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I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with friends at CLUE. Thanks to
the awesome staff members who make these events happen. I want to take a
moment to recognize some elders in the room: Rev. Richard Estrada; Rev.
William Campbell; and Rev. Larry Aubrey—all of whom have been in this
struggle a very long time. And of course we are in the church built by the
great James Lawson, who knows more about these matters than any of us. I
also want to honor the “youngers’ among us, particularly the Youth Justice
Coalition and the Hip Hop Church folk.
It’s an honor to join you all in honoring Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez,
as we should. Did anyone here ever meet Dr. King?
Perhaps a few more of us met Cesar; I met him a couple of time in the 1980s.
They continue to be, especially for those of us in the Christian churches,
mentors in a faith that does justice. Thanks to Lewis Logan for inviting to
provide a little context, a little “warm-up” for today’s deliberations.
We rightly memorialize the role of these prophets in two of the most
important social movements in American history. Here is a mural featuring
Chavez in my old neighborhood of Highland Park in northeast LA, where I
lived for almost 20 years.
But we always have to be just a little bit wary of national holidays and prayer
breakfasts, of turning King and Chavez into museum pieces to be admired
but not followed. After all, we Christians have had 1500 years of practice
imprisoning Jesus in stained glass windows, and we need to make sure we
don’t do the same thing to Dr. King. Because to truly honor King and Chavez
is to work at re-contextualizing their insights and their embodied experiments
in nonviolent revolution into our own time and place—which is what we are
gathered here to do today.
In that vein I’ve been reflecting on the national MLK holiday we just
celebrated, how it’s a little like having Bibles in our church pews. Here’s what
I mean: a lot of struggle and work went into preserving and making the
sacred, transforming memories and stories of Israel and the early church and
the Civil Rights movement available to everyone. But that doesn't mean that
most folk actually bother to read, engage and understand these storied
traditions, much less enact them anew. Instead, there's a certain comfort in
having Bibles or pictures of Dr. King just kind of around and part of our
culture, lending moral legitimation to the status quo.
Mindful of Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, this irony is captured in the
Bible pictured above, safely secured in a glass case. It was Dr. King's
traveling Bible, and was used by President Obama in his swearing in
ceremony for his second term in 2013. Now that was a nice symbolic touch
and all, kind of like Obama borrowing Cesar’s slogans for his original
presidential campaign. Nothing wrong with it, but the point is, we Americans
tend to keep the Bible, like Dr. King and Cesar Chavez, safely under glass,
or reduced to a convenient soundbyte like “I have a dream,” nicely
domesticated for popular consumption. But in fact King’s was a costly
Below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was shot
stands today a simple memorial plaque, with the words of Genesis 37—the
taunt of Joseph’s brothers—etched in. Behold, here comes the dreamer, let
us kill him, and see what becomes of his dreams. This question hangs like
an unresolved chord over our nation, and above all, our churches: What will
become of Dr. King’s dream, the dream of God. ? Addressing this challenge
is the task of this gathering today.
And yet... the existence of these Bibles in every pew, these King-Chavez
holidays, actually haunt our national unconscious. Their memories of, and
testimonies to, living movements for justice and healing, represent a
subversive possibility. This means that we CAN reach out and pick up these
stories, be confronted by them anew, and seek to make them flesh in our
historical moment. Which is to say, they are like virtual electrical sockets just
waiting for us to plug in and be em-powered. So our job is to approach these
traditions not as historical artifacts icons to revere, but as living sources of
inspiration and conspiracy that call us to take up the work of radical change.
Especially in a time when increasingly our nation can’t breathe!
Obviously the context we are wrestling with today is one of police violence,
extrajudicial killings of young men and women of color in our streets, and
a shocking lack of accountability by law enforcement, from New York to
Florida, from Ferguson to L.A. So how can Jesus, King and Chavez
empower us to respond?
I won’t belabor the issue here; you know it all too well, and will be discussing
it in detail today. If any of you are looking to fill out the picture, however, I
would strongly recommend that you follow the “Breaking the Silence Against
Modern Day Lynching” Facebook group page, which is documenting
relentlessly evidence from all over the country, day by day, exposing literally
hundreds of incidents of police violence in neighborhoods of color, few of
which have been brought to justice. It is no accident that this site is curated
Ruby Sales, who heads up the Spirit House project in Wash DC and Atlanta, a
Movement veterana who is a true apostle of militant nonviolence. You see,
Ruby knows in her own bones about extrajudicial, racist killings. This year
marks the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels, a white
Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, who was killed on August 20,
1965 when he took a bullet meant for Ruby, who was working with the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Daniels went south in the
summer of ‘65, answering the Dr. King’s call for clergy to help register black
voters. While there, Jonathan, Ruby and other Civil Rights workers were
arrested in rural Alabama. Upon being released from jail, Daniels and Sales
headed to a store to buy a cold drink. As they approached, a local deputy
sheriff, Tom Coleman, raised his gun and fired. Jonathan shoved Ruby out of
the way, taking the fatal shot himself. So Ruby means business working on
these issues—and so should we.
