MILWAUKEE — Just days before violence rocked the city of Milwaukee following an officer-involved shooting on North 44th Street on Aug. 13, a statement released by the Black Catholic Ministry Commission of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee addressed similar occurrences throughout the country.
Specifically mentioning “the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota as well as the murder of five law enforcement officers in Dallas, Texas,” the commission called for reflection and also for action from Catholics in the midst of “the rising tension between many of our brothers and sisters in the black community and our brothers and sisters in law enforcement.”
“We condemn all these acts of violence,” the commission said in the statement, which can be read in its entirety at catholicherald.org. “We recognize that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are not brutal, uncaring and reckless in the exercise of their considerable power and authority; and contrary to stereotypes and media images, the vast majority of black people are not malevolent, lazy and looking for a handout.[su_pullquote align=”right”]Click here to read the complete “Statement in Response to Acts of Violence in America.”[/su_pullquote]
“However, we are deeply disturbed that so many interactions between people of color and law enforcement have resulted in death and that there often appears to be little legal or professional accountability.”
The statement was drafted by several members of the BCMC, including Cynthia Blaze, Mary Words and Capuchin Fr. John Celichowski. In a phone interview with the Catholic Herald last week, they said the statement was prompted by developments at the Archbishop Lyke Conference, a meeting of black Catholics from around the United States that took place in Texas in early July.
Words and BCMC chairperson Shanedra Johnson attended the conference and were in San Antonio July 7 when the shooting of five police officers took place less than six hours away in Dallas. Conference attendees posed for a group photo holding signs that said “PEACE,” “Say something” and “Where are our bishops?”
“It was a very intensely felt topic and experience, I think, not only among the people that attended the Lyke Conference but those of us who didn’t,” said Fr. Celichowski, who said the letter’s message is informed by “our own experience as commission members and people who live in many of these communities.”
“You see different things when you live in the black community, which I do,” said Words. “You see different things as you drive around the city. You see people being stopped. You see how sometimes, when they are stopped, how they’re treated. It’s an ongoing problem. It didn’t just start with the killings of these two men (Sterling and Castile); it’s always been a part of our experience as a black people.”
As a teacher at Marquette University High School, Blaze said she hears from some of her black students about negative interactions with members of law enforcement.
“Driving and getting stopped in a neighborhood where police feel like they shouldn’t be, or they’re in a group of mixed young people but they’re the ones that are handcuffed and roughly dealt with rather than their friends who are not African-American,” she said. “All of us who are adults will experience conversation secondhand with our young people…. It’s always been in our gut.”
What the commission hopes will result from the message is “open, honest discussion,” said Johnson.
“If we can just have some open and honest dialogue, if the word ‘racism’ can be used and our prejudices and stereotypes can be put on the table and we just flush that out without fear of retaliation, without fear of somebody taking things the wrong way – as soon as we have that open and honest dialogue about our differences, about our likenesses, about experiences, about perception, about everything,” she said. “If we don’t have those kind of conversations, these kind of things will continue to happen.”
The statement said Christians are “called to lend support to the Black Lives Matter Movement as we know that one of their foundational principles is to stand up for those who have been left out and unheard.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has its origin in the Twitter hashtag used to express outrage following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. As a whole, the movement is an informal coalition of organizations and activists throughout the nation who focus on racial injustice, though often the term “Black Lives Matter” is used to refer specifically to the Black Lives Matter Network, founded in 2013 by activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
The Black Lives Matter Network has embraced a political agenda that includes the promotion of abortion and gender ideology, but the BCMC stated emphatically that their support for the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole should not be taken as an endorsement of all aspects embraced by some of its adherents, especially those which contradict Catholic social teaching.
“I think the core of the movement is addressing the violence and the injustice against young people of color throughout the country, and dealing with the relationship between communities and the police that protect and serve them. That’s the main thing,” said Fr. Celichowski. “It’s really more of a question of having communities be safer and more just. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game, that having black lives matter means blue lives don’t matter, or anything like that. We’ve created a lot of false dichotomies, largely for political reasons, and I think we need to avoid that.”
“I felt very strongly that in this letter we had to make clear what we mean by that statement (black lives matter) – not that anybody is more important than the next, but that all lives matter, and until that happens … the conversation will never bear fruit,” said Blaze.
“If there are areas that we can’t support because of our faith, we don’t,” Fr. Celichowski said, adding the BCMC is not an official member or affiliate of the Black Lives Matter Network.
Many pro-life activists, including the Radiance Foundation and Catholic blogger Matt Walsh, have also used the term “black lives matter” to advocate for black unborn life, highlighting the fact that statistics show African-American women are disproportionately at risk for choosing abortion.
“Every life in this country should mean something – from conception to natural death,” the BCMC wrote in the statement. “‘Black Lives Matter” is not a declaration of self-importance; instead, it is more a declaration of vulnerability.”
“The focal point (of the statement) is the violence that is occurring, and how can we stop it,” said Johnson.
Within the statement are five actionable proposals, listed below, the BCMC feels could help alleviate the violence.
- Increase the diversity in our police departments so that their forces better reflect the communities they serve.
“I would like to see people in this community take care of their community,” said Blaze, expressing hesitation about a police force made up mostly of individuals who hail from “communities less laden with this type of violence.”
- Improve and make more transparent the legal and departmental mechanisms of accountability for officers and their supervisors in cases of misconduct and especially the use of excessive or deadly force.
“You might be in a threatened situation, but to maim a person should be taught, rather than shoot them in the back, shoot them in the head, kill them – 14 bullets, do you understand what I’m saying?” said Johnson.
- Improve and expand training in cultural sensitivity, de-escalation of conflict, and other areas that can help to lessen the risk of violent interactions.
Words encouraged law enforcement to incorporate the examination of pre existing biases in the officer training.
“We all have our own different experiences that we bring forth whenever we meet people,” she said. “People do have to think about how they view others when they meet … and that’s very important because if you’re not from that area, you don’t have the experiences of others and so that lack of knowledge of others may lead someone to act or behave in a certain way.”
- Provide more opportunities for officers to build healthy and cooperative relationships with communities, especially with our youth.
“In the community where I live, there are police on foot patrol,” said Johnson. “It gives the community an opportunity to meet and greet police officers, talk with them, say hey, this is who cares about our community…. It’s an opportunity to come together and to be in relationship with one another. But for the fact of those police officers walking in my area, those interactions would never happen…. If you’re afraid of the people that you’re sworn to protect and serve, then there’s a problem already.”
- Strengthen community and family life which are struggling against an array of social, political, cultural and spiritual forces that seek to undermine them.
Fr. Celichowski named “the loss of family life” as one of the major factors that has contributed to violence, in various manifestations – whether through an increasingly incarcerated young male population or through lack of education and access to healthy food in the City of Milwaukee.
“All those different elements that come into play that I think the church can help and support in various ways,” he said.