May 29, 2013

Impunity: On Slavery in Egypt and Policing in Toronto

A sermon by Doug Johnson Hatlem at Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church on February 24, 2013

When I first preached this sermon, former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner was on the loose, on a very high profile, cop killing, revenge tour in Southern California. He was angry, he wrote, because he had been fired for whistleblowing on a superior officer who kicked a homeless man.  I have had to revise the text below since many of us met for a walk on Friday.  I have had to accommodate yet another police beating in the Sanctuary community, a beating which left one of our dear friends with deep deep muscle bruises on his chest and a bruised lung.  The man was in St. Michael's hospital getting x-rays as we met in the basement at Sanctuary.

Our word for your hearing this morning is impunity. Or, to lengthen the subject matter slightly >>> Impunity: On Slavery in Egypt and Policing in Toronto.
Brian Hutchings, in the most recent case Doug is working on, needed eight staples to close up his head wound and had bruises and cuts all over his body (seen by Doug and captured in pictures). The blows were delivered during an attack after which Toronto Police lied to the media, stating that he had "totally overpowered" two officers.

In Exodus Six, just before the start, in earnest, of the ten plagues, we read of this tremendously painful exchange.  God tells Moses to tell the People of Israel “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgement.”  Glorious. Right? Well, Moses goes and relays this message, but, verse nine, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”  Their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.  A message from God, but even yet, no hope is aroused.  The situation by this point is so dark, the oppression so heavy, the yolk beyond burdensome, that the People of Israel cannot even listen to a ringing call to freedom and redemption by way of the mighty acts of their God.

But you know, as dark as this moment is, as hard as it is to dwell with, to contemplate to linger over broken spirits and cruel slaveries, it is a vignette from the previous chapter that spoke most mightily to my admittedly broken spirit when I read through the most hollow moments of this sprawling drama. A drama, which, begins well back into Genesis and stretches forward to final liberation from Egypt and beyond. In chapter five of Exodus, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh and his magical court for the first time. “Let my people go!” they demand, in a direct message from God.  Pharaoh, of course, refuses this simple demand.  Really? I should just let the people go who are building great cities, great monuments to me by way of free labour?  Oh really? Who is this “the Lord” that I should listen to those words?  “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours.”  You and your people are “lazy,” lazy occupiers.  Quit your complaining. Get a job. Better yet, you have one already.  “That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make brick as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously’.”  That’ll teach ‘em, says the Pharaoh, to “pay no attention to deceptive words.” 
Institutionalization, internalization, and division against one's people and one's own self are among the most heartbreaking developments  when a woman or a man or an entire people are long oppressed.  A whole peoples' psyche comes to be enslaved, at times. And an enslaved psyche makes physical abuse or servitude exponentially more devastating.
It is no wonder then, that in the next chapter, the People of Israel will not listen to Moses’ words from God.  Listening to such words doesn’t bring freedom, but only greater oppression.  As the people put it at the end of chapter five, “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
This is how impunity works. This is how oppression doubles and trebles.   This is why people are afraid to speak out, let alone to listen or, dare it be, to act.  The initial response of the principalities and powers-that-be to a plea for freedom, to a demand that oppression end, is to make that oppression yet worse.  You thought that was bad, how about this?  I’ll give you something to cry about.  You don’t like how that feels, well, how do you like me now? 

In my work as a street pastor for the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, I have now worked with 26 cases in the past five years, it's now 27 [and as of this publication, now 29], in which homeless or poor people, many of them my friends, were kicked, urinated upon, severely beaten, or otherwise assaulted by police, private security guards, or city employees. Take a wild guess in your mind, and we'll come back to this in a moment … how many times in these cases have police laid charges against those who committed these acts? Two? Seven? More than ten? I'm going to read the names aloud, because names are important. As I read, consider the question I've put to you: how many of these victims saw police charge their attackers?
Chris  G                      
            Chris V                       
Burning Cloud          
Greg again                 
            Cliff yet again            
Unnamed woman     
Unnamed man          
Another Jason          
*I have added the additional names to this list of people I have begun working with since I preached this sermon.

