I’ve seen many similar stories pop up on my computer screen over the last few years, but what stopped me in my tracks was the location of the incident. This was not a story about Ferguson or New Orleans or any other city hundreds of miles away. It was a story about a violent attack in Nashville, only 2 streets from my house. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed violence on my street, but it still takes my breath away every time. It still makes me angry and sad and hopeful all at the same time.
In this case, a police officer witnessed a man assault a woman and he ran in to apprehend the man. While struggling to arrest him, a few bystanders kicked and punched the police officer, who ultimately suffered minor injuries (and very fortunately nothing worse). Immediately, I saw individuals–none of whom live in Nashville–posting this video, asking why the “liberal media” wasn’t showing it (which, by the way, they did). It’s fair to ask about and critique media’s selective coverage, but a much more important question in this matter–it seems to me–is one I wanted to pose to those angry persons re-posting the videos. I wanted to ask them what they knew of Nashville, of its history of systemic racism, of its affordable housing shortage, of my colleague who can still recall what it was like to be a little black girl in Nashville in the 60’s and unable to try on dresses at department stores because otherwise white people wouldn’t purchase the clothing once it had touched her skin. I wanted to ask them what they know of the Cayce Housing Unit where this incident occurred, of the fact that so many of its residents can’t find employment because of a criminal background (mostly for non-violent, drug-related offenses that are punished inordinately)*, a label that will never leave them. I wanted to know if any of these video-posters had ever met a single person who lives in my neighborhood, ever walked the block with them or heard their stories or shared a meal together.
I wanted to ask these questions, not because the answers in any way justify the harming of another human being in general or police officers in particular. I’m just as pissed off about that kind of violence as anyone should be. But just as passionately I’m confident that an incident like this, violence like this, never occurs in a vacuum. It doesn’t occur outside of a particular context. It doesn’t involve people without stories and histories of their own. And all of these factors play into the 45 seconds of footage that can be spread to millions of homes within seconds, not once accounting for the decades of history that led to the few moments caught on tape.
I’ll say it again: in absolutely no way am I condoning violence against another human being. But what I am advocating for is an altogether different approach to how we interpret the stories we hear and see and tell one another and ourselves. What I am advocating for is a posture that does not see a 45-second video and immediately become further entrenched in a position. And above all, what I’m advocating for is an absolutely vital truth that we all too easily neglect but always with devastating consequences: two things can be true at the same time. At the same time, it can be true to say that the actions of a young man who assaulted a woman and a police officer are wrong, are deplorable, are against God’s design for creation, and also say that–perhaps–this young man was offered a system that failed him time and again, that failing schools and unjust policing practices** and chaos in his home may have cultivated the type of anger and violence that led to such a moment as this. At the same time, it can be true to say that it’s never acceptable to assault a police officer–or any human being–while also acknowledging that there are all too many persons in positions of authority who have harmed and degraded and victimized those on the margins. At the same time, we can say truly that our individual choices matter, and that systems affect the ability of humans to flourish.
I am convinced that one of the primary reasons our positions on issues that matter so very much remain so entrenched and polarized is because we refuse to see or believe that two things can be true at the same time. We refuse to say that black lives matter and that violence against police officers is deplorable. We refuse to say that persons can and must make good choices that lead to their positive futures and that unjust systems propped in place for centuries deny certain persons to the ability to succeed no matter their individual choices. We can, we must, acknowledge that these assertions are not in opposition to one another. They exist concurrently, sometimes in tension but nonetheless equally true.
So to my friends who post a 45-second video of an incident in Nashville (or Ferguson, or Flint, or wherever), by all means, feel angry about the violence. But pause to consider how a seeming isolated incident is wrapped up in decades of forces at work which have nothing to do with these two individual men and yet shape every bit of their interactions. Recognize that truth is always more complex and multi-layered than we want to believe it to be. And pray for God’s kingdom of peace and justice to reign more fully in our world, and in our own hearts.
*Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for a powerful and important exploration of mass incarceration and the persons of color caught up in it.
**I’m so grateful that in this case, it appears the officer was responding justly to an incident of violence. It’s also true that this is not always the case, and that in some instances police officers act out of very different motives and with very different results. Once again, both of these things can be true at the same time.