Monday, January 19, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

            Each year people in the United States observe a holiday to honor the life, ministry, and memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Atlanta, Georgia black Baptist pastor whose dedication to social justice through nonviolence challenged our nation and world.  People from various political, social, religious, income, ethnic, gender, and other identities pause to remember Dr. King’s life and work with more ceremonies and activities than they do for the holidays that honor U.S. presidents.  Why is that so?

            Perhaps Dr. King’s life, work, and memory are honored so much because he confronted our society and world with moral claims that cut across the boundaries of ethnicity, income, class, religious creed, nationality, and political ideology.  Dr. King constantly preached and protested about social justice, equality, peace, and the need for us to create the “beloved community.”

Dr. King refused to compromise or water down his vision that all people are entitled to be free, fed, healed, educated, safe, welcomed, and hopeful.  He refused to limit that vision to black people, people in Georgia, the U.S. South, or even the United States.  King resisted attempts by politicians to coopt his vision.  His vision was prophetic, not political.  His value system was communitarian, not nationalistic or patriotic.   We should honor the life, ministry, and memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. for those reasons.

However, Dr. King probably would not be pleased with the gap between the ceremonies and symbolism associated with the King Holiday and the policies and practices that determine how people are living today.  While Dr. King would have welcomed the election of a black person as president of the United States, he would openly question President Obama’s refusal to address the poverty, classism, and militarism that infect our society and world. 

Dr. King would question how U.S. national, state, and local leaders continue to do little more than pay lip service to the cancer of racism and brutality within law enforcement agencies. The preacher who penned the 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail that lovingly indicted the hypocrisy of religious leaders and the soft-mindedness of white moderates would probably not be impressed with talk about how much our society has improved concerning social justice. 

Dr. King would probably remind us that the U.S. public education system continues to disserve children who are poor, not white, and unprivileged.  Dr. King would not be impressed by how many black people are able to drive luxury automobiles and live in gated communities.  Instead, he would question how a society can brag about being prosperous when so many more people from every ethnicity lack decent housing, are hungry, and are given only passing thought. 

Dr. King would remind us that motion is not the same thing as progress.  He would not ignore the vicious backlash that followed the successful campaign he was part of to protect the rights of black people to vote in this societyDr. King would tell us that racial profiling and the “war on drugs” has disenfranchised many of the people whose right to vote he championed fifty years ago.  Thanks to the “war on drugs” there are now more politically disenfranchised black people in 2015 than there were black slaves in 1860.  Dr. King would trouble us with the idea that racial profiling and the current mass incarceration of black and brown people are simply current examples of political and social oppression suffered by people of color across U.S. history.

Dr. King would look on our world and be troubled.  He would not be silent about or support how the United States subsidizes mistreatment of Palestinians by the government of Israel.  He would denounce as hypocrisy attempts by U.S. politicians, religious leaders, and business champions to honor his lifelong commitment to peace while ignoring how Palestinians and other vulnerable people are brutalized, marginalized, and otherwise mistreated.  Dr. King would see no difference between the wickedness of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation in the United States, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and present policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians.  And Dr. King would probably question, aloud, how black religious, political, and social leaders can be silent about, if not complicit in, the oppression of Palestinians given our own history.

It is fitting and proper that we honor the life, ministry, and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But we must do more than hold solemn assemblies and listen to recitations of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.  Perhaps we would be better served by assembling to listen to Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 sermon titled “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City.  In that sermon Dr. King boldly urged our society to cease its military operations in Southeast Asia and, beyond that, to embrace what he called “a radical revolution of values” away from the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered exactly one year after preaching that sermon.  He was not murdered for his “I Have a Dream” oration, but for breaking silence about those “giant triplets” and demanding that our society and world turn away from our addiction to them.  It is clear that we have not broken that addiction since Dr. King’s life was taken on April 4, 1968. 

We should not profess to honor Dr. King’s life, ministry, and memory today while refusing to practice the values for which he lived and died.  Until our society and world does so, we do not truly honor Martin Luther King, Jr.  We simply hype his name.  Dr. King’s memory deserves better than that.  But more importantly, so do our society and world.

Friday, January 16, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

            Current attention to the cancerous issues of racial profiling and police brutality is long overdue.  Growing numbers of people who are white are finally beginning to openly question and challenge the wrong-headed mindset that law enforcement agents are above criticism when they abuse and slaughter people of color.  Young people have moved beyond agitation to activism in communities across the United States.  Perhaps these and other developments are signs that our society may be, finally, arousing from a hangover caused by decades of “law and order” and “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies that were, in many instances, merely a veneer for racism. 

But the mindset responsible for racial profiling and brutalizing of people of color by law enforcement agents will not be easily overcome.  At the root of that mindset is a belief based on concern—if not fear—on the part of many people of white privilege about losing control over people of color. 

