Harnessing Love’s Power
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Where’s the Love?

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Mar 29, 2012

This post was written by Jesse Jaeger, the Executive Director of UU Mass Action.

Where’s the love? Where’s the redemption?

I am not Trayvon Martin. I did, as a teenager however, have an interaction with a local neighborhood watch that ended very differently because I am white and middle class.

When I was 14 years old, a friend and I snuck out of his parents house in the middle of the night with a 12-pack of stolen beer and a desire to be up to no good. That 12-pack got us good and drunk and we ended up in the parking lot of a local grocery store at about 3 in the morning. It was at that point that I thought it would be a good idea to light a stack of newspapers on fire.

Some local neighborhood watch types saw us, chased us down, and held us until the police showed up. Our parents were called, we ended up in juvenile court, and were sentenced to 8 weekends worth of cleaning up garbage in the parking lot of the grocery store where we lit the papers on fire.

When I look back on this experience all I can think is how lucky I was:

…Lucky because that fire only left a scorch-mark on the side of the building and did not cause any real harm to anyone.

…Lucky because that arrest (my third that year) galvanized my parents to take me and my brother to a Unitarian Universalist church, forever changing my path.

…Lucky because I happened to have been born white and middle class and the act of lighting that fire was seen by the police and neighborhood watch as knucklehead teenage behavior and not something more sinister.

As more details come out of Sanford, Florida, I have repeatedly asked myself, if I were Trayvon Martin, would I even be alive right now? The truth is that if any one of those pieces of luck had gone the other way my life could have been a whole lot different.

Where would I be right now if instead of a scorch mark the building had caught fire and someone was hurt or killed?

Where would I be right now if instead of having parents who cared and started me going to church I was left to my own devices to continue down my path of escalating criminal activity?

Where would I be right now if instead of being white and middle class I was black and/or poor and out in the middle of the night being up to some knucklehead no good? What would have happened to me that night?

The truth is that our graveyards and our prisons are full of mostly young black men who can answer those questions. Our graveyards are full of young black men who have run afoul of the police while either minding their own business–like Trayvon–or being engaged in some knucklehead teenage behavior. They have been shot and killed because they are seen as somehow more sinister or threatening than a white boy. Our prisons are full of people whose luck fell the wrong way or who have made a couple bad decisions and are now serving exceedingly long prison sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws.

When I compare my experience with what happened to Trayvon Martin, I can see more clearly why mandatory sentencing and “3 Strikes” laws are so dangerous. With Trayvon, you have a young man who has committed no crime but who ends up paying the ultimate penalty purely because he is a young black man. I, on the other hand, was offered the chance of redemption because I carry the privileges that go along with being white and middle class. As a young white boy, I was given the benefit of doubt. Young black men are not given that same chance and that is why they are so disproportionally represented in our prison system.

Our Christian Universalist heritage teaches us that all are held in god’s love and everyone gets a chance at redemption. But when young black men are shot and killed for no other reason than for being black; where is the love? When people are sentenced to ever-lengthening prison sentences, sometimes with no chance for parole, where is the redemption?

In Massachusetts, we are fighting against at “3 Strikes” Bill that will dramatically increase the number of crimes that will qualify for life in prison with no chance of parole.  UU Mass Action and Unitarian Universalists across the state are lifting up our voices and saying that everyone is held in god’s love and everyone deserves the chance for redemption.

If you live in Massachusetts, join us in stopping this bill by taking the redemption pledge. Find out more at http://uumassaction.org/redemptionpledge. If you live outside of Massachusetts learn more about prisons and prison ministries at the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s Prison Ministry, black and pink, Partakers, and the Prison Activist Resource Center.

16 Responses to “Where’s the Love?”

  1. Kimberly says:

    Great article. But, you said if you were “Black and poor”. Trayvon was not poor. Socioeconomics don’t factor into this story at all. All that animal saw was Black.

  2. Marie says:

    Wonderfully candid article. Thank you for sharing that. I agree with Kimberly though. Trayvon was not poor and that had nothing to do with it;his race was all that mattered. In regards to racism, when you are black wealth and social status matters not.

