“Their blood flows in the streets”

Posted June 14th, 2012 by

I anticipated that I would write today about the class in which I’m participating at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute in Harrisonburg Virginia: “Healing the Wounds of History: Peacebuilding through Transformative Theater.”

But an incident in Pittsburgh yesterday changed everything.

I arrived at class a little early this morning. One of my classmates walked in and asked if our teacher was here yet. He hadn’t arrived. It was clear she had been crying. She turned and walked back outside. I followed a few minutes later to find her sitting alone on the grass. I asked if she preferred to be alone or if I could sit with her. I sat down. Her tears flowed. She told me she had just learned that a neighbor of hers, a 19-year old black man, had been shot to death outside her home in Pittsburgh. Through her tears she said, “They’re calling it a ‘police officer assisted suicide.’ What kind of absurdity is that?!” She continued to weep. I sat with her and said nothing. What is there to say?

Odell Brown lived with his grandmother across the street from my classmate. According to news reports, Odell was distraught over the break up with his girlfriend. He was in front of his home with a gun in his hand saying he wanted to die. Though details are disputed, the police report that Odell pointed his gun at an officer who shot him to death. The weapon in Odell’s hand was a pellet gun.

“This is the fourth death of a young black man within a two block radius of my home since last fall,” my classmate told me.

I don’t know what happened. I’ve only read news accounts. My classmate spoke of systemic racism in the Pittsburgh police department. I have no doubt that many people will read the news and police reports, and conclude that the officer’s actions were justifiable. But what would have happened if the suspect were white? I believe there is a high likelihood that there would have been a different outcome.

My research over the past decade for my books, presentations and workshops has convinced me that systemic racism is present throughout the criminal justice system in the United States. Again, I don’t know what happened in my classmate’s yard yesterday. What I do know is that we, as a country, have never dealt realistically with the racism that continues to haunt us; that disproportionately targets young black men. They are profiled. They are prosecuted. And they die. White boys don’t die. Not like this; not in these numbers.

We don’t deal with racism in any meaningful way in the United States. We sanitize it. We rationalize. We make excuses and explanations. If you’re white and you’re reading this, what are you thinking right now? Trying to argue in your mind that racism was not at play in this case?

I’m at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute with dozens of others from around the world who are committed to finding non-violent ways to create a more just and peaceful world. I’ll write more about this powerful program in a few days. But at this moment my heart aches. I think about a mother and a grandmother whose hearts are shattered tonight; who lost their child to a bullet fired from a police officer’s gun.

I’m struck by the irony that our class is called “Healing the Wounds of History” while new, traumatic wounds continue to be inflicted every day. Our class came together today in support of our classmate. We utilized the tools we’ve been taught this week to try to make meaning out of the tragedy that struck our friend’s neighborhood.

About Odell Brown and the three other young black men who have died near her home recently, my classmate said, “It feels like their blood flows in the streets.”

It feels to me as if a dark cloud enveloped hope today.

5 responses to ““Their blood flows in the streets””

  1. Tamara Rhone says:

    My heart is broken. As an African-American mother, I grieve. We have all lost this son. You are absolutely right that the outcome would have been different if he was a white male. Our children are in danger. My hope wanes each time I hear my daughter say that she is afraid to have a child because the world is too cruel and unsafe for children of color. Our village is under seige. Thank you for your compassion and commitment to make this world a better place. I can't wait to hear about your class. Please extend my heartfelt sympathy to your classmate.

  2. Phoebe Kilby says:

    Thanks, Tom, for being there for your classmate. The world does not stop when we take a break to attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute and contemplate how to make it more peaceful and just. I hope that at some point you can push aside the dark cloud, help us all push aside the dark clouds, and strengthen our resolve to do something about the violence and injustice.

  3. Prinny Anderson says:

    My heart weeps. Some of my Woodson cousins live in Pittsburgh – how easily Odell could have been one of them. Please keep us informed about ways your class sees of addressing racist violence non-violently. It is imperative. Regardless of my white skin color, these young men are my children too, and the killing must stop.

  4. Susan Montgomery says:

    Tom, thanks for sharing this difficult story. I was at the second session of SPI and took the long route home to visit a former patient who is in prison in WV. Lives cut short or limited by oppression make us think about all the untapped talent that has been lost to us in the U.S. and around the world. I hope we learn some day.

  5. […] I wrote in “Their blood flows in the streets” a few days ago, our class was powerfully impacted by the death of Odell Brown, a neighbor of one of […]

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