Response: February 2016 Issue

Responsively Yours: Choosing Human Dignity Over Fear

Responsively Yours: Choosing Human Dignity Over Fear
Harriett Olson speaks at the luncheon for delegates at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla.

When word of the Tamir Rice decision came down, I was spending time with family, including my 6-foot-1, 15-year-old nephew. Not long ago he and I stood in the kitchen, "measuring" to see if he was taller than me at 5-foot-7. This memory was so vivid as I thought about Tamir, the 5-foot-7 12-year-old shot and killed by a police officer responding to a call about someone with a gun in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. As the 911 caller said may be the case, Tamir's "gun" was a toy.

Just as in the Rice household, there were no guns in my nephew's home, but I remembered the array of plastic swords and sticks mimicking guns over a childhood of swashbuckling that has now given way to guitars and drums and juggling as my nephew is growing up. Tamir Rice will never have that chance.

My family also includes two new college graduates entering the world of work, pursuing further study and experiencing growing amounts of freedom and confidence. I thought about one of them driving to a new place, thinking about a new job, and I prayed for the family of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a cell in Waller County, Texas, after a traffic stop turned ugly in July 2015. She was headed for her first job post-graduation. Ms. Bland will never have that chance.

The announcement that there would be no indictment in Ms. Bland's death came on December 23, and the announcement of no indictment in Tamir's death came five days later. I couldn't stop thinking about their families and the families of so many other people of color who have died in encounters with law enforcement — victims of fear, of a system of beliefs and of societal norms of who and what is to be protected. The number of these incidents and the fact that no corrective seems to exist reminds us that these are systemic issues. This is not just a matter of the individual officers involved. Systemic changes are urgently needed.

This reality is named in the Charter for Racial Justice, and it is as true today as it was when United Methodist Women brought the current version of the document to General Conference in 1980. The charter, as it appears in The Book of Resolutions, states "In principle, the United States has outlawed racial discrimination: but in practice little has changed. … A system designed to meet the needs of one segment of the population cannot be the means to the development of a just society for all."

The analysis is still true. The statements in the charter are still true. The commitments to action affirmed in the charter are still relevant and oh, so needed. United Methodist Women is presenting the charter to the 2016 General Conference for readoption as well as a new resolution on "Criminalization of Communities of Color."

But the drafting and approval of documents is not enough. The country is becoming more aware of case after case of African Americans dying in custody or in encounters with police. This is an opportunity for United Methodist Women members to ground ourselves in our analysis and our faith and move toward concrete action that can result in changed actions and outcomes.

It is time and past time for us to act. The system is not working for people of color. It is not working for police officers and others, including members of United Methodist Women, who are enmeshed in it. The charter can help us to reset our standards and prompt us to work with others to reform the system itself. We must press for a "new normal" in which human dignity is more compelling than fear.

May it be so.

Harriett Jane Olson
General Secretary
United Methodist Women 

Posted or updated: 2/3/2016 11:00:00 PM

February 2016 cover of response

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