Again, that’s the “Breaking the Silence Against Modern Day Lynching”
Facebook group page. I can’t recommend it more highly as a chronicle of
what is happening right now, all over this country.
As we seek then to contextualize King and Chavez into this critical moment,
let us recall that police abuses have had a costly history in our city. L.A. has
burned twice in my lifetime. The first time was in the summer of 1965 in
Watts, a rebellion which began after a black motorist was pulled over and
beaten by white cops. Watts, the first in a string of summer urban riots
throughout the decade of the 1960s, soon became a national symbol for
disaffection, racial and economic injustice, and police abuse. It reminded
America—if only for a moment—of the inevitable violence that sooner or later
will erupt where and when justice is lacking.
Of course this was not a new thing even back then. Latinos had long known
violence at white hands in Los Angeles, most famously in the so-called “Zoot
Suit” riots in
1943. And Malcolm X had been campaigning on issues of police violence well
before Watts, famously saying: "You’ve got some Gestapo tactics being
practiced by the police department in this country against 20 million black
people, second class citizens, day in and day out…”
A few days after the Watts rebellion burned out, Dr. King came to town, and
was deeply moved by the conversations he had here with young black men
on the street. This experience figured in to Dr. King’s most prophetic speech,
given less than 2 years later in NY, his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which he
recognized that disenfranchised inner city youth who were rioting were only
mirroring the violent behavior they saw their nation’s military inflicting
around the world. His counsel to nonviolence thus had to address the roots
of violence in our nation.
Despite the shock of Watts, however, patterns of discrimination and
oppression continued to plague Black and Brown communities in Los
Angeles for the next quarter century.
And so in April, 1992, after four white police officers were acquitted by a
white suburban jury in the beating of Rodney King, famously captured on
video, it became the last straw of indignity for many citizens of color. And
for the second time in my life, the percolating rage over police violence
The reactive violence ballooned into three days of looting and burning in
which more than 50 persons died and millions of dollars worth of property
It was the largest civil disturbance in U.S. history. And in its wake, little
Low income Blacks and Latinos were scapegoated—not the deeply divided
social system we all inhabit. In the wake of the 1992 uprising came tougher
policing, more racial profiling, gang injunctions, draconian sentencing
guidelines—and only a very few, often half hearted, official experiments in
community policing and community development. And then-- renewed flight
to the suburbs by those who could afford it, furthering the economic
hollowing out of the affected neighborhoods.
The central lesson of the uprising was best articulated by the venerable Chip
Murray in the aftermath of 1992: “The LA riots were America’s wake up call,”
he said. “A wake-up call is loud, insistent, annoying, and often belligerent—
especially to a person who’s sleeping.” Rev. Murray was only echoing the
famous dictum of
Dr. King, who said in 1968, less than a month before he was assassinated,
that “A riot is the language of the unheard.” So we Christians must have the
courage to ask ourselves over and over again: are we listening, or are
Such calls to wakeful awareness lie deep in our scriptural tradition, of course.
They invite us to stop being surprised by the violence around us, to
understand its roots well enough to focus our engagement on its causes.
Jesus, King & Chavez all were radicals because they sought to get to the
roots of injustice and violence. Our job today as people of faith and
conscience is to probe deeper than the presenting symptoms of violence,
in order to identify the causes, in order to heal the wounds of violence,
and not just bandage them.
When Dr. King gave America an ultimatum: “It is no longer a choice, he said,
between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
he was inviting us to swim upstream against the tide of violence. Our city’s
experience of urban revolt teaches us two things.
First, police abuse, in addition to the grief and rage of its immediate victims,
ultimately bears a huge collective cost.
And secondly, things will only change if we seek out the roots of the problem.
We need to probe behind the media spectacles and the official exonerations,
to analyze the race and class patterns of such violence, to look deeply into
the heart of American disparities.
…daring to look at the structural inequities, uneven playing fields,
discriminatory institutions, and other realities that are obscured by our myths
of the American Dream, as so poignantly captured in David Horsey’s political
cartoon in the LA Times last fall.
So Rev. Logan invited me to share a basic model with you that is germane to
our task today. Dom Helder Camara in the late 1960s was the Catholic
Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, a country suffering from grinding poverty.
