Today we visited a museum in Cape Town called the Slave Lodge. In the time when the Dutch West Indies Company controlled the cape, this was literally a slave lodge. All the slaves owned by the company were locked up here each night in a big courtyard with no windows by which they could even see the outside. Some of the slaves were from other parts in Africa, some from India and Sri Lanka, and many from Indonesia.
Since that time, the building has been a variety of governmental buildings including the Supreme Court for the Cape area. But now it is a museum that has exhibits related to slavery and also apartheid. The exhibit got me thinking a great deal, as good exhibits should. And my thoughts turned to the United States and some of the issues facing our country today.
You know the Black Lives Matter movement? I think that people only understand half of what that phrase means. Yes, it absolutely does mean that black people should not be indiscriminately killed for minor infractions of the law (and certainly not for no infraction of the law which also occurs.) But there is another part of it, and this part affects a lot more people every single day. It's not about life vs. death, but about life, meaning you are free to live your life as you would have it lived.
I'm white. If I walk down a street in the United States and I am in no way breaking the law, I can pretty much count on the fact that the police aren't going to shoot me, stop me, or probably even give me a second glance. I'm free to do what I want to do, of course, within the scope of the law. And the authorities are not going to be scrutinizing my every move.
But if someone is black, do you think this is their everyday existence? When they walk down the street, doing nothing wrong, do they get second glances? I bet they do. Do they get extra scrutiny? I bet they do. And do they have a higher chance of being accused of something or interrogated, hurt, or possibly even killed by the police than a white person does? I bet they do. (By the way, when I say, “I bet they do” I'm really saying yes.)
Some might argue that at times even white people are wrongly killed by authorities. True. But it is incredibly rare. And when it happens, you can bet there will be a real investigation, a real grand jury trial (if not just an indictment), and a real trial. But for blacks, it is neither so rare, nor can they expect the same sort of follow up and justice.
Now I'm getting back into the life vs. death part of it. Think about the other part. My life matters and as part of that life, I want freedom to pursue happiness, to make a difference, to go about whatever it is I want to go about doing. Shouldn't that same opportunity be available for all our citizens, regardless of the color of their skin? Black Lives Matter is not just saying stop the killing. It is saying stop the restriction of their freedoms. Free Lives Matter!
Part of the exhibit today focused on people who stood up against apartheid, including white people. They were labeled as communists. They were accused of treason. They were imprisoned. And their families were threatened. There was the story of one man who argued against apartheid who spent eight years in prison. And there are many who spent longer.
Think about this. Can you imagine if you were put into prison for eight years? What would that be like? You can't do what you want to do. You can't speak to who you want to speak to. Your letters are censored. Your visits are restricted. And you can't accomplish what you want to accomplish. For years at a time!
In the United States, we have thousands and thousands of people in prison, more people per capita than any other country – by far more than any other country. And many of these are in prison for drug possession. With mandatory minimums, we have people locked up for years of their lives. And why? Did they hurt someone? No. Why? Because they have a sickness, an addiction. And rather than treat them, we imprison them. We are taking away their freedoms! If we took people convicted of drug possession and forced them into treatment instead of into prison, it wouldn't cost more. It would restrict their freedom, but for a shorter amount of time. And when they were done with treatment, they would have freedom again, the ability to accomplish things. How can we make this happen?
I know what you are thinking and you are right. You're saying, “Erich, it isn't good enough to just point out problems. You need solutions!” Okay, I'm going to think about solutions. And I hope you will help me to think about solutions and not just tell me that there are no solutions, or that the current system is the best that it can be. Because I can't believe the system is at its best if so many people are unable to have the same freedoms that I enjoy.
Free lives matter.