  3. Jesse says:

    I hear what you are saying but my post is taking on two issues. One is Trayvon getting shot because he was black, and I have no disagreement with you there, that was all about race. The other point I am making is about the prison system and how sentencing works. If you look at the statistics around who is and is not getting sentenced to long terms in prison that is an issue of both race and class. In the town I grew up in I could have done the same thing I did and if I had come from a different family, or lived in a different part of town, I could have still be white and had a much different outcome then I did. I probably would not have experienced the fate of Trayvon but my interaction with the police would have be vastly different.

  4. Chauncey says:

    I love the where is the love message and spirit of this thread. There is a moment in the evolution of the stance we might take regarding these events where it would be useful, though, to stop and “consider for a moment that we don’t know.”

    Obviously there is a young man who is dead and another man who killed him. This is a very sorry tragedy to be mourned, especially for the lost life of Trayvon Martin, and those close to him that his death most closely affects, as well as for our society as a whole. And anger about it is not unwarranted.

    At the same time, I want to reflect on the impulse to carry with us reserves of meaning and knowing and our desire to use these reserves to thrust meaning quickly onto events and assume the pretense of knowledge when there is little foundation (and possibly negative and unintended consequences) for doing so.

    The anger and outrage of the black community is very understandable. Another young black man has been shot and killed by a non-black man. It makes little sense, and the track record in our society for this kind of wrong weighs heavy on the black community. “Someone should be held accountable and be punished, for surely they have done evil.” Right? Where is the love? Where is the justice? Right?

    Consider, though, for a moment, that we don’t know. We are far removed from the events and have at most mere threads of the story (and some may be found to be quite mistaken). Let’s consider for a moment that we don’t know how and by what intention Trayvon came to be dead. How is it that we know that the only reason he is dead is that he was found “walking around black”? How is it that we believe we know that what was in George Zimmerman’s heart was all and only hate and malice for Trayvon because he was black? Where is the love and compassion for George?

    As UUs and liberals, we are very sensitive to states of injustice and patterns of discrimination in our society. And rightly so. We live with institutionalized racism and minorities often have to work twice as hard and play it twice as safe to get half the credit as whites do. Presumptions of guilt for violent and drug related crimes are rampant, and are reflected in the statistics of the incarceration of blacks.

    As UUs and liberals, we are very sensitive to claims by some that they know all about who and why and what evil is perpetrated by some liberals or groups or individuals liberals might have a special interest in (as maybe some folks who appear on Fox News shows claim).

    What justice do we do, where is the love, when we allow our ideological prejudices and policy positions to hijack our thinking and speech and lead us to “know” things when we really “don’t know”?

    Let’s consider for a moment that we don’t know.
    Let’s extend the love and exhibit our compassion. Making meaning out of events we don’t understand, knowing that we are “right” and making others “bad and wrong” does not exhibit our love and compassion.

    Showing respect for the loss of life and loss of love in these events and mourning the violence in our society — both physical and social — seems to me consistent with our principles and purposes.

    Beyond claiming to know, what is most important, and what should guide our thinking, words and actions?

    Is each of us elected? Are all of us loved beyond belief? Is no one left behind?

    “Each of us is elected. All of us are loved beyond belief. No one is left behind.”

  5. Chauncey says:

    Just had this sent to me by a friend. Salient:

    “I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never by conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”
    ― Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

  6. Tom Vincent says:

    You’re making a lot of assumptions based on hearsay and incomplete evidence.

    Maybe you should read the UU 7 Principles…’A free and responsible search for truth and meaning’.

    Instead of jumping to wild conclusions, we should all wait to find out what the investigation turns up.

    I notice you seem to have accepted without any proof whatsoever one side of the story and didn’t even mention the other…does Mr. Zimmerman not even deserve a fair hearing?

    I never thought I’d encounter a UU lynch mob, but it sounds like that’s what you’re proposing.

    I don’t know what Martin was doing and I don’t know what Zimmerman was doing…and neither do you.