He was beloved because he had moved out of the bishop’s manse in order
to live among the favelas to see close up the violence of poverty. The
political landscape was characterized by the violence of revolutionary
groups who were battling violently repressive military dictatorships. But
unlike many other church leaders and ethicists, Camara was not content
with moral condemnations of the armed insurgencies rising all over the
Third World. Though deeply committed to nonviolence, he wanted to
understand the genesis of violence in order to know how and where to try
to interrupt it.
Camara’s experience among the poor taught him that whether it was
addiction, crime, rioting, or guerilla warfare, all were reactions to primal
experiences of injustice and violation. Camara called these generative
conditions Violence #1.
In Brazil the foremost factor was structural poverty, which drove people to
react by turning violence inward on themselves, locally on their
neighbors, or in some cases, outward against an oppressive system.
Violence #1 includes political inequality and racial and gender
discrimination. In Brazil this was the radical disparity in wealth between
the elites and the majority of campesinos; the longstanding racism
toward Afro-Brazilians; and First World arms sales that propped up a
Echoing this analysis on our domestic front is the work of James Gilligan, a US
psychiatrist and director of Mental Health for the Massachusetts Prison system;
director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, and
Professor of Psychiatry and Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania at a
research center devoted to the study and prevention of violence.
Gilligan concludes his important 1997 book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic
by saying: “Any approach to a theory of violence needs to begin with a look at the
structural violence of this country (p.191). He defines structural violence as anything
that contributes to higher mortality rates, thus cutting through moral, political or
social rationales, and measuring things by the fundamental indices of human
vulnerability. “Structural violence, he concludes, “causes far more deaths than
Gilligan goes on to argue: (p.195). “The most effective and powerful stimulus
of violence in the human species is the experience of shame and
humiliation” (p.223), he explains. “It is not lack of material things that
causes shame, it is the gap or disparity between the wealth and income of
those on the top and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy” (201). In
other words, disparity generates violence.
Unfortunately, the conditions of such disparity are woven into the fabric of
society, and are widely accepted by most as “normal” or “inevitable” or
“beyond our capacity to change.
The truth is, human beings who are constantly subjected to violence #1—
whether that be spousal abuse, or endemic poverty, or racial
discrimination, or long term unemployment, or military occupation—beat
down folk will sooner or later react—usually with their own forms of
aggression or behavioral violence. But a social system in which power
and wealth are so unevenly distributed is inherently unstable.
Camara calls this Violence #2: the predictable reaction to the sometimes invisible, sometimes
inscrutable, but always felt conditions of violence #1. The reactions among people
dehumanized by Violence #1 vary in their scope and target. Often the violence is
introjected on the self:
• addictions of all kinds;
• an abused wife putting up with repeated beatings;
• teen suicide;
• even eating disorders and depression.
Rage is also projected outward, however, usually toward what is closest at hand: family,
neighborhood, work colleagues. So the presenting symptoms are:
• spouse abuse,
• family abandonment,
• petty crime,
• school shootings.
Only when there is a measure of social consciousness concerning Violence #1 does this
reaction become organized into
urban uprisings, bread riots, or when militarized and politicized, full blown armed insurgency,
guerilla warfare or terrorism. But here’s the problem. Those who are largely insulated
from the daily effects of Violence #1—First World suburbanites, for example—do not
experience the effects of Violence #2 until it becomes well advanced.
as was the case with the Los Angeles uprisings of 1965 and 1992. And here’s
something to keep in mind. Just 27 years separated the riots of 1965 and
1992. And it’s now been 23 years since 1992. And here we are, still holding
forums on police violence… just sayin.’
Equally inevitable in Camara’s spiral is Violence # 3—the
counter-reaction of those in power to the rage of the
marginalized or of the anti-social. Now this is the key vector
in our discussion today, because it’s where police violence
typically comes into play. Criminals are arrested and jailed—
and social disturbances are “quelled”-- by the far superior
forces of the police or military. This kind of violence,
however, is usually viewed by the mainstream as “acceptable,
moral and necessary” to keep law and order. Criminals using
guns or rebels using bombs are wrong and must be disarmed,
we say, but officers or soldiers using guns and bombs are
justified, even heroic.
Examples of Violence #3 would be
• arresting the abused wife who attacked her husband in
desperate self defense (as we see in the current case of
Marissa Alexander in Florida);
• or police breaking up a street demonstration or protest;
• or the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.
