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Rev. Bruce Ray, Lead Pastor

Fifty-five years ago, on March 7, 1965, a crowd of about 600 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, beginning their 54-mile march to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery to demand the right to vote. As they came to the other side of the bridge, the crowd came face to face with a wall of Alabama state troopers in riot gear and gas masks that had been ordered to Selma by Governor George Wallace to stop the march.  Using a bullhorn, Major John Cloud told the marchers to return to their homes or their churches. He declared that the march was an unlawful assembly. The marchers stood their ground. Tensions mounted.  Again the Major demanded that the crowd disperse, but the marchers remained steadfast.  Finally, the police took action—pushing the marchers back and then chasing them on horseback, beating them with nightsticks. Dozens of marchers were injured. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The entire attack was filmed by a crew from ABC News. The footage was shown that night, interrupting the premier broadcast of the movie, “Judgment at Nuremburg.” Fifty million people watched in shock as armed police attacked unarmed citizens. It was a turning point in the struggle for voting rights.

I was 7 years old. It was a turning point in my understanding of injustice.  The political powers that make unjust laws use their agents to enforce those laws. State-instituted oppression will always be followed by state-supported harassment of those who are oppressed and will ultimately lead to state-sanctioned violence against those who protest their oppression.

Selma was not a new thing. The use of police, National Guard and armies to harass, intimidate and control has been a tactic of the powerful for thousands of years. Jesus became the innocent victim of state-sanctioned violence. He was arrested by the temple police in the middle of the night, illegally tried by a Jewish court, convicted on the basis of false testimony, sentenced by the Roman governor and then tortured by Roman soldiers. And then, he was crucified—executed by the Roman state.

Unfortunately, Selma wasn’t the end of police brutality. Even in this country, fifty-five years after Selma, we still see the agents of our own government misuse and abuse their power. Every year in the United States, law enforcement officers kill over 1000 people—mostly people of color. In a country that says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, police have acted as judge, jury and executioner with impunity. Chicago has an especially long history of police misconduct and violence. Fifty years ago, Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, was assassinated in his sleep by the Chicago Police Department with the support of the FBI. Mayor Richard J. Daley famously told the National Guard to “shoot to kill” protesters following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And in the last 10 years, we have more stories of needless deaths at the hands of Chicago law enforcement acting as judge, jury and executioner: Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier, Bette Jones and so many more.

Chicago’s Police Department was so bad that the US Department of Justice began an investigation of the in 2015. Two years later, the Department of Justice released its report. It found “reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.” which prohibits unreasonable seizure. The department found that CPD officers’ practices “unnecessarily endanger themselves and result in unnecessary and avoidable uses of force. The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.” (to read the entire report, go to: https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/925846/download)

The report generated a lot of talk, but little change. The chains of injustice don’t break easily. Though the police department promised to implement changes, we watched video last week of two Chicago police officers shooting and critically wounding a man whose crime was crossing between subway cars. And the reality of a police-state was evident in February when the Department of Homeland Security announced that ICE agents would be sent to Chicago and other sanctuary cities. This week, there were reports of ICE agents detaining shoppers in our community.

This is not about individual law enforcement officers, but about systems of racist policing that targets poor communities of color and immigrants that ignore the constitutional rights of due process and the God-ordained basic human rights given to everyone.

Are we doomed to these systems of unjust law enforcement? Are we hopeless in the face of injustice? The answer is a resounding NO! When Daniel faced the lions, God intervened and set Daniel free. When Jesus was crucified by the Roman empire, God intervened and raised Jesus from the dead. The Sundays of Lent are called “little Easters”—a reminder that though the world is a broken place, God has a plan to heal the world and break the chains of injustice.

And even in Chicago, I hear some chains falling. On Tuesday, March 10, the city’s Committee on Public Safety Committee will vote on the GAPA ordinance that was developed by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability after a two-year community-driven process. The ordinance will create the “Community Commission for Public Safety and Police Accountability.” When passed, Chicago will have the only civilian police accountability oversight commission in the US. This is the kind of systemic change that breaks the chains of injustice in the criminal justice system. This will prevent police brutality and improve public safety.

When passed by committee, the full city council will vote on the ordinance on Wednesday, March 18. Community Renewal Society has led this effort, and we will be with them at City Hall on March 18 to celebrate the victory.

Even with this victory on the horizon, the work of breaking the chains of justice is not over. There is more and more evidence that we live in an oppressive police state—from the increased use of facial recognition software by police departments to cameras at every corner to the SWAT teams on CTA platforms to ICE agents.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The work of sowing justice is hard. The wait for justice is often long. But we know that God will give us the harvest.

So now, in hope and faith, we sing with the saints of Selma, “We shall overcome! We shall overcome! We shall overcome someday! O deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.”

END

 

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