The woman arrived late for Quaker worship and quickly rose, prefacing her message with: “I can assure you this is spirit led….” She spoke at length about white privilege, systematic injustice, the civil rights movement, the death of Micheal Brown and her recent visit to Ferguson. I didn’t catch the whole message because a Friend needed an urgent ride home and when I came back she was still speaking.
As I returned, I watched her through the half-light doors of the meeting, catching snippets of “reparations” and “brutality” and “mass incarceration” through the cracked doors, waiting to reenter without disturbing worship. Folks shifted in their seats and many were already disturbed. Eventually a Friend stood and asked that the speaker allow for some silence to consider her message. She broke into song, spoke a practiced “don’t silence me” line and sat. I returned to my seat and mulled what I’d only half heard. I was bugged by the break in norms, but sometimes we can use a shaking up in meeting. I agreed with parts of her message, but the delivery was rambling. At the end of meeting she confirmed “her mission,” spoke briefly with supporters and was gone.
Missing most of the actual message, my churning emotions about policing, racism and my own privilege lead to my grandfathers:
My dad’s dad was in the New Jersey State Patrol. He’d retired by the time I came around, but his official patrolman’s portrait used to hang in the garage “to scare the rats away.” I’m certain my Pop-Pop felt what MC Killer Mike said about his father: “Being a cop must be hard. My dad was one, and never wanted any of his children to follow in his footsteps.” I knew he was sent Newark in 1967 during the riot there, but that topic was as off limits as discussion of the South Pacific beaches he’d crossed as a Marine. Near the end of his life, I asked him if he’d ever shot anyone. He avoided the question. I think of the words Killer Mike adds: “The police have the power of life and death in their decisions — they need to know that Americans hold them to a higher standard than these examples, of American men laying lifeless like deer.” I think of my own standards as his grandson: how can I evaluate his service, knowing so little but also fearing to know more? Perhaps for some people it’s enough to know he served in uniform, especially as a white man, but I still want to find a lesson there.
My mom’s dad Jack was the Quaker, the one who’d gone to Europe in the war and came back resolved to change things. While I’ve heard a little more about his military experiences, the message in our family was that everything after his return was meant to transform the violence. He’d moved my mom and her siblings to a majority-black school district in the 70’s to sensitize them to the importance of race relations. The most vivid images of this experience have come from his kids stories though, and they describe getting beaten up by black classmates and fear. At least that’s what’s come across to me. Somehow listening to their old vinyl of “Inner Visions” or hearing about their biracial foster daughter doesn’t really round out a picture of systematic change to me. He’d also done American Friends Service Committee work camps around the country rebuilding poor neighborhoods. At Thanksgiving this year I found a picture of him at one of those work camps. He’s dressed in a shabby work outfit handing a bemused looking older black woman a glass of milk on a plate. I guess. It looks even more staged than my other grandfather’s State Patrol portrait, and gives little sense of reparations or restorative justice. What is his lesson of transformation?
I ask myself: Didn’t all three of these people believe they were being of service? Their methods differed, but it seems to me the self-styled agitator in meeting, the white man and his burden, and the tight-lipped officer all wanted to make things better. What I wonder is whether their service could have been better put to use in a broader community, a beloved community. It seems like accountability was missing in all their examples, that accountability white folks are regularly reluctant to give up. If you bring a message to worship meant to change things, can you really expect anything if you leave right away? If you followed orders you regret, can you heal or be accountable without telling anyone what happened? If you wanted to transform pain and violence, can you succeed without accountability to those you “serve”?