Faith in Vermont: No Child of Ours
Last week -- the week when Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile was fatally shot by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota -- I had my monthly book club meeting.
The two events may seem entirely unrelated: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were both young black men in their 30s; my book club is comprised of seven white women in their 30s and 40s. But this month, our book club was discussing my reading pick, the book Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Between the World and Me is a memoir written as a letter from Coates to his teenage son. Tracing his own path from inner-city Baltimore to Howard University to a successful writing career in New York and Paris, Coates also reflects upon the violent history of racism in America and the tragedy that too often follows young black men growing up in the United States.
I chose this book for my book club because it had been highly recommended – mandated, almost – by the keynote speaker at an event I attended in April during our family’s sabbatical in Berkeley, California. The event was called, “Unlikely Advocates: Using Power & Privilege for Justice.” The speaker, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, is Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. Speaking to an audience that was overwhelmingly made up of affluent white and Asian professionals, Dr. Salter McNeil gave a rousing address on how those who are powerful and privileged (all of us in that audience) can stand on the side of justice.
One of the things she told us to do was to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book.
My book club is also powerful and privileged; it includes intelligent women who work as professors, lawyers, and veterinarians. As we discussed Between the World and Me, sitting on the front porch of a large Victorian house, sipping wine and looking across the wide green lawn, it was impossible to ignore how very safe we felt. How very distant from the places where you can be shot to death if you reach for your wallet during a routine traffic stop. From the places where there’s no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop.
Our conversation on that warm July evening meandered from Coates’s book to the recent police shootings. The video of the aftermath of Philando Castile’s killing, live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, had aired the day before. Among my book club sisters, there was no disagreement: These events were terrible. They had to stop. And we felt completely powerless to do anything.
It’s easy to feel safe and set apart from the world in Vermont. It’s not that racial tension doesn’t exist here, it’s just that – in a state that’s 96% white – there isn’t enough racial diversity to really put our tolerance to the test.
It’s also easy to feel powerless in the face of enormous evils like racism, violence, and injustice. These evils have persisted throughout human history. We are barraged daily by reports of new atrocities. The loud voices that exhort us to react or vote accordingly cancel each other out and leave us stranded in confused inertia.
For example, in the aftermath of mass shootings such as those at the Sandy Hook school, the San Bernardino office party, and the Orlando nightclub, I heard voices yelling that the key to preventing these types of attack was to arm as many people as possible via concealed-carry gun permits. Although the details are still unclear, it appears that a contributing factor to Philando Castile’s death was his honestly informing a police officer that he had a concealed-carry permit before he reached for his wallet. Alton Sterling was shot because he was reportedly carrying a gun – but Louisiana is an open-carry state.
Does carrying a gun save your life or cause your death? The answer, it seems, depends on the color of your skin.
I feel as confused, powerless, uneducated about all sides of the issue as the next person. But at Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s talk, she said something that I starred in my notes; she said, “Change happens through story.”
As a writer, stories are what I do.
When I went home after book club and sat at my laptop to watch the video of Philando Castile’s killing, here is the story I saw:
A four-year-old girl who had just seen her mother’s boyfriend shot by a police officer – an officer who continued to hold her mother at gunpoint -- was held by another police officer and watching as her mother’s boyfriend bled to death. I heard this girl cry out, “Mommy!” when her mother was taken from the car and put in handcuffs. Later, riding in the back of a squad car with her handcuffed mother, the little girl whispered, “I’m scared.” And then, as her mother began to lose her calm demeanor and scream over the events that they’d been thrust into, this little girl said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m right here with you.”
I have young daughters. As a mother, I have long believed that all children are our children. And NO CHILD OF OURS should have to witness violence and death; NO CHILD OF OURS should have reason to be scared of the people who are sworn to uphold justice, and NO CHILD OF OURS should be forced into the role of having to comfort their bereaved parent.
“Plenty of children experience violence, death, fear, and loss,” you may say. “That’s just life, and life is unfair.”
Yes, life is unfair – but we seem to know, deep down, that it should be fair. We even have a word for this: justice. In that video, a little girl witnesses the violent death of her father figure. I hope and pray that she transcends this moment and grows into a strong and happy woman, but this is not the sort of event that children “just get over.” This child may never feel truly safe again, and that is unjust.
While I write this, my own daughters are sleeping peacefully upstairs. Their father and I tell them that if they have a problem and they’re alone, they should find a police officer -- like Middlebury’s Officer Christopher Mason. The day after Alton Sterling was killed, I witnessed Officer Mason walking up and down Merchants Row for upwards of an hour, trying to find the (out-of-state) owners of a dog who was locked in a hot car. Officer Mason stopped frequently to check on the dog.
Not all police officers are like Officer Mason. And not all parents can tell their children to go find a police officer if they have a problem.
Philando Castile’s killing was an act of senseless violence. It was violence against him, his loved ones, the black community, and humanity. And it was violence against an innocent four-year-old girl.
Watching that video, I wanted to reach inside my laptop and pull that little girl out. I wanted to invite her to play with my daughters, to run through the sprinkler on the lawn, to lick popsicles on the porch. To feel safe and happy and loved – shouldn’t we be able to offer this to all children? Shouldn’t we be able to offer this to all people?
I am confused, powerless, and largely ignorant. I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do; I'm just trying to tell a story. I can bear witness to this little girl’s story, and I can hope that doing so may be a step towards change.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.