From Capture to Criminal -- Juneteenth 2018

Petra Thombs

June 19th was the 153rd commemoration of Juneteenth, an acknowledgement of the end of slavery in the US for African Americans. June 18, was the 566th, anniversary of the signing of the papal bull from 1452, Dum Diversas, which began the process of the enslavement of Africans by Europeans. The effects of these edicts have been far reaching. Consider now that in two days, we will acknowledge the four-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner. This is in memorial to him:

In a matter of minutes, he was on the ground, the officers arm wrapped around his neck in a choke-hold. He had just said, “please don’t touch me.” And all for supposedly selling loose cigarettes. (Did he actually have any product on him?) Officers had crowded around him, and as he was a large man, it took several of them to force him to the ground. As he lay there, the one who choked him had his hand pressed on Mr. Garner's head. He whispers, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. The coroner’s report labeled Eric Garner's death a murder by asphyxiation. The officer was not indicted, yet the one who claimed Eric Garner was a criminal, was himself one. He was guilty of over policing, invading Mr. Garner’s space, capturing him, subduing him by use of an illegal choke-hold and vanquishing him on the sidewalk of a Staten Island street. What gave him the right to create such harm, such destruction to a Black body? Trayvon Martin was pursued by a neighborhood watch man who was off duty and was told by the police in his 911 call, not to pursue the teen. Sandra Bland was stopped for not signaling while making a turn, Freddie Grey was pursued for not making eye contact, Tamir Rice was killed in one minute of police arriving for holding a toy gun in a public park, something white children do every day without fear. Orlando Castile was shot and bled to death for identifying that he had a weapon and a carry permit, during a traffic stop. Most recently, Antwon Rose II, an unarmed seventeen-year-old, was shot three times in the back by a rookie officer, who was only sworn in that same morning. Those who protest this unjust treatment are also demonized, such as Collin Kaepernick, football players who take a knee and the Black Lives Matter movement. To invade, capture, subdue and vanquish, these are the directives of the papal bulls of the fifteenth century, living prominently in our modern day, causing terror in communities of color.

We see this terrorizing at our southern borders as well, with children, babies, being captured and subdued as their parents are vanquished for the supposed crime of seeking asylum. This is only taking place with Black and Brown families. The use of scripture, specifically Romans 13, is a favorite for those looking to enforce enslavement, or subjugation of any kind. The completed verse is as follows:
“Be in debt to no one -- the only debt you should have is to love one another…all of the commandments are summed up into one command, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' To love, then, is to obey the whole law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
When the Japanese were captured during WWII, and placed in internment camps, their property was seized. Many owned businesses such as retail shops. Many owned farms which were thriving and were strong competition for American farmers, particularly in California. Their farm lands were seized by the government and auctioned off. When the detention period was over, they never regained their property. The very late reparations given to them would not come close to compensating for their losses.

Former Federal prosecutor, Paul Butler clearly articulates the facts in his book Chokehold stating,
“Cops routinely hurt and humiliate Black people because that is what they are paid to do. Virtually every objective investigation of a U. S. law enforcement agency finds that the police treat African Americans with contempt...the official practices of police departments include violating the(ir) rights...The police kill, wound, pepper spray, beat up, detain, frisk, handcuff, and use dogs against blacks in circumstances in which they do not do the same to white people.”
So, indeed, Mr. Garner’s cop assailant, engaged in a criminal act against him. Our moral obligation to these horrendous situations is to ask why? Why does this happen (Butler, 2-3)?

These Papal Bulls operate in our culture today, because we are historically tied to our past, we are tied to the mindset, culture and actions of criminalizing the Other. The world view of ancient Greece and Rome lived on through the church over the ages. Nativism leeched into the policies of the papal bulls after the defeat of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula, bringing about the inquisition and the horrors of that period. Good Christian people tortured fleeing Moors and Jews, in order to cleanse their land of these so-called infidels. This justification is revenge and a sense of righteousness. What created this historical mindset begins at an even earlier age, in 98 CE, with Tacitus, a Roman historian, who authored the influential writing known as Germania. This was considered to be one of the most dangerous books ever written -- perhaps not for what he said but for how it was perceived. Author Kelly Brown Douglass explains this theory in her book Stand Your Ground; superiority has precedence to take on a righteous cause.
“In the brief space of thirty pages, Tacitus offered an ethnological perspective that would play a significant role in the Nazi’s monstrous program of racial purity. Subsequently, it became the racial specter behind the stand-your-ground culture that robbed Trayvon Martin of his life.”
Tacitus’ writings created a construct for white supremacy, insisting that only a certain people of ancient German ancestry possessed superior attributes in character, intellect, in their systems of governance, in their religious institutions and in their society as a whole. The myth further evolved to focus on the blood of the people, emphasizing its purity and the belief in a characterization of white Anglo-Saxon superiority. Its chauvinism made its way across the Atlantic with our founding fathers, to be instilled into our culture. This is the justification of enslavement that Thomas Jefferson wrote of in his Notes on the State of Virginia, that Benjamin Franklin promoted and that George Washington enforced. The Anglo-Saxon language deified by the English has created a belief in our national language -- our mandate for English only, which serves as our country’s internal border wall against any other language, especially those spoken by people of color.

