Earlier this week, one of my housemates was picked up by the police for matching the description of a suspect and having the same name (there happen to be 26 people in this city who share the exact same name). On the surface, this sounds relatively reasonable. After talking to him and figuring out that these details matched, they took him downtown for questioning. Again, still within the ballpark of reason, it would seem. One would think that after asking a few questions, hearing an alibi, and maybe even verifying said alibi by phone, the police would realize they made a mistake and send him home with an apology for inconveniencing him.
But no, not in this system. Though it was clear (as the judge the next day told the police officers) that my housemate was not at all the person they were looking for, they held him overnight. What could have been, at worst, a couple hour annoyance turned into a nearly 24 hour ordeal. He had to sleep in a holding cell on a metal bench extending from the wall with no pillow and no blankets and then wait until afternoon the next day to see a judge, all to prove he wasn’t who they were looking for (which they’d figured out pretty early on). When finally dismissed, he was sent away without an apology from the police, nothing.
I try to envision how all this even happened; how did the police officer decide to stop my housemate? The description could likely have been “6’0 tall, 200 lb bald black man,” which is not exactly terribly specific, nor terribly uncommon in a city like this. When he ran his name/id, did he make assumptions based on past offenses? I hesitate to blame intentional prejudice on the officer who was doing his job, but I do blame the system. Suspicion is the driving force in so much “policing.” While understandable in some cases, the so-called justice system in the U.S. (and not just the justice system), has re-trained law enforcement agents to be fearful of the people they’re supposed to serve. See my story about the police during my car accident 2 years ago to see how my own interaction with the police taught me the same lesson.
On the one hand, there is the temptation to give the benefit of the doubt to the police. They have a job to do and do it the best they can. I can respect that, but like I said above, the problem is the system that teaches all of us to suspect our neighbors (“If you see something suspicious…” signs every where these days). Everyone is so darn afraid of everyone they don’t know. Will he hurt me? Will they take my stuff? Fear mongering is a virus that has gripped every level of American society. We can blame the media (as in the documentaries Outfoxed and Bowling for Columbine), or the government, or any number of imposing institutions that seem to gain from obsessive fears of the masses. The recent controversy over an Islamic center near the sight of the 9/11 tragedy is exemplary of the tangible fear people have about other religions and cultures different from their own. Indeed, “September 11th” could easily be pointed to as the inspiration for a politics of fear. I put September 11th in quotes above because it is not just a date, or an event, but the scapegoat for billions of dollars worth of the very type of fear profiteering I’m talking about.
What continues to blow my mind as a Christian is that so much fear is perpetuated (and bought into) by Christians. “The Muslims all want to blow us up” is a more or less common refrain from people who claim to follow a God who has defeated death. Death has lost its sting, we sing on Easter Sunday, but from Easter Monday onward, we’re as fearful of being killed by our neighbor as anyone else. A theology of fear (fear of hell, fear of the rapture/judgement, fear of the “end times”) is what’s selling tickets on Sunday mornings in many, many churches in the U.S. We can’t blame Fox news or the Bush administration for that.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is the connection between what happened to my housemate and what’s happening on a grand scale all over this country. I see fear as the common denominator (suspicion being another word for fear). This fear is what allowed, somehow, common sense and courtesy to be refused to my housemate and he spent a miserable night in jail, awakening fears about being punished for crimes committed years ago when he was still in his addiction. Should he have to live in fear that such a mistake could bring years of hard work and spiritual deliverance from the hell he was living in to a screeching halt? Should my friends who are in the U.S. without papers have to fear that being pulled over for a traffic violation could get them deported, leaving wife and children behind?
We must overcome fear with love. There is no other answer. We must be the ones who exhibit a disarming trust of all those who create division and alienation by spreading suspicion and mistrust. That is the only way to dismantle a broken system. The government can’t change the fear-based justice system that it creates. No, it must be the church. It must be the people who refuse to be crazy in the same way the rest of the world is crazy, as Peter Maurin once said. We must be the people who stand outside during raid drills, as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers used to do, to put flowers in the guns of soldiers, draw with sidewalk chalk on the hallowed steps of the Supreme Court. We can choose to laugh in the face of fear, like the circus lion tamers and tight-rope walkers. This imaginative response to fear allows to transcend what the rest of the world sees as inevitability, to dream of and enact the kingdom of God, right now.