Where are the tipping points?
I think the idea of “tipping points” is normally used in ways a bit different from how I am thinking today. Oh, I am still thinking of tipping points, alright, but using the notion in ways I normally don’t see them used. And, I expect to use the idea as it pertains to a number of hot issues. Thus, when I say something that sticks in your craw (and in the post, there will be some of that for everyone, I think), I risk bogging down the discussion at any one of the illustrative points.
But this blog is branching out a bit. I no longer blog strictly about Jesus vis-à-vis the homeless exactly. While I try to stay with related topics, sometimes I get further astray than I am comfortable with doing, but race relations is another hot button, and as a conservative, white, male, I aim to graciously evaluate and reevaluate my place in those matters too. And so, I will start by talking about race issues, but the idea of tipping points, as I will use it, covers a lot more than just that, and I will apply them to homeless ministry too.
White Police Officers and Black Lives Mattering
But most dramatically, I am looking at the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. The video evidence against Chauvin is damning, but as we see in a court of law is not airtight. There are arguments raised (whether they have merit or not is yet to be seen) which could explain away the incident. We will know shortly, I trust, how a jury thinks about it.
Still, no matter which way the verdict goes, there will be at least some who see it differently. The video evidence is very strong, but does it reach the tipping point where twelve jurors all agree on a verdict?
I remember how damning the Rodney King video seemed. But I must confess that when I heard the officers were following their training, that did temper my judgment too. I wasn’t ready to exonerate those cops, but I definitely could see a complication there which to my way of thinking mitigated culpability. Question was: Did it move the tipping point?
It made me think that those cops should have had a moral fortitude to recognize that their training was not good on the one hand, and it made me think the person who authorized that training should be fired and maybe shot. But, those ideas were not up for debate, on the one hand, and on the other, they complicate what appeared to be a straightforward abuse of power by police caught on a video.
The video a few years ago of Walter Scott, a black man running away from the cop, Michael Slager, seemed to finally pass the tipping point. Slager got 20 years for what he did, and we know after the fact that he tried to cover it up. A murder which might not have been premeditated in the fullest sense, but which the cop felt so licensed to commit that he casually committed it and tried to cover it up, and we have the clear video evidence which his best arguments could not overpower.
I am white enough, and I have worked in law enforcement enough, that even when I first saw the George Floyd video, I was hesitant to immediately find fault with the white cop. However, I could plainly see he was very near the tipping point even for me. I needed to know what was happening off camera. It was my gut reaction. I couldn’t believe this cop just woke up with such cold indifference for human life that he would just snuff a suspect like that in front of witnesses – witnesses obviously filming him! All the more damning when no explanations materialize which could explain it away.
Amber Guyger supposedly thought she was defending her own home when she “mistakenly” shot and killed Botham Jean. I had real sympathy with that one, and I don’t defend my home with a gun at all. I think she was truly mistaken. Shouldn’t she get a pass for making a simple mistake? Well, a pass is asking a lot, but surely such a mistake could happen to nearly any of us who defend our homes with guns. I recall a few years ago when my wife’s grandmother became deathly ill and no one could raise my mother-in-law on the phone late at night to inform her. I dutifully was sent to her door to ask her to answer her phone. But she didn’t answer the doorbell either, and I was tasked with punching in the security code on the garage door and entering her dark house to wake her up. I knew as I did that I was a dark and strange figure moving around in her house late at night, and that she and her husband protect their home with firearms. I was fortunate that she met me unarmed in the garage! Guyger’s mistake was only slightly more complicated than my scenario!
I am pleased to see that Guyger was embraced by the victim’s brother. That is a costly hug, but really the only peaceful way forward, I think.
Here’s what I am thinking: Derek Chauvin’s actions on that video really pushed the boundaries of policing. Should he have restrained Floyd at all? Well, I know from first hand experience that restraint is always a judgment call, and one that must be made quickly in most cases. But once reviewed with hindsight, it is a necessary one more often than not. I also know, from first hand experience, that once a person is restrained, their vital signs must be constantly monitored and restraint must be adjusted as needed to preserve life. Restraint is not meant to be punishment nor deterrence for others. It is meant to preserve safety, actually. I know these things both from repeated training and experience. These are universal truths which the video of Chauvin and Floyd clearly demonstrate were lacking.
