Tear gas envelopes a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a demonstration in Ferguson, MO.
I spent my childhood in a community very different than Ferguson, Missouri in many ways. Located on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, Dobbs Ferry was a bedroom community of the Big Apple. Yet despite being a suburb, the village felt much more like a small town than an extension of suburban sprawl. The business district consisted of two streets — Cedar and Main — a single supermarket, one high school, and eight traffic lights. Both the fire department and the ambulance corps were staffed by volunteers. The village hall on Main Street was a quaint affair — not only did it house the fire and police departments, but contained a courtroom, the village clerk’s office and, in the back of the police department, two jail cells.
I did not attend the local public schools because my parents enrolled me in a Jewish day school. Indeed, as a teenager I became a commuter myself, taking the Hudson line train to Grand Central Station each weekday morning to attend school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Often I would return home well after dark because of extra-curricular activities or visits with friends who lived in the city. When I arrived at the train station, I would usually walk home except in inclement weather — my house was just under a mile from the station. Dobbs Ferry was a safe place to grow up in; crime was very rare. I can’t remember either my parents or I ever being worried about being attacked or accosted on that solitary walk from the train station.
During those adolescent years, my father’s health steadily deteriorated from Parkinson’s Disease. Blessed with devoted home health care aides, we were fortunate to be able to keep him at home until nearly the end of his life. I have very warm memories of the men who cared for my dad’s physical needs: Dalbert, who came from Jamaica; Akwasi, who served in Ghana’s merchant marine before emigrating to the United States; and Glenn, a young man from Guyana, who eventually went on to become a train engineer with Amtrak. They, too, used to walk from the train station to our house.
Only one thing distinguished our respective walks from the station. In all the years of growing up in Dobbs Ferry, a patrol car never stopped me, no matter how late at night I might be walking. Dalbert, Akwasi, and Glen, on the other hand, were each stopped by the police on multiple occasions, queried as to where they were going and why, and asked for ID. Of course, I was white, and they were black.
We have all been riveted to our television screens by the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, the conflicting testimony of what transpired that fateful day, and mostly the outrage of a community that sparked angry protests and violence. We have listened to pundits blame everyone from the officer to the police department, from the mayor and the city council to Michael Brown himself. Depending on where you like to set your radio dial or surf the internet you will hear dramatically different explanations of events in Ferguson.
I don’t know what happened and I won’t speculate. I wasn’t there. Officer Darren Wilson should be considered innocent until proven guilty, not because he is entitled to special treatment as a policeman, but because that is the standard required by our judicial system.
In thinking about Michael Brown’s death, I keep coming back to the memory of all the years I walked home alone without ever being stopped by a police officer, while Dalbert, Akwasi and Glenn were stopped time and time again. We may have an African American President and an African American Attorney General, but that doesn’t mean that time has magically inoculated American culture against racism. To be sure, we have made giant strides in the half-century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed. That which was taboo for minorities 50 years ago we now take for granted; the kind of bigotry that once was commonplace would be unacceptable today. Yet who would be naive enough to say “And they all lived happily ever after”?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, we encounter a beautiful sentiment, but one that on the face of it, has never been true: אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן כִּֽי־בָרֵ֤ךְ יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֙ ה’ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹֽתֵן־לְךָ֥ נַֽחֲלָ֖ה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ — “There shall be no needy among you since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 15:4). How could Scripture so blatantly deny the existence of poverty, when we know that the poor have been a constant since the dawn of organized society? Indeed, the Torah itself appears to recognize the error of this assertion — just a handful of verses later, we read: כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ. . . — “For the needy shall never cease to be in your land . . .” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Why would the Torah maintain that poverty shall not exist, yet in the same breath, admit that it does?
The rabbis themselves noted this, and in midrash posited that far from contradicting one another, the first statement speaks to an ideal, a world not yet in existence in which everyone acts ethically. In such a society it would be inconceivable for poverty to exist; the second reference, however, focuses on the reality of the here and now, a world in which there are stark contrasts between the haves and the have-nots.
