A Long-Form Interview With Rev. Jeffrey Brown About The Killing of Black People By Police
[Author’s Note: This is an in-depth conversation, which necessitated a lengthy interview, that I hope will reach a larger audience than just this blog’s regular readership. After considering any number of ways to edit it for a wider audience, I have decided to just let Jeff speak. If you have any interest in publishing sections of it for your organization, I would be happy to help with that. I just ask that you let me know by email @ firstname.lastname@example.org]
The Past few weeks or so has been horrible in American race relations and police forces. In a week, we saw the trial of Derek Chauvin for the horrendous killing of George Floyd, the traffic stop that could have turned deadly for an army lieutenant, the traffic stop that did turn deadly for Daunte Wright, and the killing of 13 year old unarmed boy, Adam Toledo. None of it made any sense from a moral, psychological, or sociological standpoint, and it continues.
The killings were in different places, different departments, and different times. One officer was a woman, and the killing possibly an accident. Derek Chauvin, apparently, meant to kill George Floyd. Two of the dead were young-ish, two were adult men. What can we do to just make such tragedies end? How did we get there in the first place? To get more of an understanding of the issue, I called the only expert I knew – Rev. Jeffrey Brown.
Jeff was involved in the creation of President Obama’s 2015 report of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, has 30 years of work on violence reduction, and is on staff at King Boston, as well as on the staff of 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury, Mass. On Sunday, April 18, 2021, before the George Floyd verdict was decided, I discussed the situation, causes, and possible solutions with Jeff.
Part One: Causes and Solutions
John: It’s been a tough period in the last week or so. These things seem to come in seasons, or bunches… Is there a reason for that that you know. Is there a season of the year for this stuff?
Jeff: No…within the African-American Community, we’ve seen this impulse happening in all time. I think there are waves of media attention on it, but we’ve been going on like this for quite some time.
John: So, regarding this continuing problem, does it happen because of sin? Is it just because humanity is “fallen”?
Jeff: Well, you know, you and I, professionally, go down that line… When you think about the human condition, the human condition has the capacity for both…for both good and evil. So, if you look at it that way, then one would say, “Yeah, Of course.”
I think in any system, like Paul said, “we fight not against flesh and blood, but powers and principalities”… There’s always the tendency for systems to become so insular that the protection of the system sort of comes at the cost of the reason why the system was built in the first place. I see that happening for the United States. So, you can talk about sin, but not necessarily in the Evangelical sense of sin … It’s that collective sense of responsibility and …
John: So, then, this wouldn’t disappear if we, all of a sudden, we became Christian then?
Jeff: No. [pause] It might get worse…
Me: depending on what your version of Christianity is…
Gender and Gender Roles?
John: So does it have to do with… um, … “toxic masculity”?
Jeff: Hmm. I think there’s a piece of that when we’re talking about policing culture, and how that is driven in our society. I’ve done, as you know, lot of work with police departments throughout the country and, although you have some progressive elements, there’s a general culture that embraces that kind of masculinity that would treat differently. Them and the people that perpetuate the system …. The people of the community ….. as “other” . The folk that you stop aren’t human beings, they’re vermin, they’re scum, they’re … things are always seen in such stark imagery. You know, there are “good people” and there are “bad people” and it’s you who determine who is good or bad, because you are… the one charged to uphold the law. There’s no consideration of personal biases that may creep in, you know.
Just about every state in the union when they are hiring police officers, they have given preferences to military veterans. So you come from that out of that particular environment into a semi-military environment that is the police department. Although it’s supposed to be completely and totally different from, than an army, you know, you still have some of the same elements there, sometimes the tendencies that are inherent in military forces creeps in to the police department.
Love of Guns?
John: “Is it gun culture, police culture… If we– forget about the second amendment — if we were like other countries and we didn’t have guns everywhere, would that make a difference here?
