Wednesday, July 13th, 2016...1:28 pm

Editorial: Searching for racial reconciliation

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In a previous Jewish World editorial, I concluded: “There are myriad social problems in the United States; but the recent social justice movement that has taken to the streets of American cities from Oakland to New York, and from Minneapolis to Ferguson, should be a topic of discussion in our synagogues, and wherever we gather. Fifty years ago, Jews were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, which overthrew the Jim Crow system in the South, and fought discriminatory racial practices across the country. In 2015, Jews should dedicate themselves to the new movement for social justice.”

That editorial — under the headline: #BlackLivesMatter — was published in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue, our Hanuka special edition. The subject then was the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; both cases resulted in no grand jury indictments of the officers involved. And here we are again.

Following the recent fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile, a beloved 32-year-old lunchroom supervisor at St. Paul’s J.J. Hill Montessori School, in Falcon Heights, Minn., and the murder of five police officers by a deranged gunman in Dallas, Tex., the nation again is plunged into fear and unrest. Relations between police authorities and the black community have reached a nadir.

Last Saturday evening (July 9), a rally calling for justice for Philando Castile was scheduled for 7 p.m., in front of the Governor’s Mansion on St. Paul’s stately Summit Avenue. The action quickly shifted to the I-94 freeway, where several hundred marchers, led by Black Lives Matter organizers, entered the roadway at Lexington Avenue and shut down traffic.

More than 200 police officers, from St. Paul and nearby suburbs, along with Minnesota State Patrol officers, faced off with protesters for several hours. While a core of Black Lives Matter activists and their white allies staged a classic nonviolent, sit-down protest, the scene frayed around the edges. Debris and firecrackers were tossed at the police lines, and the riot-equipped cops responded with barrages of flash-bang, smoke and tear gas grenades.

After the smoke cleared and about 100 arrests were made, a curious narrative was propounded by protest leaders, police and city officials: “white anarchists” were behind the criminal behavior on Saturday night. However, I was on Concordia Avenue, which is a frontage road on the south side of I-94, and witnessed people cutting open the chain link fence above the freeway. This created a door to the freeway, and folks were coming and going.

I have it on good information that black teenagers and black young men were actively pelting the police with objects. You can see this in web videos (e.g., from the Star Tribune). Unicorn Riot, an alternative media outlet, live streamed the I-94 action over several hours, and the video shows police sending volleys of exploding munitions against the protesters, many of whom responded by throwing back water bottles and rocks. In fact, the confrontation on I-94 was a low-level insurrection, with many poor, black local residents participating.

It’s not helpful to obscure who took part in the melee, and overlook the nature of violent police tactics, if we want to understand the social dynamics and find a way out of this mess.

Regarding the fear and desperation in the black community, especially in the aftermath of the police killing of Philando Castile, Robin Hickman, a St. Paul native and former CEO of SoulTouch Productions, a youth mentorship and video production organization, told the PBS News Hour on Monday: “We don’t have relationships with our young people, our people who are just fed up, just have no hope. That’s what you’re going to get.”

We see the phenomenon of young black men becoming hashtags on social media: #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #FreddieGray, #TamirRice, #AltonSterling, #JamarClark, #PhilandoCastile, et al. — all black men killed during encounters with police officers.

In an eloquent, anguished column, “A Week from Hell,” in the New York Times on Monday (July 11), Charles M. Blow wrote: “We seem caught in a cycle of escalating atrocities without an easy way out, without enough clear voices of calm, without tools for reduction, without resolutions that will satisfy.

“There is so much loss and pain. There are so many families whose hearts hurt for a loved one needlessly taken, never to be embraced again.

“There is so much disintegrating trust, so much animosity stirring.

“So many — too many — Americans now seem to be living with an ambient terror that someone is somehow targeting them.”

This is certainly a time for the Jewish community to open its heart to the black community. The historical black-Jewish solidarity during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s needs a contemporary analog. In 2016 and beyond, Jews should dedicate themselves to the new movement for social justice. As a first step, we need to listen to black people, and to all people of color, listen to their fears and concerns at this emotionally fraught moment.

Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El synagogue in Dallas and president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella group of Reform rabbis in North America, addressed the need for open-hearted listening in a commentary for Haaretz, written after the fatal shooting of five police officers in his city.

The rabbi pointed out that “the racial healing we seek will be painful, and the pain will be evidence that we’re healing. The involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement 50 years ago does not grant us a free pass today. As Jews, we will need to expand our circle of prophets — because the voices of Jeremiah and Amos are carried forward in our day by writer/activists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson.

“Instead, the God who heard the cry of the oppressed requires us to listen — to narratives of racism, to exposures of white privilege and educational inequities and mythic meritocracies. We do not need to agree with everything we hear, but we need to hear it. And when that hearing produces pain, then we need to feel it. And if that pain motivates us to create a more just and safe society instead of silencing the truths that disturb us, we will know that we have broken through the silence towards hope. The books of the Hebrew prophets are fundamental to our identity as Jews, but they do not make good bedtime reading. This healing will sting before it salves.”

— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews [dot] com

(American Jewish World, 7.15.16)

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