by Christopher C. Thompson
Here’s the disclaimer: I haven’t watched the video. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I have watched one of those videos since 2016 when Philando Castile was murdered in cold blood on camera by a trigger-happy police officer by the name of Jeronimo Yanez.
And now we have another video of a group of police brutally beating an unarmed Black man, and the end result is another innocent life horrifically cut short.
Tyre Nichols should still be alive. He should not have died that way.
I, and many others, believe that America law enforcement has always been an extension of the white supremacist agenda to limit the movement of black and brown bodies.
This can be traced to the Black Codes: a set of particular laws established during enslavement and Jim Crow to ensure that Black people remained repressed and subservient. And while some argue that they were exclusively used during the Jim Crow period, many scholars have argued that these laws were established as early as the 1600s.
It’s the reason why Black people (free or enslaved) were forced to wear copper badges in order to maintain the right to walk around Charleston without physical restraints. It’s why the phrase “Sundown Town” still strikes fear in the hearts of many African Americans. It’s tied to the deep and traumatic history of curfews in cities all over the country, as far back as 1690. It still informs about why curfews are so problematic in the current social unrest.
Loyalty to the blue shield
Fast forward to January of 2023. While George Zimmerman and Jeronimo Yanez were of mixed Hispanic descent, this event is different because the assailants were dark-skinned African-American male policemen. (Zimmerman was not a licensed police officer, but he had a well-documented desire to wear a badge.)
The cries were immediate: “How could five black brothers do this to another brother?” However, this is America, and here, the blue shield—not your compassion or solidarity with the community—determines how you treat Black and brown people. Though Proverbs says, “Do not envy the oppressor, and choose none of his ways,” that is what has happened in Black policing: aligning with the blue shield sometimes means aligning with injustice, and against your own people.
Police are expected and required to use excessive force and discriminatory practices against minorities, which in turn, begets more unrest. Minority police are under compounded pressure to prove that they are loyal to the shield. In the process, they end up exacerbating generations of distrust between community residents and police.
Why we fear the police
Simply put, minorities have generations of collective trauma stemming from mistreatment by law enforcement. It’s what Dr. Joy Degruy calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. And though some scholars disagree, it speaks to how that trauma is passed through each generation, and helps to explain why I don’t know any Black people who genuinely love the police, and why most grimace, clench the steering wheel a bit tighter and hope, and pray that the police don’t single us out today.
I‘ve got an upcoming court date: I was falsely accused in a traffic stop just a couple of weeks ago. I’ve written extensively about this kind of experience before, but the sad reality is, it is part and parcel of the Black experience—an everyday reality that comes with being Black. There’s death, taxes, and if you’re Black, mistreatment by law enforcement, and the entire criminal justice system, for that matter.
Even, sometimes, if the enforcers are fellow Black people. It is simply something we are forced to live with.
A strange reluctance
I’m reading a new book edited by Maury Jackson called A House on Fire: How Adventist Faith Responds to Race and Racism. It’s a collection of essays by Adventist leaders and scholars. Ironically, I had recently bumped into Adventist history expert Michael Campbell (who helped write the book) at a conference, and we conversed and hypothesized together.
We mused that with all the Adventist conferences and events we hold, and all the strategic working meetings that we organize, why is it that there has practically never been an attempt to find solutions and answers to racism and race-based conflicts at a large official event?
You hear sermons every now and again. Every once in a while some leader or entity makes a statement (official or unofficial) that turns heads slightly. Nevertheless, there is little change and no significant movement. There are kudos to the conferences that have attempted to host collaborative events, but while there are pleasantries and mingling that occurs, for the most part, afterward the needle doesn’t move much.
Yet you’ve never attended any major Adventist convention where the theme was “Finding Solutions to Racism in Adventism” or “God’s Plan for Healing America’s Original Sin.”
I wonder: is it because Adventism is collectively (albeit possibly unwittingly) complicit with white supremacist ideals?
In House on Fire, Campbell points out that despite the commitment to diversity and abolitionist work of early Adventists, the early 1920s marked a historical and philosophical shift in the thinking of many Adventists. Campbell concludes by saying:
While such tidal shifts are often complex, a major factor that contributed to this race reversal within Adventism was its adoption of fundamentalism. As Adventist fundamentalists militantly sought to defend the faith, they imbibed new ways of viewing scripture that allowed them to justify racial segregation within Adventism. Such racial mores would become increasingly challenging and contentious and set the stage for subsequent debates about Adventist race relations.
I don’t know what the solution is. I do know that Adventists believe in a just God who champions the cause of the oppressed. Our beliefs should echo Psalm 146:7-8:
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
I also know that Adventists embrace the three angels’ messages, which point to the certainty of God’s final judgment. I’m confident that being such ardent believers in the second coming, Adventists must surely be mindful of Jesus’s determination to honor those who have aligned with liberation work. Remember Mt. 25:40?
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
Therefore, it is imperative we do the work of nurturing, healing, and empowerment for those who hurt most.
I don’t know what it will take to change things, but I do know that things are changing. I don’t know when Jesus is coming, but I’m sure He’s coming soon. I’m not sure why people hide behind the blue shield, but I do know that the only badge of honor that any of us will wear in heaven will be a new name given by the God of heaven.
A gentle reminder: that name won’t have any cultural baggage or any white supremacist ideals, only the legacy of the cross of Christ.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.