And let me say this, if I only count cases of assault causing bodily harm, with some form of hospitalization or serious medical care required, the number of cases would only narrow to 14. In 15 cases we have access to confirming pictures, video, or eyewitness testimony. In particular, I have personally viewed confirming video in two of the cases and know or have strong reason to believe that confirming video exists or once existed in at least three additional cases. If I had had more time this week, I could show you pictures or still frames of injuries or the events themselves in 10-12 of these cases. At least 13 cases involved alcohol on the part of the victim, another 5 cases may or may not have involved alcohol or drugs. 16 of the victims are women or men from Canada's 1st Nations, another one is a very dark skinned man from British Guayana. Five of the victims are women, 13 were attacked by police, 10 by security guards, two by other City Employees in positions of power. One story, Chris Gardian’s, involves the death of a thirty-nine year old man less than six days after a severe attack by nearly thirty police officers.

How many faced charges by Toronto Police in  these cases, all told?
How many of you guessed zero?
I'm waiting to hear back on whether an attempt at privately laid charges was successful in one particular case [ed. they weren't].  And I actually listed 28 cases  above [now 30]. Police did lay charges in one incident. One case that didn't involve police or security guards or any city employees. But that only happened retroactively after an Internet video of the incident emerged and set off a major media storm here in Toronto in the last week of November 2011.  Initially Police just looked the other way when a First Nations woman was beaten badly by two female youth who thought “Justice,” as she wanted to be known to keep her anonymity, … two youth who thought Justice was pregnant.

One of the twenty-five cases in which charges were not laid led to two security guards being fired and a monetary settlement, reached in the beginning stages of a civil lawsuit. Again, this limited measure of justice happened only after the story became a national media event that uncovered a pattern of ugly, extreme physical abuse over the course of years. According to the woman attacked at 14 Division, and I have pictures of the awful bruises and the swollen purple eye she sported the next day, police paraded her through the police station topless, in her underwear, before a violent interrogation in the same state of undress in a room in which the air conditioning had been cranked up in spite of it being late January here in Toronto at the time. The conclusion is undeniable and confirms what is almost an open secret in our society. An open secret much like priest abuse of children was for decades before it exploded into constant front-page headlines.  The not-so-secret here is this: Police and security guards and other figures in authority can physically, even sexually, attack poor, homeless, and racialized people in horrific ways with almost total impunity.  Unless major media get involved, the “almost” may be stricken from the previous sentence.
What are we to make of this impunity biblically and theologically, as Anabaptists, as Christians more generally?  How do we go about naming what is happening?  What are the theological and biblical terms for what is going on? How would Jesus and the saints of yore respond? Are there biblically and theologically acceptable ways of denouncing or resisting what is happening? Do we have the credibility and creativity to announce or to “show a more excellent way” (I Corinthians 12:31)?  Are there lessons from other nonviolent civil rights struggles that can guide us in enacting and “announcing good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18)?  I certainly don’t have one to one answers to each of those questions, but healthy reflection on a large chunk of Biblical material concerning slavery in Egypt may help us out here.  That material, as is well-known served as the template for African-American resistance to the overwhelming evil of slavery and Jim Crow in America.  Perhaps it can help us in our quest to deal with the question of impunity in yet another context.
The story actually begins way back in Genesis 37:28 where Joseph’s brothers, motivated by jealousy, sell him into slavery, and it continues for some twenty-seven chapters up through Exodus 14 where Pharaoh’s army floats like so many dead flies in the Red Sea.  And it isn’t even really over there. Slavery has so institutionalized a good many of the children of Israel that already by chapter 16, the first time they get a little hungry, “The whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron: If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.”  We were slaves in Egypt, yes. But, hey, we ate okay.  And this would not be the last time the people expressed such a longing.
Let’s go all the way back, then, to why and how the people of Israel ended up in Egypt.  They could eat there.  That’s a key thing. This is why they ended up in Egypt in the first place, right. Well, if not the first place, at least the second place.  Joseph, is sold into slavery by his brothers because they are jealous of his fancy dreams and the special treatment showed to him by their father Jacob.  The brothers then trick Jacob into believing that Joseph has been eaten by a wild animal.  When the brothers encounter Joseph next, they do not recognize him. He has negotiated one trial after another and has landed second in command to Pharaoh, placed in charge of all the food during years of plenty and subsequent years of famine as predicted by God through Joseph.  Joseph ultimately gives his brothers plenty of food, and a place to live in Goshen with Jacob, but not before he exacts a little revenge.  The story here is at turns delightful and horrifying.  Will Joseph cause his own father to keel over with grief by holding back his other favourite son Benjamin?  Finally, Joseph reveals himself. Finally, the Children of Israel are able to settle into a land rich and well suited to their nomadic, shepherding lifestyle.
But then begins the book of Exodus. A new Pharaoh comes to power after many generations. A Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.  Immediately, we find ourselves in a situation of sweltering injustice. Midwives are commanded to kill all Hebrew children so that slavery can continue, so that Egyptians will not become outnumbered.  Shiphrah and Puah refuse. And they refuse in the ungovernable way that only brilliantly implacable women can refuse.  'We can't do what you are asking us to do, the Hebrew women are strong and have their babies too fast.'  Moses winds up in the river, in a basket, is adopted out to Pharaoh's own household, then he does a very very unMennonite thing. He sees a grave injustice, he sees a situation of impunity, and he kills the Egyptian taskmaster he finds beating a fellow Israelite.  Off to the wilderness he goes where he encounters the name above all names in a burning bush and also finds a wife, Zipporah.  Meanwhile, back in Egypt, slavery grinds on in spite of Moses' violent attempt to solve the problem.
When God calls Moses to overthrow the Egyptian regime on God's term, Moses refuses, demands more help, and has trouble following basic instructions. Enter the action of Chapter 5.  And from the perspective of the people who are suffering, here comes the prince, the collaborator, the traitor, the careerist, the guy who wants all the glory.  Here comes THE MAN who thinks he speaks for God. And he's here to make things worse for us. Nice work, Moses!  “You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” God will judge you for your idiocy. So ends chapter 5.
Now, I am no Moses, but I have seen this strategy play out first hand.  After the first story of one of my friends being beaten badly, CBC ran a story about his broken ribs and boot mark shaped bruises all over his upper body. Police showed up quickly and intimidated our nurses who had cared for him.  Don’t go to the media, they said, come to us. We’ll take care of it.  Well come to them first we had, and they had ignored us.  Now we had their attention.  Or, at least for a moment. When it came time to actually investigate the situation, the detective, from the same division, didn’t talk to the victim, our nurse, or the staff member who was present when the situation started.  And, of course, he ruled that his buddies down the hall had done nothing wrong. As I continued to complain directly about continued ticketing and about the fact that the officers who beat this man were exonerated after a sham investigation, we received a threat through the backdoor.  If Doug keeps this up, we’ll make your life difficult at Sanctuary.  Calls you make to the police will be responded to more slowly. Doug may be handcuffed or arrested. The people you work with will be targeted for more questioning and abuse from police.  All of those things and more happened. 

