Shabbat Re’eh 5775
Leo Baeck Temple
August 22, 2014
The photo shows a young man on his knees in the street. His arms are over his head, and in his hands he holds a sign. It reads, “Stop Killing Us.”
We all know by now that on August 9th a young black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened, because there are conflicting accounts from eyewitnesses: Was there a physical struggle before Darren Wilson fired his gun, or did the officer attack unprovoked? Did Brown reach into the police car or did Wilson reach out? We do know that Brown was unarmed. We do know that he was shot six times, twice in the head.
We know that the Ferguson police department left Brown’s body in the street for four hours. We know that the police department would not say what Brown was stopped for, who shot him, or how many shots were fired. We know that when at first nonviolent protesters filled the streets, the police met them dogs and guns, then in riot gear with tear gas and armored vehicles.
Writing for Slate, Jamelle Bouie interviewed people who came out to watch the protests. He talked to Carl Walker, a Vietnam veteran and former parole officer. “One of my friends had a son killed by the Ferguson Police Department, about 10 years ago,” Walker said. “They wouldn’t release the name of the officer who killed him. Why wouldn’t you release the name?”
Craig Beck, who was watching demonstrators under the shade of a burned-out QuikTrip convenience store, said: “Some police say they saw me at a house, pulled me, said I fit a description, locked me up, and found out I was on parole….They said I threw a plastic baggie, which they didn’t have when they took me into custody… I beat the case, but you know, this isn’t new. This happens every day.”
In 2009, Bouie reports, a man in Ferguson was wrongly arrested, beaten by police, and subsequently charged for bleeding on their uniforms.
Like most American cities, St. Louis has an ugly history of racial segregation, White flight, unfair lending practices, substandard public education, and high unemployment rates in Black neighborhoods, and underrepresentation of Blacks in positions of authority. Ferguson is 67% Black and 29% White, but has a White mayor, just one Black city council member, and out of 55 police officers on the force, 52 are White.
Last summer, when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, everyone was busy talking about how terrible Florida is, how backward its laws. Now we’re all casting aspersions on Ferguson and St. Louis.
But just two days after Michael Brown was killed, Ezell Ford, a 25 year old black man with mental illness, was shot and killed by police here in Los Angeles. He was not armed. Witnesses say he was lying on the ground when it happened.
This is not about Florida and it’s not about St. Louis. It’s about America.
On Rosh Hashanah last year I spoke about institutional racism in our country, about ongoing segregation, and about the harm this is doing to every one of us. I said then,
“Those of us who are White are afraid because we know that it’s not fair. We happened to be born on the winning side of an unfair system. And we are afraid because we are so segregated, most of us don’t know Black people from South Central or Watts, we have so few opportunities to look them in the eyes, to be there for each other when our children are born, to cry together when we are sick or dying. We live in two separate worlds, miles apart. And we build walls and gates and alarm systems to protect ourselves from that other world. Because, though it’s just a quiet hum in the background most of the time, we know that as long as there is an economic chasm between us the peace cannot last forever. Until Black babies are born into a world that is safe, and open to them, and full of possibility, there will be no lasting peace between us.”
Now I think that I didn’t go far enough in that sermon.
In The New Jim Crow, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander tells the story of a young black man named Jarvious Cotton. “Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right ….to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern [his] life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
Alexander makes the case that a new racial caste system is operating in America. This is a case that she herself was originally reluctant to see. She says,
“I clung to the notion that the evils of Jim Crow are behind us and that, while we have a long way to go to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian, multiracial democracy, we have made real progress … I understood the problems plaguing poor communities of color, including … crime and rising incarceration rates, to be a function of poverty and lack of access to quality education—the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country.”
She goes on to say that our language has changed but the conditions for black men have remained much the same. We are now supposed to be colorblind, and it’s no longer socially permitted to discriminate on the basis of race. So instead, she argues, we use the criminal justice system to label people of color as criminals and then do all the same things we did under Jim Crow, including killing them. Under Jim Crow, if you were black you could be discriminated against in employment and housing and denied the right to vote, denied a good education, denied food stamps and public benefits, and be excluded from serving on a jury. Those are the exact same restrictions placed on felons today. And one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
She says, “As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights… than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Parashat Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, opens with a familiar line, “See, I set before you blessing and curse. Blessing if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God, and curse if you will not obey…” It begs us to ask ourselves, are our actions creating blessing or curse? Is this what God wants of us? Is this what Torah teaches us? The same Torah that says that every human is created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God? The same Torah that adjures us in next week’s portion: tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice, shall you pursue? The same Torah that teaches this week, “There shall be no poor among you. … but if there are poor among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against them.”
Is our fear of young Black men working for us? Is our segregation, our underfunding of public education, our lack of investment in neighborhoods, our war on drugs, our criminalization of Black men, our huge prison system working for us? Is this the America we want to be? Are we not commanded to do better as Jews? Can we not do better?
There is something very specific that we can do here in California over the next two months. Proposition 47 will be on the November ballot. It’s championed by Leo Baeck Temple’s friends at the Community Coalition in South LA. It makes non-serious, non-violent crimes like drug possession and petty theft into misdemeanors instead of felonies. This would make 10,000 prison inmates eligible for resentencing. With the estimated $200 million a year that would be saved, it creates a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, of which 25% would go to schools, 10% to victims compensation, and 65% to the State Board of Community Corrections, to fund alternative sentencing, recidivism prevention, gang prevention and crime reduction.
I am part of a coalition called the Black-Jewish Alliance and we will be working to pass Proposition 47. If you’d like more information or to get involved, just let me know.
Proposition 47 would make a big difference in thousands of lives, but it won’t solve the whole problem, of course. For that, we need to start imagining a different America, where Blacks and Whites live side by side, and we invest in one another, and we care for each other’s children, and we understand that our destinies are intertwined.
This Tuesday night begins the month of Elul, the month leading us to Rosh Hashanah, the month in which we personally and collectively look into our deeds and the patterns of our lives. And we muster all of our strength of will to change – to change our hearts and our communities and our lives.
May we find the strength to turn away from this curse. May we find the vision to turn our cities into sanctuaries of blessing.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.