The day after 18-year-old Michael Brown died from gunshot wounds inflicted by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., 3-year-old Knijah Bibb was playing in a bedroom at her cousin’s home in Landover, Md.
For the little girl who loved pink bows and Disney World, the Sunday afternoon in a Washington, D.C., suburb would be her last.
Police say an argument about clothing erupted at the Maryland home on Aug. 10. Officials say Davon Wallace, 25, left the home and returned with a gun. They say he fired several shots into the house, but his intended target wasn’t there. Instead, a bullet struck Bibb through her heart. She died later that day.
The following weeks brought anguished funerals in both Missouri and Maryland. Thousands of family, friends, and activists gathered at Michael Brown’s funeral on a hot August morning near Ferguson. Brown’s father sat across from his son’s graveside casket in a sweat-soaked dress shirt, openly weeping.
Nearly 800 miles away, a smaller group of family and friends assembled in a Baptist church in Washington, D.C., for Bibb’s funeral. Mourners filed by a tiny white casket, where the toddler lay in a pretty white dress next to a soft teddy bear with a pink bow. “I was with my baby when she died,” Bibb’s mother said. “I tried to save her, but I just couldn’t keep her alive.”
It’s a tale of two sorrows, and it’s a story familiar in cities across the United States: Homicides end thousands of African-American lives each year. For black men ages 15-34, murder is the number one cause of death.
While Brown’s death brought international attention after riots and looting erupted in Ferguson over his shooting by white police officer Darren Wilson, dozens of other black deaths slip beneath the national radar every week.
Indeed, at least 100 African-Americans died by white police gunfire each year from 2005 to 2012, according to a USA Today analysis of the most recent FBI data on justifiable homicide by law enforcement. (Police killed at least 400 persons each year during the same period.) Accurate numbers are likely higher, since law enforcement officials self-report the statistics to the FBI, and not all police departments participate. No national database exists for easily classifying such information.
Meanwhile, the number of black assailants who kill black victims is even higher. In 2011, more than 6,000 African-Americans died by homicide. FBI data shows the vast majority were black men who died at the hands of other black men.
While most white homicide victims die at the hands of white assailants, the FBI reports a disproportionate number of black homicide victims and offenders. Black homicides make up nearly 50 percent of murders, while African-Americans represent 13 percent of the population.
Some say raising that statistic takes away from a focus on Ferguson’s racial inequities and on Michael Brown’s homicide by a white police officer. They say shootings by police carry unique import because of the power officers wield. They speak of an American history riddled by white abuse of African-Americans, including by many in positions of authority. The national reaction to Ferguson showed a racial divide: More than 80 percent of African-Americans said Michael Brown’s death raised racial issues that merit discussion, while 47 percent of white Americans said the incident was getting more attention than it deserved.
Perhaps there’s room to discuss both. As many Americans—including black and white Christians—rightly grapple with the racial undercurrent and broader implications of Michael Brown’s death, there’s also an opportunity for those concerned about the sanctity of all lives to lament the other homicides cutting down thousands of African-American men, women, and children made in the image of God.
Many in the black community have called for more of this focus both in their own circles and beyond. When national media attention fixed on the Florida shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin by Hispanic George Zimmerman in 2012, President Barack Obama lamented the teen’s tragic demise: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
During the previous weekend, 41 persons, mostly African-Americans, were shot in the president’s hometown of Chicago. One victim was a 6-year-old girl. T. Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miami Inc., told The Daily Caller: “The outrage should be about us killing each other, about black-on-black crime. … Would you think to have 41 people shot [in Chicago] between Friday morning and Monday morning would be much more newsworthy and deserve more outrage?”
In Michael Brown’s case, cries went out for the arrest of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. By early September, local officials—and the U.S. Department of Justice—said investigations were ongoing into the details of the shooting. A St. Louis prosecutor estimated he would finish presenting evidence to a grand jury by mid-October.
At Brown’s funeral, his great-uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing, underscored the fundamental human tragedy of any homicide in any context. “There is a cry being made from the ground,” Ewing told mourners. “Not just for Michael Brown but for the Trayvon Martins, for those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, for the Columbine massacre, for the black-on-black crime.”
CRIES WENT UP at the funeral of Knijah Bibb before her family committed her small body to the ground in August. Mourners wiped tears, and loved ones remembered a happy 3-year-old already picking up Spanish in her bilingual preschool class. Friends lamented the violence that took Bibb’s life, and one speaker vowed the toddler’s death wouldn’t be in vain: “Because it’s time to make a change.”
Sadly, it wasn’t clear how change would happen. Police were still looking for Bibb’s suspected killer and said they believed others might be hiding him. Bibb’s mother pleaded with the gunman to surrender.