What’s more, people on the street are very aware of these dynamics. One Monday evening, an outreach team I was leading came across a man who had just been beaten by police.  His wounds weren’t as serious as they would be a subsequent time. Perhaps they would have been worse were it not for our walk. The officer was still on the scene, wasn’t wearing a badge, and refused to give it to me his name or number when I asked for it. 

But still, no way Doug, came the answer from my friend who was beaten. No way I’ll make a complaint with you. You don’t live out here.  You know, I know you think you’re helping us out, but you aren’t. You’re making things worse for us.  In the words of Exodus, you’re just “bringing us into bad odor” with the police and their supervisors.

This is what impunity looks like. 
Yes, there is an official complaint system.  You can come to the Pharaoh. You can fill out a form here.  You can even go to the media.  But you know what, we’re going to make your life hell if you do. And the complaint won’t go anywhere anyway.  So what’s the use?  This is what impunity looks like. This is how oppressive power functions. This is what has to be kept in mind when you read statistics about complaints and lawsuits against police.  It’s actually much worse than even what you suspect.  If a case makes it all the way through the courts or into the news, it’s an especially courageous and unusual person who has stood up to impunity as is.

“You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
Nevertheless, chapter 6 verse 1, God promises that “by a mighty hand he will let them go, by a mighty  hand he will drive them out of this land.”
From betrayed anger at the end of chapter five and broken spirits and cruel slavery near the beginning of chapter six, we feel, hear, and see almost nothing of the people Aaron, Moses and God are attempting to rescue until chapter 14.  Frogs and boils and darkness and destroyed cattle.  Still, the people in the story are for all intents and purposes silent.
By the middle of chapter eight, after the third plague, Pharaoh's magicians get it. “This is the finger of God, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.”  By chapter eight, verse twenty-three the fourth plague is powerful enough to distinguish between the Egyptians and the Children of Israel.  Can you imagine? The Children of Israel experiencing the first three plagues too must have been just furious with Moses.

