Privilege, Prayer, & Perspective – At Gunpoint
In a moment by moment account of a Memorial Day unlike any other, a 57-year-old Episcopal priest prays through an experience of white privilege, while his home was SWAT’d.
At 5:50 a.m. on Memorial Day, I was still asleep in my bed, blissfully unaware that the day had already begun. I was unaware that the sun was up, that the birds were chirping, and that three armed, African-American teenagers were sheltering in my backyard shed. I was even unaware of the helicopters — three of them — hovering over my house, and a 15-20 person SWAT team with all their police cruisers surrounding it. Good thing for me that my husband Don is a light sleeper. “Don’t you hear all that?” he said as he shook me awake. Well now I did hear it, and in my post-slumber, barely conscious state, I found myself in a very confusing, waking nightmare. This was not going to be normal day on my quiet residential street, just outside of Washington, D.C.
All I was doing was sleeping in my bed, as shadows passed all around the backyard, the front yard, and even the sky above my bedroom: Shadows that I did not have to notice, until they came to my house. Where had they come from? Besides the police, what shadows drove those teenagers to a crime spree that led to my backyard? What shadows inspire or compel people to a vocation protecting the public? What shadows am I still blissfully unaware of as a white man, even when I’m wide awake? It is a privilege not to have to notice the shadows, but it is dangerous, too. It is dangerous for everyone, even a 57 year-old white man like me.
Like the chopper blades over the house, everything was swirling a bit too fast for 5:50 a.m. My assumptions about the day, about my personal safety, about the police, were all a puff of wind. The day was supposed to be a quiet holiday. My home has always felt safe. The police were always my friend. Teenagers are many things, but I’ve never met them as assailants. For many people in our country, none of these things is even remotely true. Holidays don’t exist. Young people don’t get to be teenagers. The police might not always be your friend. Later, I would pray from the Psalm 144: We are like a puff of wind; our days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144:4)
"Get on the floor now!” says my husband, as he pulls me down to safety. It was 6:00 a.m. In my first steps toward consciousness and toward taking in what was very quickly unfolding, I had walked to the bedroom window. That window faces the street in front of our house. So we were looking out trying to discern what was going on, when all of a sudden, we overhear an officer say, “Looks like they’re in the house!” At this point about a dozen assault rifles point in the direction of our window.
While I appear not to react, my husband reacts very quickly, perhaps saving my life. In most circumstances I don’t react quickly. This is sometimes useful; but on that morning, it was just dangerous. My privilege has taught me that the police are always going to protect me. My privilege has allowed me to rest in the assumption that I’m a good person, who is just looking out his window to see what is happening; that I’m not the target of a police search, and certainly not their weapons! I could not even imagine that perhaps the police might have thought our house was a headquarters, or that we were some kind of ringleaders. Like the Archangel Michael, the protector, Don snatched me out of harm’s way. He snatched me out of the danger of assault rifles, as well as the danger of my privileged view that I could not possibly be a target for the police.
We called 911. Surely they would know what to do. That’s what the system is for, right? I mean, we were surrounded by rifles! We described the situation to the operator and asked her to get a patch through to the commander onsite, to let him know that the owners were inside the house, and that they were looking at us, not the assailants. In my naivete and privilege, I thought this would resolve our immediate danger. To our surprise the operator advised us to go outside and surrender to the police.
But the Archangel Michael was busy with others there that day too. Though these teenagers were armed, their real refuge was our backyard shed. It probably saved them, more than their guns did. It certainly helped to slow down the fast-moving disaster of their young lives. Michael was busy in the training those officers received. No one was shot, injured, or killed at our house that day — not us, not the teenagers, not the police. Perhaps this prayer was heard in heaven: Stretch out your hand from on high; rescue me and deliver me from the hurtful sword (Ps. 144:7).
