4th & Oak: Louisville's Crossroads

How many times have I stood on that corner? Hundreds, perhaps thousands. Every day, real life happens at the intersection of 4th and Oak Streets. People come and go - on and off buses, in and out of stores - at this Louisville crossroads. Less than a mile east of CrossRoads Ministry, the little retreat center where I once worked, this intersection has been a regular stop along my journey of integrating different factions of my community and my life. This is where East meets West, Downtown meets South…the head meets the heart, compassion meets action. Every Louisville citizen could find their way to such a crossing.

Saturday, a man was shot on that corner by a policeman. A man died from injuries inflicted by an officer. A policeman defended himself against the threat of a drunk man wielding a metal flagpole. An officer overreacted to a confrontation. A mentally ill Sudanese man responded to a cop by attacking him with a pole. A refugee was provoked by an officer and defended himself. There are countless ways to tell the story; each added perspective is another path along the topography of truth, making the map more accurate and more complex as we gather, watch, and listen. Outrage and despair, grief and regret, questioning and challenging – these are the roads I traverse again and again as I revisit the news. These lanes draw me no closer to conclusion but carve deeper trails in my exploration of what it means to be a community.

Deng Manyuon was a Lost Boy of Sudan. He was a victim of immeasurable trauma and pain, someone who came to the U.S. but struggled to find security. He suffered from chronic mental health troubles and homelessness. He drank. He assaulted a woman the day he died. He did not speak English. I wonder what his thoughts were as he walked away from the officer yelling at him, reached for a crude weapon, and charged. Did he meet the officer’s eyes? Was he confused, afraid?

So many times, I stood at that corner waiting for the #4 bus to take me and dozens of high school young people to Americana Community Center where we made friends with refugees. Even if we spoke different languages, we found ways to connect and communicate. Catching the #25 on Oak Street carried us to St. Vincent de Paul – an organization at which Deng found food and shelter – where we sat and ate and met people on the fringe of our city. Over a shared meal, we often discovered that the directions of our different lives led to disparate places but reflected similar journeys. Back at CrossRoads, we processed our day’s experiences and found what had changed for us was not where we stood, but who we stood with.

Nathan Blanford felt threatened. He had to make a split-second call. His hand followed an instinctive path toward an automatic weapon, a familiar and fatal mode of defense. As smoothly as a finger pulls a trigger and a bullet thrusts from a barrel – seemingly effortlessly, without thought, but in truth after years and years of training – he took Deng’s life. His service in the name of the public good led him to this moment. I wonder if he was able to look Deng in the eye. What would he have seen if he had? Was Nathan Blanford confused, afraid?

I am a middle-class, cisgender, straight, white woman who is native-born to this country and has no significant mental or physical illnesses. I recall times I acted in self-defense; sometimes, I in fact acted on assumptions about what, or who, was coming toward me. Foreign and unfamiliar people or circumstances have confronted my security of identity. They have disturbed my knowledge of my place as “right.” I have been humbled to learn that justification is not justice. By receiving mercy for my ignorance, I have been better able to bestow it.

Each time I stand on corners like 4th & Oak, I discover again the unending work of deconstructing the internal highway that traps me in a one-way ride to isolation. Each time I cross the street and look at life from another perspective, the revelation chips away at the corrupt foundation of unjust systems that keep me separate from my fellow Louisvillians. The rubble of my individual highways and byways has become the material for restoring my life and community. Each connection is an opportunity to explore how, together, we might walk in a new direction. As relationships form, a neighborhood is built.

Saturday, each of us stood on that corner. As citizens of Louisville, we find ourselves at a complicated crossroads of compassion. Blame and excuse are ugly cement on divisive walls. Lack of opportunities to facilitate cultural sensitivity, practice peacemaking, and examine our language are unmapped territories of common ground. Dismissing people who challenge us dishonors all potential servants of the public good. Posing dissimilarity as a threat puts a gun to all of our hearts. For the privileged, ignoring the imperative to name our advantage and lend it to amending broken systems is a death sentence…to us all. Refusing to mourn our lost brothers, both of them, is to forget that we can find unity in common suffering.

Every day, real life happens at the intersection of our lives with others'. We can choose our route. Louisville’s citizens can look their neighbors in the eye, put down defenses, and extend hands. We can take a trip to the other side of town. We can listen deeply, dialogue, ask difficult questions, and be patient with one another. We can restructure our hearts to create a nonviolent neighborhood where all are protected. We can imagine support networks for our most vulnerable citizens so they are not a threat to wellbeing. We can revolutionize our training of public servants to facilitate nonviolence. We can create a truly compassionate city by standing together.

Let’s start by coming to the crossing and meeting one another.