  7. Melissa says:

    Chauncey –
    Thank you for your words and willingness to share them. A keen perspective, and one not heard enough in the midst of this terrible loss and confusing controversy. Trayvon is dead, and our country mourns him. But the public outcry casts a shadow on our collective ability to see George Zimmerman as a human being with a family, a man with a life story; we have so quickly labled him “criminal”, “evil”, “racist”, etc., in spite of our outside understanding of the situation. That, to me, is tragic as well. Racial division continues to divide and plunder our country, and we only propogate those divisions if we are negligent in our ability to examine the issues with open eyes and hearts, rather than blindly pointing and categorizing and labeling based on very limited and often biased information fed to us by the media; the truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle.

  8. Jesse says:

    I actually do not mention Zimmerman once in my article, and I is true, no one knows what happen that night who was not there. The only facts I assert about my experience and Trayvon’s are these:

    - I am white
    - Trayvon was black
    - both Trayvon and I had interactions with nieghborhood watches as teenagers
    - I am alive right and Trayvon was shot dead.

    I do not think any of these facts are in dispute.

    What I am talking about is white privilege and how fear of young black men makes it more likely for young black men to be killed by police and to be put in jail.

    I am not leading any lynch mob and my main point in righting about this is to get people thinking about white privilege, especially how it relates to the criminal justice system and how young black men are treated.

  9. Sarah says:

    Thank you for sharing. When I was explaining this case to my young children (age 4 and 2) I told them that fear can cause people to do bad things. We may not know the details of the events that transpired, but we do know that our country has, through sentencing laws and a history of systemic prejudice, created a culture where fearing someone becomes a guttural, instinctual reaction. Black children are constantly bombarded with images and stories of racial profiling, of learning to protect themselves from other people’s perceptions of them. Many young black males are taught how to respond to questioning so as to put the questioner at ease and prevent unnecessary violence. Non black people, even those of us who work daily to ensure our actions and reactions are based on the individuals in front of us and not an assumption based on fear, can still be caught up in the fear we are exposed to.

    it is impossible to escape white privilege. Your post calls us to recognize the unearned protections afforded people by virtue of never being othered. As a white woman raising white children the lessons I teach about safety will never include statements on how to avoid angering someone when they make assumptions about your character. I will never have to teach my son to show obedience and quiet acceptance of mistreatment to prevent his own murder. This is a privilege that we must recognize and speak about if we truly wish to stand on the side of love.

    My four year old’s reaction to this tragedy was to ask me why the two men didn’t say hello to each other first, to see if they could maybe be friends. It is part of white privilege that this is her reaction to the story, and it reenforces my duty to make sure we acknowledge the unearned benefits of being white in America.

  10. Phyllis says:

    Chauncey, I hear your caution. Yet I don’t find the rallies for Trayvon to presume that Zimmerman is guilty. Rather, I see them as calls for our justice system to try to sort that out. If Zimmerman is never arrested, we have no chance to know whether race was a factor here. I mourn that an altercation turned into a death. I am outraged about a law that presumes that such a death does not warrant an investigation.

    I can mourn Trayvon Martin and work to fight racial profiling whether or not I believe that Zimmerman acted out of racism. I am convinced by a lot of other evidence that, whatever the details of this case, racial profiling is all to common and that young black men like Trayvon Martin are too often presumed to be dangerous, hostile, or deviant. I am rallying for all of those men, whose stories we do know, whose circumstances already demonstrate the devastating reality of growing up black in so many communities (including the multicultural, multiracial area where I live, outside of Washington DC.)

  11. Thank you for posting this it has inspired me to write an article around similar themes.

    Peace to you and all the great work you do! :)

    Nic Cable


  12. Chauncey says:

    This is good conversation. Gives us all an opportunity to slow down and think about what we believe and why we have the reactions we do and what that leads us to say and feel. As you might guess, I haven’t got an opinion on why or how or what lead to what happened between Trayvon and George.

    I notice this:

    * There is an eagerness to latch on to this tragedy and use it as a springboard or platform for preaching on our own favorite view of the reality of the race problem in America.

    What does this say about us?

    * Maybe it is most important to “use” this situation as a means to continue to build awareness around salient issues, such as racial profiling or the disparity in convictions and sentencing?