Or had they begun to hold him in wonder?
By the time the seventh plague hits late in chapter nine,  those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place. And only in the land of Goshen, there was no hail.  After the eighth plague at the opening of chapter ten, Pharaoh relents, but he won’t let the young and old or the women go with the men. 

On to the ninth plague. Darkness. Now Pharaoh is ready to relent, “Go … only your flocks and herds will stay behind.”   Come on Moses and Aaron, compromise. It's the art of politics. Declare victory and GO!


We will sacrifice to our God when we go.

Exodus chapter 11 is the short and breathtaking declaration of what the scope of plague ten will be.
Chapter twelve institutes the high holy day of Passover.  The Israelites may not, even yet, fully trust that they will win, but there is no doubt that something is astir.  When the elders are called in verse 21 and instructions given, verse 28, the Israelites went and did as God had commanded Moses and Aaron. In verses 33 and following Israelites plunder the Egyptians of all their gold.
In Chapter 13, the Israelites are lead in stunning fashion by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In Chapter 14, as the Israelites prepare to cross the Red Sea, Pharaoh shakes himself off the mat after the loss of first born children and cattle all across Egypt and says “what have we done.” And here come an incredibly telling few words in Exodus 14:11. The people are caught between between Pharaoh’s advancing army and the deep red sea.  They cry out to Moses and Aaron: “Were there no graves in Egypt?!”  As they will put it in later chapters, “You brought us out here just to die in the wilderness.” This is the understandable attitude of those under the thumb of a system of impunity.  No amount of mighty acts or an advancing cause is ever enough until all is complete. 
I kept careful tabs on what was happening in Egypt during the revolution two years ago at this time. Until Mubarak was officially gone, there were large swaths of people who were inveterate disbelievers.  Yeah right, you people camping out in Tahrir are going to win. Yeah right. It’s just going to get worse. Watch. And even if you do win, it’ll just be the Muslim Brotherhood who gets in anyway.  Well, that’s true, isn’t it? But Mubarak is gone. Pharaoh did drown. The Toronto Police will not be the Toronto Police forever.

Moses and Aaron answer with stern resolve in verse 14: “The Lord will fight for you and you have only to keep still.”
Within a few verses, “The waters returned and covered the chariots” and  “so the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”


But not for long!

At the outset, I took note of the situation where fired LAPD whistleblower  Christopher Dorner, also trained as a Naval sniper, who recently went upon a deadly, anti-police rampage.  As a thoroughgoing pacifist who doesn't believe in policing in the first place, I abhor and denounce Dorner's violence. Even more so, however, I understand his rage. As I skimmed through the relevant portions of his Facebook manifesto, I felt the stories of police impunity course through me, stories of impunity with respect to the severe abuse of my friends Chris and Veronique and Cliff and Gabe and 80 year old Loretta and Dwayne and Joe and Jordan and so so many others. Bad and wrong as Dorner's violence is, the grinding, daily, highly discriminatory violence of the LAPD, Toronto Police Services, and so many other police forces is worse on the order of several magnitudes.
John Howard Yoder made beautiful use of the phrase from Exodus 14, noted above, “God will fight for us.” Still, Ched Myers, in his radical commentary on the Gospel of Mark entitled Binding the Strongman, criticizes Yoder’s “first world perspective” that left him primarily denouncing the “reactive” violence of the poor rather than genuinely investigating alternative options to the contemporary systems of violence that oppress people who are poor.  Yoder, according to Myers,  was “not an advocate of militant nonviolence or symbolic direct action, “ and therefore “could not see those elements in the stories of Jesus’ engagement.” In my view, this assessment takes a kernel of truth and overstates it. While this may have been true about large swathes of Yoder’s writings, it’s not necessarily true everywhere, especially not in the genesis, deployment, and afterlife of his chapter from the Politics of Jesus on how to resist the principalities and powers. In his own life and engagement with  situations of oppression, he did so struggle, sometimes as, in fact, the first world oppressor himself, sometimes in deep solidarity with poor and oppressed peoples.  Thomas Schaeffer, a colleague of Yoder's at Notre Dame, writes this: Yoder had “a deepy sympathy for the Palestinians, so much so that he pondered and struggled for ways to find their rock throwing consistent with pacifism.”[1]
Now I'm sure that quote raises some eyebrows. It should, and we should also ponder it's meaning more deeply.  Elaine Enns is a Mennonite alternative dispute resolution facilitator married to Ched Myers.  Together, they have written a series of books attempting to bring together important insights from their fields of work – his direct action, hers non-violent negotiation, fields that often speak past each other, when they aren't openly disdaining the other as an ineffective rival.