Just two weeks before, another 3-year-old girl died in a drive-by shooting less than 40 miles away. A bullet struck and killed McKenzie Elliott outside her home in Baltimore, Md., on Aug. 1.
At Elliott’s funeral, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (an African-American woman), stood before the girl’s pink coffin and told the crowd: “As a mother, just the anger almost overwhelms me that this beautiful family has to be here with this beautiful child we are about to put into the ground. … She is in that box because of our community. … We have to do better for our city.”
In the months leading up to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, a string of gun-related homicides wrought havoc on black citizens in nearby St. Louis. On a rare warm evening in an otherwise frigid winter, three shootings killed three men within a few minutes on Jan. 26. The victims were black males ages 16-22.
In April, Jeresha Gatlin, a 20-year-old aspiring medical assistant, died on her way to church when an unknown gunman opened fire in a St. Louis neighborhood. Two other passengers sustained gunshot wounds. Gatlin’s 9-month-old daughter survived the attack with a cut.
By early May, one north St. Louis neighborhood had endured eight homicides since the beginning of the year. Demetrius Griffin, 20, died when an angry neighbor opened fire after an argument. Authorities say Richard Watson, 43, shot Griffin in the head, neck, jaw, thumb, and arm.
And one month before Brown’s death, police say Antonio Muldrew shot convenience store worker Abdulrauf Kadir multiple times in the head and chest during a robbery. Kadir, 32, was an Ethiopian refugee who had sought safety in the United States. He was working to bring his wife and two children to St. Louis. As of mid-July, Kadir’s family remained in a refugee camp in Kenya. Their prospects were unclear.
If such homicides don’t always garner national attention, they do sometimes raise local ire. Marches and rallies this year in cities from Charleston, S.C., to Montgomery, Ala., to Chicago, have focused on the problem of black-on-black violence.
Less than three weeks after Brown’s death in Ferguson, the Community Empowerment Association in Pittsburgh sponsored a conversation on the “Culture of Violence in the Black Community.” CEO Rashad Byrdsong told the group, “We are responsible for our issues and we need to recognize them and commit to our part in identifying a fix.”
Beyond discussing the problems, identifying a fix has been difficult. After national outrage over the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, news analyst Juan Williams asked about broader issues in a Wall Street Journal column:
“Where is the march against the drug dealers who prey on young black people? Where is the march against bad schools, with their 50 percent dropout rate for black teenaged boys? Those failed schools are certainly guilty of creating the shameful 40 percent unemployment rate for black teens.”
In other cities, some local churches in high-crime areas have tried to address the deeper, spiritual roots of widespread problems, including fatherlessness and feelings of hopelessness in communities with decades of woes.
Last year J.B. Watkins, pastor of St. Roch Community Church in the 8th Ward of New Orleans, told WORLD he had buried three young people killed by violence in five years. Watkins said he focuses on building relationships and extending hope for lasting change in the transforming power of the gospel of Christ.
That’s easy to say, but the pastor emphasized that this kind of ministry is a lifelong commitment in difficult conditions, and involves helping the many law-abiding citizens in otherwise crime-ridden areas.
“I’ve told my church that we may have to see ourselves as Moses instead of Joshua,” said Watkins. “I wanted to walk into the Promised Land yesterday, but there’s a real sense in which we may be just tilling the soil and setting the groundwork for the next generation. … We may be the early settlers.”
BACK IN ST. LOUIS and other U.S. cities, some churches and Christian leaders are grappling with the racial tension boiling over since Brown’s death and the ensuing riots in Ferguson.
Like many other cities, St. Louis is no stranger to racial tension. Indeed, American laws enforced a long history of abuses like slavery, segregation, and other forms of racial subjugation for over a century. Blood-boiling accounts of law enforcement allowing or facilitating the horrendous practice of lynching left a horrible scar on the African-American community.
If such realities seem like distant history for many Americans who never encountered them, memories remain fresh for others. Mike Higgins, the African-American pastor of South City Church (PCA) in St. Louis, remembers the first time he saw a “hanging tree.”
Higgins, 58, grew up in north St. Louis but remembers summer trips to Alabama with his grandparents. The couple had moved from Alabama to St. Louis in the 1930s during the “Great Migration,” when many blacks moved to northern cities in search of work.
During car rides across west Alabama to visit family, Higgins’ grandparents pointed out trees where they had seen black men hang. His grandmother remembers seeing a body hanging during a picnic. The trips made an impression on Higgins.
So did growing up in north St. Louis. Higgins says he endured a robbery and pistol-whipping at age 18, but like many other black men, he also endured living under a general suspicion of police because of the color of his skin.
