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OP-ED: Ferguson, Palo Alto
August 29, 2014, 05:00 AM By Craig Wiesner

Craig Wiesner

As head usher welcoming people to our church last Sunday morning, I greeted one family whose son had recently started learning to drive. Mom and Grandma were grateful that they had arrived safely and we chuckled about the right of passage they and their young driver were experiencing. Lots of other folks streamed into church, all smiling in the glorious sunshine of Palo Alto, so many miles away from the strife and racial tensions of places like Ferguson, Missouri. We don’t have problems similar to Ferguson, do we?
The sermon crafted by our director of Children and Family Ministries was about flipping around the assumptions we automatically make about people based on their external appearance and labels, and the experiences our youth group had had during their mission trip to Los Angeles this summer, “complicating” the stories of the people they worked with and served. This led to some thoughts about Michael Brown, a young black man who had been shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson two weeks ago. What followed, during our congregation’s prayers of the people, was an outpouring of suffering other parents and grandparents in our congregation had experienced, and are experiencing daily, as their children and grandchildren live through their own rights of passage. The difference between these children and the youngster who drove to church this morning? These other children are black.
A college student home on break, jogging through his Palo Alto neighborhood is stopped by police, wondering what he is running from. “Just jogging,” he says. “I don’t think so.” The police officer responds. Another young man home from school driving a somewhat beat-up car that a typical middle-class college kid could afford is pulled over because there’s something “funny” about his brake lights. Nothing really wrong with the lights, but, what was he doing driving around Menlo Park? A Palo Alto mom gets an email from her neighborhood group warning all the neighbors that “there’s a black man sitting in a car” on such and such street. “You realize that you do have a black family in your neighborhood?” she responds after her anger lessens, and that black man could be one of her sons, waiting for a buddy so they can go downtown and get some lunch. A black father and grandfather, late for a film and running toward the theater after finally finding parking a few blocks away, has to decide whether he will let himself be even later for the film so that he can respond to the white man who shouted as he ran by “Hey, you look like you just robbed a place.” Another Palo Alto mom, visiting Southern California with her two black kids, is pulled over by police only to be told once the police officer noticed that she is white, that he wouldn’t have pulled her over if he had seen her and not her children as he cruised by.
The outpouring of anguish, anger, fear and humiliation that we heard from just a few of the people in our congregation, black and white parents and grandparents of black children and grandchildren, was heartbreaking. Each of them shared how they had to teach their children how to keep their hands on the steering wheel, avoid any sudden moves, say “yes sir” and “no sir,” and to never argue with the police ... do everything possible to avoid getting arrested, beaten or killed.
Whether the average person realizes it, there’s a huge racial divide right here on the streets of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton and across our entire country. The parents of the youngster just learning to drive should rightfully be nervous about the dangers he faces. There are laws in place to help protect him, and all of us, from the risks inherent to anybody operating a 2-ton vehicle. What laws, though, protect those who are walking, jogging or driving while black or brown? Judging from the pain expressed at the corner of Lincoln and Cowper, whatever laws or rules there might be don’t apply around here. Being black or brown means that wherever you go, whatever you do, you may be suspected by the community, and must be prepared to be stopped by the police, and when that happens you need to let go of the idea that you are an American citizen, with inalienable rights, but instead become a limp washrag of obsequious obedience, praying that this encounter won’t end up with you in handcuffs or worse.
A woman protesting in Washington, D.C., last week held a sign that said she couldn’t believe she still had to be protesting this “expletive-deleted” in 2014. Yet here we are. The question is what can we do about it. While faith communities can preach about flipping our assumptions and complicating the narratives in our sermons, and have been doing so for decades, I have to agree with another woman in our congregation who stood up during the prayers and said that this was a time when we had to take action. And we will.
In the coming weeks, we will work toward a community conversation, for the police, the city councils, the mayors and the families of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton to come together and begin the process of making the streets of our communities safe for all of our neighbors, in all the beautiful colors of the rainbow of God’s wild diversity.
Will you join us?

Craig Wiesner is the co-owner of Reach And Teach, a San Mateo bookstore and fair-trade gift shop and has been worshiping at First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto for 25 years.

 

 

Tags: black, police, about, children, their, people,


Other stories from today:

Dress-up days
Letter: Renters need a hand
OP-ED: Ferguson, Palo Alto
 

 
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