On Friday afternoon I participated in a protest. The grand jury decision this week not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by choking him to death for allegedly selling cigarettes, sparked outrage across our country. If some folks found wiggle room in the conflicting testimony of witnesses in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner’s death, captured on videotape, has elicited questions about our justice system from across the political spectrum. The 75 people gathered in Renaissance Square in White Plains chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” At one point we dropped to the ground, a die-in where we laid motionless and silent on the hard, cold cement for seven minutes, the time Eric Garner lay on the ground without any attempt at resuscitation or medical attention. Then we marched to the Westchester County Legislative Building. There we circled up near the steps where Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., whose father was shot and killed in his own apartment by White Plains police just three years ago, led us in the cry, “Enough is enough.”
The demonstration was well attended by clergy from all over Westchester, including thirteen Presbyterian ministers. We stood together as people from across the county, people of different races, different faith traditions, people of all ages, and there was this sense of anger yet possibility, an outrage that was being channeled into purposeful and thoughtful engagement. Later on Friday evening, there was a vigil in Nyack with hundreds of people standing witness with candles against the cold, dark night, together, searching, committing, grieving, hoping.
But this week I have also heard despair voiced by a number of people I really respect. Nothing is going to change. In a few weeks “we” will have forgotten, or moved on to other things, returned to normal – I can only image ‘we’ means white people – while Black and Brown people will return to some combination of anger and acceptance because, after all, nothing is going to change. And that despair is real and, frankly rational. Because police brutality directed toward men and boys of color has happened as far back as we can remember and continues to happen with chilling regularity. That is the backdrop for the two recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – these were not anomalous, singular problems, but rather the killing of these men was emblematic of the violence deployed against African-American and Latino men and boys by law enforcement with impunity. “Indict the System,” read one sign at a NYC protest last week. And that, to me, is accurate. For grand juries have, over and over, refused to indict police officers for brutality.
But the system is, of course, bigger than simply the justice system. The system means those social, political, and economic forces that replicate discrimination and violence in the daily fabric of our life together. This is one reason for the formation of the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform – to make our own community safer with improved community-police relations and greater police accountability and transparency (monthly meetings in White Plains).
God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak words of comfort to a people who were no longer looking for it; to a people who had given up hope. And he said, “in the wilderness, prepare a way of the Lord.” In the wilderness – in the place beyond safety, prepare the way of the Lord. In the place where it seems nothing will ever grow, prepare the way of the Lord. In the very valley of despair; prepare the way of the Lord.
To this hopeless people, the prophet says, don’t give up. To this exhausted people, the prophet says, you shall not be doing this alone. To people who had seen it all, Isaiah promises that they will yet see something extraordinary – the very glory of God revealed.
During this Advent season, Isaiah’s words echo to us across the generations reminding us that when God comes “all people shall see it together.”
Jeffrey Geary is Pastor at the White Plains Presbyterian Church.