    * Maybe the interest and anger that is stirred up by these events will result in a federal hate crime conviction of George and let some of the steam out of the black community around the injustices perpetrated on some of its members? Maybe a little tit-for-tat “street justice” is in order?

    I wonder this:

    * Does the desire to protect the innocent and fight the guilty risk making us blind to the particular reality of any given situation?

    * Would it be okay to pillory an innocent in order to serve the agenda of justice?
    (Even if only because we may not like the FL law or folks owning/carrying handguns.)

    Worth thinking about.

    Are any of you aware of Ira Glass of This American Life retracting the “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY” episode? (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/blog/2012/03/retracting-mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory)

    * It may seem not very related, but conceptually and logically my sense is that there is a strong parallel in the impetus to make the Trayvon tragedy “mean” something that serves our purposes.

    * Mr. Daisy fabricated, conflated and wished into existence evidence against the practices of Apple subcontractors in China accusing them of horrid wrongs and worker abuses (including: routine use of child workers as young as 13; gross negligence for worker safety resulting in permanent crippling and death; demonizing and making the factory management appear malevolent by inventing armed guards at the factory gates, etc.).

    * When asked why he obstructed TAL’s routine fact checking, when asked if he was afraid of TAL finding out that he had lied, he demurred, saying that he thought it might lead to “unpacking the complexity of the story.” (In this case, Ira is gobsmacked, and slack-jawed, wondering why Mr. Daisy doesn’t simply cop to lying.)

    * Daisy continues until today to believe that his one man show and the special done for TAL is “his best work”. “People need to hear this story.” . . . Even if it is not true, I guess, and even when it harms others.

    [The problem with utilitarianism is that the ends justify the means. The most good for the most people if not done in the service of truth and justice is a false god that is worshipped at your own risk.]

  13. Chauncey says:

    Thank you for your words and spirit of understanding and open inquiry.
    As many have said (Buddha, Jesus, Ghandi, MLK, et al.), we cannot rid the world of violence by the use of violence . . . (and there are all kinds of violence, from the physical to the psychic to the verbal).

    If the sages have anything to teach us, it includes the ideas that:

    * The opposite of Love is not Hate; the opposite of Love is Indifference.
    * Some say the opposite of Fear is Hope. We wonder if it isn’t Love.
    * In practicing Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action, we endeavor to cause no harm, we endeavor to serve truth, we endeavor to check our intentions and motivations.

    Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om


  14. Kim Hampton says:

    Actually, there is a bit that can be gleaned if one takes a look at the phone records that have been released.

    For instance, we know that Trayvon Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend at 7:12 p.m. and that the girlfriend heard Trayvon and George Zimmerman at 7:15 p.m. We also know from reports that when the first officers on the scene (plain clothes narcotics officers) arrived it was 7:17 p.m. and Trayvon was dead. We now also know that George Zimmerman arrived at the Sanford Police Station at 7:51 p.m.

    But that’s neither here nor there.

    So while we’re waiting for justice to run its course (which wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for all the publicity), here’s something to think about.

    The prophet Isaiah says, “Comfort, oh comfort you my people, says your God.” What comfort have you given to the Trayvons in your midst? What are we as a religious movement doing PASTORALLY for those who are weary and carrying the heavy burden of being a young black male?

  15. justus says:

    I love the hype that has been put on this story. If everyone would just relax and step back for a second I think we would realize we are being manipulated by the appurtenant stretch of social agendum. This is just a case of, “let us see where our morals are”.

    This is where I am on the situation, Hispanic on black retaliatory defenses, public media calling it white on black crime, prominent officials in govt making it a sacred cow.

    Just realize this is a stupid action taken on by two parties with no proposed good outcome.

  16. Matt says:

    Zimmerman’s nose was broken, his eyes were blackened and the back of his head showed signs of trauma, from being repeatedly struck against the ground.
    During the police interview, one of the officers lied to Zimmerman and said that the incident had been caught on camera by someone and Zimmerman responded with “Thank god!”

    Personally, if I was seeking a confrontation with someone, I wouldn’t be waiting for them to break my nose and smash my head against the ground before I fired my first shot…..

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