These books by Enns and Myers are very, very important books. Among the most powerful aspects for me and for the work that I am doing is a well explained graph, in Ambassadors of Reconciliation vol II, which plots two axes. The vertical axis plots the need or lack thereof of a third party to negotiate disputes; the horizontal axis plots a continuum between non-cooperation and cooperation.  In the most dire quadrant, on the bottom left, conflict is so great, is marked by terrible power differentials, violence, and impunity and appears unchangeable to the degree that a people and their allies must take up a non-cooperative, direct action struggle on their own in order to attempt embarrass opponents into moving back toward a more acceptable condition of being. All of this is far too complicated without having the chart present before us and without background explanation and real life examples as given in the book, including that of my neighbour Jim Loney. Still, Enns and Myers' beautiful summary of this section is worth quoting as we move toward conclusion: “whichever quadrant we find ourselves in, our aim should be to move the process steadily clockwise around the circle; de-escalating the conflict, empowering victims, and calling offenders and aggressors to accountability.” (20)                                                                     
I would like to note, finally, that  Enns and Myers call the  third quadrant, where an arbitrator decides, “the architecture of the western legal system” (17).  I want to stress that this option simply isn’t working with violence against homeless people by those in power in Toronto.  I can, for instance, point to two very specific instances where what’s happening to my friends and so many others is a direct result of Toronto Police flat out ignoring rulings by the highest arbitrator in the land, the Canadian Supreme Court.
People often urge me to “just sit down and talk with them. It can be resolved.”  We remain ever willing to do this, so long as police do this as a part of a process that is thorough and takes rigorous account of power imbalances. I long ago agreed to a request, still not followed upon, of meeting with a chaplain for police here in the GTA.  That chaplain also happens to be a member of an MCC congregation.  I have also been in discussions on at least three occasions to meet with high ranking Toronto police officers, including one of a handful of Deputy Chiefs. Each time, Toronto police eventually refused the process when I insisted that the meeting be public rather than private.  You see, this isn't about a few bad apples. It's about an entire system, a blue wall that is rarely rarely breached, a system which protects and defends barrels full of bad apples at every turn.
Mennonites may assume that their primary work is to be the peacemakers, peacekeepers, peacebuilders – but when a situation is this unjust, when there is this much oppression. When impunity reigns.  When people suffer daily violence, or at least daily threats of violence, when oppressors with super grand power can sneer and ignore and laugh and continue on ...
This is where I have to conclude with complete honesty. When I look into the face of another victim with horrendous, still wet scabs all over his dark skinned face, when the Attorney General's Office, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, and even my beloved friends and fellow church members in the mainstream media allow Toronto police to get away with destroying or refusing to turn over video tape of one of their own urinating on my friend Joe in a 52 Division police cell, and, worse yet, when I sometimes get push back from the Mennonite Central Committee for loudly denouncing this injustice … well, I'll end very honestly and frankly.  So far in this sermon, I've left out the real conclusion to Exodus Chapter Five and the episode where Pharaoh doubles down on chattel slavery on account of Moses and Aaron's advocacy. 
When I look up from what we are attempting to do for long enough, I too shake my fist at the heavens, “God, you say that the poor are blessed, that theirs is the kingdom of heaven, that you will fight for them.”  Yeah, right. Exodus 5:23  “Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

[1]          Journal of Law and Religion 16, no. 2 “Review Essay” 981-987; 984  n11


  1. so well put Doug! there is so much police brutality, not just against the homeless but to others and little of it is ever brought to court or even addressed. The huge piece in this is where are people left when they are terrified to address the powers that be about their situation for fear of receiving much worse treatment and marginalization. and where do oppressed, fearful people place their justified rage? all the more reason for those of us who are somewhat whole to pass God's agape love onto the truly oppressed.

  2. I hope you will read the article it is a great insight to personal emotions and the beginning of understanding why people express their feelings as anger.