This is a story about racial discrimination and a white policeman. Also a gold pocket watch.
(If you’re breathing a sigh of relief that this isn’t about the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings, sorry. We’re getting to that later.)
Back up a century and a half. Welcome to Boston, 1854. The Fugitive Slave Law has been passed, making every black person in America a potential target. So long as a white man attests that you’re his slave in front of a judge, he can haul you to the South as his property.
Boston’s abolitionist community immediately forms a group called the Boston Vigilance Committee, with black and white members. They create diagrams of maneuvers to fight off slave catches, hold secret meetings, put up melodramatic posters warning Boston’s black citizens of the danger, and so on.
One of the white men, Joseph Hayes, a prosperous Boston citizen, gets this idea: wouldn’t it be handy if the Vigilance Committee had a spy inside Boston’s police force? Everyone thinks this is very clever, so Hayes switches careers and becomes an officer.
Only a few months later, a young Boston runaway named Anthony Burns is arrested, given a hearing, and ordered to be taken back to slavery in Virginia. Because the 2,000 federal troops the president ordered to Boston to escort one black guy to the docks wasn’t nearly enough, Boston’s police officers are mobilized to keep order in the streets, including Joseph Hayes.
Obviously, he refuses, and rather than obey the order, he resigns his position. He gets his old job back, and life moves on…but Anthony Burns is hauled away in chains while basically the whole city of Boston watches in varying degrees of outrage, curiosity, or apathy.
Probably looking for a headline to make this whole drama less depressing, a newspaper picks up on the Joseph Hayes story. “Policeman of Integrity Resigns Rather Than Commit Atrocity,” and so on. Then another writes a story. Then another. Soon, Joseph becomes a bit of a five-minutes-of-fame hero. Fan mail pours in, everything from a gushing letter signed by seventy-one ladies from Maine to a commendation from Charles Sumner himself, the most famous anti-slavery senator at the time. Gifts arrive, including money, an engraved silver tray, and a gold pocket watch, to reward a brave man for his “magnanimous example.”
Meanwhile, Anthony Burns’s pastor spends the next eight months trying to track Anthony down (he was sold away in secret) and scrape together the money to buy him back and bring him home. Everyone else has forgotten him. They love to throw his name around in rhetoric, but they have no idea what actually happened to him, nor do they care.
This made me mad.
For context, this little incident is set during a time when beating, raping, and killing black people was common (and in slave states, totally legal).
And here I am, talking about a pocket watch.
The (mostly undeserved) celebration of Joseph Hayes while Anthony Burns was ignored is a tiny little injustice that hardly deserves a footnote compared to the evil of slavery and racism at the time.
But it made me think: what if we can tell the depth of a cultural problem by how the “good guys” react to it?
Joseph Hayes made the right choice. The groups who celebrated that choice were mostly white Christians who appreciated his story. Everything they said was true, and nothing they did was wrong.
But did it really help the problem?
Which brings us to today.
I am grateful for the police officers who protect our country, who have to make hard choices, who risk their lives to keep us safe. I know that not all policemen are corrupt or racist. In fact, the number of those who are is likely very small. I’m aware that not all of the details about these particular incidents have come out yet and they are still under investigation.
However, after the recent shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I’ve seen lots of white, Christian people like me saying things that I don’t think are especially helpful. And I’m wondering…
Is now really good time for white Christians to talk about the heroism and incorruptibility of most white cops, even if that’s true?
What does a counter of “All lives matter” actually contribute to the discussion when it seems like black lives are the ones at risk?
It’s kind of like this.
Are we going to consider the possibility that there might be injustice happening, or will we shut down that conversation before it has a chance to start?
Today, I am Joseph Hayes, a white outsider with deep convictions about injustice. Maybe you are Joseph Hayes too. Or maybe we’re both just one of the seventy-one ladies in Maine reading about this in the newspaper and reacting to it. Regardless, this is the history we’re living. These are the issues we’re facing right now. Not all evil and discrimination is in the past.
Yes, we need to be careful not to generalize and make assumptions about anyone, white or black. We need to hear the stories, look at the statistics, and examine them carefully to come to conclusions.
But I also think we need to be careful about how we talk about tragedies like this. If we praise genuinely good policemen while black people are suffering and afraid, we risk minimizing injustice. In some ways…we contribute to it.
So what do we do?
Practically…I have no idea, although I’m starting to think about this and do research. (Feel free to recommend articles or resources in the comments if you have them.)
But one thing I do know is that ideas have consequences, and the way we talk about things matter. So if you’re looking for a place to start, care about violence and discrimination against people of color. And be careful how you talk about it in the public square, on Facebook, in your churches, in comments on blog posts and news articles.
It’s not a matter of pinning blame or parsing statistics. It’s realizing that power can corrupt, injustice breaks God’s heart, and our black brothers and sisters live with fears and struggles we’ll never have to deal with.
We affirm that all lives matter when we take the time to defend the lives of others and hear their stories.
Listen. Learn. And then speak, but speak with grace. That’s what we’re called to do as Christians.