Despite the district attorney’s decision not to charge former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney in the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton, Fr. Bryan Massingale believes common ground can be found between people with opposite viewpoints.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced Dec. 22 that charges will not be brought in the fatal April 30 shooting which took place at Red Arrow Park following a struggle.
“Our faith calls us to move beyond the traps of vengeance and recrimination, no matter which side we’re on,” said Fr. Massingale, a Marquette University professor of theology. “Our faith can show us that both sides agree or can agree that what happened in April was a tragic event.”
He said the church, particularly the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, needs to have a more active role in these discussions.
“When it comes to racial issues, the church speaks with a very uncertain and muted voice, and I’m not at all confident that the church is going to speak up in a way that’s called for,” Fr. Massingale said. “I think the archdiocese needs to stop being timid on these issues … by timid I mean the default of the archdiocese is to say nothing.”
Fr. Massingale said priests can help start the conversation by humanizing the victims.
“The other thing that I think priests can do is to preach our teaching: we are all created in the image and likeness of God regardless of race or color,” he said. “That means when people are chanting in the street ‘black lives matter,’ of course they matter, because all lives matter.”
There are enormous challenges, Fr. Massingale admitted, to solving these problems. But he believes the church should look at these issues as moral and religious issues.
“Racism is a soul sickness,” he said. “The most profound expression of racism in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee isn’t the visible slurs or name calling that might go on, but the profound indifference that we have toward those who don’t look like us.”
Fr. Massingale said once people start living in solidarity with each other, change will come with greater ease.
“Out of that shared sense of commitment, we can then start to work on changing the policies and attitudes that we must change in order to make sure that this never happens again,” he said. “Our faith teaches us that the work of justice is difficult, but the work of justice is not hopeless.”
Valeria Spinner-Banks, a member of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Milwaukee, said the decision by the DA was predictable.
“I was not surprised that (Manney) wasn’t indicted,” Spinner-Banks said. “No policemen have ever been indicted for killing blacks one way or the other … I think there needs to be some changes.”
Spinner-Banks views it as a greater issue than the death of one individual.
“I am scared for my husband, for my sons … my grandson,” she said. “I’m always worried about them.”
Since the shooting, protests for Hamilton have occurred in Milwaukee, and Manney was fired from the department because he did not follow department procedures for dealing with emotionally disturbed people. His firing is under appeal to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.
“I think there has been an injustice and the community needs to do something. Protests are OK, but something needs to be done,” Spinner-Banks said. “We need to be honest about racism, race and what’s going on in America today.”
Spinner-Banks said city officials, clergy, members of the Milwaukee community, and the police and sheriff departments need to talk about these issues.
“It’s going to take time; this isn’t going to happen over night,” Spinner-Banks said. “Protest in a quiet, dignified manner. Maybe I would hope that today they would go into a church and really have a prayer service.”
Shanedra Johnson, chair of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, said it’s too early for an official response from the organization but they may hold an event like a prayer service or vigil.
“At our next meeting, that will be on the agenda. To see if there’s some way we could help and support,” Johnson said.
As of press time, protests have been peaceful in the city, but last Friday, protesters shutdown parts of I-43, in both directions, by holding hands and physically blocking traffic.
“The threat of violence has been vastly overstated,” Fr. Massingale said. “I keep wondering why are people so concerned with that and, frankly, it reflects some of the racial biases that we’re always afraid that African-Americans are going to get violent.”
Capuchin Fr. David Preuss, pastor at St. Martin de Porres Parish, Milwaukee, believes more people need to live in diverse worlds.
“There’s a need for greater racial understanding, especially in parishes that have no diversity,” he said. “We have a number of our Catholic people who live in all-white worlds and because of that, they do not have an understanding of what it looks and feels like from a minority perspective or even from the perspective of living in an integrated community.”
Fr. Preuss said the issue of violence also needs to be talked about and that he’s preparing a special address in the parish bulletins about it.
“What I’m writing to my parishioners is, this is a shame, it’s really a bad mistake … but I’m upset that we hear very little about the 98 people that have gotten murdered in Milwaukee this past year,” Fr. Preuss said. “We need to deal with the question of violence on a broader scale.”
Fr. Preuss said he and some of his parishioners will meet at the Tabernacle Baptist Church on Dec. 30 to talk about the issue of violence in Milwaukee.
Fr. Massingale hopes the season of celebration will help people realize they are all children of God.
“Especially at Christmas I would want to tell people that the coming of Jesus into our lives says that human history is not closed,” he said. “That God becoming human shows that there is a divine presence in human history that always brings about the possibility of the new.”