by Troy Jackson, Director, The AMOS Project & Co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith
Law enforcement, prosecutors, and clergy in this country are simply doing what we are paid to do.
Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, in an interview with George Stephanopoulis, shared his belief that in the altercation with and subsequent killing of Michael Brown, “I did what I was paid to do.”
While there are many disputed facts around what happened between Brown and Wilson in the last few moments of Brown’s life, Wilson is unquestionably telling the truth when he says he was simply doing what he was paid to do. Although one would be hard pressed to find it on a job description for a police officer, controlling African Americans has been a fundamental part of American law enforcement since our nation’s inception.
During the days of slavery, law enforcement officers in the North and South were paid to protect the peculiar institution of American slavery. They checked papers of blacks, controlled the activities and actions of free African Americans, and enforced fugitive slave laws.
But it isn’t just law enforcement. Most pastoral job descriptions say precious little about race and racism. Prior to the Civil War, clergy either supported slavery, or kept their opinions to themselves. That is what they were paid to do.
Jim Crow segregation depended on law enforcement officials insuring that blacks abided by racist laws. Police were too often complicit with terrorism against and the lynching of African Americans.
And most white clergy in the South, and throughout the country, kept “politics” out of the pulpit, by embodying a code of silence on racial justice, while they pastored racially segregated congregations. They were all simply doing what they were paid to do.
The explosions in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and dozens of cities across the nation in the 1960s were, in part, a response by disaffected African Americans to law enforcement tactics, including police brutality with impunity, in black communities. They were a response to law enforcement doing what they were paid to do.
The same could be said for officers in my hometown of Cincinnati who, over the course of several years, killed several African Americans under questionable circumstances. This period culminated in the shooting death of Timothy Thomas in April 2001. Uprisings followed. The police were simply doing what they were paid to do. And, as a pastor in Cincinnati in 2001, I said little and did even less. I did what I was paid to do.
The vast majority of law enforcement officials in the nation today put their lives on the line for the safety and wellbeing of our communities. They sacrifice and take great risks. And clergy, by and large, work hard to encourage, challenge, bless, and comfort their congregations.
And like most in our nation, police learn through media and experience and trainings that young people of color are a little bit more dangerous, often pose a threat, and therefore need to be controlled. To keep the community safe, they are paid to control black people. Darren Wilson was doing what he was paid to do.
And clergy know far too well that we are paid to stay in our lane and not engage too deeply in the trauma of the world. So we silently support a society set up to control black people.
But the protests over the past few days are about more than how policing happens in this country. The protests, uprisings, marches, and civil disobedience are also in response to people in our judicial system doing exactly as they are paid to do.
Special prosecutors in cases like the deaths of Michael Brown and John Crawford III (shot and killed by police in a Walmart in Ohio) are doing what they are paid to do: protect law enforcement and a radicalized criminal justice system that has led to some of the largest incarceration rates in human history. These special prosecutors are paid by taxpayers to make sure officers are not indicted for shooting and killing unarmed people of color, while people of color fill jails and prisons throughout the nation.
As a pastor for two decades, I have to confess that, when it comes to race control, we clergy are paid to be quiet. We are paid to keep our prophetic impulses in check. We are paid to go along with slavery and Jim Crow and to uniformly condemn protestors and all acts of violence. We are paid to support law and order, which means we are paid to be chaplains to the status quo and keepers of the “peace.”
We are all doing what we are paid to do, and for century after century, people of color have been the ones paying the price.
What is needed most at this moment is not the condemnation of any one individual or community.
What is needed is to stop cashing the checks, stop taking the payoffs, and stop participating in Pharaoh’s Egypt, where no matter how many changes are made, some people continue to advance only by degrees of oppression.
It is time for An Exodus: It is time to pursue a Promised Land, where no person is paid to control and manage the oppression and dehumanization of another.