What Does “Choosing Peace” Even Mean In The Wake Of the Jason Stockley Verdict?
By Aimee VonBokel
“I implore each of you to choose peace! Reject the false and empty hope that violence will solve problems.”
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson issued this statement last Friday, September 15, in the wake of the Jason Stockley verdict. Few were surprised by the verdict, though many were saddened, hurt, and angry. St. Louis Judge Timothy Wilson ruled that Jason Stockley, a white police officer, is not guilty of first-degree murder after killing Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. Then, after Wilson —a legal official — failed to deliver justice, Carlson —a religious official — failed to register explicit concern for the ongoing epidemic of white police killing black men with this vaguely worded public response.*
The subject of Bishop Carlson’s address is unclear. “I implore each of you,” he says, asking nonspecific people to “choose peace.” But who is he calling on, exactly, and what does “peace” mean in this context? A non-specific call for peace suggests what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “negative peace,” or an “absence of tension.” Indeed, the local Catholic leader implies that passivity is the preferred response to injustice.
In contrast, King advocated for “positive peace” or the “presence of justice.” Positive peace prioritizes real engagement with the source of unrest, followed by concrete action, resolution, and healing. Negative peace prioritizes order, respectability, and submission.
Tensions have indeed risen in St. Louis in recent weeks, in large part because the Stockley case neatly parallels the events of 2014, when officer Darren Wilson (who is white) shot and killed Michael Brown (who was black and unarmed). Officer Wilson went free; he was not indicted for killing Brown. Correctly anticipating that Stockley would also escape legal accountability, a coalition of other faith leaders (not including Carlson) delivered an open letter to Judge Wilson a few days ago, on September 7. “Anything other than a guilty verdict would be a miscarriage of justice,” they wrote.
While the clergy delivered a formal letter, local activists promised months of protest if Stockley was acquitted. “The movement that came out of Ferguson persists,” activist Brittany Ferrell reported in the St. Louis American. “The cameras have gone,” she explained, referring to the national news crews that descended on Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed in 2014. “Needless to say, our conditions remain the same.”
The city responded to the promise of disruption. Barricades appeared around the courthouse. Mayor Lyda Krewson issued a video statement, reminding St. Louisans that free speech is necessary and the protestors’ grievances are legitimate. The National Guard arrived. Again.
Meanwhile, the Catholic leadership remained silent.
Only after the verdict did Archbishop Carlson release his statement.
The timing of Carlson’s press release suggests that violence, when committed by police, is beyond reproach; the real problem lies with citizens who protest police violence. In this formulation, the only people deserving of respectful treatment — are those who are calm and polite. In other words, people who are already treated with respect, and thus have no cause to protest in the street. It’s a circular argument that misses the point completely.
The entire leadership team of the St. Louis Archdiocese, which is calling for “negative peace,” is white. The letter-writers, on the other hand, represent a majority-black (or perhaps all-black?) group of 36 local clergy. The latter group, like King, call for the presence of justice, or “positive peace”. The distinction between the two public statements reflects a divide between advocates of justice on the one hand, and advocates of order, on the other. That the two positions align neatly with the city’s racial divisions is revealing.
As a white person who was raised in the Catholic Church in St. Louis, I find Carlson’s rhetoric both familiar and upsetting. In his statement, I recognize the lessons I once internalized: that it is virtuous to retreat from human connection — retreat from the concrete and nourishing work of cultivating real justice. And furthermore, it is virtuous to retreat into prayer. Carlson’s brief press release offers a window into the local catholic imperative of personal innocence. Where does this obsession with innocence come from? Probably from racial segregation itself.
I am a product of segregation. My mother and her siblings lived through the civil rights movement, but as far as I know, none of them participated. They’d been raised with the contradiction of their own Catholic moral goodness on the one hand, and their place in an unequal society on the other. I can’t remember the conversation exactly, but at some point in the last five years or so, my mom casually mentioned something about a black woman who sometimes did mending or laundry for her family. Knowing that my grandfather had signed an agreement with his neighbors, vowing that only people of “Caucasian Race” would “use or occupy” neighborhood lots, I asked, “Where did she live?” Not far, my mom casually responded.
That’s when I learned of Meacham Park, the black settlement next to the white subdivision where my mother was raised. “Occupants are 100% colored,” real estate representatives explained in their 1940 survey of the area. “Properties are from shacks to a few fairly better small frame houses. Colored school is located in this part of area.” The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation labeled Meacham Park a “D” grade area, “characterized by an undesirable population or an infiltration of it.”
