Black and white Southern Baptists reacted with grief following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of a New York City man despite a widely viewed video of the incident.
A Staten Island grand jury declined Dec. 3 to bring an indictment against officer Daniel Pantaleo in spite of a ruling by the New York City medical examiner’s office that Eric Garner’s death was a homicide. Pantaleo is shown in a video posted online restraining Garner, 43, with a chokehold and forcing him face down onto the sidewalk with the help of other officers. While prone, Garner is heard saying at least eight times, “I can’t breathe.”
K. Marshall Williams, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s National African American Fellowship, called the grand jury’s action an “outrageous verdict” that is “a clarion call to us to be light in the midst of so much darkness.”
“I cry out to the Lord this morning, for my spirit is deeply grieved and filled with righteous indignation, as I mourn with the family of Eric Garner as they endure the pain of this visualized injustice,” Williams said in a written statement for Baptist Press.
“I’m stunned speechless by this news,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious liberty Commission (ERLC). “We hear a lot about the rule of law – and rightly so. But a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.”
The Staten Island jury’s refusal to indict Pantaleo came at an incredibly raw time for African-Americans regarding treatment by the police. The Dec. 3 decision followed by only nine days a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. No incriminating video existed of Brown’s August death in Ferguson, Mo., and witnesses provided conflicting accounts. The failure to indict still met widespread criticism and protests.
Trillia Newbell, the ERLC’s consultant for women’s initiatives and an African American, said the Garner case – as well as what happened in Ferguson – “is yet another reminder that all is not well in America. It’s a reminder that racial tensions and divisions are high. It’s a reminder that there is a glaring racial disparity in our justice system.”
Moore agreed, saying African-Americans – especially males – “are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be executed, more likely to be killed.”
“We have to acknowledge that something is wrong with the system at this point and something has to be done,” he said.
“We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem,” Moore said.
“For those of us in Christ, we need to recognize that when one part of the body of Christ hurts, the whole body of Christ hurts,” Moore said. “It’s time for us in Christian churches to not just talk about the gospel but live out the gospel by tearing down these dividing walls not only by learning and listening to one another but also by standing up and speaking out for one another.”
Bart Barber, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and a former Southern Baptist Convention first vice president, called Garner’s death “needless and tragic.”
“As I witness rising tension between black Americans and American law enforcement, I am reminded that for much of our modern history (and in many places even today) Baptists have suffered under antagonistic relationships with the civil order,” Barber said. “This reality should dispose us to relate sympathetically with those who feel they are in the same situation today, should instruct us as to how Christians ought to behave in confrontations with the law and should encourage us that Christ can bring reconciliation and even camaraderie between those who were once estranged. Let us pray for God to bring about the same outcome today.”
Williams, senior pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, urged the church toward “inexplicable unity and a radical obedience to the Greatest Commandment [to love God, as in Matthew 22], which will set the platform for healing and reconciliation through an unprecedented spiritual revival and awakening. We need prophetic voices all across our convention to passionately pray and unashamedly sound the trumpet against all unrighteousness. Because of His unending love for all men, let us acknowledge the problems and lead the charge to assemble all the saints for peace and justice.”
Walter Strickland, special adviser to the president for diversity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that “the barrage of verbal epithets and violence must come to an end and dialogues laced with Christ-like humility must take its place,” in a Dec. 4 commentary.
“Environments need to be cultivated where individuals can be heard on their own terms, without their lived experience being invalidated by another’s,” Stickland, also a theology instructor at the North Carolina seminary, noted at his walterstrickland.com website.
“Finally, after each of us has given an honest and sustained effort to stand in one another’s shoes, as Christ modeled in the incarnation, we as a society can begin to work together to address the individual and systemic issues that trouble us as a nation.”
Strickland asked, “Where do we go from here? I’m convinced that the resources to move forward are in the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Every person is “blinded by their sinfulness,” which “can only be healed by the one who is without blinders, limitation and sin – Jesus Christ,” he wrote.
