Reflections on a Knee to the Neck and Burning Streets

This blog is not for everyone. It is about a German-American talking to my brothers and sisters who identify, or are identified, as “white”. If you are a brother or sister who is identified as “non-white” or a “person of color,” I have no expertise to address how you are feeling in light of the senseless death of George Floyd. It was and is a great tragedy. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to his family and all who loved him. But if I can, in a small way, help some who look like me to understand just a bit of what they and you are going through, I am obligated to make the effort.

It happened one day in Orlando, Florida. I was attending a conference in a hotel near downtown. Next to the hotel was a lovely lake with a park-like strip between the lake and the four-lane boulevard that intersects the downtown from north to south. During a break I decided to take a walk along the park-like strip between the lake and the street. The path was separated from the boulevard by a strip of grass and trees about twenty-feet wide, so I was at a small distance from the traffic. I was dressed in my best suit and tie, so I probably looked pretty professional.

Suddenly I heard a voice calling from the street. “Jon Paulien!! I know you from television!!” I looked over at the street and a car had stopped with the window down. A young man I didn’t know was beckoning me from the passenger seat. Not wanting to be rude, I went over reluctantly, realizing his car should not be stopping on a busy street. I acknowledged his greeting and asked how he recognized me. He told me of the TV program and I told him I appreciated his gratitude for the program. Glancing nervously to my left I saw a police car approaching and quickly told him, “You’ve got to go, there’s a police car approaching.” The driver of the car took the hint and drove off immediately.

I was turning away from the street to walk back to the path when the police car came to a screeching halt near me. I turned around and the policemen began yelling at the top of his voice through his open window: “YOU ARE THE MOST SELFISH, INCONSIDERATE, STUPID PERSON I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!! HOW COULD YOU STOP TRAFFIC JUST TO HAVE A CHAT. . . .” I honestly don’t remember what else he said, I had totally numbed out by this time. When he finally paused for a breath, I broke in and said as calmly as I could muster, “Thank you, sir, I’ll remember that in the future,” then turned around and walked away. But as I walked away I was literally shaking, totally traumatized by the feeling of injustice, and also the combination of loud anger with the emblems of authority (uniform and police car). The thought occurred to me, “If that could happen to me, right here, right now, and wearing my best suit, what would have happened to me just now if I had been black and wearing a hoodie?”

I recalled a minor incident years before in upstate New York. I was driving in a small town with my good friend Al from the City. We were trying to find our way through that unfamiliar rural town when I realized that I had just gone through a stop sign without knowing it. Right in front of me was a police car, but officer didn’t seem to have noticed what I did. I told Al, “It’s a good thing that policeman didn’t see me, I just went through a stop sign.” Al responded, “Yeah, that’s a good thing for both of us. He would have given you a ticket, but he would have given me a beatin’.” Al is African-American. He was joking. Or was he?

Police are human. They have good days and bad days. But nearly every police officer I have ever met would rank among the finest human beings I know. Self-controlled. Professional. Courteous. Nearly all are impressive and honorable human beings. But I know from experience not all are self-controlled, at least not all the time. Not all are professional and unbiased. And it does not take many to taint the whole. The officer in Orlando completely misread what was happening in front of him. He did not know that I was where I was under some duress. I don’t know what he was going through that day, but what he said and did to me was wrong, it was unjust. It was over the top. And I ended up shaking at the abuse and the injustice in a way I have never experienced before or since. And for a moment, I tasted just a bit of what my African-American friend and other people of color go through way more frequently.

In light of the burning streets, it is no doubt tempting for you to believe that an isolated instance of police brutality cannot measure up to the national chaos that has followed. But that is because you and I have never been mistreated because we were driving while black, or jogging while black, or even walking along the street while black. I spoke yesterday with Leslie Pollard, President of Oakwood University, a predominantly black Seventh-day Adventist institution. He told me that the students and faculty were deeply traumatized by what happened to George Floyd. They are wondering if the Adventist Church has anything relevant to say to all this. But frankly, if we are neutral at a time like this, we are irrelevant. The students and faculty at Oakwood are saddened, they are angry, they are frustrated. Some are outraged and tempted to fight. It is not because they have over-active imaginations. It is because most have had multiple encounters with police like the one I did. After an event like this, each wonders, “Could I be next? Could my father be next? My sister, my children?” It is not an illusion. It does not take many incidents like the one I experienced to live in constant fear of those who have been called to serve and protect.

There is such a thing as systemic or institutional racism. These are often not the result of conscious intent, but combined with conscious or unconscious bias, result to the disadvantage of many. When you are at the disadvantaged end of the societal spectrum, it can affect your physical, mental and emotional health. People who are systematically discriminated against because of the color of their skin or the place of their origin, live shorter, less-healthy lives (see the research of David Williams at Harvard). And it is not just people of color. Williams discovered that working-class whites and white evangelical Christians today are experiencing similar marginalization (“trailer trash,” “Bible-thumping bigots”) as their darker-hued family members experience. And with similar health consequences. So ultimately the problem is not a matter of right or left, black or white, we must all examine our hearts regarding how we treat those who are different from us.

I don’t have an answer for unconscious bias or systemic discrimination. I don’t have an answer for how criminal elements so quickly take advantage of righteous indignation. The people who are actually rioting are rarely the same ones who are demonstrating against injustice. You don’t correct an injustice by creating new injustices. Many of the homes and businesses being destroyed are owned by the very people hurting over the loss of George Floyd. The vandalism and destruction must be stopped. But in our outrage over the way law-abiding police are being treated, and over the wanton destruction of property and livelihoods, let us not forget how all this started. Let us consider how these events are impacting our brothers and sisters. And let’s do something about it.

What can you do? First of all, speak up. And not just in mixed audiences. Speak up to your own white brothers and sisters. It is often hard to speak up for yourself. It comes across as self-serving. Our black brothers and sisters need us to speak up for them and with them at this time. I am speaking up here. And I will be looking for other ways to get my voice heard on this issue. Second, pray that God will bring people of color into your life and impress you with how to offer a word of encouragement and support, and also deeds of kindness and love. Third, work to improve the social structures in your community. Many people of color live in food deserts, no easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It is no wonder so many are over-weight and diabetic. Band together with others to create opportunities for those less fortunate than yourselves. Lobby, vote, do all in your power to speak up for those less fortunate than you. And finally, pray that the God of justice will move mightily in this situation to show how He feels about the hurting and the oppressed. And pray that He will use you to show his justice and mercy to them. It is time to “do justice and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).

3 thoughts on “Reflections on a Knee to the Neck and Burning Streets

  1. Wesoley

    Every week I visit your page to get some fresh oil from the fountain and this post spoke deeply to me. Thank you Dr. Paulien.

    Reply

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