Last night’s ruling: reflecting on Ferguson and justice

By Daniel Kaplan
Community Organizer

Isaiah 58

8. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever goes on it knows no peace.

ח. דֶּרֶךְ שָׁלוֹם לֹא יָדָעוּ וְאֵין מִשְׁפָּט בְּמַעְגְּלֹתָם נְתִיבוֹתֵיהֶם עִקְּשׁוּ לָהֶם כֹּל דֹּרֵךְ בָּהּ לֹא יָדַע שָׁלוֹם:


Photograph by Sarah Jane Rhee.

Last night, the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri chose not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black unarmed teenager. As a Jewish organization dedicated to ending systemic racism in Chicago, we believe it’s important for the Jewish community to pause and reflect on how we must respond.

Jewish tradition teaches that  humankind is created in the image of God, B’tselem Elohim. From this we learn, quite simply, that all lives matter. As Jews living in the United States, we have an obligation to not only affirm that all lives matter, but specifically black lives matter. Last night, I joined hundreds of black community members and allies in anticipation of the grand jury decision. Standing outside a  police station on 35th and Michigan, I heard youth activists recall the names of countless black men and women whose lives had been prematurely extinguished.  In addition to Michael Brown we remembered Roshad McIntosh, who was shot by Chicago police in August under similar circumstances. We remembered Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by police in Cleveland last weekend. We remembered Marissa Alexander, a victim of domestic violence who will serve three years in prison and have a lifetime felon status because she fired a warning shot away from her attacker. We remembered Trayvon Martin.  All black, and all killed, incarcerated, or otherwise failed by predominantly white juries and white law enforcement.

While all lives matter, we must specifically uphold black lives because of our society’s systemic devaluation of their worth. Speakers from last night’s demonstration drew connections between last night’s decision to the United States’ history of commodifying black life. From slavery to sharecropping to redlining and exploitative housing contracts to the prison industrial complex, these recent episodes of police brutality fit into a centuries-old legacy.  A group called “We Charge Genocide” recently testified to the United Nations Committee Against Torture about police brutality in Chicago and the United States. Last night’s grand jury decision was not a tragic episode, but rather another product of a deeply ingrained system that exploits and dehumanizes black bodies and minds.

We must always remember that to pursue justice means to shine a light on structural racism and inequality however and whenever we can. When JCUA sang for a trauma center in September, we did so because we understand that systemic racism in Chicago has deprived entire swaths of the city a fundamental medical service. When we support immigrants seeking sanctuary, we do so because we recognize that economic and political forces pressure people to immigrate whether or not our immigration policy allows them to. When we stand with workers seeking redress for wage theft, we do so because we know our economic policies have created staggering wealth inequality and privileged the profits of corporate executives over the rights of the working class. Everything we do at JCUA is connected to a systemic injustice, and without calling out these systems we cannot pursue justice.

Today, let us take a moment to pause from our regular programs and campaigns to reflect on this travesty. As we take a moment to truly feel for Michael Brown, his family, and so many other extinguished black lives, let us recommit to our work with an intention to end to perpetuation of systemic injustices across our city.

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