Jeff: You know, I think that the current swirl around gun culture and the second amendment sort of takes attention off of what the real issue is, and I think the real issue is the yawning chasm of inequality that continues to persist in our country, you know, the gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots”, the way the system is put together and how it consistently keeps people at one level and other folks in another level. I think the reason gun culture is held up as a major issue is because of the power that’s inherent in a gun. So, if you have a gun, you shoot it. You take a life. So, control over life makes it a major issue.
But nobody on that side really wants to talk about how we got there … got in this situation in the first place. You know, when we talk about the second amendment, and the issues around gun control, that was created in the 60’s.
Jeff: It was created when the Black Panthers were on the rise, they were carrying guns like everybody else was doing. And then, all of a sudden, people wanted to have gun control, right? You know, they were trying to control elements that was trying to help the …. And so, but panthers were walking around with weapons because of the same issues that we have today, in 2021, which is police were, unfairly, stopping African-Americans and shooting and killing them with impunity. When the same things happen in White communities, they were met with a different outcome. So, the idea of “we have to protect our community” was really the generating idea that produced organizations like the Black Panthers. So, again, it was actually those movements…
John: So, “protect our communities against them, then? Wow.
Jeff: Absolutely. And you got some folks today who are looking at what’s happening in communities across America, you have folks crying for police reform, and yet the killing of Black and Brown bodies by The State through law enforcement continues to persist. And, when you talk to any rank-and-file police officer, they’re just waiting for this “phase” to be over… of people rising and protesting, so they can get back to business as usual. But I think in this particular instance, it’s not going to happen. Something has got to give.
John: I agree.
Policing Culture In General?
John: How do you handle it when … do Black cops shoot unarmed Black kids, or tase them or … and what do you do with that?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah… There have been, on occasion, when you do have Black cops involved with shooting of Black kids, but – as I said earlier – it really is the culture that foments the allowance of that. Those same Black cops wouldn’t be able to go into a White community and shoot unarmed White kids.
John: Why would a Black guy want to join the police force at all?
Jeff: Well, because you have some folks who actually live in the community and are from the community, who want the community to get better. The work that I did, in Boston, in the 90’s, the officers that I worked with were both Black and White, and the Black officers grew up in Roxbury, as well as in Dorchester, because they saw what was happening and they also realized that the normal tactics of round[ing] updozens and dozens of youth in these early morning “actions”, wasn’t working. The shooting persisted.
So, they were willing to team up with Black ministers, Brown ministers, in order to…together craft a way where we can deal with the shooting that was happening. You have folks who believe in their community. Despite all the issues and all of the issues and all of the changes that have been imposed upon the Black community, it’s still a community – a community that we love, and we want to see the best for it. So that’s the reason you have Black officers join the department.
John: What about police who are domestically violent? I hear about them.
Jeff: Right, the policing culture is intense in and of itself. I work with cops and I do work with, some people who were the finest people I’ve ever …
John: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Jeff: But I can tell you. The policing culture is a really intensive culture. And one of the secrets, the hidden things, is the effects it has on the individual, the effects it has on the family. You know, you’ve got instances of suicide happening within the police, within the departments, among individuals, these rising and alarming … issues around domestic violence that you may have encountered, as a therapist, continue to persist in the precincts.
And I think the worst malaise within police officers is, in fact, a sense of cynicism, where you’ve seen so much about the community and so much about the underbelly of the community that you just don’t care. And that’s really the worst part of policing: that when I talk to cops and they want to talk to me, that’s what we want to fight — that level of cynicism and despair that can dwell and even degrade into nihilism You have to work with cops. It’s tough to be a cop, It really is.
John: Do you think the George Floyd [policing] bill will make a difference?
Jeff: You know, I hope, but there are folks who feel on the one end, that we just need to get rid of the whole ball of wax over and start reimaging and re-doing the whole thing. Then there are those on the other side who have real hope for the George Floyd bill. I think I’m kind of in the middle.