The hard fought victories over more than 250 years of slavery and another 100 years of racial segregation struck fear into the hearts of people who depended on white privilege and a false sense of self-worth based on white supremacy.  During the 1960s it became clear that black people were no longer willing to put up with segregation.  The nonviolent civil disobedience efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (led by young black activists such as John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Diane Nash, and Robert Moses) presented an outright challenge to white supremacy and white privilege. 

Those campaigns also showed black people openly challenging the immorality of white supremacy, racism, and the law enforcement system established and maintained to enforce it.  Racial segregation and white opposition to black equality have always been enforced by threats and acts of violence against people of color.  Dr. King and others of his era showed white supremacists that black people would no longer cower in fear when confronted by racism-inspired threats of violence whether the threats came from Ku Klux Klan members dressed in white sheets and hoods or from uniformed baton-wielding and armed police officers, state troopers, and National Guards soldiers. 

Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and other political and law enforcement leaders responded to nonviolent efforts of civil rights activists by denouncing efforts to achieve social and political equality as threats to “law and order.”   Civil rights activists and the people whose equality they advocated—black people and white people joined with them—were viewed as criminal suspects, not patriots.  The police became the foot soldiers in a deliberate effort to intimidate black people. 

“Law and order” rhetoric and tactics eventually morphed into “tough on crime” tactics. The targets of the “tough on crime” agenda were black people—descendants of Africans who were enslaved, raped, robbed, murdered, cheated, and denied education as part of a calculated effort of racial control.  Again, police officers were the foot soldiers for the “tough on crime” counter-thrust to black activism. 

This is a thumbnail summary of the long and disturbing history of racial profiling and police brutality.  That history lies at the root of the wariness many black people exercise during even casual encounters with people in law enforcement.  That history is almost never acknowledged, let alone admitted, by law enforcement and political leaders who urge people of color to “trust the police.”   

Police and civic leaders who want honest dialogue with people of color must recognize and admit that black and brown people have valid claims against the law enforcement apparatus that enforces white supremacy and upholds white privilege.  Those claims will not be talked away in “dialogue” sessions, community forums, or other “meet and greet” exercises. 

Black and brown people are not responsible for racial profiling and police brutality.  Police and civic leaders who urge people of color to take responsibility for being victimized by racial profiling and police brutality are trying to shift the blame for racial profiling and police brutality onto the black and brown victims of those evil practices rather than accepting responsibility for confronting and ending them.  People of color have no reason to expect positive results from “dialogue” with law enforcement and other civic leaders about racial profiling and police brutality when those leaders are not honest enough to admit that racial profiling and police brutality are evils caused by a law enforcement culture infected by racist notions of white supremacy and dedicated to protecting white privilege.

            The time is past for meetings about “dialogue.”  People of color and others who understand the forces behind racial profiling and police brutality now demand that the law enforcement community change its culture, thinking, and behavior towards black and brown people.  Instead of talking about how black and brown people should behave during police encounters, communities of color demand that police leaders command their personnel to treat black and brown people with respect and dignity, not consider them criminal suspects based on their ethnic identity. 

Simply put, people of color demand that the police treat them the way the police treat people with white privilege.  That isn’t something black and brown parents need to talk with their children about.  It is a discipline police and civic leaders must instill in and demand from every police officer.  Until police and civic leaders demonstrate they have the integrity and determination to end racial profiling and police brutality, they should expect the distrust that many people of color have concerning law enforcement to grow wider and deeper.

The message to police and civic leaders concerning the evils of racial profiling and police brutality and the growing resentment toward the police by many people in communities of color is simple.  Stop blaming the victims of police misbehavior for not trusting you while you defend abusive and homicidal police officers.  Stop pretending you don’t know who the vicious people are in your police agencies and can’t get rid of them.  Stop asking people of color to take responsibility for fixing the system you operate. 

If police and civic leaders want to heal the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color those leaders should look in the mirror—to borrow from Michael Jackson—not across the table at victims of racial profiling and police brutality.  You created and run this mess. Fix it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

Arkansas political leaders, led by recently elected Governor Asa Hutchinson, have begun openly talking about shipping prison inmates to privately owned prisons in other states.  They say doing this is better than building a new 1,000 bed prison at a construction cost of $100 million, and then operating that facility in future years.  Before people compliment Governor-elect Hutchinson and other politicians for what they may claim is an effort to save tax dollars we should consider some uncomfortable truth.

In 1972 there were fewer than 350,000 people in local, state, and federal prisons and jails.  In 1974, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that no new lockup facilities be built for adults and that the then existing institutions for juveniles be closed.  There are now over 2.3 million people locked away in prisons and jails across the United States. 

