree that this is possible under the stressed circumstances of daily life in the terror-scape), tends to deepen the burden borne by those who insist on pursuing happiness within the acceptable parameters of polite American society.
Those who bombard them with simplistic “spiritual,” moralistic solutions to their troubles, thumb worn creeds and empty admonitions of magical faith in a system setup to underserve them, remind me of those of whom Jesus spoke when he proclaimed, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”
Then too, there are the elderly in these traditionally Black and poor communities who have remained in their homes and communities of many years. They are those who have watched helplessly and hopelessly as their quality of life deteriorated under the strain of systemic deprivation and systematic neglect.
Trapped between the titanic forces of communal disintegration and deprivation on one hand, and police practices of the “mass-incarceration state,” which are prone to excessive violence in targeted demographics, on the other, these people experience daily unjustified and unjustifiable degradation. They live in fear from some within their community on the one hand and then those to whom they should be able to look to for protection on the other. They live in a state of violation.
This is a moral outrage. It is clearly oppressive and contrary to the American promise. It is a flagrant and unconscionable violation of the deepest values upon which our great republic ultimately rests.
No individual person should be forced to live in fear and moral degradation in a democracy because of a stigma he or she was arbitrarily assigned by virtue of a group to which he or she belongs. Nor should they be forced to live in fear of a recalcitrant criminal element that exploits precisely those conditions behind which they presume to seek moral refuge and succor.
These humble people should not have to pay with their dignity, fundamental rights and personal worth for a protection vouchsafed to each individual by virtue of birth on American soil. They must not be forced to choose between rabble-rousers who seek opportunity among the moral ruins to advance personal political agendas on the one hand or barter their fundamental rights away and trade on their dignity and self-worth for police protection on the other.