On June 1, Susan Sink spoke by phone with James Alberts II, pastor of Higher Ground Church of God in Christ in St. Cloud, about recent events following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Pastor Alberts is a member of the board of directors of the Collegeville Institute and ISAIAH, a coalition of faith leaders fighting for racial and economic justice in Minnesota.
What do you think is different about this moment with the murder of George Floyd and the response across the country?
We have been here before, but this moment is different. In Minneapolis, we have had the killing of Philando Castile and before that the killing of Jamar Clark by police. There was video in both of those cases, but it didn’t show the whole story. There were gaps that left enough room for people to look at the situation and blame the victim. White people looked at the situation and said, “he should have done this,” or “he shouldn’t have done that.” The protests at the time were dismissed as Black rage or a problem Black people have with police.
But when we look at what happened to George Floyd, we all ask the question: “Do you see what I see?” And we are all seeing the same thing. America finally got the chance to view and say: “I see the same thing you’re seeing.” White Americans, Hispanic Americans, all Americans came to the same conclusion, that what happened to George Floyd is wrong, is disgusting, is racist, and should never happen to a human being. Everyone watching concluded there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for George Floyd to be where he is and for the officers to keep him there with a knee on his neck while the life drained out of his body. And America got angry.
But when we look at what happened to George Floyd, we all ask the question: “Do you see what I see?” And we are all seeing the same thing.
This is a big deal. This is a big realization. When you realize the depth of injustice of what happened to George Floyd, you go back and look at all the other instances and ask if maybe you were wrong about the other cases, about Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Eric Garner. And you add on top of the conversation the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, where police raided her apartment with no warning and shot up the place, killing her while the drug suspect they were looking for was already under arrest across town. And you see those incidents with new eyes as well. These incidents cannot be explained away by mistaken identity or as over-reactions. They’re a result of deep-seated and ongoing racism.
In the situation with George Floyd, we have four police officers called about an inebriated African American man who was trying to buy beer or snacks on Memorial Day like a lot of other Americans. And because of the video, what I see and what I know and recognize in my life, what makes me afraid as a college-educated Black person every time I see a police car in my rearview mirror, you get to see, too. You get the chance to see exactly what I’m seeing and feel what I feel and the vast majority of people are pissed off about it.
These are cosmopolitan protests. I’ve never seen protests that had so many different people in them, a real melting pot in terms of color and age and economic status. Yesterday, I saw an elderly man pushed by the police at a protest in Washington, DC, and a young man picked him up and helped him move back where the police wanted the protestors to stand.
Would you share with us what you’re saying to your faith community as pastor of Higher Ground Church of God in Christ in St. Cloud, Minnesota?
Nope. What I’m telling my folks is fundamentally different from what I’m saying in interviews and to outside organizations. I can tell you that my message to my congregation is to stay strong. This situation is scary, but there is a difference between the fear my congregation is experiencing and the fear being experienced by non-minority America who are just waking up to the reality of Black experience. This is the fear we live with every day, always worried about encounters with the police.
The system, including how people are treated while protesting, is guaranteed to be unfair. Now the rest of the world has proof of it. Even if Black people follow the instructions of police, they will be mistreated. It doesn’t matter. You are dead. Even complying. In Atlanta this weekend two college students attending a historically Black college were stopped by police in Atlanta. They broke the windows of the car, Tased the couple, and then started yelling commands at them. A Taser is meant to immobilize, and then you yell commands at me, drag me out of the car, slam me to the ground and say I failed to follow the commands of a police officer? Those officers got fired, and I applaud the swift reaction of leadership saying, “We’re done with this.” Again, ask if this could have happened to young, white college students in a car. And what would the aftermath have been if it did?
I’m not speaking to others the way I’m speaking to my congregation because there is no sympathy. I’m getting calls for peace, and we’re not answering those phone calls anymore. People say, “Come back to the table.” Nope. It’s not the time for that.
I’m not speaking to others the way I’m speaking to my congregation because there is no sympathy.
When Philando Castile was killed 4 years ago, when Jamar Clark was shot, everyone said, “Let’s come to the table.” Same with Trayvon Martin. “Come to the table, let’s talk.” Nope. A whole race of people have been systematically lied to for years. I know there are those with good intentions and who have worked to make good on some of the stuff we talk about, but I don’t want to have the talk so the non-minority population can feel better.
What is called for at this point?
I want to offer a sincere, real reply. Do something. Do it. Pass the laws. Make things happen. You don’t need to talk to me anymore about what we need to do. We don’t need to sit down. You know what to do. You see what is happening. We’ve had elections and talks and we’ve done this. I’ve done this. I’ve been in St. Cloud, Minnesota for 25 years. And I will point out that St. Cloud is not on fire—I’m not tooting my own horn here, this has not been a one-man effort, but there should be a recognition that work has been done. I was part of building relationships between the police and community that would allow for open dialogue and enable us to say what we see in times of crisis.
Do something. Do it. Pass the laws. Make things happen. You don’t need to talk to me anymore about what we need to do.
This was a methodical process, and took a long time. We wrestled with the truths of ourselves. We shared what the event looks like to a police officer. We shared what it looks like to a Black person. It took years. But right now the relationships made a difference. St. Cloud had a peaceful gathering on Friday. There were a lot of rumors before the gathering and some people were panicking, but we knew we had been doing the work and that allowed us to gather as a community even in this very tense moment. I give kudos to our police chief, mayor, and police officers, many of whom I know. And there are other success stories nationwide, stories of law enforcement kneeling with the protestors and saying, “This is wrong. We see what you saw.”
That is work, not talk. People need to do the work.
We have real problems of inequality in Minnesota. In Minnesota, the population is 6% Black, but Black people account for 23% of Covid-19 cases in the state. That is an astronomical figure. We’re one of the richest states in the union, philanthropic, a wonderful place to be, but if you’re Black you live in a state where there is more separation between white and Black than in Mississippi. An awakening is necessary. And some of our cultural navigation has to be a little more aggressive.
We need to sit in the tension of the wound. When I think of Jesus coming back from the grave, he was glorified but he still had the wounds. It was as if to say, “though I might be glorified, high and lifted up, I carry the signs of my humanity and time with humanity and the good, bad and ugly.” This scar should never disappear, we should always see the wounds in the hands and feet of our civic society. As it says in Proverbs, “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” We are made brothers in this, our shared vision of the common enemy of racism and poverty.
We need to sit in the tension of the wound.
Minnesota is a nice place for a lot of people, but it has, historically, some of the most rigid, racially motivated legislation in the country. It applied redlining statutes and other means of separating people. It’s important to realize that America doesn’t have a Black problem. White people have a problem with Black people.
At this time, I would point people to Joshua 1:6-9. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt and passed into the Promised Land, God says to them three times: “Be strong and of a good courage.” The wisdom of the ages is that being strong and courageous is all that it takes. You don’t have to be eloquent or in a powerful position. Just be strong and of good courage. White brothers and sisters, those wanting to find and be in a place where they’re helpful and not hurtful, be strong and courageous. The only thing Black people have ever asked for is equality, equal treatment.
Minnesota is a nice place for a lot of people, but it has, historically, some of the most rigid, racially motivated legislation in the country.
What I would say to people is that if you can look at something and say that it’s wrong, say it. That’s important. Say it. Ask yourself, “Would this happen to a white guy for any reason? For ten minutes?” If the answer is no, then it is not a far-flung conclusion or wishful thinking for the Black person to simply want equal treatment. If you see it, say it. Tell me.