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners and Arkansas faces a prison and jail overcrowding crisis because voters unwisely embraced arguments by politicians that demonized people suffering from drug dependency, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness for the past forty years.  If prison rates in the U.S. dropped to early 1970s levels it is estimated that four out of five people currently behind bars would need to be released.  More than a million people would lose their jobs, including more than 700,000 prison and jail guards, prison administrators, service workers, and other personnel.  Prisons would have to be closed!

Prisons are intended to remove people that society considers dangerous from those who are peaceful.  However, non-violent offenders make up the overwhelming majority of people in Arkansas prisons and jails.  Arkansas prisons and jails are overcrowded, by and large, because politicians decided over the years to treat people suffering from drug dependency, mental illness, unemployment, and homelessness as criminals. 

Building new prisons won’t solve the problems of drug addiction, mental illness, unemployment, and homelessness.  Solving those problems will require investing in community based health and wellness clinics, building and staffing more public schools that educate people of all ages so they can be better educated, encouraging employers to pay decent wages and salaries to workers, and making affordable housing available to workers and their families.  But as my father would often say, “doing that would be too much like right.”

There would not be a prison overcrowding problem if the people we have criminalized because of drug dependency, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness had been treated as disabled rather than dangerous.  These people would not have been stripped of their civil rights, including the right to vote.  Their families would have been supported, not marginalized.  We would be a healthier, productive, and compassionate society. 

However, mass incarceration is essential to what I call the “prison-industrial complex.”  A prison is a place of custody or confinement.  There is money to be made in building, maintaining, and operating prisons. Land must be purchased and developed.  That produces money for real estate developers, bankers, attorneys, surveyors, and construction companies. 

Prisons must be staffed.  Guards must be hired, trained, outfitted with uniforms and equipment including weapons (firearms, Tasers, and restraint devices).  Health care services must be provided for prisoners and prison staff.  That produces money for manufacturers of firearms, uniforms, prison furnishings (beds, mattresses, laundry, etc.), and for the companies that provide medical, dental, and other healthcare services. 

Governor-Elect Hutchinson and the politicians talking about sending Arkansas prison and jail inmates to lockup facilities in Louisiana surely realize that sending Arkansas inmates to Louisiana means paying someone to hold and care for those inmates.  Who will be paid?  How much will Arkansas pay? 

This issue, like anything else involving justice, is fundamentally a moral concern.  Why should we out-source caring for Arkansans who are not dangerous, but who suffer from drug dependency, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness? 

Why shouldn’t we love our neighbors enough to care for them in Arkansas rather than treat them as disposable waste to be deposited elsewhere? 

What is just about a process where our disabled, mentally ill, impoverished, and homeless neighbors are systematically stopped, arrested, charged, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated as part of complex series of business ventures ultimately intended to create profits for investors? 

I have long called for a moratorium on building and expanding prisons and jails in Arkansas.  I also oppose the idea of sending Arkansas inmates out of state.  We won’t solve the injustice of mass incarceration by shipping the victims of that injustice elsewhere. 

Friday, January 2, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

The Yuletide revelry and carols have ended.  Christmas decorations will soon be taken down and stored, if that has not already happened.  The holiday hustle and bustle is behind us—perhaps this means people will drive more sensibly and not compete for parking spaces in shopping centers.  Children and teachers and staff members return to schools next week in most places, and workers will resume our usual schedules.   Public officials have been, in most cases, sworn in for their new terms of office. 

During the holiday season it is fashionable to make charitable contributions to needy causes, including those who are poor, homeless, sick, and otherwise vulnerable.  But the Christmas and New Year holidays are behind us now.  Will the people who opened their purses to make charitable donations open our eyes and hearts to understand the systemic causes for poverty, homelessness, sickness, and other vulnerability that operate every day?  Or will we refuse to understand that it is hypocrisy to practice heartlessness throughout the year and pretend to remedy the violence of systemic heartlessness during the Christmas season? 

Will the much needed and long overdue outrage about police brutality and racial profiling that rose last year after Michael Brown, Jr. was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner was choked to death in Staten Island, New York continue in the new year?  Will activists and advocates continue challenging the myth that people who work in law enforcement are above criticism when they brutalize and kill others?  Or will we become nonchalant about the relationship between cultural incompetence and racial injustice?

Will this be the year, finally, when people of goodwill and moral insight across the United States demand that our nation stop throwing its money, military support, and moral influence behind racist policies by the Israeli government towards Palestinians?  Will this be the year that leaders of Christian congregations and larger bodies finally realize that the modern nation of Israel is not above the great Biblical teaching that one must love others as one loves oneself?  Or will we continue ignoring the land theft, economic oppression, and political inequality suffered by Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government?

Will Arkansas politicians continue cheating families and the future of our State by refusing to provide and fund early childhood public education?  Will the people of our State stand by and watch funds that could be used to strengthen families, neighborhoods, healthcare, and build lives be diverted to construct a new prison estimated to cost $100 million? 

We have entered a new year.  What will we do this year to make life different and better?  What will you do?