I’m one of those people who, um, is always hopeful for change, but I’m also practical, and I know that, as long as the system continues to persist the way that it is, that we’ll always have resistance to that, that we’ll always have those folks who will fight for that continuing.
You know, Black people didn’t get to the place where they are because of who they are inherently. That’s a racist notion, right? If you think about, you know, failed housing policy over decades, poor educational institutions, fewer educational resources that fund the schools in Black communities versus schools in White communities. If you think about poor healthcare in Black communities, chronic unemployment and chronic underemployment, then you throw in guns, then you throw in drugs, then you have this culture that emerges with the negative elements in society, but it wasn’t something we created. It’s been something that was handed to us and we’ve had to deal with it. I’ve always been amazed at the stories of resiliency, and folks who were able to overcome, despite all that’s been thrown at us since the beginnings. So, until we start dealing with those structural issues that continue to keep a community where it is, then we can do as much reform as we wish, if it continues to persist, then it’s not going to work. That’s how I see it.
Part Two: Trauma and the Black Community’s Coping
John: Given what you’ve just said, and as somebody who deals with trauma all the time, lately there’s been a lot of stuff on Twitter about “don’t watch the videos, don’t watch this video, because you’re just going to be triggered and it’s not going to help and …. What do you tell congregants or… I don’t know. Given that there were four videos this week, and all of them were horrible…. What do you tell them?
Jeff: Right. I’d say that there are folks that come to me, and they are traumatized because of the video, I tell them, “Please. Don’t watch these videos.” I’m someone who, for thirty years, has been to crime scenes, and I’ve seen the results of what violence has done to a person’s body, and I have seen these instances. I was down in Ferguson when Mike Brown was killed and just talking to his mother, you know, and seeing, even a month after her son had been killed how, every time she went to that place, it was like it just happened. She’d just start crying and could not speak, you know, I saw it with my own two eyes. And so, I say, that that has such a toll on your spirit, that it really hurts. And there are some folks who watch it because they’ve had their own personal experience . They’ve had their sons and daughters killed in this manner, so it’s like they can’t help but watch, and I understand that, but you know, trying to find ways to help people through those periods is really tough.
Churches And Trauma
One of the things that I’ve been advocating for is for churches to get more involved with trauma care on a regular basis. So, it’s not just having a pursuit on a Sunday morning , a visit with a congregant, in a pastoral care moment, but it’s some kind of programming impulse that would happen in churches on a consistent basis , where churches can help people through their experiences of trauma.
And if you know anything about trauma-informed care you know that bringing churches in would be ideal. The only thing that gives me pause around this is that most congregations want to see this as an evangelical tool around this, and I tell pastors, “You’ve got to minister to the pain first before you minister to the soul” and then they get upset with me because they say, “oh, but that’s not the gospel. That’s not the mandate of the gospel…” I say, “Listen. I believe it’s somewhere in James that it says, “if somebody’s hungry, you know you don’t give them the gospel. You feed them first. So, there are levels in which we can deal with the evangelistic piece without automatically doing a Billy Graham style, “do you know Jesus?” bit, because the honest truth is, the way I see it, that age is past. We’ve got to figure out what we can do for the here and now. And for the here and now, people are looking to be the Bible, rather than we give them a Bible.
John: So, when trauma happens from a psychological perspective, there are four responses. There’s fight, there’s flight, there’s feed, and there’s … um, have sex. Finally, they’ve added a new one, which I had not heard of which is, basically, to basically to … disappear [actually “freeze”], you know, like if you pretend you didn’t see it, it’s not there. So, given that, why are Black people still in America? If this is the way that they live, why haven’t they just, you know, escaped?
Jeff: Because there’s this idea that I don’t even think the founding fathers understood, you know, about how it should be. But they founded it because they, ironically found themselves in the same position that Black people find themselves in. You know, it’s different because we were brought here in chains, but the whole notion of this diversity becoming one, was a very important notion.
