Saturday, June 9, 2018

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1617 - Fear is powerful!

  Fear is powerful. Fear moves powerfully. Fear can be powerfully destructive. Fear can make us powerfully irrational. Fear is on the loose. Fear is everywhere. Fear is powerful.

  Dr. Robert White, an Alabama State University professor, says that most Black people are fearful. Fear is why Black people cannot overcome White supremacy, both past and present. He speaks of how fear is deeply embedded in our culture because of the violence of slavery, oppression of segregation, and the terror of lynching. Fear makes us turn on each other rather than to each other.

  I know fear firsthand. I know how fear can make us irrational – powerfully irrational. I want to share with you one firsthand experience with fear. It was fifty years ago, but I can still feel the fear, smell the fear, and sense the fear.

  In 1968, Faya and I traveled to Detroit, Michigan. We were not romantically involved at the time. We attended a meeting of Black community activists. It was held at the New Bethel Baptist Church, pastored by Aretha Franklin’s father, Reverend. C.L. Franklin. More than 150 people were in the meeting. We heard gunshots that seemed to come from several blocks away. There was some concern. After a while, Detroit policemen, mostly white, burst into the church and started shooting. We all laid down between the pews. The policemen stopped shooting and told us to stand up. When we stood up, they started shooting again. This happened over and over. Fear was loose.

  A young white policeman with a shotgun was running down the center aisle of the church shouting, “We can kill them all! We can kill them all!” I could tell that he was full of fear. The policeman stopped near me and shouted, “Put your hands up!” The young Black woman next to me was holding a baby. The policeman kept shouting, “Put your hands up!” The woman did not move but said in a voice without fear, “I have my baby in my hands. I can’t raise my hands, and I am not putting my baby down.” The young policemen kept shouting, “Put your hands up!” She stood there. He became more fearful and irrational. I was standing next to the woman. I became fearful. I knew that shotgun pellets spread. If the policeman used that shotgun on her, I would surely be hit and perhaps killed. In my fear, I wished that the woman would put her baby down and put her hands up. I should have wished that the policemen would put his gun down.

  After the woman refused to put her hands up, the policeman in his fearful frustration, ran to me, tore my trench coat, and pushed me down. I think he sensed my fear. He placed handcuffs on me so tightly that my blood could hardly circulate. He did not do anything to the woman who defied him. Instead, he attacked me in spite of my obeying his commands. Fear is powerful.

  We were all arrested – some 152 Black people. Men were arrested. Women were arrested. Children were arrested. Even babies were taken to jail.  Fear makes both the purveyor of fear and the target of fear irrational. I was struck by the fact that fear made the policeman attack me rather than the person who was refusing to obey him. I was struck by the police arresting everyone in the church, even children. Fear produces terrible actions and reactions.

  When I was arrested, I thought that my being a Harvard Law student would make a difference. It did not make one ounce of difference. I recalled what Malcolm X said that no matter how much education a Black person has, he is still a . . . (N-word) in a White supremacist's mind. Fear collapses values and evaporates reason.

  There was not enough room in the jail for all of us, so the men were taken to the fire station. They did not remove my handcuffs, so I was in great pain. Only three of us were in handcuffs. One man with us told the policeman who was overseeing us that he had to urinate. The policeman had a shotgun. He said, “No.” The man stepped a few steps away. In a couple of minutes, he returned and told the policeman that he really had to urinate. Again the policeman said no. I saw the fearful state the policeman was in. He was waving his gun. I was hoping that the man would not ask again.

  The man told the policeman that he just had to urinate. The policeman refused again. Then the man said that if he could not go to the restroom, he was going to urinate on the floor. The policeman said, “If you pull it out, I’m going to shoot it off.” My fear made me act in an irrational manner. I became angry with the Black man for insisting on his right to go to the restroom. The policeman was clearly wrong, but I got angry with the person who was challenging his oppressor.

  The man stood there a minute or so. Then he looked directly at the policeman with the shotgun. He opened his zipper. The policeman raised his gun. The man started urinating. I was fearful and wished the man would somehow hold his water. The man urinated on the floor. Then all the men who had been holding their water for hours began urinating. I couldn’t because I was handcuffed.

  One Detroit City Judge got out of bed at 2 a.m. and came down to the police court. This was Judge George Crockett. The prosecutors were angry with him. The White policemen were mad as they crowded around the courtroom. Judge Crockett had no fear. He told the prosecutors to present evidence right then on each of the 150-plus people in the courtroom. They did not provide any evidence. They held three men for further information. Judge Crockett released all but three of us.

  I was so ashamed because I had been so fearful. I was so ashamed that I had turned on the victims rather than the victimizers. I resolved not to ever be so fearful that I turn on other oppressed people. I would turn to them, not on them.

  A couple of days after I got back to Harvard Law School, an FBI agent came to see me. I refused to be interviewed. He said that if I did not allow him to interview me, he would tell my parents. I told him to go ahead and tell them. I didn’t tell him that they already knew because they had seen me on the cover of Newsweek. I was determined to control my fears.

EPILOGUE – If we don’t control our fears, our fears will control us. And that’s a fact. Fear is truly powerful.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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