Where’s the Love?
Re-posted from the Standing on the Side of Love blog.–Ed.
This post was written by Jesse Jaeger, the Executive Director of UU Mass Action.
I am not Trayvon Martin. I did, as a teenager however, have an interaction with a local neighborhood watch that ended very differently because I am white and middle class.
When I was 14 years old, a friend and I snuck out of his parents house in the middle of the night with a 12-pack of stolen beer and a desire to be up to no good. That 12-pack got us good and drunk and we ended up in the parking lot of a local grocery store at about 3 in the morning. It was at that point that I thought it would be a good idea to light a stack of newspapers on fire.
Some local neighborhood watch types saw us, chased us down, and held us until the police showed up. Our parents were called, we ended up in juvenile court, and were sentenced to 8 weekends worth of cleaning up garbage in the parking lot of the grocery store where we lit the papers on fire.
When I look back on this experience all I can think is how lucky I was:
…Lucky because that fire only left a scorch-mark on the side of the building and did not cause any real harm to anyone.
…Lucky because that arrest (my third that year) galvanized my parents to take me and my brother to a Unitarian Universalist church, forever changing my path.
…Lucky because I happened to have been born white and middle class and the act of lighting that fire was seen by the police and neighborhood watch as knucklehead teenage behavior and not something more sinister.
As more details come out of Sanford, Florida, I have repeatedly asked myself, if I were Trayvon Martin, would I even be alive right now? The truth is that if any one of those pieces of luck had gone the other way my life could have been a whole lot different.
Where would I be right now if instead of a scorch mark the building had caught fire and someone was hurt or killed?
Where would I be right now if instead of having parents who cared and started me going to church I was left to my own devices to continue down my path of escalating criminal activity?
Where would I be right now if instead of being white and middle class I was black and/or poor and out in the middle of the night being up to some knucklehead no good? What would have happened to me that night?
The truth is that our graveyards and our prisons are full of mostly young black men who can answer those questions. Our graveyards are full of young black men who have run afoul of the police while either minding their own business–like Trayvon–or being engaged in some knucklehead teenage behavior. They have been shot and killed because they are seen as somehow more sinister or threatening than a white boy. Our prisons are full of people whose luck fell the wrong way or who have made a couple bad decisions and are now serving exceedingly long prison sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws.
When I compare my experience with what happened to Trayvon Martin, I can see more clearly why mandatory sentencing and “3 Strikes” laws are so dangerous. With Trayvon, you have a young man who has committed no crime but who ends up paying the ultimate penalty purely because he is a young black man. I, on the other hand, was offered the chance of redemption because I carry the privileges that go along with being white and middle class. As a young white boy, I was given the benefit of doubt. Young black men are not given that same chance and that is why they are so disproportionally represented in our prison system.
Our Christian Universalist heritage teaches us that all are held in god’s love and everyone gets a chance at redemption. But when young black men are shot and killed for no other reason than for being black; where is the love? When people are sentenced to ever-lengthening prison sentences, sometimes with no chance for parole, where is the redemption?
In Massachusetts, we are fighting against at “3 Strikes” Bill that will dramatically increase the number of crimes that will qualify for life in prison with no chance of parole. UU Mass Action and Unitarian Universalists across the state are lifting up our voices and saying that everyone is held in god’s love and everyone deserves the chance for redemption.
If you live in Massachusetts, join us in stopping this bill by taking the redemption pledge. Find out more at http://uumassaction.org/redemptionpledge. If you live outside of Massachusetts learn more about prisons and prison ministries at the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s Prison Ministry, black and pink, Partakers, and the Prison Activist Resource Center.