The way forward

First, I’d like to thank all of you who have been praying for my wife, Kathy, as she has been struggling with the aftermath of a near-fatal bout of sepsis, with other complications. She’s getting better but still has a lot to deal with, so if you’re inclined, please continue to pray.

I’m going to be taking some time off from writing a regular weekly column, but I felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy that has stirred protests across the country recently.

I don’t think it’s possible to really know what it feels like to be a black man in a nation dominated by white people — unless you are a black man in such a nation, as America is.

But I’ve come closer, perhaps, than most to getting a taste of what it must be like.

For a time in the late 1970s, I was the only white guy in an eight-piece band, traveling throughout the South. Once, I recall, our van broke down somewhere in rural Mississippi. I could feel the tension rising among my fellow musicians as we found ourselves at the mercy of rural whites, many of whom were none too hospitable.

We finally found someone willing to do the repairs and went on our way, only to be pulled over in an Alabama speed trap.

This was in the ‘70s, not the ‘60s, so I didn’t expect the kind of trouble we might have gotten a decade earlier, during the height of the civil rights movement. The treatment we got at the hands of the small-town Alabama police was less than respectful, but we survived unscathed.

The episode was a little scary, but I felt at the time that racism, while still alive, was on its way out. If you had told me that 40-some years later, we would be experiencing the turmoil we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, I would have been shocked.

How can it be that in a nation that has elected a black man president, we still have cops who treat African-Americans the way Derek Chauvin treated George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day? How can one person treat another person, regardless of race, in such a callous, cruel way?

Now, I think it would be wrong to paint all or most law enforcement officers the same sickly hue as Chauvin. That would be discrimination of another kind. I believe that most cops try to treat the public with care, regardless of their race.

But the kind of unnecessary roughness and outright brutality we saw in this case and have seen in other instances, even over the past few days, happens far too often.

I think what we saw in Greenville the week after Floyd’s death holds promise for a better way forward. When the crowd demanded that Sheriff Hobart Lewis “take a knee” during a tense moment, the sheriff got down on a knee and began praying. The protesters appreciated the gesture.

Likewise, in Pickens, when protesters showed up to raise their voices in concert with the national outcry, Sheriff Rick Clark and two white legislators — along with the city’s first black mayor, Fletcher Perry — joined the march.

Every law enforcement agency should have a citizens’ advisory group that meets regularly with the police to discuss concerns and address specific complaints. And tactics like jamming a knee into the neck of a man who’s handcuffed and laying on the ground should be banned nationwide.

I know police officers have a tough job, and they have to deal with some tough characters. I’ve gotten to know enough cops during my time as a reporter to know that most of them care about the public they serve and are willing to put their lives on the line to protect them.

So it’s just as wrong to pre-judge cops as brutes as it is to pre-judge black men as criminals.

If I’m walking down a lonely street at night and someone comes up behind me, I might feel some concern based on what they look like, but not based on their race. There are criminal elements in all races, just as there are people of good character of all colors. I think it depends more on how big they are and how they’re dressed as to whether I might feel unsafe.

I think poverty, not race, tends to be the common characteristic of people who become criminals, although most poor people are certainly not criminals.

So, what’s the bottom line on all this? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I believe that the path toward healing is outlined in the New Testament. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. He said to love even your enemies.

Cops may have to get tough sometimes with dangerous lawbreakers, but they should remember that they’re a child of God even as they apprehend them. And respect for every human being should be the thread that runs through all our governmental and law enforcement institutions, as well as our interpersonal relationships.

Live and let live. And keep the lines of communication open.

Thus, I have said my piece. See you later.