Melinda Henneberger

Like Brandt Jean hugging ex-cop Amber Guyger, my family knows the comfort of forgiving

You’d think that to hug or not to hug Amber Guyger, the former Dallas cop who killed Brandt Jean’s brother, would be the 18-year-old’s own business.

But in an offended and on-the-offense world, parched though it is for even a drop of forgiveness, the sight of Jean’s open arms, filled suddenly with the murderer who says she mistook his brother Botham’s apartment for her own, moved some of us but made others stop and glare.

The Rev. Cornell William Brooks, a former president of the NAACP, tweeted, “I have preached #forgiveness for 25 years, BUT using the willingness of Black people to forgive as an excuse to further victimize Black people is SINFUL. America should ask Black people forgiveness for serially asking African Americans to forgive sanctioned #PoliceBrutality.”

Yes, we should. If the roles had been reversed, would the white officer’s family have been hugging her black killer? We can’t know, but people of color shouldn’t always have to be the ones showing us how to forgive, as they were also so quick to do after white supremacist Dylann Roof’s shooting spree at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike Guyger, Roof has said he does not regret anything.

Forgiving someone does not, though, mean condoning his or her actions. It’s not only a gift you give yourself, but one that you either fork over ASAP or spend the rest of time wishing you had. And it’s only because we humans are so complicated that it’s both more important and in some ways easier to forgive the worst that’s been done to us than it is to let go of the petty slights.

Just a couple of years ago, I finally got to say, “We forgive you” to the now middle-aged man who, as a teenager, had been riding his motorcycle with my 16-year-old brother John on the back when they hit a pothole. My brother flew off, hit a tree, suffered a punctured lung and suffocated. He’s buried in the Catholic cemetery just up the country road from where he died on July 21, 1979.

My parents always wanted to hug this boy, to make sure he was OK and hear about my brother’s final moments, but his parents wouldn’t let him do that, or even come to the phone. They feared legal action because apparently he’d been drinking, but I always thought this attempt to protect their son did him a terrible disservice. For years, every time my mom or dad went into the grocery store where he worked, he’d run into the back.

When I finally did get to talk to him and tell him that as far as we were concerned, he’d long since been forgiven, he insisted that he hadn’t been driving, though lots of people who saw them that afternoon said that he was. And had John been driving, he wouldn’t have flown off into the tree, would he? This was the first I’d even heard that that was his story, since there wasn’t a police investigation.

He said he wasn’t conscious when John died, so didn’t know what he said at the end, and that he couldn’t come to the funeral because he was in a coma at the time. That isn’t true either; we know he talked to the ambulance driver, and a number of friends saw him uptown, riding the carnival rides at Ag Products Days that same night. We didn’t read anything into that; what are you supposed to do with yourself in the hours after your friend is thrown off your bike and dies? Just don’t try to lie about your whereabouts in a small town is my advice.

Talking to him, I was sad that he’s still in denial after all these years. But I was also grateful for the chance to cry with him and to at least try and set him free from what must have been a harsher sentence than any judge could have imposed. So when I hear people criticizing Jean for hugging Guyger, I don’t think they’re right to want to deny him the comfort of forgiving, which might be even greater than that of being forgiven.

State District Judge Tammy Kemp embracing a tearful Guyger is more problematic, of course. Particularly after some of her rulings for the defense, a big ol’ hug is not what impartiality looks like. Good thing I’m not a judge or I’d be hugging all of the murderers, but really, she shouldn’t have. Still, caught off guard, she behaved like a person, and I can’t blame her for that, either. “Forgive yourself,” she told Guyger.

Just as hate leads to more of the same, so too does letting go of it.

This column originally appeared in USA Today.

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Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.
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