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My city is on edge. It began two weeks ago when an early morning traffic stop ended up with the death of a black man of Grand Rapids. We don’t know why Patrick Lyoya was driving a car that apparently had the wrong license plate on it. We don’t know if Mr. Lyoya himself was aware of it. We don’t know why an officer of the Grand Rapids Police Department called in that plate and then pulled the car over on a neighborhood street.
I have subsequently learned that it is very easy for the police to scan license plates now and that this may happen very routinely. So perhaps this was another example of a white officer paying extra attention to a car driven by a black man or perhaps it was just a routine plate scan that is done all the time to all kinds of cars with all types of drivers. We don’t know yet.
We do know that Mr. Lyoya got out of his car to meet the officer and did not get back into the car when asked to do so at least a couple times by the officer. We do know based on the officer’s body cam footage that Mr. Lyoya appeared confused albeit confirming he did speak English (his family had immigrated to the U.S. to escape violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo some seven or eight years earlier—so much for things being better in the land of the free). We do know Mr. Lyoya was unable to produce a driver’s license but don’t know if it really was not in the car or whether he has a license at all (though the latter seems unlikely but we don’t know yet).
We also know that Mr. Lyoya then walked toward the front of the car and that at this point the officer grabbed his arm and then shoulder and whirled him around. At that point it was not hard to see fear leap into Mr. Lyoya’s eyes and he began to run away. What ensued was a wrestling match that involved two futile discharges of the officer’s Taser, which Mr. Lyoya grabbed hold of perhaps to keep away from himself or perhaps he wanted to use it to defend himself. We don’t know. What we do know is the officer got the better of Mr. Lyoya who ended up face down on the front yard of a home. Although he seems to have still had one hand on the Taser, he clearly was not going anywhere with the officer’s knee on his spine.
And tragically we also know that at this point—without saying he was doing so, without warning Mr. Lyoya—the officer drew his service revolver, pointed it at the back of Mr. Lyoya’s head, and fired a fatal shot. I have watched this sickening scene several times to check my facts. The time from the drawing of the revolver to the fatal shot was 3 seconds. Did the officer even intend to fire? We don’t know yet. Did he think he was in mortal danger from an unarmed man with a hand on a Taser that needed to be reloaded to be fully functional again? We don’t know yet. We do know, however, that the first backup police car was seconds away at that very moment.
I am not writing this blog because I have answers or have enough information to suggest answers or make final conclusions. I have listed what we seem to know and to not know at this point. But here is another thing we know: this was yet another routine misdemeanor traffic stop that in under five minutes led to the death of an unarmed black man who, to the best of our knowledge, had no prior criminal record and who, despite his attempt to flee an authority figure he had some reason or another to fear, ended up dead. I wonder if even the officer involved has not found himself wishing he had just let Mr. Lyoya run. How far would he get? What threat did he pose to the community? Impound the car, take the other passenger in the car into custody for questioning, and go from there.
At some point in the last week or so I mused aloud to some colleagues that I wonder if either man could comprehend the struggle they ended up being locked into. Maybe both men were finally afraid. Coming as this incident did late in the Season of Lent, it struck me as a searing vignette of the very human sin and brokenness for which the Son of God had to suffer and die if he were to offer any hope that this senseless series of struggles–this series calamitas–would ever be snapped.
The lives of the Lyoya family and that of the police officer will, one way or another, never be the same. But only one family has lost a cherished 26-year-old for perhaps no reason more grave than that he panicked. He made mistakes borne of fear. Maybe we will later learn he had other reasons to fear the police that may or may not be laudable but whatever those reasons were, they were surely not capital offenses.
As I have grieved this whole situation, my thoughts kept coming back to the Morehouse College Glee Club. On the eve of the lockdown and the beginning of so much that has disrupted our lives for over two years now, the Glee Club gave a concert at Calvin College/University on March 11, 2020. It was at this concert that I was exposed to something I had not known about previously; namely, a significant musical composition by Joel Thompson titled Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. The piece commemorates and laments the final words of seven unarmed black men who were killed by the police. Mr. Lyoya’s name could be added to the list now. George Floyd too.
But for all of us who are moved and saddened and even horrified by what happened in Grand Rapids on April 4, I commend listening to all or parts of this piece. It is a good channel for our lament and our weeping. It is a good avenue to inspire calls for change in our society. It is a good reminder, even now that we are in Eastertide, of the tragedies for which Christ died and rose again. It is a good occasion to wring from us yet again the cries Kyrie, Eleison and Maranatha.