Our Hearts Are Broken, Our Resolve Is Strengthened
July 5, 2022
My dear Christian Church in Ohio Clergy, Lay Leaders, Members,
Once again we mourn the death of another one of our young Black men, unarmed, yet shot by law enforcement officers: 25-year-old Jayland Walker in Akron. Here are the facts as I understand them at this moment: On Monday, June 27, police officers attempted to initiate a traffic stop of a car driven by Jayland Walker, claimed to be necessary due to traffic and equipment violations. A high speed chase ensued, and, according to police accounts, a gunshot came from the young man's car. When he pulled his car over and ran away, without a gun, he was shot and killed. While the number of shots fired has yet to be determined, and police reports indicated they thought he was reaching for a gun, an initial report states that he had at least 60 gunshot wounds into his body.
I offer the family, friends, and community of Jayland Walker my deepest sympathy and heartfelt prayers. Even more so, I am committed to following the updated reports of what happened in order to seek to ensure that justice is secured. I also recommit myself to the work of our Pro-Reconciliation/Anti-Racism Commission in the Christian Church in Ohio and to hearing and responding to the concerns of our African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and racially-diverse clergy, congregations, and communities
As we try to reflect thoughtfully and faithfully on this horrific death of yet another promising young person, several significant questions come to my mind.
- How can something as simple as a traffic stop escalate so quickly into the need for violent force resulting in the death of a human being?
- At what point are high speed chases through city streets counter-productive when there are alternative techniques and advanced technology available to address the situation?
- Why was so much gunfire necessary to address the perceived threat, especially since the police had information at their disposal using the car's license plate that Jayland Walker had no criminal record and only one other traffic violation? Is it truly necessary to kill someone in order to lessen a perceived threat?
- Do those who quickly discount such instances as being "deserved” because the suspect did not submit to the police attempts to pull him over not understand the clear and common pattern of "simple traffic stops” for African Americans and other Persons of Color turning into either occasions of shaming, supreme humiliation, embellished violations, or, all too often, death? Can we acknowledge that such patterns have a negative and disheartening emotional and rational effect on those for whom such patterns hurt and kill?
Our Pro-Reconciliation and Anti-Racism Training in the Christian Church (Disciples of Chris) teaches us to both build deeper and more resilient relationships amongst all of God's people as well as to learn to consider more than just the specific incidents of injustice and the people involved to the larger, societal and systemic issues they might represent. This training calls us especially to examine the policies, procedures, practices, and power-dynamics that aid and abet racism and white privilege on a larger scale. Out of this systemic perspective, several questions arise for me following the death of Jayland Walker:
- Are our cities and neighborhoods with larger populations of people of color or of persons economically disadvantaged patrolled by police more often and more vigilantly than other neighborhoods? If so, how does this affect the number of tickets, arrests, and crime rate statistics?
- Does the racial and ethnic (as well as gender) population of our police forces and judicial systems fairly represent the population as a whole for any given municipality? If it does not fairly represent the population of a jurisdiction, how does that affect the trust level of the citizens and what is being done to counterbalance the cultural biases inherent in those overrepresented in law enforcement and the judiciary?
- Why do simple encounters police have with persons of color move to violence and even death on a greater scale than with white persons, and does this come from a greater perceived "fear” of Black and Brown people, perhaps even Black and Brown men? If so, what is being done in our police force to address unwarranted, overzealous, and misplaced fear?
- How do the racist societal policies such as red-lining and housing segregation contribute to the despair, suspicion, and violence in communities of color? How can the budgets of our cities, towns, counties, and state be shifted to address systemic economic and racial injustices, which would certainly bring deeper and more sustainable security and safety to our citizens?
These questions, and so many others like them, are not just hypothetical, but very real and pressing for those whose very lives are at stake. Those of us who have not personally experienced such racism, especially those of us who are white and those with access to power and resources, are pressed to address them even more urgently, because it will take all of us working to eradicate racism and end white supremacy to change the world for the better. As people of faith, and most especially Christians, we are called to make Paul's plea to the church more than just a saying on a plaque or a prayer in worship, but a reality, so that indeed "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28)
Obviously I do not believe additional violence will solve the problems represented by the questions above, but neither do I immediately discount the need to be heard that such responsive violence represents. My hope for the Christian Church in Ohio is that we will ask the tough questions, even if they call us to accountability, and commit ourselves to be part of the solution. Our cities, our state, our nation, and our world depend upon us staying at the table and doing the demanding work which is nothing less than what Christ called us to do as his disciples. Let us, in the inimitable words of Mother Jones, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”1
Rev. Allen V. Harris
Regional Pastor and President
1 1925, Autobiography of Mother Jones by Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones), Edited by Mary Field Parton, Chapter VI: War in West Virginia, Quote Page 40 and 41, Charles H. Kerr & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Quote found online at: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/01/08/fight/)