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edge of a precipice

Dear Partners & Friends:

One morning last month, my eldest daughter shocked me out of another day of juggling work and the summer camp schedules of her younger siblings with a text message that did nothing to hide her anger at U.S. policies. Born in Rome, Italy, raised in Cleveland, and now working with Teach for America in Florida, she is horrified by the rising tide of gun violence and mass shootings across this country. What nation are we creating for the generations to come?

While she was particularly upset by the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, she knows that our national horror goes much deeper than that. Mass killings, acts of terror, and the targeting of people based on race, religion, and sexual orientation are tragic symptoms of the divides that torment our nation. White vs. black, conservative vs. progressive, police vs. community, the list goes on and on.

And it seems to be no different internationally. Paris, Turkey, Bangladesh — we are being ripped apart by acts of violence often perpetrated in God's name and which have absolutely nothing to do with the core spiritual values Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share: love of neighbor; hospitality for the stranger; care of the most vulnerable.

Although Ramadan is a holy time meant for introspection, peace and piety, it has been transformed in the hands of the extremists who have thrived during the recent decades of turbulence around the region, particularly in war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently in Syria.

But from Brexit to blatant racism and anti-Semitism in this presidential campaign, our political leaders and "wanabees" only continue to drive wedges of hostility between us. Fear and hate sell. Audacity and offensive behavior dominate headline news. So when anger and hate are what predominate in campaigns and on our airwaves, why are we surprised by mass murder in Charleston, Orlando, or Nice?

As the father of biracial children, the spouse of a Kenyan-born attorney, and the CEO of an organization deeply rooted in the struggle for civil and human rights, I feel particularly compelled to speak up.

The killings of Alton and Philando — just as with the cases of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so many others — offer further, tragic examples that there is something terribly wrong with how so many of us devalue one another and how we continue to police this country. Their deaths are ample proof that black lives don't matter in the way my white life does.

If you don't believe me, just think of the media's vastly dissimilar depiction of Tamir Rice and Ryan Lochte — one with the appearance of a "threatening adult"; the other a "kid who needs to grow up"?

Their deaths are ample proof that black lives don't matter in the way my white life does.

Need further proof of the racism that continues to pervade our culture? Try walking a few days in the shoes of my biracial nephews, the black students who enrich my graduate courses, or my African spouse. Right here in Northeast Ohio, our inner-ring home surrounded by police with their spotlights and voices threatening, demanding my spouse's ID and proof she lives there while I'm overseas, apparently for being black and home alone. Or how she and my daughter were followed across my parent's leafy suburb by an overzealous policeman for having the audacity to drive a Volvo station wagon home from a Harry Potter midnight screening?


The killing of Deborah Pearl in Solon last weekend — just as the murder of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas last month — tragically reminds us that while there are those amongst us who will murder on the basis of race, many of our veterans are returning to the United States with trauma insufficiently addressed and gun laws no civilized society should permit. The cocktail is indeed deadly.

A few weeks ago when discussing the brutal massacre in Orlando, a friend of mine who serves as a secondary school principal in Connecticut said to me: "When a third-grader on our playground picks up a stick and starts to beat another kid we take the stick away. We don't give all the kids sticks."

It is simply unconscionable that politicians on both the left and the right have been unable to come to any sort of agreement on even the simplest of background checks for assault weapons. Why is the response always the further militarization of our police forces and an escalation to more weapons of war?

Why can't those of us who happen to be white trust our black and brown fellow citizens when they provide ample evidence that so much of our nation remains biased and violently skewed against them?

And, why can't so many of our police find a way to do their essential and courageous work without racial profiling and the excessive use of force?

I don't have the answers to much of what I've written, but I know that we are on the edge of a precipice. We can either stop the bigotry and answer with love, or we are going to witness the further division and militarization of our country and world. No amount of bombast or walls will keep the world at bay. No amount of settlement money will ever bring Tamir or Deborah back. And, no one claiming to believe in God can simply sit by and watch this path to ruin without a broken heart.

In Peace and with Love, Joe

July 8, 2016—Mount Desert, Maine, USA

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