“[T]oo many Christians have long forgotten the humility of Christ demonstrated in the gospel and its inherent role in our lives … to help us overcome our often truncated understanding of his world,” Strickland said. “It’s only by imitating the humility of Christ that we can ‘consider others as better than ourselves’ (Philippians 2:3) and therefore lessen the division in our country.”
Now is not the time to wish away difficult conversations about race and racism, Newbell wrote in a post for the ERLC at http://erlc.com/article/the-sin-of-racism.
The church “must be a safe place for difficult discussions about race,” she said. “We must not only be unafraid to discuss it, but [acknowledge racism] still exists in many places in our country and can often be hidden away in our own hearts. We cannot be passive. Just like all temptations, pride and arrogance toward others must be confronted and fought with the truth of God’s Word.
“Tragedies like what we’ve seen in the Garner case are a reminder of the presence of injustice in the world,” Newbell wrote. “It’s a call to speak, listen and pray. Because we are the body of Christ, we must learn to mourn with those who mourn. So I ask you, are you ready to join arms with your fellow brothers and sisters to pursue true racial reconciliation that can only be achieved through the cross of Christ?”
Frank S. Page, in comments to Baptist Press, said the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City have “peeled back the layers of deep-seated racial tensions and precipitated a new wave of social unrest in our nation.” Page said he also is distressed “at the opportunists who use social unrest as an excuse for criminal behavior. Many innocent people have had their businesses or property destroyed.”
Page voiced concern “that we are at a place where trust of police is being deeply diminished. I have always been a strong proponent of supporting and trusting the police. I remain so. The vast majority of law enforcement officers are individuals of high integrity who act professionally. We must not handcuff our police so that they are not able to do their jobs effectively.
“With that being said, I do not believe police should be given the latitude to use excessive force in enforcing the law,” Page said. “I find it incredulous that a grand jury would not bring forth any kind of indictment with such clear video evidence of excessive force. I am disturbed by all illegal behavior, whether those who break the law are on either side of the fence, citizens and police alike. …
“Being a child of the ‘60s, I have seen many things in my life. I had hoped that we had come past many of the things we have seen occur in the last few weeks,” Page said. “We must not slow down, back up, or back away from God’s vision of racial harmony and unity. We must continue to respect authority, but we must also hold authority accountable in the arenas of justice, fairness and compassion.”
In a Dec. 3 statement, President Obama said it is important for Americans – “regardless of race, region, faith” – to realize “this is an American problem and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem. This is an American problem. When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem.”
The president said police have an “incredibly difficult job” and are risking their lives to protect Americans, but “right now, unfortunately, we are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly. And in some cases, those may be misperceptions; but in some cases, that’s a reality.”
The White House announced Dec. 1 a task force to make recommendations on improving relations between law enforcement and minority communities.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced later Dec. 3 that the Department of Justice would conduct a federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death.
The Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to bring an indictment came after more than three months of deliberations by its 23 members. Only 12 needed to agree in order to indict Pantaleo, a member of the New York Police Department for eight years.
In the video, Pantaleo and another officer are shown approaching and apparently attempting to handcuff Garner for what police said was the illegal sale of cigarettes. When the 6-3, 350-pound Garner protested and resisted, Pantaleo applied a hold around his neck before other officers helped force him to the sidewalk.
The New York Police Department has banned the use of a chokehold since 1993, according to the New York Daily News.
None of the police officers or emergency medical personnel who responded performed CPR, and Garner, the father of six, died on the way to the hospital, according to a briefing paper compiled by Joe Carter, communications specialist for the ERLC.
The medical examiner’s office concluded Garner’s death was caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” Carter reported. Other factors contributing to Garner’s death included asthma and heart disease, according to the medical examiner’s office.
Garner had been arrested 31 times since he was 16 on charges that included assault, grand larceny and resisting arrest, Carter reported.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. BP editor Art Toalston contributed to this article.)