An Open Letter to the President of the United States

June 3, 2020

The President of the United States of America

Dear Mr. President:

I add my voice to the rising tide of voices denouncing your words and your deeds on Monday; your deeds on Monday, throughout your time in office, and in your conduct as a public figure and a private citizen.

People of color in this nation have continued to suffer from institutional racism, codified by laws written when white men openly sought to establish and defend their power over women and people of other racial and ethnic groups. Many of those laws remain, and even where those laws have been repealed or overturned, their effects remain. The attitudes remain. Ahmaud Arbery’s killers hunted him down because the only reason for a black man to be in their neighborhood was to commit crimes. Brionna Taylor died when police demanded and executed a no-knock warrant, then failed to announce themselves as police. What justification was there for that? George Floyd died when an officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes. Neither he nor the officers with him responded to his pleas for mercy.

These were all acts of violence, Mr. President, violence against citizens of the nation, violence against the people you swore to protect by upholding the Constitution, violence committed in the latter two instances by agents of the state. 

If these had been isolated incidents, the families and the communities might have demonstrated faith in the legal system. How could they? Two months elapsed before a video forced authorities to consider a murder case in Mr. Arbery’s death. Two months elapsed before details of Ms. Taylor’s death came to public awareness. Without the video of Mr. Floyd’s death, would those officers have successfully claimed “self-defense”?

These are acts of violence, Mr. President, committed against people who have been routinely harassed by law enforcement officials because of their race. They are acts of violence committed against people who remember very clearly that you could not consistently condemn overt racists with Nazi flags and Ku Klux Klan hoods. These are acts of violence piled upon humiliations, obstructions, and oppressions beyond count or measure.

I do not condone riot. I am an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. Anger, however, is the appropriate response to injustice. The truth of racism in America can only provoke anger. However I lament the violence erupting in our cities, I have to bear witness to this truth: the anger is responding to a long history of violence and injustice. If you increase the violence of the state – if someone authorizes deadly force even against looters – you multiply the violence.

Mr. President, this is the time to abandon your instincts for retaliation. This is the time to lay the groundwork for reconciliation. This is the time to acknowledge injustice. This is the time to mourn the dead. This is the time to quench the flames, not feed them.

So far, as after Charlottesville, you have chosen to feed them.

I have some further comments on your visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church. I will tentatively accept the account that Attorney General William Barr ordered the protesters cleared to expand the security perimeter around the White House. The explanation, however, is an inadequate excuse. Those demonstrators had done nothing to provoke a violent response. There was no need for tear gas, batons, or rubber bullets. None whatsoever. The approach to people gathered in peaceful observance of their First Amendment rights cannot possibly be a violent one. If it is, those who ordered it need to be held to account.

Mr. President, you should ask for Attorney General Barr’s resignation immediately. The others who followed his illegal order should also be dismissed.

Then you walked to St. John’s Church. Mr. President, you could not have known this, but the police assault drove staff and priests of the church from its grounds. They entered the property without a warrant and without probable cause of a crime. Frankly, they should all be tried for assault.

Then you stood on the church grounds holding a Bible. Did you ask permission to stand there? Did you confer with the church’s leadership at all? Did you have any reason to believe you could use church property as a backdrop?

Frankly, sir, if you did that on the grounds of my church, I would consider filing a complaint for trespassing against you. Because of the use of force, I would demand accountability of the police officers and their commanders, up to and including the Attorney General.

I am a pastor. I do not approve of violence. I do not believe Jesus approved of violence. He ordered his followers not to resist his arrest. He offered forgiveness – not violence – to his torturers and killers. Who did he drive from the temple? Those who sought to enrich themselves under the cloak of religion.

I trust the contrast between Jesus Christ and Monday’s action is clear, Mr. President.

When you stood on church grounds, you sought to claim the endorsement of the Christian faith for your threats of violence and more violence. You used violence to obtain that place. You trespassed on the physical space and you trespassed on the spiritual space. Your attempt to claim holy sanction for your acts defines the word “blasphemous.”

Here is my advice.

Retract your threats of violence. Begin substantive conversations with leaders of these protests.

Insist on the resignation of Attorney General Barr and discipline of those who followed his orders.

Apologize to the leadership of St. John’s Church.

Apologize to the faith community for your blasphemous attempt to use their faith for your selfish purposes.

Based on your prior behavior, I do not believe you will take any of these actions. Therefore, there is only one proper remedy: Resign from office. You have demonstrated once more that you are unworthy of the public trust.

Sincerely,

Eric S. Anderson
Ordained Minister, United Church of Christ