A plumb line is a simple but accurate tool used for determining whether something is perfectly vertical or upright. Used since ancient times, a plumb line consists merely of a line and a weight of some sort, at first just a stone, but later a weight made from lead. In the Biblical text we often find the plumb line employed as a metaphorical tool to measure the level of justice and a level of rightness in a particular society or nation. The dutiful prophet Amos, a mere shepherd and tree-pruner, had the unenviable task of telling a nation and the powers that were: You have been adjudged negatively. It was an unpopular message from an insignificant person. But Amos didn’t have a popular calling, he had a pertinent calling.
In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, America’s prophetic voice, was perhaps the most unpopular and silenced leader in America. Universally panned for his criticism of the war in Vietnam (he called America the greatest purveyor of violence in the world) and marginalized in the movement for his criticism of black power, he was on the outs. It was under those circumstances that his message to America was most clear. He asked the question, “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”
Here we are 50 years down history’s crooked trajectory and we find ourselves facing that same question. The Black Lives Matter movement has assumed the prophetic mantle. It has taken its challenge to neighborhoods, highways and seats of power all over our nation. And though it is a part of a historic continuum of the black protest tradition, the Black Lives Matter movement’s people are not a vanguard or a Talented Tenth. They don’t adhere to or care about standards of respectability. They accept and affirm LGBTQ people. They are wary of the church and its patriarchal leadership model.
Although there are various narratives about how the Black Lives Matter movement started, all will agree that it was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year-old Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder. From there and onto Ferguson, Mo., and beyond, the movement has held up the plumb line to American injustice. It has called America to respond to the virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society.
And while so many of the people in positions of power and influence, black as well as white, are confused about or are against the modes and or the aims of this movement, they unfortunately have not expressed a parallel concern for why the pot is boiling over. Police agencies didn’t just start killing and otherwise harming black and brown people. Every black adult I know and too many black children have a story, an intimate knowledge of state overreach, intimidation, inhumanity and violence. God gave Noah the rainbow sign: no more water, the fire next time.
The pot boiled over. People got tired of the naked racism, which only seems to have become more prevalent since the election of President Obama. People want to have full and unequivocal humanity even as their economic prospects are dampening. The movement calls for transparency and fairness in process. Specifically, the movement asks that police forces treat all people with humanity and dignity, and are otherwise held accountable. That is justice. The movement and its people want a specific guarantee that systemic injustice that manifests itself in police violence and cover-up is eradicated.
Where do we go from here? President Obama’s now year-old Taskforce on 21st Century Policing has as the first pillar for reform in its report “building trust and legitimacy.” This has to be the primary and a long-view approach. The trust of communities that have experienced the police as illegitimate occupying forces has to be earned. We have far to go and a plumb line by which to measure progress.
Rev. Ryan D. Davis is an associate pastor at Bullock Temple CME Church in Little Rock.