What Are You Going To Do About It?

B3Qnps-CcAA69mY.png-largeA desperate mother was calling for help to defend her son as he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by the ‘jump squad’ – plain clothed police officers battling the drug dealers.   From the commotion of a gathering crowd she yelled at me ‘what are you going to do about it?’

The Question has remained with me for over 40 years.   During those early days of the Community of Hope in a section of Washington, DC notorious for its open-air drug markets I saw first hand what happens when a neighborhood becomes a war zone, when the police behave like an occupation army in enemy territory.

 The Question surfaces again in the wake of Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York where unarmed young black men in harm’s way have been killed by white law enforcement officers who have not been charged with criminal offenses.   Crowds are gathering once more to watch, protest and demand action.

On the street that day 40 years ago I was the only white person in the crowd.   But I had been in the neighborhood long enough to learn on how differently I viewed the police and how differently they viewed me.

I had never feared the police. There have been a few times when my heart has raced while being pulled over for a traffic violation.   But I’ve never been mistreated or even spoken to rudely by the police – never the victim of racial profiling.   I’ve viewed them as protectors and peacekeepers — always treated with respect.

I saw how different it sometimes is for black people, particularly men with no criminal background or intent.   I knew an African-American car dealer in the neighborhood who for no reason he knew of was once hand-cuffed, locked in a paddy wagon, driven around all night until finally dropped off at his business the next morning with no arrest or charges.   We talked that morning.   He was glad nothing worse had happened.

As a passenger in a ‘scout car observer program’ I also saw how stressful policing can be.   I learned the importance of training officers to defuse rather than aggravate potentially deadly attacks on themselves as well as those under arrest.

The Question – “What are you going to do about it?” motivated us at the Community of Hope to do something.   First we got acquainted with the officers at our precinct in the Washington, DC neighborhood – the 14th Street ‘riot corridor’ so named during the riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We hosted police community meetings.   When the police got acquainted in the neighborhood they would occasionally get out of their cars just for friendly conversation.   Eventually the officers and a few of the men in the neighborhood – some of whom had arrested by the officers — played softball games together.

Since most of the police officers were white, it was then as now, a discussion of race relations as well as policing and criminal justice.

In spite of the tensions we learned that the neighborhood desperately wanted police protection from crime and drug dealing and the police needed good relationships to do their work well.

As our mission developed we discovered that our faith community had a lot of influence in the neighborhood with both residents and the police. Faith communities at their core are transformational – of individuals and systems.   We began to ask ourselves what, as well as who needs to change.

A call for a national discussion to confront our differences and grievances has been sounded again. In our neighborhoods, schools, churches, wherever we gather it’s the same question “what are you going to do about it?

a few questions to get the discussion started

  • Why do black and white perspectives vary so widely especially on policing and the criminal justice system?
  • What contributes to black/white divisions and tensions?
  • What do blacks and whites wish others knew about them?
  • What is the extent of black disadvantage and white privilege in America?
  • How does the growing income and wealth inequality in the U.S., affect black and white communities?
  • Have you or anyone you know of been the victim of racial profiling?
  • How does the black/white divide affect other ethnic and immigrant groups, particularly Hispanics and Asians?
  • What actions should be taken to advance racial and cultural understanding, equality and justice?
  • How can faith communities contribute to reconciliation?
  • What other questions should we be asking?

And perhaps a word to the faithful from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah is in order:

“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Amen!

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14 Responses to What Are You Going To Do About It?

  1. Chappelear says:

    Exceptional, Tom.. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Andy Johnson says:

    Well said Tom! Your background and service to both the church and the world give you an insight into the situation we’re confronting that few others have. Thanks for helping us begin with the right kinds of questions to ask.

  3. Tom, thanks for your thoughtful reflection on this difficult issue. Very helpful!

  4. Larry says:

    Hello Tom . . . Once again you’ve rang the bell. You have graciously yet firmly taken us to the heart of the issue. Your questions are very helpful for the ongoing congregation. Would appreciate your thoughts regarding one of our American Black Pastor’s comments. He says the problem is bigger than Ferguson. He places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Government for stealing the heart, soul and drive of his race through entitlements. Since LBJ, he sites an escalating dependance of most of his congregants on Uncle Sam for health care, food, housing and financial assistance as a love/hate relationship. Loving the assistance but hating the government for not doing more. Subsequently, their anger and fear rises from a state of dependency on an entity they fear and can not trust. Sounds like socialism at it worst.

    • Tom Nees says:

      Larry – Thanks for the perspective. Certainly some of the government programs to prevent destitution have been counterproductive. The comment you pass on reflects the view or reaction that many have toward government assistance. And the intersection of poverty and race in America is complex. Faith communities have much to contribute to personal transformation as well public policy decisions. Citizens, especially believers, need to get engaged.

  5. Carl Summer says:

    Tom, I am so glad to see you come forth with your many years of front-line, in the trenches, perspective on what is happening in America in relation to this important matter. I wish you could/would be interviewed on CNN and FOX TV.

    What you are sharing and suggesting is an excellent response to the Biblical admonition, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”(Romans 12:21)

    You mentioned the verse from Jeremiah 29:7 (NKJV). It would seem to me that this text in its context speaks to the issue of the importance of the churches proper involvement in community issues. That verse states, “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”

    If we are going to live in the city, we have a stake in the peace of the city. The church must not sit idly by. I wonder if the sin of omission is equal to the sin of commission?

    Thanks Tom for your quintessential, positive post on this matter in behalf of the church/faith community.

  6. David Alexander says:

    Tom, you speak with a degree of experience and perspective that too many of us lack. I pray your voice and the questions you raise guide our cities’ leaders, citizens, and those entrusted to keep them safe, toward a renewed sense of common mission and purpose. Thank you!

  7. Bob Sima says:

    This is a great article, I hope it gets out to a wide audience.

  8. Keith Wright says:

    My heart aches. Thanks for giving us very good questions to ask. We must be part of the solution if we are really to be followers of Jesus.

  9. Lois says:

    Thanks, Tom.
    So glad you’ve written about this.
    You’ve stated so well what I’ve been trying to find a way to say. To truly see from another’s perspective is next to impossible but it is possible to acknowledge our lack of understanding, to listen, and to work together for a more compassionate and just community. Your questions are a good place to start–again!

  10. Stan Ingersol says:

    Tom, I appreciate so much the prophetic voice that you bring to the church. As a denomination, the Church of the Nazarene needs to be more intentional about “peace-making” as a Christian practice. At some level we do engage in peace-making through our active social ministries, and yet there is also an intentionality, an articulation, and a desire to promote peace that is also necessary, in my view, to be truly fully Christian. Hebrews 12.14 links peace-making and holiness together as two big things that disciples of Christ are actively to pursue. Thanks for your perspective.

  11. Bryan Todd says:

    Thanks for connecting the historical backdrop to the contemporary story. I thought the questions were powerful and long for that type of dialogue among neighbors of all sorts.

    It seems to me that although there have been many quantitative improvements in the black community as a whole since the 1960’s (black president, more representation a high levels of government/commerce/education, improved civil rights, improved civil right laws, access to better education, housing, opportunities, etc….), the qualitative experience of individual black people (what it’s like to be a black person in America) doesn’t seem to have changed a whole lot.

    I’m thinking discussions around questions like the ones you bring up could help to change that.

  12. David Warren says:

    Thanks Dr. Nees for your words of wisdom!!!

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