Higgins—whose grandfather went to night school and became an engineer—pursued college and seminary, then became an Army chaplain and dean of students at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.
He’s grateful for his family and opportunities, but remains aware of the challenges for the black community. “So when this thing in Ferguson hit, all the raw emotions of being black in America just found me,” he says. “I try hard for them not to find me, but they just do.”
When Higgins explains the reaction of residents—and outsiders—to Brown’s death in Ferguson, he says some of the looters were “just criminals,” but many of the demonstrators were expressing frustration already bubbling beneath the surface: “It was almost like, ‘Can you hear me now?’”
He also thinks many black residents feared the police would quickly clear the officer who shot Brown, even if the shooting was unjustified, and that justice might not be served. The sight of police in riot gear likely stoked those fears.
Tensions already existed between the predominantly black Ferguson residents and the predominantly white Ferguson police. The Missouri attorney general’s office concluded last year that the town’s police were twice as likely to arrest a black resident during a traffic stop as a white resident. Earlier this year, St. Louis County initiated a study of complaints over racial profiling by county police. Meanwhile, a slate of other black men killed by police officers in recent weeks in cities across the United States has brought more angst—and even despair—in some communities.
While tensions raged in Ferguson, they also simmered within churches and evangelical communities. Higgins pastors a multiethnic church (about 85 percent white and 15 percent African-American and other minorities) and says it’s been challenging to work through the range of reactions in the congregation—from anger to apathy.
He grows frustrated at times and admits it would be easier to pastor in a predominantly black context where he wouldn’t have to explain how he felt. “I call it Jackie Robinson syndrome,” he says about serving as a kind of black expert in Christian circles. “Sometimes I just want to play baseball, not represent the whole race.”
Still, he says, pastoring a church with a large white population—and a white co-pastor—has given him an opportunity to display Christian unity across dividing lines. In a recent sermon, he acknowledged the complexity of the situation, but offered a clarifying principle for white Christians and black Christians: “Let’s all walk in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
Nearly 500 hundred miles south in Jackson, Miss., Jemar Tisby is working through similar issues. The president of the Reformed African American Network (and an intern at the multiethnic Redeemer Church in Jackson) says the range of reactions to Ferguson shows “the gap in experiences between whites and blacks in the United States.”
Like Higgins and many other black men, Tisby, 34, says he’s fallen under the suspicion of police because of the color of his skin. “I’ve never been arrested or charged with a crime,” he wrote. “But in many ways I constantly feel like a suspect.” (For example, Tisby recalls an episode in high school when he stopped at a convenience store with a black male friend and his white girlfriend at the time. He says a police officer asked the girl if she was in the car voluntarily.)
Tisby is careful to say all citizens should respect authority, but says such suspicions have a cumulative effect on the African-American psyche. He says the Ferguson situation raises questions and frustrations for blacks about justice across a range of other issues as well.
If that’s difficult for some white evangelicals to understand, Tisby has a simple plea: Try to empathize. “Many are hurting, and there’s something to it,” he says. “And we may not understand, but we can come along and listen and be empathetic, which communicates, if not understanding—then solidarity.” Some pastors—both black and white—suggest that could begin with simply initiating a conversation with someone of a different race.
Meanwhile, Joshua Waulk is encouraging empathy as well. Waulk is a Christian counselor at Baylight Counseling (and an associate pastor at Lakeview Baptist Church) in Florida, and he served as a police officer in St. Petersburg for nearly 17 years.
After the Brown shooting and subsequent riots, Waulk wrote a blog post asking readers to consider the difficulties police officers face. He knows them well: In 1996, after a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager, Waulk’s assignment was to help quell days of rioting in St. Petersburg.
Waulk says officers train for many possibilities when it appears a crowd could begin rioting and follow protocols to keep order: “In that moment, police officers must take action that looks really dramatic on the nighttime news.” In St. Petersburg, rioters shot a police officer in the leg and shot at the sheriff’s helicopter with an AK-47. He says many officers were ill prepared for the level of rioting that ensued.
Still, as a pastor, Waulk (a Cuban-American) says he’s also sensitive to the racial wounds that exist in America, and says the Ferguson situation has reminded him “there is still work to be done between my African-American brother and me.”
That’s work for every Christian, he says, since the reality of sin transcends race and culture, and the gospel of Christ is meant for members of all nations: “I think it should be the desire of every pastor and every Christ-follower, that we would live and move and breathe in our community and society in such a way that the effect of human sin is diminished.”
Being realistic about our own sins—and not just the sins of others—can help each person pursue empathy and humility: “We don’t need to craft narratives of each other or the world that are completely optimistic or completely pessimistic," says Tisby. "The gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to keep it real about Mike Brown, Ferguson, and ourselves.”