The reaction to Violence # 2 by the authorities is usually swift,
severe and final: whether we are talking about gang sweeps, or
the death penalty, or “Shock and Awe.” The end result of
violence #3, Camara concludes, is the intensification of the
conditions of violence #1. Examples of this intensification are
“get tough on crime” legislation, the skyrocketing levels of
mass incarceration in the U.S., or the increasing militarization
of our police forces—all issues that have come up yet again in
the wake of events in Ferguson, MO.Both Camara and Gilligan
advocate that if we wish to undo the spiral of violence, we must
begin our intervention with violence #1, rather than waiting
until behavioral or counter-reactive violence take hold.
Unfortunately, most policy initiatives and grassroots
restorative justice efforts as well, jump into the problem only
once violence #2 has broken out. We, not unlike the police,
tend to respond only after acts of crime or antisocial behavior
have gotten our attention. Criminal courts address only law
breaking, avoiding the larger social issues.” We all would
rather personalize the problem—blaming crime or shootings on
certain gang members, or in the case of international conflict,
on a dictator like Sadaam Hussein, rather than the harder work
of inquiring about the generative conditions of Violence # 1 that
lie behind expressions of Violence #2. Are you following me?
We should be clear that neither Camara nor Gilligan are trying
to exonerate perpetrators of Violence # 2from personal moral
responsibility. Structural violence does not justify reactive
violence; it does, however, make it inevitable.
Two brief examples from my own experience show how this spiral applies to both personal
and political violence.
Right hand side of model: I lived for 20 years in Highland Park in the northeast part of the
city. Our neighborhood was populated mostly by first generation immigrant Latinos. The
young boys on our street who we befriended and hung out with would often tell us that their
teachers at school expected less from them. They didn’t have the money to buy computers,
and their classrooms were under-resourced. On the street, meanwhile, they were profiled by
police and hounded by gang members. You all know this story.
Some of the neighborhood kids felt powerless and ashamed because they were failing in
school and couldn’t get a job. So they started selling drugs as a way to make money. They
started packing weapons, both for protection and prestige.
Arrest and jail inevitably followed those young men. In jail they were exposed to more
degradation and shame.
Once out, they found it even more difficult to get a job because of their record, and were thus
more likely to progress into more serious crime. Some of these young men didn’t survive
this spiral. So while the model here may seem abstract, our intimate experience with these
neighbor boys was painful, as many of you know in your own experience all too well.
Both L.A. uprisings illustrate the political side of the Spiral of Violence model: Oppression
and repression leads to reaction leads to occupation leads to incarceration and
intensification of the same structural conditions that led to the problems in the first place. I
believe that the model sketched out by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, pastor to the poor
and prophet to the powerful, illuminates a genealogy of violence in all its forms, from the
personal to the political. To understand these dynamics is to challenge ourselves to find
appropriate strategies of peace and justice intervention at each stage, even as we diligently
work “upstream” to find the headwaters of violence.
One of the most exemplary faith based efforts over the last quarter century in
L.A. is of course Homeboy Industries in East L.A., founded by Fr. Greg Boyle,
a Jesuit. I used to have weekly Bible study with Greg back in the late 1980s,
and the work of homeboy really came out of two insights that Father G had
working in the projects of Boyle Heights. One was, there was a direct
connection between the wars of Central America in the 1980s, immigrant
poverty and the gang wars in East LA’s housing projects. The second was:
Nothing stops a bullet like a job. I hope all of you are familiar with Homeboy,
which is surely one of the most effective responses to violence # 2 coming
from our faith communities.
But we’ve got to look even more deeply into a culture of violence that runs
throughout our nations, driving the spiral of violence at every stage.
And our most difficult task is to “police the police.”
But as Dr. King concluded in that same consequential speech at Riverside
Church in 1967, we have to commit to the long, difficult but beautiful struggle
to build a world in which no child is gunned down in the streets—not by
poverty, not by the police, not by each other. Let us refuse to say this is too
hard a task.
And I want to remind preachers: Don’t forget that public witness to our faith
is our most powerful nonviolent weapon: public liturgy. King prayed and
sang, taking church to the streets.
And Chavez always marched with La Virgen de Guadalupe, and famously
broke his longest fast with a public Mass in the fields, a powerful expression
of faith and justice. So let us not be afraid to bear witness to our faith right in
the teeth of this conflict.
People continue to do just this today. For example, Rev. William Barber of the
North Carolina NAACP shown here praying in the Capitol Rotunda in Raleigh
during a Moral Monday protest last August, sustained marches every week
throughout 2014 for justice in that state, in a civil disobedience campaign that
resulted in over 1,000 people being arrested (and I know, because I was #
And people all over this country are taking their witness to the streets around
the issue of police violence. May our faith communities indeed speak truth to
as Paul urges us to do in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “…so that through the
church the wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and
authorities…” (Eph 3:10). Amen
You can find Ched’s publications and other resources at
www.ChedMyers.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.