In these two writings, these subjugating entities, that of Tacitus and the papal bulls, specifically the right of superiority and the right to use it to subjugate non-European Christian peoples, our western culture is armed and fueled with the fire of patriarchy to go forth and conquer the world.

And so, it began. Columbus, by all standards, was lost, but he knew his rights as a European Christian when he encountered the Indigenous people on the island he named San Salvador. According to his diary, “They would make fine servants...with fifty men, we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.”

Although the church at the time and the nobility as well, professed that these people were to be converted to the faith, they would none the less remain Barbarians. They could never be equal to Christians, even if they were baptized, they were no more than “baptized beasts” (Doctrine of Discovery, Stephen Newcomb). The edicts allow for righteous Christians to do the work of the church and handle these difficulties for God. These individuals are deemed to be enemies of Christ. Over time, the identity of white becomes synonymous with Christians. This is no longer the work of the church, this is the work of the imperial state. Often times, it’s hard to tell difference. These newly baptized beasts are not equal, but they have a place in this society. They are to do the work. They will do the work that we won’t do. This justifies placing them into perpetual slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation creates a dilemma for this nation: if these “beasts” are not here to do the work for us, then we have a problem. If they are claiming to be equal to us, that defies what we have believed about them for all the ages. The Thirteenth Amendment provides the answer. They are free, unless they commit a felony, at which time we can then re-enslave them, bring them back into balance with our beliefs with the “laws of humanity” (Doctrine of Discovery). Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, that the Thirteenth Amendment was finalized during Southern Redemption, and leaves the estate of the felon (and the felon himself) to essentially be “that of a dead man” (Alexander, 31).

Given that, Eric Garner, a large, heavy set, dark-skinned Black man, had to be put down. He did not appear subdued and dared to speak up in his own defense and assert his rights. He had to be taught a lesson. (“Professor Luban describes) the torturer’s work is inflicting ‘pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim’- in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim” (Butler, 113). “Stop and frisk demonstrates who is in charge, and the consequences of dissent” (113). Apparently, Mr. Garner, paid a high price for his statement of protest. He did not have the right to say, “do not touch me.”

(In the case known as Terry, sets the scene and) Our legal system empowers law enforcement to do whatever they need to do to invade. Author Andrea Richie, describes the indignities of being searched by police. When she objected to him searching through her purse and taking out her identification photo, he said, “I can do whatever I want, because you are my prisoner” (Invisible No More, Richie, 86-7). Butler states,} this makes “law abiding citizens outsiders to democracy.” This happens because certain court cases have set the precedent. Statistics presented in McCleskey v. Kemp indicate that Blacks are far more likely to receive the death penalty for killing whites, than white people convicted of killing Blacks would ever get for the same crime. A Black person killing a white person was twenty-two times more likely to get the death penalty. Despite this data, the court ruling was actually worse than in Plessey v, Ferguson. This case was allowed, in what Butler calls a, “good enough for black people, kind of justice” (122-3).

I had said that this was an act of state, but the church has it way of staying involved in these matters. On July 14, 2015, an Interfaith Prayer service took place at Mount Sinai United Christian Church on Staten Island, blocks away from where Eric Garner was killed. The service marked the one-year anniversary, although an article in The Catholic paper, did not indicate that a crime had taken place in regard to his death. Cardinal Dolan presided over the service and inquired about healing and reconciliation.
“Could the grief that began a year ago just down the street from here and seemed to ooze like a toxic oil spill to places like Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Brooklyn and beyond…be an occasion of repentance and renewal?”
Cardinal Dolan asked. Could this year-long trial transform us? From death to life? From winter to spring? He then suggested it could, “but that we must first acknowledge the supremacy of God.”

