Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Downhill Rise to Greatness



I was sitting at my kitchen island enjoying a bowl of reheated soup when I read that ProPublica was actively investigating a local story involving two Elkhart City Police officers who had beating a man in handcuffs months prior. Though I live in Goshen, Elkhart is just a few miles up the street, our neighbor to the North. It had my attention.

The video footage which emerged as a result of the investigation was shocking, yes. It was not, however, surprising. Just another page from the same, devastating book. After knocking his chair backwards, officers Cory Newland and Joshua Titus are seen delivering blow after blow to Mario Guerrero Ledesma's head and face, his hands still cuffed behind him. Not long after one officer calls Ledesma a "piece of sh*t," two more officers saunter into the room, leaning against the cinder block wall, looking on in casual, almost bored observation before one of them simply suggests the beating might "stop."

I reread the report, piecing together names both familiar and otherwise. Prior to a handful of years ago, this sort of news wouldn't have caused my heart rate to pitch. Back then, I believed there were good people and bad people. I believed I was one of the good ones, free to stand center-street along with Power, while the others were shoved as far away as possible, with force if necessary.

Six years ago my family relocated from a six-acre homestead to the loose grid of a city waking up to an ever-evolving identity.  We are immigrant-rich and manufacturing-strong. A bright speck of open-mindedness in a sea of white-bread Conservatism. A stain. It depends on who you ask, and when.

Here, families are patched together as much as they are born, your lump of clay mixed with mine, spun on a wheel until the edges are worn smooth and something functional emerges. Worldviews bleed into each other, the air around us violet-hued. We found peace in the chaos, along with live music and exemplary tamales.

Not long after our move, our oldest son made his way into our family at the age of nineteen, already swept into the criminal justice system. Five years later, his hands remain cuffed behind his back in many ways. He's stopped counting the blows. Sentences served give way to court-appointed classes, lengthened probation terms, and fees and fines that tower precariously in the untended corners of his life. They call this "reentry," though it would be more aptly described as "chronic satellite incarceration."

Finding kinship with the ignored had changed us.  
Paying attention comes with a cost.

I dissected the newspaper in the weeks that followed with fresh intensity. Chief of police, Ed Windbigler, who previously said the accused officers "just went a little overboard,"  issuing no more than reprimand, was now forced beneath the microscope of scrutiny from a public he was tasked to protect. After eleven months of silence, equivocation, and backpedaling, both officers were charged with misdemeanor counts of battery. This clocked in as Officer Newland's ninth disciplinary incident (including multiple suspensions) in a term of service that spans ten years. 

At a town hall meeting hosted by Elkhart's Mayor, members of the community expressed disappointment and even outrage, calling for the immediate firing of officers Newland and Titus while the the assistant police chief  defended the department, attacking the media outlets "ambushing" the department.

Same book, different page.

The color drained from November and we all grew colder as the drama unfolded one town away. On November 26th I opened the paper to an opinion piece, written by Jim Bontrager, a Senior chaplain of the Elkhart City Police Department. In his glowing tribute to Chief Ed Windbigler, Bontrager didn't so much build a case for Power to be left unquestioned as much as he reached up and plucked it from thin air. To him, it wasn't right that the man with such a high level of authority should be critiqued for promoting officers who had mounted legacies of disciplinary disaster.

"One of the first things Ed did was to clear the playing field...Their past was just that, their past...from that minute forward they could put their best foot forward and shine," he wrote.

His comments left me wondering - when does my son get to put his best foot forward and shine? 
Where was the line drawn between Mario Ledesma's past and his future when his chair was shoved backwards, his head appearing to strike the concrete floor? Are second chances only reserved for the financially prosperous, the publicly esteemed, the popular, or the crisply-uniformed?

Bontrager's tone-deaf and blatantly privileged air of defensiveness continued. "Learning from failure is at the heart of the American experience. Our history is replete with examples of great leaders who made extremely bad decisions in the earlier stages of life only to rise to greatness afterwards."

It pains me to my core to know he is exactly right. Here, at the heart of our American experience, grave mistakes are too often rewarded with positions of power. The rise to greatness can, indeed, chart a bold trajectory from corruption and abuse to fame and glory. But only if an agreement of untouchability is brokered out on center-street, where Power stands unchecked while the under-valued masses jam their brakes, straining to find new routes not to greatness, but to basic survival.

Meanwhile, on the backstreets, a twelve-year old child is expelled from middle school after a minor incident, in part because his older brother had previously been "trouble." Following the data, particularly as a black child, he is now at significantly greater risk of one day sitting in handcuffs, at the mercy of men who have the luxury of shrugging off their own failures. Where along this path will his exceptional qualities for leadership be noticed and rewarded?  

Unseen in a long-neglected alley, my son is pulled over four times in two days for failing to engage his turn signal according to the letter of the law. Each time, he is asked if he has drugs or weapons in his car, never mind that he has never been charged with either. When will his playing field be cleared?

In a back corner of a neighborhood seen as less-than, tears drip from my friend's chin as she explains that her meds are off, causing intense anxiety to bob up from the darkness of a depression she has never known this side of sobriety. She's a warrior, a bright-eyed wife and the mama of a happy, healthy child, but money is tight and her family is denied the common stop-gaps of food assistance and state medical insurance due to a drug charge from years ago. Tell me, Chaplain Bontrager, when will she be untethered from her past mistake?

"I categorically reject the notion that those who make numerous mistakes are unqualified to lead," the piece continued. I know many who would agree. The question becomes, when will our society collectively reject the idea that people (particularly People of Color and the poor) who make mistakes are unqualified to simply live without persistent judgment? When will they deserve the basic rights of safe housing, robust jobs with opportunities for advancement, and, above all else, the right to enjoy an existence unmarked by hyper visibility and excessive scrutiny? When is their debt really paid? 

I agree with Chaplain Bontrager's final point, (though unnecessarily smug,) that the reporter, Christian Sheckler, bears a namesake that "consists of those who sit in gratitude for the second chance afforded them." It appears Bontrager and I share a common faith, which presumably centers on justice for everyone, no exceptions.

In the Old Testament, God, through the prophet Amos, delivers a critical blow, threatening to effectively decimate those "who twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed." (Amos 5:7) "There will be crying in all the public squares and mourning in every street," He promises. (Amos 5:16b) He will do what it takes to protect the oppressed.

Until then, we will watch the watchers, dragging the truth out across the asphalt of center street, where everyone is good and everyone is bad.

We will call to task those tasked to lead, rejecting the belief that mistakes can only be scrubbed from the histories of certain kinds of people.

We will lay down our lives, building ladders of our bodies so that one day, all of the sons and all of the daughters can drop their cuffs and rise to greatness.