Monday, September 7, 2015


My church recently made the news in Lansdale by posting the message "Black Lives Matter" on one of our signs out front. I say it made the news even though I was completely unaware of the brouhaha until a friend filled me in Friday. As a result of the message, our church received numerous calls from outraged passers by. Council leadership has called for a forum in which community and congregation members can dialogue about the sign. The pastors have had to apologize for the pain the message has caused.

This not the first time I've seen a small message cause significant uproar. The use of the phrase "living Constitution" in a course of study elicited some controversy in my school district's leadership, for instance, just a few years ago.

Back to this message, and my church, though. I find it unfortunate that one cannot safely take a position that honors and values the work of police but at the same time acknowledges the powerful role racism and prejudice play in criminal justice in this country. My brother is in law enforcement. A friend's brother was grievously wounded in the line of duty. Yet I've seen examples of what seem to be pull-overs for driving while black. Still ringing in my ears are some of the blunt anecdotes a friend (who has since passed away) shared with me as a black man and father regarding neighborhoods where he "better drive the speed limit."

I've probably referenced it before, but an op-ed written some time ago in the Washington Post still haunts me about what kind of advice I'd have to give Sam if he and I happened to be black.

As I've mulled over the politicization behind #blacklivesmatter I've come to think a lot about the asymmetrical relationship that exists between police and the alleged wrongdoers they engage. The moment the policeman says "hello" it's an encounter, and that encounter brings into play a host of civil liberty protections that the policeman is bound to observe. At the same time, that officer has the potential to use deadly force if the conflict escalates, and even a jaywalking incident can escalate into such an encounter. At the same time, the policeman walks amongst people who will target him just because he is in uniform. And the policeman can be subject to all sorts of uncivil behavior, but still need to respond in ways that are professional and protecting of one's civil liberties. And the person they're encountering might be someone with an outstanding warrant, or parole status for whom the encounter means they are already headed to jail (and therefore have little to lose with aggression). But at the same time, the alleged wrongdoer may be someone who feels they never had a fair chance at life.

I entitled this post # because I meant to reflect on the peculiar power of hashtag activism, but I dwelled instead on the inherently (and inevitably) unequal relationship between the policeman who walks the beat and the people whom he encounters. No wonder so many see so much to fight for when confronting slogans like "black lives matter." An asymmetrical relationship will always be unequal and unfair, and advocates of both parties will always look for a way for justice. Justice that is, inevitably, elusive.

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