It’s almost time for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) to hold its 2017 Nehemiah Action Assembly, April 24, 7 PM, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on Rivers Avenue. I think you’ll be glad you came, if you can make it. There’ll be some singing, some testimonials, and some questions for our public officials, asking them to take specific actions we believe will make the community better. There may well be some tense moments as some officials say “no” to what we’re asking for, or tell us we shouldn’t be asking for it. That’s OK. We’re shining a light on problems that already exist, which can make people feel tense sometimes. One CAJM member told me this week that some of the meetings she’s attended this year have made her so frustrated that she wanted to turn the table over as she heard public officials say that they didn’t believe racial discrimination was a problem in Charleston. “But that just makes you even more determined to continue,” she said. That determination is what I want to stand with, and why I’m part of this organization.
In case you’re unfamiliar with CAJM, it’s an interracial, interfaith organization of people from over 30 congregations. That cross-section alone might be all the motivation you need to show up: to stand with so many people from all over the Charleston area, united in our desire to make our community better. That should make just about anyone feel good. But you should also know that we’re an activist organization—we work to influence public officials. We feel called to “do justice.”
And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8
Doing justice is different from worshipping with our congregations, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, comforting a broken world with acts of mercy—although most CAJM members do that, too. CAJM, however, advocates for better public policies that make our community more just and less broken. Sometimes our activism makes people mad. Jesus made people mad, too, when he turned over the money-changers’ tables. I’m just saying.
Even with the tension that we’ll probably experience at some point in the evening, I think people there will be glad they took part. For one thing, CAJM has a track record of getting many of the things we’ve asked for: opening up more public school pre-K slots, reducing the number of juvenile non-violent offenders who spend time in jail, a Wage Recovery program giving people access to legal aid when they are not paid the wages they are owed. We’ve pushed the Charleston County School district to stop using Zero Tolerance discipline policies, and to invest in programs that create better, safer learning environments. School discipline is a difficult and far-reaching national problem. Our district, in response to CAJM’s work—which includes our big Action Assemblies, but also many dozens of smaller meetings with people involved in our schools—has changed its direction. Fewer kids are being expelled, more kids are learning in a better environment. We are not satisfied that all our schools have become the Peaceable Kingdom, but we’re convinced that things are better, and that we owe it to our community to keep nagging so that more improvements can be made. There’s a very powerful tool called Restorative Practices that the District promised us they would start using, and they haven’t kept that promise yet. On Monday night we’ll thank them for what they’ve done well and ask them to agree to a write a timetable for keeping their promise to begin Restorative Practices in several schools. Show up to help us continue that work.
As complicated as public education policies are, they are easy compared to trying to tackle racial discrimination. Last year at our Action Assembly, CAJM tried to get North Charleston and Charleston officials to agree to do external audits of their police departments to find out if there were patterns of racial bias in their traffic stops. We didn’t get either city to agree to do that, although, not long after our Assembly, the city of North Charleston announced it would have the Department of Justice do an external review that covered almost everything we had been asking for. (Just saying.)
We have more work to do with North Charleston, and haven’t given up on the issue with the Charleston mayor. Each year CAJM votes on what issues they wish to pursue, after holding hundreds of small-group meetings where individuals share what most concerns them. This fall we voted to keep working on racial discrimination as well as school discipline issues. We followed our usual research process, figuring out the causes of a chosen issue and identifying something our elected officials have the power to do that would improve it. Any CAJM member can sit in on interviews and participate in discussing what facts we should learn and what change we should seek. Eventually we develop a list of “asks” or actions we want public officials to take, then invite them to attend our Action Assembly and answer, publicly, a yes or a no. The CAJM members asking the questions—our negotiators–invite officials to explain, briefly, why they will or won’t say yes, and we try to find common ground if they agree with some of what we’re asking for.
Last year we didn’t get very far with finding common ground on racial discrimination; the Charleston mayor kept saying he could not do the audit we were asking for and that he was already planning to have an audit done, on all city employees, so we should be satisfied with that. Everyone was disappointed not to get a more tangible result, although some attendees appreciated the way the negotiator did not back down or offer a compromise but insisted that police stops are a problem, whether the Mayor acknowledged it or not. This year, we’ve revised our questions so it’s clearer that we’re asking for something reasonable and doable. We’ll be better able to explain why we want an audit for racial bias, and why the current auditing firm (which is doing an efficiency audit, and which specializes in other city services–stormwater drainage, to be exact) can’t obtain the information we’re asking for, and therefore won’t be effective in building greater trust between citizens and the police.