I find the use of the word supremacy, rather triggering in any context in which Blacks have been made to suffer. Mrs. Garner’s husband was killed and yet there is no word of sympathy or effort to console. Is she not worthy of receiving compassion as a grieving widow? I understand that His Eminence is looking to contain and socially control the outrage of the community through the widow of Eric Garner. But how can that be, since he refuses to name the issue at heart, which is the dehumanizing treatment and criminalization of Black people? How can we heal if the sin is not named and the actions associated with it are not addressed? How can we reconcile if the society perpetuates an unequal and unjust dynamic, authorizing the continual subjugation of its citizenry? Why does this widow need repentance? When will the police be held accountable? Scripture demands justice for widows and orphans, the poor and disenfranchised. What actions have been taken to address this situation? Dr. King spoke of the appalling silence of the good people, particularly of his fellow clergy. The late James Cone, father of Black Liberation theology, railed against mainstream theologians for refusing to address race and racism. He was particularly critical of Reinhold Niebuhr. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone wrote,
“During Niebuhr’s lifetime, lynching was the most brutal manifestation of white supremacy. He said and did very little about it. Should we be surprised that other white theologians, ministers and churches followed suit?"
Our Unitarian Universalist principles are based on a covenant -- to love and to serve, acknowledging the inherent dignity and worth of all. We know that standing with disenfranchised communities means taking on political, even alienating positions. We cannot risk supporting the deception of the state, creating an illusion of justice knowing full well justice is not in the offing. So many churches are orchestrating a criminal enterprise in order to maintain a seat of power aligned to the state. What reconciliation can be made, when the only connection that is sought is not the “supremacy of God” but the supremacy of the empire, whose ultimate goal is the vanquishing of a people? It’s clear that the cardinal refused to acknowledge the issue at hand. The human connection that was needed in this moment was not given; the disconnect and absence of respect was palpable. It is not only sometimes that we experience this, it is day to day, and moment to moment. This is one of many aspects of the legacy of the Papal Bulls -- continually leaking into our current reality, wreaking havoc in communities of color; we must be mindful of its existence.

In our Unitarian Universalist racial justice circles we continually ask ourselves why are we not making more progress? In order to be able to combat these entities which prevent us from creating the beloved community, we need to know the history; that these entities operate continually, claiming to be on our behalf, in order to preserve this society's structure and power dynamic. Know that it keeps all of us hostage, it is social control, hampering our humanity, making it difficult for any of us to breathe.


Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York, NY: The New Press, 2012)

Paul Butler, Chokehold: Policing Black Men (New York, NY: The New Press, 2017)

Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015)

Andrea Ritchie, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011)


Cruelty: The Worst Thing We Do

Rev. Meredith Garmon

Dear Unitarian Universalists,

I just want to say: thanks! Thank you for siding with love. And against cruelty.

Isn't everyone against cruelty? As someone raised UU, I grew up assuming that was the case.

In January 2007, LoraKim and I were living in Gainesville, Florida, so of course we watched the NCAA football championship game that month, and of course we rooted for the home team Florida Gators against the Ohio State Buckeyes. When Florida, slight underdogs going into the game, won 41-14, I was glad. All around me the town was celebrating.

I was in a celebratory mood myself, and left the TV on for post-game reporting. Post-game shows seem to like to include fan reaction segments -- don't ask me why. They cut to a scene in Columbus, Ohio and showed a woman bedecked in OSU red and white. She was dejected, of course. In fact, she was crying. The broadcast cut back to a Gainesville bar, and two young men who had been watching the bar TV and had just seen the shot of the Ohio woman crying. The young men gleefully jeered and mocked her.

That was the moment I lost interest in college football. I'd been a football fan all my life, and I understood that jeering and mocking the opposition before the game -- and a certain amount of gloating afterward from partisans of the victor -- were to be expected. Yet I was unprepared for the delight I saw being taken in another's pain: the evident pleasure in cruelty for its own sake. The brief shot of those celebrating Gator fans haunted me. As I processed my horror, a more extreme example of the same phenomenon rose to mind: the photos I'd seen from the 1920s of smiling, celebratory white faces at the lynching of a black person.

All of this came back to me this week as I read Adam Serwer's article, "The Cruelty is the Point," and Lili Loofbourow's "Brett Kavanaugh and the Cruelty of Male Bonding." Cruelty, directed toward women, apparently functions as a bonding mechanism for some men, a means "for intimacy through contempt." Oh, dear God.

Political theorist Judith Shklar is credited with saying "liberals are the people who think cruelty is the worst thing we do." I am quick to distinguish a religious liberal and a political liberal, recognizing that many people are religiously liberal and politically conservative. I don't know if viewing cruelty as "the worst thing we do" is actually any less prominent among political conservatives than political liberals, but Shklar's point resonates with me as a characterization of religious liberals. Moreover, I have always appreciated that Shklar's way of putting it avoids claiming that liberals actually are less cruel -- just that, when we are, or discover that we have been, we think of it as "being at our worst."

My life as a Unitarian Universalist has kept me in the company of people with an intuitive revulsion to cruelty -- people who see cruelty as, indeed, worse than, say, betrayal, dishonor, subversion, cowardice, or desecration -- which, of course, can also be devastating human failings. I'm so grateful to all of you who keep UU congregations going, who give your lives to sustaining liberal religious communities, who see cruelty as the worst thing we do and therefore see care and kindness as the best, and who keep lit the flame of care and kindness as the supreme value. During these times when the celebration of cruelty -- seems to be ascendant, the only hope I see is . . . you -- the people who side with love. Thank you. You're lifesavers!

Gratefully, so gratefully yours,