Pete Hileman on Differing Perceptions of Ferguson

07 Dec
December 7, 2014

Pete Hileman, who runs a wonderful legal clinic in an underserved area of Philadelphia, recounted his conversation with a co-worker about Ferguson in a recent letter to his supporters.  (The subject line of the letter was “Am I a Racist?”)   I found the exchange extremely helpful, and asked Pete if I could post it.  The remainder of this post is Pete’s description of the conversation:

“Ever since the grand jury verdict was announced in Ferguson I have been struggling with my views on race. Jaimee was really upset with the decision, and after the long Thanksgiving weekend we had a chance Monday to talk about it as a staff. It was an honest, open and healthy discussion. I shared that I had grown up in Abington in the 60s during the race riots and recall that school was closed because someone got stabbed in the bathroom. Jaimee gave me her heart felt perspective as the descendant of slaves. I am the descendant of lawyers and judges. We are one in Christ, but she is a black urban Christian and I am a white suburban Christian. Is it possible for us to see it the same way? We moved into a mostly African American neighborhood 9 years ago and we have great neighbors who really watch out for us. My next door neighbor trains Philly cops and he explained to me what Officer Wilson should have done, and it became clear that if he had been there, this wouldn’t have happened. Police shootings happen, all too often. But when are they racially motivated? What part of our criminal justice system is still racist? What would a truly blind justice system look like?

I struggle with my knee jerk reaction to defend the police officer, and to look at Michael Brown as a big scary bully. Jaimee helped me understand that he is someone’s son and brother and friend and can’t be judged by the bully appearance on that video. He is not a demon. He did not want to die.  I tend to believe the officer’s story, but my neighbor can’t imagine why he would have shot so many times. Getting out your gun is the last of the 5 stages of engaging someone on the street.  We have had some break-ins at our house, and our neighborhood has had a lot of robberies and burglaries. Police arrested two kids across the street who had shotguns. I’ve seen terrifying violent rumbles on the subway and on the street.  A white cop was shot by a black man at our local Dunkin Donuts not long after we moved in. The assailants are mostly black men. Can I even say it? Jaimee explains the dynamic of being raised as a black young man in the city. Elijah Anderson wrote a classic book called The Code of the Street, which is a bit dated but explains the causes of violence in our neighborhoods where Michael Brown lived. I guess the bottom line is that I just can’t ever know what it is like to be a black man. So I have to take my friend’s word for it when they tell me that they experience discrimination every day.

We are a diverse group, and of course we’ve met many many wonderful black men and woman. Their faith is especially deep, and rich, and precious. It drew us to this work. The gospel makes the difference, so that is what we offer people. And a good church. We all need that, Michael Brown and Officer Wilson. And now the choking case in Staten Island and the boy shot in the park in Cleveland. The issue is not going away – we want to do something about it. So we do expungements, and see lots of black men who have turned their lives around. We help them with their custody cases so that they get a chance to be good father’s to their children. I was part of a Fatherhood Initiative and gave a Fathering book to a new client and he read it and enjoyed it and gave me a book to read.

So we are all learning, and struggling, with our sin, to live by faith.”