It was coming up on 6:10 a.m., and we had had no time to take in what the 911 operator was saying, when the police started to batter the front door. They demanded we come out with our hands up. I was in my bathrobe, Don in his sweats, both of us barefoot. We yelled through the door that we were coming out, and slowly began to open the front door. An officer noticed something in Don’s hand, and yelled, “He has something in his hand!” Indeed. It was the cell phone on which the 911 operator was still present. We were greeted by about 15 assault rifles raised and aimed right at us in the open doorway. Several of them were yelling, “Put your hands up!” The full surrealness begins to crash upon me: Am I going to die on my own front porch? And then it hits me: this is how it happens if my skin were any darker. This is how split-second tension becomes split-second tragedy. If any little thing goes wrong, life and death are in the balance.
We tell the police that we are the owners, and no one else is in our house but our two cats. We have the privilege of being believed; of being listened to. They tell us to move away from the house. We are escorted barefoot across the street, to shelter behind a squad car. Eventually the commander orders that they take us, still barefoot, down the block and put us in a squad car for protection.
In this time of pandemic there is a lot of time and attention paid to the topic of protection. In the swirl of that morning’s events, no health protocols were observed by anyone. Now, I have had the privilege of feeling safe in school, in my place of work, in my chosen places of recreation, and in my home. Many people do not know that comfort. What sense of safety did the three teenagers in my shed have? Have they ever known a safe place? I am not in a position to answer for them.
But the alleged crime spree for which they were pursued must have come from a place of profound danger. They may have spread that danger to the people who were mugged, to the person who was shot, and to the person who was carjacked. Those are the crimes for which they were pursued by the police. That’s the thing about insecurity: we carry it around with us, and then we spread it around to others. Some of us spread it violently. Insecurity does terrible things to adults. It leaves lifelong scars on children. I doubt the teenagers who sheltered in my shed felt that adults give them adequate protection, or even a listening ear.
Of course we expect to be protected by the police. That is the entire idea behind having what used to be called “officers of the peace.” But there is protection and then there is protection. Clearly it is easier to protect property. Valuables, land, and buildings have neither motive nor intention. People are more complicated. When walls are breached, property gets damaged. When people are violated, lives are at stake. When police pursue people who are considered dangerous, then means, motive, and opportunity are all in play.
That is a lot for anyone to read, even in everyday encounters. In situations where protection is the goal, misreading can lead to tragedy. Our walls were breached: front yard, backyard, airspace, and front porch. But there was no home invasion by the assailants, and although we were treated very aggressively by the police, they listened to us and believed us. It is a privilege to be given the benefit of the doubt. It’s why I am still alive to write about this. It’s why I am alive to pray: May there be no breaching of the walls, no going into exile, no wailing in the public squares (Ps. 144:7).
We were retrieved from the squad car at 6:30 a.m. That is when we were briefed about who was in our backyard, and what they were alleged to have done. That is when they were arrested without bloodshed. This is how the wild chase through the city ended. But all of us were still on the street, and would be, for another thirty minutes. Restoring the peace to our street took a little time as the police finished up their work. Sitting in different squad cars were three fifteen year-olds: two boys, and one girl. Restoring the peace to their lives will take far more than thirty minutes. Perhaps this is all in a day’s work for the officers, but I know (from having been a police chaplain) that restoring peace to their lives is an ongoing challenge. Everyone feared the violence that could have taken place; everyone, in their own way.
At 7:00 a.m. we were allowed back into our house. Thankfully no one was brutalized or killed at our house that morning. Within one hour and ten minutes, we had looked through a window onto real white privilege, and walked through a door into stark American reality. Neither one is pretty. Neither one is safe. If there is any redemption to be had for systemic racism and white privilege, it will be found in threads of grace that we reach for, or it will not be found at all. In the ensuing hours, I found a few threads in the psalter, praying for whatever solace and wisdom Psalm 144 had to give: Blessed be the Lord my rock! My help and my deliverer … (Ps. 144:1–2)
The Reverend Peter M. Antoci, Ph.D., is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and rector of St. Thomas Church in Prince George's County, MD. An author and lecturer in Religious and Biblical Studies, he is currently also a Dean for the Southern Maryland Region of his diocese.