If you have a restrained detainee so overpowered that you can keep your hand in your pocket, then you need to loosen up a bit!
I am amazed that even the bystanders could plainly tell Chauvin he was killing Floyd. Floyd’s opinion on the matter may have been accurate, but it was biased too. But the bystanders, most (I presume) not having the training to restrain people that both Chauvin and I have had, clearly could see the need, and they spoke up, but Chauvin displayed indifference.
In my view (and I have not watched the trial with a close eye, so I am not trying to second guess the jury here), the video presents an extreme case. We have reached the outer limits with this one. If, and I am saying IF, if a jury determines Chauvin’s actions were legal and justifiable in some sense, there is certainly no way around the fact that he took his actions to the living end of legal limits. (Personally, I think he passed the tipping point.) In fact, if, and once again I am saying IF, his actions are determined justifiable, there will be policy reviews and changes after this to prevent this from happening again.
But this brings me to the other recent cop shooting of a black man (there are so many to choose from for examples that I cringe singling any one or two out) of Daunte Wright by Officer Kimberly Potter who, in my view, presents the other end of the spectrum in “mistaken” killings. The video clearly shows an unintended action, poor split second decisions of life-or-death consequence, and her instant regret. We ask this officer to protect us, to put herself in danger to do it, and to make life-or-death decisions on our behalf on a daily basis, and out of a reasonably good career, one where she is deemed capable of training others, she makes this fatal blunder.
Now she is charged, and perhaps rightly so, but this one seems to hug the other end of the culpability spectrum from Chauvin. Chauvin’s cold indifference against Potter’s instant regret and honest mistake – these are what the videos tell us even before the lawyers pick them apart.
Here’s just one more bit of perspective you aren’t likely to find anywhere else: Way back in 1986, on a cold January morning, someone failed to properly assess the O-rings on the Challenger Space Shuttle, and that costly little mistake, which could have happened a hundred times on a hundred other launches without consequence, suddenly cost seven people their lives in one of the most spectacular events of the decade. They should have known better too!
But this is race. This is police. And there are other layers and levels of pain vying for a place in this picture. I have more sympathy for Potter than Guyger on this one and no sympathy for Chauvin. I see the video, and even without a trial, I think she made an honest mistake. I am betting there will be policy changes nationwide in the wake of that little mistake, but I think it was still an honest mistake. I don’t want to see this woman crucified over it.
But one of those other layers vying for a place in this picture, the one that really resonates with me even as a conservative, white man with law enforcement sensitivities is this: It keeps happening to black men.
I still don’t want to see Potter crucified for it, but that observation really matters.
I think Wright should have submitted to the cops. If he had, he would almost certainly be alive today. I wonder why Adam Toledo, at only thirteen years old, is out on the streets with a gun in his hand at 2 am. I am certain that if he had been home at that hour with no gun in his hand, he would be alive today. I realize that at the split-second moment when he was shot, he no longer had the gun in his hand, but I still contend that if he had not been there at that hour, he would not have been killed. And I think these observations have merit too. I am a white man, but both my dad and my grandpa told me so many times the trouble they ever got into was merely because they were “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and thus it is important to learn to not do even that as best you can. That proverb has probably saved my life many times over!
But even that is not a tipping point. It is just a good proverb. A rule of thumb. It is not enough to justify killing Toledo at all, but it is good wisdom he should have observed. It would have saved his life.
At what point is a police officer taking the life of a person justifiable? We are now analyzing such questions down to the millisecond like armchair quarterbacks. And perhaps we should. But, for me the only reason we should is because black people have reached a tipping point where they now hold the police to account with video clips shared in the media. This kind of thing, as the Slager video clearly demonstrates, could have been happening all too often with no accountability before video captured the injustice. Even one Rodney King video wasn’t enough to cross the tipping point, but now that there are so many, and there is a BLM movement to deal with, we have passed some tipping points.