For my mom’s nine living siblings, their husbands and wives, and many of the thirty-one grandchildren in my generation and their partners — in total more than sixty people — these obvious racial disparities have been normalized. I, myself spent countless hours gallivanting barefoot on my grandparents’ manicured lawn in Glendale, oblivious to Meacham Park’s existence. In that house, my cousins and I played dress-up with my grandmother’s musty, 1940s-era wedding dress, discarded nylon slips and fancy hats. We spent days frolicking in the pool, daring each other to swing as high as possible on the swing set, and then gathering, a mass of us in the dappled light at the picnic table, for PB&Js (Vienna Finger cookies for dessert, my favorite).
My grandparents were intensely devoted to Catholicism. So devoted that I found it intimidating. They attended mass regularly and followed all the rules of the church, including not eating breakfast before mass. (On the rare occasion that I woke up at their place on a Sunday, I’d sit through church thinking of nothing but the buttered raisin toast I would eat when it was over. That, and how much I hoped God would choose me to be a saint.) Through all the years of my childhood, I learned to model my actions on my family’s version of Catholic morality. The whole time, I remained unaware of the clearly immoral instrument of inequality that divided Meacham Park from Glendale.
It’s more than a line; it’s a mechanism for hoarding wealth. If you lived on one side of the line, you collected revenue from your middle-class neighbors to maintain a sparkling community. On the other side of the line, old cars were left to rot, abandoned without consequence in the night. Banks refused to loan money. The black residents of Meacham Park lived without any sewer system at all until the 1960s and without adequate sewerage, police or fire protection until the 1990s.
It took me a while to make sense of it all, but now if I rewind the tape of my life, I can identify the feelings. When I veered too close to the clearly established line of things-left-unspoken, I’d encounter my aunts’ and uncles’ discomfort. In retrospect I think they felt challenged or blamed. Their demeanor stiffened. Any mention of race and everyone’s instinct was to assume a defensive posture — a posture of innocence. Each time, I’d feel terrible for my misstep, vow not to do it again, and at the same time I was bewildered. Was I was challenging my loved ones to prove to me that they weren’t “racist?” How could I be so arrogant? But wait, why could we not even talk about it?
At the crux of this tension, I’m convinced, is an obsession with personal innocence. Sadly, the defensiveness that looms so large in Archbishop Carlson’s statement: it’s irrelevant. Innocence is not the goal. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in his 2014 interview with Brian Lehrer, “We imagine racism as a disease of the heart…but in fact, the most damaging element has always been a disease of the wallet.” In other words, racism is not just about individual feelings or actions, it’s also about laws and policies and economic instruments, many of which were designed before any of us arrived on this earth. It is not the point to be outside the system. That’s impossible. It’s not the point to be innocent but to be part of the solution, to demand justice, and to stand with those who insist on the presence of “positive peace.”
Carlson’s evasive and non-specific call for peace merely illustrates Frederick Douglass’s truism that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” Carlson is willing to concede nothing. The clergy’s letter, on the other hand, reflects a commitment to struggle, and to quote Douglass again, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Catholics make up nearly half the population of St. Louis city and county combined (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports a total population of about 1.3 million, and the St. Louis Archdiocese, which estimates a regional Catholic population of more than 500,000). This Sunday, how many of St. Louis’s 500,000+ Catholics will encounter a message about “the presence of justice” in their church? As of 11:30 am on Tuesday, September 19, only 7 of the area’s 197 churches have signed this Invitation to Catholic Prayer and Action for Racial Justice. Unlike Archbishop Carlson’s fearful call for nonspecific people to do nothing in particular, this statement draws on Catholic Social Teaching to create a “deeper conversation about racism and how it shows up in our community.” As Pope Francis clearly stated in June 2017, “We must overcome all forms of racism, of intolerance and of the instrumentalization of the human person.”
As a powerful force in the local community, particularly the white community, Catholics can contribute to racial justice initiatives by calling on Archbishop Carlson to reject the imperative of innocence and instead, lead the city’s Catholic population in the difficult, but urgent rewarding work of cultivating the “presence of justice” in St. Louis.
Catholics wanting to move their churches in the direction of “positive peace” could work with a number of local organizations to organize, legitimate, and help pay for learning and action opportunities. Local organizers in my circles recommend The National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis, for example. NCCJM organizes one-day Interrupting Racism workshops as well as multi-day Inclusion Institutes. Metropolitan Congregations United addresses racism through a broader lens of social justice.
*This paragraph has been slightly revised as of Dec. 16, 2017.
Aimee VonBokel is a historian who writes about race, real estate, and urban memory at historyisnotthepast.org. She’s held professorships at Rice University in Houston and New York University — and taught courses at the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies in NYC and at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her Ph.D. in American Culture (History) at the University of Michigan.