A Message for Jews Who Say “Black Lives Matter”

The gates are still open, and the time for repair is always at hand.

Dear Jews Who Say “Black Lives Matter,”

Thank you to the hundreds of organizations, congregations, and leaders who signed the June 25 letter in support of Black Lives Matter and then affirmed and celebrated the position through a full-page ad in the New York Times in August. It’s October now, and high time to follow through on that promise in concrete ways.

Your silence in September, following the killing of Deon Kay by DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, has been painful.

Let us be mindful of the teaching that the gates of repentance remain open through the festival of Sukkot, and let us use the lessons of the holiday’s precarious shelter: It is time for Jews to acknowledge that the shelter of “public safety” does not protect us all equally and comes at a terrible price for many.

A few words about the killing of Deon Kay…

Deon Kay, just barely 18, was shot to death within seconds after an encounter, initiated by a unit of adult officers, began. While the Mayor released a few seconds of footage from one body camera, complete with MPD’s introductory narration telling viewers what to see and think before anything is shown, the city has not released viewpoints from other cameras or any context at all. The District does not report that any alternatives were considered; there is no evidence that violence interrupters or other programs of neighborhood safety were engaged before “gun recovery” procedures were unleashed….

Even more sadly, there is no evidence that many of the “gun recovery” procedures MPD employs are reducing crime (See e.g., national and local studies). And there IS EVIDENCE that the gun recovery unit in particular has included officers who display insignia of white supremacist organizations on the streets and even in the courthouse….

Deon Kay was killed by a system that leaves many of us entirely untouched, perhaps even feeling “protected,” while regularly terrorizing some among us, particularly Black people east of the Anacostia.

“Who knows that your blood is redder?”

There is a Jewish teaching demanding that someone who can save their own life by sacrificing another consider: “Who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder” (B. Sanhedrin 74a).

At the very least, those who have declared “we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter” must object to the normalizing of young Black death, in our nation’s capital and around the country, and demand re-examination of “gun recovery” policy and practice that regularly leads to Black people being harassed and hunted, even to death. (See DC Justice Lab proposals. See also Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense call for transparency.)

June’s Promise, August’s Celebration

The fatal shooting of Deon Kay should be of national concern, those of us in DC bear a particular obligation to respond. In June we promised to heed Black-led calls for “accountability and transparency from government and law enforcement.” In what words and deeds have Jews honored that promise?

That June letter was signed by twelve congregations located inside DC, more outside the city with members living and working in DC, and national organizations with offices in DC. With a few minor exceptions — Jews United for Justice forwarded one statement about the killing of Deon Kay, for example — none of those signatories has followed through on their promise. None of the DC congregations or organizations housed in DC has joined Stop Police Terror Project DC and Black Lives Matter DC in calling for accountability and transparency. (See joint statement; more below.)

Jewish groups have been far too silent in response to this trauma within our city and to the abject failure of our government in terms of that stated goal: “freedom and safety for all of us.

Those of us who are white and/or living in relative safety must stop accepting a system that funds infrastructure to our benefit while we regularly avoid consequences of uneven funding and the uneven presence and impact of police.

If we did not get the message clearly enough in September, while preparing for and engaging in the work of the high holidays, there is still time for teshuvah (repentance or return). The gates are still open.

We can bring the name of Deon Kay into our prayers at the close of the holiday.

We can pray for all who are traumatized by the ongoing violence, through illegal guns and through “gun recovery.”

We can inform ourselves and share our testimony with the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. Police reform hearing is on October 15; testimony is accepted as part of the public record for this hearing through close of business 10/23/20. But anyone with a connection to the District can, and should, contact Councilmembers with concerns about policing at any time.

We can put our promises to follow Black-led calls for accountability and transparency into word and deed.

We can take seriously our collective responsibility for sins of the community, and we can begin to learn and act in teshuvah for the age-old and on-going trauma in the District.

We can call on Jewish leaders, congregations, and organizations who signed the June 25 letter to consider what that signature really means and who, so far, has benefited from it. And we can ask the Jews who DIDN’T sign what that means as well.

— [SIGNED] Scott Brown, Sig Cohen, Maurice Cook, Kymone Freeman, Virginia Spatz, and Rachel Usdan (members of the Cross River Dialogue)

Letter above is based on an earlier one appearing at songeveryday.org before the high holidays. Notes below are from June 25 Jews4BlackLives letter and other sources.

For more background, see We Act Radio’s October 7 “Community thru Covid.”


FOOTNOTES

“Jews for Black Lives”

A few months ago, hundreds of Jewish organizations, congregations and leaders signed a statement of support for Black Lives Matter. That statement focused on addressing deliberate attempts to divide us:

There are politicians and political movements in this country who build power by deliberately manufacturing fear to divide us against each other….

…We’ll show up for each other every time one of us is targeted because of our differences, and reject any effort to use fear to divide us against each other.

The statement also declared sacred the work of pursuing justice, affirming Jewish support for Black-led organizing toward accountability and transparency from officials and police:

We support the Black-led movement in this country that is calling for accountability and transparency from the government and law enforcement. We know that freedom and safety for any of us depends on the freedom and safety of all of us.

…Jewish tradition teaches us that justice is not something that will be bestowed upon us, it is something that we need to pursue, and that the pursuit is itself sacred work. (Emphasis in original.)

full letter here
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from DC Justice Lab

See also statements of DC Police Reform Commission, an official body of the DC Council, and these from ACLU of DC and DC Action for Children.

News: Washington Informer and Washington City Paper (solid local reporting, with no paywall). Also: Washington City Paper “What Deon Kay’s Mentors Want You to Know…”

BLM/SPTPDC Demands

  • Fire MPD Chief Peter Newsham
  • Launch a fully independent investigation into the death of Deon Kay
  • Fire MPD Officer Alexander Alvarez
  • Defund the DC Metropolitan Police Department and fully invest in community-led resources

…amend “Comprehensive Justice and Policing Reform Act” to:

  • Require that all released videos include audit trails that show who accessed the video and how and if it was edited, so that transparency can reduce the risk that the videos are doctored.
  • Require that MPD explicitly clarify why officers’ faces in released footage are redacted, define who are considered “officers involved” before releasing footage, and include those officers’ names and faces in the footage.
  • Require that MPD state explicitly when naming “officers involved” which officer committed the act (rather than officers who were on the scene)


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