Their View: Enough with ‘us’ and ‘them’

My heart is bleeding tonight and my eyes are filled with tears. The very sinew of our beloved community is torn.

On “State Patty’s” eve, several of our best and courageous students left a club to go to the all night McDonald’s on College Avenue to purchase some food. It is a late night ritual that many students observe. “Club McDonald’s” is the only late night restaurant. Their group joined with 75 or so others finishing up their evening celebration.

A few minutes later one of these students, a senior at Penn State, had been pepper-sprayed, immobilized with a stun gun, handcuffed, arrested and charged with serious offenses including a felony.

What happened in those few moments will be decided in a court, so I will not address the facts of the case. Suffice it to say, there are many versions of the events from various perspectives, the police, the students involved and other witnesses. There is polarization in those perspectives, police and students, us and them.

For the last few months a group of law enforcement officers, clergy, town elders, Penn State faculty and students have been meeting informally to discuss issues around race, police-community relations, and developing programs that could proactively address some of the tensions that smolder beneath the surface in our community. The group, which named itself Community and Campus in Unity, had been called into creation by the Rev. Harold McKenzie, the pastor of the largest African-American congregation in Centre County and Chief Tom King, of the State College Police Department.

The young black students who made up the group at McDonald’s were part of that conversation. As part of the black leadership on campus, they had, on their own, initiated consciousness raising actions and discussions. They had participated in last fall’s “Die-Ins” and engaged in dialogues with the police department. In fact, a police officer and student who had first met in those dialogues met in the heat of the events last Saturday morning. Both admitted that, at first, they did not recognize each other. Had they remembered the circumstances under which they had first encountered each other, the events might have unfolded differently, and that is the source of the tragedy.

Brothers and sisters, once when we put on our uniforms, our costumes, our skin of police, student, faculty, black, white, town, gown, young, senior citizens, we do not recognize each other. We do not see the content of our characters, only the color of the skin, whatever that may be. So on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when demonstrators, petitioning for their right to vote, were brutally attacked as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., we witness our young sister, one of our best and courageous, the embodiment of our hope, writhing on the ground, the first subjected to a Taser in this new dawning.

This is not about “Us” and “Them.” This is our community. We are all — us and we are all — them. And we should all be weeping.