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Thistlethwaite: What’s the matter with Aurora?

My friends from around the country email me now and ask, “What’s the matter with Aurora in Colorado?”

That’s a good question. There seems to be a lot the matter with Aurora these days, especially when it comes to police brutality.  

Earlier this month, a viral video of white Aurora police officers pointing guns at African American girls, aged 6 to 17 years old, ordered to lie face down in a parking lot, has shocked the nation. 

What was the girls’ crime? They wanted to get their nails done.

Aurora’s police chief has since apologized.

Just about a year ago, Elijah McClain, a sweet-faced, violin-playing 140-pound, young African American man was walking home from a convenience store when “someone called 911, saying he “looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.”

Police arrived, used a carotid hold on him, he lost consciousness, he was injected with a powerful sedative and he died in the hospital several days later. He had asthma. He had done nothing wrong, but the officers were not charged. It is only now after the George Floyd demonstrations have thrown a spotlight on police brutality that the governor authorized an investigation.

On June 27, thousands of demonstrators gathered for a peaceful, mask-wearing “violin vigil” to celebrate the life of McClain. Aurora is now being sued because as social media footage of the gathering, held on the lawn of the Aurora Municipal Center, showed, the violin concert was interrupted with police officers marching up in riot gear and spraying the crowd with pepper spray.

Girls getting their nails done? Violin-playing, skinny guy who “looks sketchy?” A peaceful vigil of violin music?

What is the matter with the police in Aurora that they act like this?

Now, I know that some of you may find this a controversial idea, but I submit that what is “the matter” with the police in Aurora is rooted in what is “the matter” in Aurora as a whole. The police are simply doing what they have been expected to do by their white majority community (Aurora is over 60% white versus just about 16% African American) for a long time. They engage in selectively traumatizing African American residents to create a climate that is inhospitable to their presence in Aurora.

In other words, Aurora is a modern day version of what sociologist James W. Loewen describes in his book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.”

“Sundown Towns” are almost exclusively white towns where it was and currently still is an unspoken rule that blacks aren’t welcome. There are a lot of ways that towns that want to be “white” signal to African Americans you are not welcome here from housing to schools to employment. The recent demonstrations in the Black Lives Matter protests show how policing patterns are a big part of that phenomenon.

This is not exclusive to Aurora in Colorado. This is a widespread problem in this state (as well, of course, as in other states.) I have been a guest speaker at a Colorado church and the pastor whispered to me, as I entered, “This church doesn’t do well talking about race.” Well, I thought to myself as I entered to speak, too bad. I’m going to talk about race. That is not an uncommon attitude I have found since I moved here.

Colorado, we do have to talk about it — in our churches, synagogues and mosques, and our communities at large. Otherwise, nothing will change because the majority white community doesn’t want anything to change.

Aurora’s new police chief now claims “the internal culture of the embattled police department…has been reset.”

What does that even mean? And why is it the police who are “embattled?” From the news, it seems the African American citizens of Aurora, and those in the white community who want to make a positive change, are the ones who are embattled.

It’s not just the police. They are a part of the community and they will act, consciously or unconsciously, according to its majority norms.

The long-haul job here is to transform the way diversity is encountered, not as a threat (“he looks sketchy”), but as a gift.

For me as a person of faith, I believe the diversities of human life, from race to gender to religion to national origin, to ability, to culture and more are a gift of God. From a humanist perspective, the same gift idea applies. You look at your community and think “Oh, good. More.” You gain from embracing diversity and become a more flexible, interesting person in terms of your intellect, your emotion and your spirituality. Your town grows and thrives. So does your nation with the addition of all these additional gifts.

But in many communities in Colorado, and around this nation, diversity is pushed away in a myriad of gestures and signals that “you are not welcome here.”

That was the experience of an African American minister who moved her family to Colorado with great optimism and left a year later because of the racism she and her family experienced.

That church and that majority white town are now impoverished from the loss of this talented African American minister.  

There are two ways to go with this, America. You can strive to make the whole country one giant “Sundown Town” and literally shrivel up, or you can reap the rewards of diversity and continue to grow and change for the better.

I thank God every day for the blessings of diversity. I hope you will too.


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