I always tell people, you were brought here in chains, but you’re here, and your forebears built this country. The legacy of slavery is the legacy of America today. You had millions, five, six million African-American bodies to build this country. The industries that were built were built off of the backs of my ancestors, so this is not one of those ideas like “well. They treated us so bad, that we should go… that we should find ways to live somewhere else. There used to be a drive in the 19th century, you know…
John: Yeah, the back to Africa movement.
Jeff: Also, in the 20th century as well, you had Marcus Garvey. His whole thing was that we should go find a place where they will accommodate us. But, as far as I’m concerned, this is our country. This is where we are from – for good or for bad. And this country owes us the hearing of our voices, the taking of our voices seriously. And, it continues to avoid and evade that. And so, it’s our responsibility, I think, on behalf of our ancestors, to continue pushing that. That was the impulse that drove the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King and all those luminaries of the civil rights movement, that you can’t force us out of our country. This is as much our country as it is yours, and we need to put a mirror up, so that you can see what this country is like, so that we can begin to have a reckoning with it that will ultimately be better for us all. We’re still in the process of that.
Insanity and Not Coping?
John: OK, the follow-up question is then “Why aren’t you all insane by now?
Jeff: (laughs) yeah, I always ask that question.
John: Because, this much trauma, as just a part of life, has just, I can’t imagine.
Part 3: The Past, Hope And The Future
Jeff: When I was teaching, I used to tell my students, “I wish you could ask that question of your forebears, your great-great-great grandparents, you know. What was it? And what kept them going was the fact that one day we would be born, you know, that would be in a position that – that is, anywhere, that we would be able to do something about this. That gave them hope. I mean, if you look at any of the narratives that were written by any of the 19th century abolitionists – you know, the slave trading and all that. People ask me what kept me going in the 90’s and the honest truth is I knew we would get to this point, where we are right now in 2021. You know, I’m about to be 60 this year, and I’m getting “long in the tooth”….
John: I hear that, believe me!
Jeff: There will be younger people who would be cool with, you know, appreciate the strides that we made and take the baton from there. You know, keep pushing through. That gives me hope. and I think that hopefulness, added to the resilience, added to the deep well of spirituality in Black folk, persisted, in the 19th century, especially now that we’re starting to uncover the real history of what happened, where you have Black folks being subjected to the theology and preaching of White folks and instead embraced the ones who they thought the Spirit was giving them. To nurture that, and pass that along, is so very important. It’s the reason why …. All … the …
And even then, saying all of that, there are folks who have been driven crazy… you know, as a result of this onslaught. It’s not universal, because overall, I think that God has blessed us with a resilient spirit where we can keep going along, keep standing…
John: Ok, in what you’re saying, if I understand it, historically, the folks who came here were persecuted by the British, but in their brilliant wisdom, persecuted slaves… just by making them slaves and so the system is set up to achieve one purpose, which is, I don’t know, freedom, liberation, whatever… but only for White people originally.
John: Given all that we’ve just talked about, it seems to me that African-Americans, or Blacks people, because there’s so many of them in this country because they’re from different countries, are more “patriotic” than White people who, because people don’t want them here.
Jeff: Yeah, there are people who believe in an America that has not emerged yet. I think that that’s a really important idea to put out there. It’s um, the challenge of the Good Samaritan parable, when the lawyer looked to Jesus and said “Who is my neighbor?” because you have a society that determines who is neighbor and who is not neighbor, and Jesus’ response was “the one who helps one another, regardless of ethnicity, and his heritage. So you have this America that only benefits a certain few, but there are Black people who believe in an America that hasn’t emerged yet, that would benefit everybody, regardless of sex, gender, sexual preference, you know, the whole nine yards and so those people who are patriotic, push for that ideal, you know, hope for that ideal. And what they fight against is cynicism, from our young people who say, “Ah, that’s never going to work”. That’s the root of the patriotism that you hear, I believe, from Black folks who believe in America.
John: Well, thanks.
Resisting Racism With Peace,
Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau, LMFT