OPENING PRAYER: A PRAYER FOR GOOD FRIDAY (Revised Common Lectionary, 2002)
In this holy time,
as we remember the sacrifice of the cross,
we offer the prayers of our hearts,
that through them we may be transformed
to be servants of justice, love and peace.
Make us steadfast witnesses of our Savior’s reign,
that we may live in the pattern of Christ,
who was faithful in all things,
and whose darkest hour gives light and hope.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY: APRIL 14, 1967
The Shooting of Denzil Dowell
On April 1, 1967, Denzil Dowell, a 22 year old African American resident of Richmond, CA, was struck and killed by an officer of the Martinez Sheriff’s Department, who fired his shotgun during a suspected burglary incident. After the shooting, there were many discrepancies between the testimony of police officers and the testimony of surrounding neighbors. For example, the police said only three shots were fired, when neighbors claimed that there were six to ten shots. Moreover, the police reported that Dowell was running away from police and jumped a fence immediately before getting shot, but the Dowell family stated that he had been recently injured in a car accident and would not have been able to jump a fence with his hip injuries. It was also discovered that police had made no attempts to summon a doctor or to try and save his life after the shooting, and Dowell’s body was only discovered by his family members.
Two weeks later, on April 14, 1967, Dowell’s death at the hands of police was ruled a justifiable homicide, decided unanimously by a jury of 10 white and 2 black jurors. The decision was made after 30 minutes of deliberation. Following the verdict, many in the black community called for a Grand Jury investigation and challenged law enforcement to change their policies, but the Sheriff refused their requests.
This event came after a series of acts of violence against local African Americans at the hands of police, including the murder of two men in Richmond, the killing of a black man named George Thompson in Hunters Point, and the brutal beating of a 14 year old girl in East Oakland, all occurring several months earlier. These, and other, tragedies prompted the Black Panther Party (BPP) to establish police patrols to prohibit police brutality throughout the black community.
Police patrols were an integral part of the BPP, and these patrols represent one of the earliest attempts of community policy in our nation. BPP members, the Huffington Post writes, “would listen to police calls on a short wave radio, rush to the scene of the arrest with law books in hand and inform the person being arrested of their constitutional rights. Black Panther Party members carried loaded weapons, that were legal because they were publically displayed, to these stops to ensure that police brutality would not take place.”
BPP members were extremely careful to abide by the law as they engaged in their community policing. They always openly carried their weapons, were careful to stand no closer than ten feet from the arrest so as not to interfere with the it, and recited the law upon arriving at the scene of the arrest. This form of community policing made law enforcement belligerent! They immediately sought to change the law, enraged by the “arrogance” of the BPP.
Law enforcement swiftly recruited local political officials who would began advocating to change the open carry laws of California. PBS says that this effort was launched right after Dowell’s killing. “It began shortly after the shooting of Denzil Dowell. Easy Bay legislator Don Mulford introduced a bill to repeal the law that permitted citizens to carry loaded weapons in public places so long as the weapons were openly displayed [see link to California Penal Code, Sections 12031 and 171.c]. What the Mulford law sought to achieve was the elimination of the Black Panther Police Patrols, and it had been tagged ‘the Panther Bill’ by the media.”
The Huffington Post wrote that the BPP police patrols were only initiated as a safeguard “against rampant racism in policing. And that’s what they did in the first few months of the party’s existence, carrying guns openly in compliance with California law, driving around their neighborhoods, observing arrests and other law enforcement activity — effectively policing the police.” They continued by writing “the patrols weren’t meant to encourage violence. The Panthers were committed to using force only if it was used against them, and at first, their mere presence appeared to be working as a check on abusive policing. But the Panthers’ willful assertion of their rights — like the day Newton reportedly stood up to a cop in front of a crowd of black onlookers — was unacceptable to white authority figures who’d come to expect complete deference from black communities, and who were happy to use fear and force to extract it.”
Don Mulford, a GOP assemblyman who represented Oakland, responded to the BPP police patrols in 1967 with a bill to strip Californians of the right to openly carry firearms. Therefore, the BPP’s organization in defense of Dowell, and their pursuit of justice for the black community, literally led to the end of open carry laws in California.
The Party published their first national article in response to Dowell’s death, and also held a street rally against police brutality. The Fifteen armed members of the BPP who attended this event (while open carry was still legal) were photographed, and their images were propagated far and wide on television screens and newspapers to induce fear of the BPP.
While these events led to the stigmatization of the BPP, they also helped establish them in the national spotlight as an organization willing to stand up for the rights of the black community, in the face of what may be governmental misconduct. While seen as controversial at times for their confrontational tactics , the BPP also did a great deal for the black community. For example, they established free breakfast programs for children, created health and education initiatives that reached over 10,000 people, advocated for culturally relevant education programs in community colleges, and passed the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act, which committed government money to the research and treatment of the disease.
The Party’s legacy of black empowerment in the face of a racist system helped to catalyze widespread cultural change and continued the work and struggle of the Civil Rights movement.
SCRIPTURAL REFLECTION: PSALM 22:1-8
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
RESPONSE OF LAMENT AND CONFESSION: Please spend some time in personal response, crying out to God with prayers, poems, songs, or art that expresses your lament and confession. If you feel led, please share these responses with others, using #lentenlament #day45
You may close with the following:
Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
CLOSING PRAYER: Good Friday (Walter Brueggemann, 2017)
“God of the poor and powerless, you have taught us how to speak in the face of inhumanity- you call us to tell the truth and expose the false orderings of power that oppress and ill. Make us bold to follow the example of Jesus and to speak your word, trusting in your justice and deliverance as we wait for resurrection.”
-From A Way Other Than Our: Devotions for Lent