This year CAJM has also helped members to share their differing perspectives, which is why CAJM members from my congregation and Mt Pleasant Presbyterian, both overwhelmingly white, met with African American CAJM members at St. James Presbyterian this spring. At our supper tables, we shared examples of discrimination we had experienced– people who had very little first-hand experience, and people who’d experienced a lot. Some people haven’t heard recent accounts of discrimination around here. And that’s what we’ve been talking about, isn’t it? You’re aware of the problem if you’re black, because it’s happening to you and people in your families. White people’s lack of awareness of the problem doesn’t mean there’s no problem. It’s actually evidence of the problem.
Many white people, in Charleston as in the rest of the country, wish that wasn’t true. We’d like to think that racism is not a thing anymore. We got a different perspective on that in 2015, when Walter Scott, stopped for an alleged traffic violation, was repeatedly shot in the back by a policeman. Watching the video of the shooting made it hard to claim that this had been a good use of police force. That shooting was why, a few weeks later, after the Emanuel AME massacre, people already owned T-shirts that read “Do You Believe Us Now?” One of those t-shirts was placed on the sidewalk in front of the AME church, along with all the flowers and sympathy notes.
Yes, we should have believed you before now.
And people around here were sincerely horrified and saddened by the Emanuel massacre, and grateful that citizens didn’t riot. (Of course the police did not do any of Dylann Roof’s shooting. Then again, when Walter Scott was pulled over for a traffic violation, he got shot, whereas when Roof was captured after murdering 9 people, the officers got him some lunch on the way back to the Charleston County jail. Just saying.) We sincerely wanted to show how grieved we were by the massacre, which is why people showed up at prayer services, walked with thousands across the Cooper River Bridge, stood in line for hours to get into Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. But neither the community’s solidarity nor the expressions of forgiveness by some of the relatives of AME victims have made racism go away, here or anywhere.
This should not be surprising to anyone.
At our CAJM Assembly on Monday we’ll hear more evidence that racial discrimination is still a problem, including a video of African American parents talking to their children about police. Parents tell their children to hold up their hands so police will see they aren’t holding a gun. They warn their children not to say anything that could seem disrespectful. One older child in this video starts crying as she thinks of her cousin. “I don’t want him to be shot,” she says. Her mom tries to comfort her, telling her not to think that all police are bad people. “But it keeps happening,” her daughter says.
It doesn’t have to keep happening.
When we elected Mayor Tecklenburg in 2015, I thought he’d showed an understanding of how deep a problem racism still is for us all. As a candidate, he attended CAJM events and expressed support for the organization. He attended a mayoral candidates’ forum on race equity and, when asked whether he believed systemic racism existed, answered “Of course.” In our state, he said, systemic racism dates back hundreds of years. A few weeks later, he said in an interview, “Our whole economy when Charleston was founded as a colony was built on racism and slavery. Even though our Civil War ended, Jim Crow came back, a form of racism. We had the civil rights movement. We’ve been steeped in a history of racism and race relations that have been difficult. We need to acknowledge that history, be open and understand the effects of that are still at play in today’s world.”
That was the candidate I voted for, so I don’t understand why the Mayor has told members of CAJM that he doesn’t like meeting with us because we make him “uncomfortable,” and that in his heart, he does not believe racism exists in the Charleston police department. All this is puzzling to me, at best. Why should you only meet with citizens who make you feel good? If there’s no racism, why not do the external audit and prove that to us all? If none of the police officers are being intentionally racist, don’t you want them to be equipped not to act in racially discriminatory ways? And if there is racism, don’t you want something better for our city?
And what makes your heart so certain that people who say they have experienced discrimination are wrong?
The mayor says he’s not coming on Monday. But I’ll be there, hoping the guy I voted for decides to show up.
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. James 1:22
At the CAJM Rally last month, we prepared for the Action by hearing from some of our neighbors who’ve been unfairly targeted, and harassed, and worse, by police. Listening to their testimony, I knew in my heart that this is wrong, that I don’t want my name on it. Instead I want to stand with everyone in my community who has experienced these problems and with everyone else who’s grieved by them. No matter what sort of agreements we get, when we show up on Monday night, we’ll be able to see one another, standing together. I’m very grateful for that.
The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now. And we can trust each other. I really do believe in the New Jerusalem, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous, and people are not yet willing to pay it. James Baldwin