I Can’t Breathe

My nephew Ben, my sister Marta’s younger son, is an interesting guy. He is funny. He is sensitive. He is big. He is quirky. He’s on the spectrum. And he’s black.

Ben has been lurking in my consciousness for weeks and weeks now, sometimes on the edges and other times up close. I’m worried about him. In fact I fear for his life. Because he is everything that could turn him into a target of law enforcement attention.

There is not a less violent person than my nephew. Ben doesn’t act out or make a scene. But if you know autistic people then you know that one of the major issues in their lives is not being tuned in to subtle and not so subtle social signals.  For instance I could imagine a police officer coming over to him and saying, “What are you doing here?” The right answer is short and sweet; something like, “I’m picking up my brother from work”, or “I’m going to the movies.” The answer must not be even vaguely provocative. But I could imagine Ben answering something like, “I don’t know. What are you doing here?” Not because he wants to challenge the officer’s authority, but just because he might think it amusing. In such a situation it is almost inevitable that the situation would escalate. Ben doesn’t know the script or understand exactly just how dangerous it is out there for him. Because Ben wouldn’t know the proper thing to say. Because Ben is black.

We know how dangerous it is out there for my nephew. I’ve watched the You Tube clips that you’ve seen. I’ve read the articles about Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and others, so many others. We are living in a time of tremendous cultural stress. The force that supports divisiveness is colliding with the progressive force that supports unity. An innocent black child with a pellet gun is shot and killed by police in a nation with a black president and a black attorney general. Are we in this together or is it the good guys versus the bad guys?

As a Reform rabbi, I am heartsick over the pain and the suffering of the African American community and all people of color. Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently wrote on behalf of the URJ: “We support Attorney General Eric Holder’s federal investigation. Systemic change is needed, and state, local and municipal governments are key partners, especially working with police and community representatives, to begin the process of healing and strengthening that must be done… While our institutions need critical reform, this kind of change must also be addressed through reflection and commitment – from individuals and a diverse array of communities – to transforming what is wrong in America regarding race. The religious community can and must lead this transformation, and we are committed to playing a leadership role to move the conversation, and our country, forward.” http://tinyurl.com/pg4vsdh As a rabbi with congregants of color, I am more committed than ever to assure that our temple will always provide safe, loving space. If people are interested in that discussion, I would welcome it with open arms. As a rabbi with young men of color who belong to our temple, I want to do something to help them so as not to be crushed by this dialectic.

As Ben’s uncle? I worry so much. Our nation grows less interested in connections and more in sides. I love that young man and find it heartbreaking that such innocence and naïveté in his black skin is a dangerous liability. I don’t exactly know what I can do to help, but clearly something must be done. As the husband of a black woman and the father of a black son, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, said: “People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.” http://tinyurl.com/m88enl6

Shabbat Shalom,


One thought on “I Can’t Breathe

  1. Susan Cohen says:

    Thank you! Those of us with loved ones with open mental health issue have to remain scared to death about the current Pollics that say police shoot first, question later……..

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