An Ash Wednesday Message from Bishop Mark W. Holmerud
by Kathye Hamm
To the people of the Greater Sacramento Area and the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – A response to the decisions of the Sacramento District Attorney and the State Attorney General in the shooting death of Stephon Clark:
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?”
On February 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American, was peacefully marching for Civil Rights in Alabama. As he was invoking his right to free speech, he was beaten and shot by an Alabama State Trooper. He died eight days later, on February 26th. His death sparked three Selma to Montgomery Marches organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the first of which began nearly two weeks later on March 7th. On that day, a day that has become known as “Bloody Sunday,” 600 marchers began to cross the Edmond Pettis Bridge and were met with the brutality of state and local law enforcement officials who used clubs and tear gas against those who were peacefully marching. Two days later and sparked by national outrage, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led another march to the bridge.
Tomorrow marks the 54th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” The people of Sacramento are, on this anniversary, struggling to understand the decision of the District Attorney, and now the State Attorney General, not to prosecute or discipline the two Sacramento Police Officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark. His family and friends and many in the community do not believe justice has been done. Stephon was unarmed when he was shot in his grandmother’s back yard, and 20 shots were fired by the two officers. The officers involved have stated, and officials have so far agreed, that the officers felt their lives were in danger and that their decision to use deadly force was justified.
It seems hard to believe that so many years after Bloody Sunday, Black and Brown people in this country still face a fear of encounters and interaction with law enforcement officials. Whatever the circumstances that led to the tragic death of Stephon Clark, another family, another community, another police department are left to wonder how it is that yet again, a young Black man has been killed by police officers. The disproportionate rate at which Black men and women are killed by police in this country is shameful. I have signed a letter from PICO California to the California State Legislature and the Sacramento City Council that reads, in part, as follows:
“As people who value the sanctity of life, we find such robbing of human life to be immoral. The fact that violence is so often the first response of law enforcement when confronting a black or brown suspect is appalling, wrong, and unacceptable in a country where people are assumed innocent until proven guilty. Such disregard for human life only deepens the ongoing mistrust between the community and law enforcement.”
“The continued killing of young black men reveals the systemic racism deeply embedded in Sacramento and other cities across California and must be stopped sooner than later… We must change laws, change training, and change the narrative that portrays black suspects as more menacing and dangerous than white suspects and justifies the use of violence by police.”
In the past few days, protests have taken place in and around Sacramento, including one in which 83 people were arrested including members of the clergy and of the press. Mayor Steinberg has called for an investigation into whether police officials acted appropriately in responding to this protest. I call upon all who wish to voice their concerns over the death of Stephon Clark to do so peacefully. In light of the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” I call upon law enforcement officials to use discretion in deciding how to respond to those who feel deeply that the death of another Black man at the hands of the police calls for a community response.
I also encourage you to add your voice to those who are calling for the passage of The California Act to Save Lives (CA Assembly Bill 392) by August 2019, which requires police officers to use de-escalation tactics rather than deadly force when dealing with people in our communities. It would limit the legal use of deadly force by law enforcement to when it is “necessary” to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death and encourage de-escalation of situations. It also would require the disciplining of law enforcement officers when it is deemed not in self-defense and allow the District Attorney to bring criminal charges against a law enforcement officer who is found in violation of the use of force.
Lastly, I ask that all communities of faith, including the congregations and ministries of our Sierra Pacific Synod, provide safe space for people to come together to pray, deliberate, dialogue and disagree as we are confronted with the wide range of feelings and thoughts that attend a community conversation such as this. I pray we will, in all that we say and do in these days, be a reflection of the hope and peace of Christ “for a time such as this.” As our foreheads are smudged with a cross of ashes today, may we remember the way all of us, each and every one of us, are joined with Christ to acknowledge our great need for confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. Because, when it is all said and done, “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” In the meantime, there is still much work for us to do to bring about God’s reign of justice, peace and hope for this world.
May 14, 2019