The parallel to prejudice in American society is clear. Rooting out segregation legally hasn’t changed the fact that any resident of Jacksonville knows the predominant color of particular neighborhoods. You will not see too many African American families living in Ortega or on Mandarin Road along the St. Johns River; by the same token, you will not see very many white residents in New Town. The absence of legal barriers does not mean that the legacy of hundreds of years of discrimination has magically disappeared.
Indeed, the very homogeneity of our neighborhoods ensures that the people we most see, and the kids on the block our children play with will reinforce stereotypes and perceptions about the folks we don’t see except in passing. Yes, we have taken huge strides and must acknowledge the progress we have made, but for whites walking on the street at night in a white neighborhood, were they to turn around and see someone walking behind them — the manner of that person’s dress, that person’s gender, and the color of his or her skin would instantly translate into either a sense of relief or heightened anxiety. As for the police, they do not live in some parallel universe, they are part of the same society in which we live. Why would we expect a white policeman to be more impervious to stereotypes and fears than any other white individual? That there are often higher crime rates in minority neighborhoods certainly won’t mitigate racial profiling at a subconscious level, even when not a matter of official police department policy.
I was raised to believe the policeman was my friend, but then again I grew up in an overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent suburb. In African-American neighborhoods, children grow up with a visceral distrust of the police. For a very long time, sheriffs and police departments were an integral aspect of institutionalized racism. And given communities like Ferguson, where the majority of the population is black and the police force overwhelmingly white, are we really shocked to witness the degree of mistrust between the residents and they who “protect and serve”? Though I never asked them, it would not surprise me that Dalbert, Akwasi and Glenn might have had a very different perspective on the police officers who stopped them simply because the latter found the presence of black men in a white neighborhood at night inherently suspicious.
Birmingham, Alabama police attack civil rights demonstrators, May 1963
Many years ago I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, located in a suburb of Munich, Germany. During that trip I attended a synagogue service and noted the jackbooted, uniformed police officer who stood guarding the buildng from terrorist attack. Unsmiling, he held a sub-machine gun at the ready. I knew intellectually that he was born long after the end of World War II, and that he stood at his post to protect a Jewish institution from harm. Yet even as I was cognizant of these facts, it was a creepy and eerie experience. If you can understand why I felt as I did, why is it so difficult to fathom the discomfort the African American community has with white police?
In confronting the challenge of poverty, Parshat Re’eh ask us to do two separate things: לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָֽבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵֽאָחִ֖יךָ הָֽאֶבְיֽוֹן — “You shall not harden your heart or close your hand to your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7). It is not accidental that the Torah speaks of the heart before the hand. We can legislate fairness, we can reshape the external contours of our world with our hands. But a transformation of the heart cannot be achieved by any legislation. It will not happen with the stroke of a president’s pen or a plethora of commissions or boards of inquiry. Only the heart can change the heart, only the individual can look deep into his or her soul and shine the sometimes remorseless light of truth on his or her inner fears, predispositions, and the visceral reactions we have to the human being from the proverbial other side of the tracks.
The musician, Gil Scott-Heron, once sang, “The revolution will not be televised.” Ultimately, Michael Brown’s death and the protests of Ferguson shown in HD aren’t the revolution; they are only the symptoms of here and now. The real revolution, the revolution of the heart cannot and will not be televised. It will live in the conversations we have with our children, in the diversity of the people we go out of our way to know better, in the jokes we refuse to laugh it, and in the efforts we make to understand that “the other” is only a reflection of the Divine Image in which you and I are created. Michael Brown may or may not have threatened Officer Wilson; Darren Wilson’s actions may or may not have been racially motivated. One thing for sure; a reflection of God’s image was left dead on a Missouri street.
No, the revolution won’t be televised. But God will still be watching.