It happens to white men too, but not nearly as frequently. There does seem to be aggregate racial element to it, and where to hold that to account is important to find out. It needs to change. Black lives do, in fact, matter. Some of them are friends and family of mine!
Do You Give a Bum a Dollar?
Okay… But cop shootings are not the only place we find tipping points. They just happen to be some of the more dramatic and contemporary.
What about serving the homeless?
You probably don’t see tipping points there, but I do. We justify our concern (or lack of concern) for the homeless all the time with mythical language and categories.
Consider this: Would you give money to a beggar on the corner if he smelled bad, looked ragged and you could see a half empty booze bottle poking out of his coat pocket?
What if he was a veteran?
What if she appeared mentally ill?
What if he just got off work from your favorite restaurant and you noticed him through the kitchen door washing dishes?
We often speak of “the deserving poor” – those we deem honest, hardworking, but who through circumstances beyond their control find themselves down and out. This category is in contrast to the undeserving, those who are lazy and wasteful, even ungrateful. And we make judgments about homeless people we see on city sidewalks, often in split second decisions, and categorize them in these ways.
But each kind of person I listed above represents points along spectrums of culpability. If a war vet returns home and cannot seem to adjust to civilian life, but for whatever reason has not committed suicide (as so very many do these days), what level of culpability do I need to demonstrate for you to turn your back on her? She already put her life on the line for your freedom! Even if she wastes your pocket change on drugs or booze, you owe her something. Right?
Just how culpable is a mental patient in the throes of psychosis? Can you turn your back on such a person in need? What if he refuses your care? Can you/should you turn your back then? What if it’s going to freeze tonight, and you encounter this person whose mental state is so dangerous they wouldn’t be held to account for murder due to reason of insanity? Aren’t you culpable if you turn your back then?
Do you know that many, many, many homeless people and beggars actually have jobs? Yeah. They might be mentally ill, down on their luck, vets, and even addicted, but a lot of them are not lazy at all. Just mixed up… or maybe their job pays so little they can’t afford a home – or both.
Where is the tipping point on your care then?
What if that homeless person is your mother or brother?
If you knew your grown child was thrown out on the street with no money and no where to turn in a city many hours drive away from you tonight, would you hop in your car and go get them? Would you bring them home to your home, feed, shelter, and love them?
What about a stranger?
Where is the tipping point in that?
No one ever analyzes those tipping points. There are no Homeless Lives Matter movements. The videos shared on YouTube of homeless people tend to either mock the poor and/or justify indifference or to tug at your heartstrings and get you to pay attention more, to care. But they rarely compete for your attention with the level of interest as a police shooting. (That seems like yet another tipping point inquiry.)
A Baptist/Hindu Tipping Point
Are you a Baptist?
Where was the tipping point in your becoming a Baptist?
Was it because you were raised in the church? Were your parents Baptist? Your best friends in school? Was the Baptist youth group the one with the best ski trips?
Or was there a hellfire and brimstone sermon when you were nine years old that was so convicting you had to join the church?
Did you have a crisis of faith and “experience God” with Henry Blackaby?
Did you find a “purpose driven life” with Rick Warren?
Were you in prison when the Baptists brought you a Kairos service?
What was the tipping point?
Cuz, here’s the thing: If you had been born poor, and Hindu in India forty years ago, you would very likely NOT be Baptist today. There were a number of circumstances and decisions on the parts of a number of people that led you to be Baptist. And I just wonder where that tipping point was.
So many of the things we believe and the actions we do and the events we witness are so deeply affected by tipping points but without careful reflection and analysis they often seem immutable.
A Hate and Fear Tipping Point
How did so many white people LIKE ME come to view it as okay, acceptable, wise or even justifiable to storm the Capitol Building on January 6th and trample on the order of government under banners and flags suggesting they represent Jesus? Did these “Christians” ever read Romans 13 and maybe tell others to obey the authorities and show respect?
Such was not the case with my grandpa’s generation.
What changed? Where is the tipping point?