Thursday, July 7, 2016

Knowing Pain, Feeling Pain

In my field, I have spent many years studying conflict. One of the characteristics this breeds is a certain level of dispassion. Most conflict scholars care deeply about resolving conflicts peacefully and without violence. But we don't let those passions affect our day-to-day operation as scholars. This allows us to look at often extraordinary events with a certain level of detachment, which is useful when trying to analyze and understand using the tools of logic and science.

In the past few years, I have written about many emotionally charged incidents. I wrote about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, and about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I've written about any number of cases involving the interpersonal use of force by both police and civilians. In most of those cases, innocent lives were lost, which is terrible and tragic. In my writing I've tried to follow the channels of logic and reason, to draw meaning out of complex and highly charged events and to suggest ways of thinking that might lead to new and better outcomes. I do this, of course, because I care. But I do it using the tools most familiar to the academic.

Yesterday we were treated to two new cases, in very different parts of the country but with depressingly similar outcomes. Two black men confronted by police for minor offenses. Both ended up shot to death by police. Both became immediate media sensations because cell phone footage was released to the public which strongly suggested that both shootings were unjustified. Here we go again.

We've been over this ground often enough that the paths are well-worn and familiar. Some (not all, but some) white conservatives will defend the police in both cases, and even blame the so-called "Ferguson effect", as if all of this were the fault of one young black man in an over-policed poor town in Missouri. The NRA and gun supporters everywhere, who at other times are not shy about arguing that everyone should have a gun for self-defense, will grow suddenly and eerily silent when two black men, both legally armed, are shot by police. People will argue about whether this was or wasn't about race - white conservatives will say it's not, blacks and white liberals will say it is. Marches will be held, speeches given. Few if any of our words will bring about much change, especially in an election year when we're already yelling at each other and calling each other names.

For the academic, intellectual side of me all of this presents an interesting puzzle. Given the inertia of the system around race, policing, the use of force, and our criminal justice system, how can it be changed for the better? What mechanisms could actually effect real and significant change? Those are important questions that should occupy some of our best minds, and to which we should all lend our best efforts.

But this time, for me, it's a little different. I heard about the Louisiana case of Alton Sterling first. The facts seemed similar to many other cases - black man peddling his wares on the street, confronted, then tackled and shot, by police. Shades of both Walter Scott and Eric Garner. Same puzzle pieces, just reshuffled a bit. Because of the video, maybe the police will be charged. The FBI has stepped in to do an independent investigation. All of the usual, dispassionate facts.

As the story was playing out on the radio, professional journalism reporting what was known, they came to an audio clip of a news conference. At that news conference, the mother of Alton Sterling was talking to the press - the injustice, the demands for transparency, the outrage of yet another innocent black man killed by men who are supposed to protect the community.

What transformed the case for me was not her words, but her son who stood by her side. Clearly audible in the recording, Mr. Sterling's 15 year old son stood beside his mother sobbing. He wanted his father back. It was nothing more than a raw outpouring of emotion.

And in his voice, I heard my own son.

I have a 15 year old son, exactly the age of that boy. And in that moment, I heard the sound that my son would make if I were suddenly taken from him. I heard the breaking of his heart, and it broke mine.

This is the edge of language and ability, where words begin to fail us. Having spent my life mostly writing dispassionate prose, I can't explain the experience of that feeling. It was, for a few brief minutes, painful beyond description. And that pain left an impression, a burning mark, which will not soon fade.

I am a white, upper middle class male. I live in a community that has been described, with some accuracy, as sheltered. I live in a larger metropolitan area that is, on the whole, extremely safe. I was raised my whole life in similar communities, by people of largely similar background. I am, in a great many ways, privileged.

Because of this happenstance, I live my life about as far away as one can from the daily realities of poor, urban black men. I don't understand the economy of making a living by selling CDs from a portable table in front of a convenience store. I have never been stopped by a police officer who was afraid of me. I have never had to give my sons instructions on interacting with the police, because it is very likely that they will do so only a handful of times in their lives and all of those encounters will likely be polite and pleasant.

But despite all of that distance, in that one moment of listening to a boy my own son's age sob his despair to the world, I felt a little bit of the pain of my brothers and sisters, my fellow human beings, who live lives so very different from mine. We long ago made the phrase "I feel your pain" into a punch line, but there are moments when we really do feel each others' pain, at least a bit. This, for me, was one of them.

And because of that, I probably won't have much more to say about the shooting in Baton Rouge, or the similar shooting in Minneapolis. What can I say? I now understand, at least a little bit, the pain, the fear, the anger, even the rage that flows through other families, other communities than mine every day. But I don't yet know what to do with that understanding.

I would end only with an observation, all I can muster as yet. This is what the church means when we say that the world is broken. These are the wages of sin - not in some individualistic, "he did a bad thing" kind of way. We are so mired in brokenness that most of the time we don't see it. People like me have done a remarkable job of building communities and systems so we don't have to, so we're insulated. We live under our domes and pretend that everything is fine.

But our domes are not the Kingdom of God. The world is broken, in all communities and in many ways. That brokenness hurts - as it should. Perhaps sometimes, the best thing we can do is share the pain with each other.

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