VOICES: FINDING JESUS IN THE TEAR GAS BY LAUREN GARCIA

I was baptized in an evangelical church as an infant. We don’t sprinkle or submerge, it’s more symbolic. You get baptized with the Holy Ghost when you’re old enough to fake the syllables.

Through Bible class, Vacation Bible School, Character Camp and more I memorized scripture. 10 years out of the church and I can still recite it. Sometimes it enters my thoughts in those hazy moments before falling asleep. Give and it will come back to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. The Lord pours contempt on nobles and disarms the mighty. He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light. Jesus wept.

For decades, I read stories and heard sermons about the steps of the righteous, about mercy, about fairness. I saw none of those virtues in real life. I did see the righteous forsaken and their seed begging for bread. I saw wicked men prosper. I saw the state and the church take advantage of the poor, and no one ran into the temple with a whip to save them. I questioned these contradictions constantly. If Jesus said it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into Heaven, why did my pastor renew the lease on his Lexus every year while congregants struggled to keep food on the table? If Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, why do we wholly support institutions whose purpose is death and destruction?

On May 29, 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department went up in flames. All those years I spent reading about peace, about justice, about evil men withering away like grass… I felt like it could actually be real. Supernatural hope. And then it came to Richmond.

Two years ago, Michael Nyantakyi of the Richmond Police Department tased, shot, and murdered Black Richmond Public School teacher Marcus-David Peters. He was unarmed and in the middle of a mental health crisis. He was 24 years old. His death and the way the city reacted to it created an uproar in our activist circles. I attended community meetings, office hours with Mayor Stoney and the Chief of Police, peaceful protests. I told Chief Durham and Mayor Stoney directly that I am afraid to call the police, and many of my fellow citizens expressed the same fear. Marcus’s family clearly and consistently articulated demands: crisis alerts, training for police officers, and a civilian review board. For two years, begging and pleading with the Mayor, the Chief, and city council fell on deaf ears. They were invited to meetings and never showed up, they told us we needed a thorough investigation before implementing training for police. Two years.

After the murder of George Floyd, Richmonders took collective action to stand in solidarity for Black lives and with all people harmed at the hands of the state by an oppressive police force. We chanted the same phrase we’d been chanting for years: help not death. Our government responded to this cry by sending in city, county, and state police departments to inflict violence and attack our citizens, including members of the press. At the time of this writing, police are still using chemical weapons banned by the Geneva Convention on protestors, families, children, pets. They are gassing people in their homes. They are lying about their actions every step of the way. Is it reasonable that Richmond’s leadership spent two years waffling on action over taking a life, but were ready to go at a moment’s notice over property damage? If the state can mobilize an army in just a few hours over broken windows and burning busses, they are actively choosing to dismiss concerns of the community to maintain the system that harms us daily.

Our leaders ignored our desperate cries for help for years, and when we finally had enough and took to the streets they called in an even bigger, and more violent, police force to attack us. This should be alarming to all those who live in our city and in the surrounding counties. People we pay to protect us are terrorizing us and no one is holding them accountable. With the first use of tear gas on June 1st, 20 minutes before curfew on a crowd simply standing in a circle, RPD created a war zone, and that use of force has not stopped. Over the last 30 days, the Richmond Police Department, much like police departments all over this country, has proven what Black, brown, indigenous, and poor people have known for years: their true purpose is protecting property at the expense of the life and health of our citizens. Changing the police chief will not solve this problem. Fixing a broken taillight does nothing to salvage a totaled car. And we won’t get justice by arresting bad cops. The solution to a corrupt system can’t be the same corrupt system. Justice is reimagining the institution of policing altogether, and finding better ways to provide the social service we pretend they do.

I am a sociologist by training. I understand that the conditions of massive unemployment, pandemic, worsening inequality and the filming of entitled, murderous cops all coalesced to create the current moment. People are tired of being tired and they’re not gonna take it anymore. What we are witnessing is a historic nationwide uprising and reclamation we haven’t seen on this scale. But on a personal level, for a little girl who had the words of justice and righteousness seared into her mind and heart with no hope of ever getting any… It feels surreal. Marcus-David Peters Circle, formerly known as the Lee Monument, has been liberated and reclaimed from the shackles of its oppressive history. Black kids play on the statue and ride their bikes through the grass. Families take pictures and people cook and serve food for free. There’s a free library, free seeds and plants, people set up tents to get signatures for petitions. During the day, MDP Circle is a dreamy little slice of what could be without the tyrannical hand of the state. At night, the police gas and shoot anyone gathered there. The oscillation between joy and terror is exhausting.

Sometimes I think about what we’ll say to younger generations about this moment. All the pictures we’ll show and the stories we’ll tell of how we banded together in the face of pure evil. The hope for a better world makes the pain bearable. Like finding Jesus in the tear gas.

If you’re interested in combating the tyranny of an unjust government, visit 8toabolition.com to learn more about what public safety might look like without police. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of policing, Haymarket is offering a free ebook. Solidarity forever.

Please follow Lauren’s work via her website: https://laurencgarcia.com/

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