Events this past fall in Ferguson, New York City, Ohio and resulting movements such as #blacklivesmatter have captured our nation’s attention, bringing issues of race, public safety, and the criminal justice system into the national spotlight. The questions raised are not new for many people, but the broad attention they have rightfully received has forced others to face realities that have previously been ignored.
Unfortunately, much of the coverage has only reinforced divides between groups - between Republicans and Democrats, between law enforcement and citizens, between blacks and whites. But as we enter 2015 and the stories of Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Jordan Crawford, and Eric Garner all begin to move out of the 24/7 news cycles, the opportunity and responsibility to set the terms of engagement will continue to shift from the national media to communities. This shift offers the opportunity to re-examine the established narratives and recast them in a way that drives conversations towards the flourishing rather than the division of our communities. Here are three things to keep in mind moving forward as this shift takes place.
First, we must learn to discuss macro and micro narratives at the same time. To talk about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Jordan Crawford, Eric Garner, etc. outside of the context of 300 years of state-sanctioned violence towards African-Americans (e.g. slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, housing policy), results in a misunderstanding of the systematic factors that have shaped the reality in which we live today. Similarly, though, there is a temptation to only talk about these systematic issues, generalizing each of these situations and blindly casting judgment on a person or groups of people. This too disconnects conversations from reality, which cannot lead to progress or justice. Discourse that doesn’t give due value to both the systematic and the specific will only lead to further divisions.
Second, as debate about needed changes to institutions and systems occurs, we must recognize the power in, but also the limitations of public policy. Good policy is vital because it creates systems and governs how they operate. Advocating for and debating policy solutions is a task of public justice for lawmakers and citizens. However, policy is not and cannot be the only solution. Our country cannot fully legislate its way through injustice so deeply rooted in our nation’s psyche.
When the decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson was announced, many people advocated for the implementation of body cameras for police officers. They argued that if there were video documentation of the event, then any questions over what actually happened would have been cleared up. Shortly after though, in the case of Eric Garner in New York City, there was clear video of the officer using excessive force and killing a citizen, but still the grand jury decided to not indict the officer involved. Legislation simply cannot take the place of human responsibility. Although considering the implementation of body cameras and other policy changes is necessary, no matter what the policy, there is no silver bullet.
Third, we must remember that the work of justice has many faces, most of them seemingly tedious and ordinary. Sometimes, justice calls us to dramatic action through protest, civil disobedience, and the like. Most of the time though, justice does not take us outside of our daily lives. Rather, it calls us deeper into our vocations. As a student, working for justice may mean a night cooped up in the library giving care and attention to a paper that might have otherwise been blown off. As a friend, it may mean engaging in an awkward conversation rather than just rolling your eyes at an ignorant comment. As a citizen, it might mean becoming educated about systematic racism and criminal justice reform in order to become a more informed voter, especially in local and state elections. It is critical that we recognize justice as an all encompassing responsibility, supporting each other in its many tasks.
-Andrew Whitworth is a senior political science major at Taylor University. He is fascinated by conversations surrounding good food, politics, being from Kentucky, the U.S. men’s national soccer team and what Jesus has to do with all of them.