The Genesis of Violence… and the alternative, or no

Last night I stood with my candle in the cold November rain and witnessed the precipice.

As I stood with my refused-to-be-lit candle in the windy wetness, the sign that I held was filmed by no less than a dozen news cameras. Some of the reporters tried to initiate conversation, a few asked permission to take pictures, others simply took the liberty. The sign that I carry (made for me by my dear one) is an old slogan that is timeless, simple and yet powerful in its challenge: “No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace.” While I desperately wish for the message to be heard, I have learned to be distrustful of strangers with cameras. I am silent while the lights flash.

In the absence of justice, we take to the streets and disturb the peace. We do so intentionally, prayerfully, and peacefully. But make no mistake: the goal is to disrupt the status quo. While low hanging fruit may be found simply in drawing awareness to the injustice, I would be disingenuous not to cede the ultimate goal of making the present state so uncomfortable that changes necessary for justice become preferable. The way things are may at least appear to be comfortable for many of us, especially the most of us that are white. Hidden in plain sight, however, is the terrifying truth that we are living in the backdrop of an American horror story. (Read) And if one dares to face this truth, one is forever changed.

My wife and I have been on the sidewalk in Ferguson enough now to know many names and faces, to share hugs and solidarity. We’ve also been to many quality trainings offered by organizers who’ve sought professional leadership to ensure that the movement is grounded in a sustainable tradition of non violent direction action. And we’ve been to church, more times in the last month than in the prior 12 put together. In the varying venues, we discover what should be obvious but is rarely spoken. While the movement may be expressed as a singular cry for justice, the parts are as many and varied as the individuals involved. In every single venue and with every person I encounter, the goal has been to secure a just peace. No one wants more bloodshed.  Indeed, “we are praying with our feet until there is no more blood on our streets.” (Rev. Traci Blackmann) In this much, our purpose is clear.

What is also clear is that as the town-criers for justice continue their plea, those bent on violence and those profiting from it continue to up the ante. Last night there was a small group of protestors dancing (literally, playfully) in the street. Rather than having a conversation with the few that are in the street, an unseen and muffled voice booms an unintelligible warning. I can infer that the voice is coming from the police station and I check that my feet are on the (theoretically legal) sidewalk. But I am left to wonder about the mode of communication which further dehumanizes the encounter. Thankfully we were spared the ridiculously unnecessary riot gear parade that has become common place at this intersection. Meanwhile the fear mongering has reached such an epic proportion that press from literally around the world have filled the sidewalks where we otherwise would have room to (lawfully) gather. The press is so legion that they begin to out number the criers, and so intent on finding a story that they begin to create one with their presence.

This morning I chanced to read one of the many hundreds of worthy articles written about the coming violence in (and indeed all around) Ferguson. Written by Heather Ann Thompson for the Huffington Post, the article (Violence in Post-Verdict Ferguson) describes historic protests and the bloodbaths that they became. Most importantly, as a historian she looks at where the peaceful protests took deadly turns.

“So, let us now be crystal clear: In none of these now-infamous protests were the protestors responsible for the extraordinary pain and injury that so many people suffered in them. In fact, in every one of these iconic protests, violence was caused by, and was in fact guaranteed by, local, state and federal officials who made the disastrous decision to prepare for, and then respond to, these episodes of popular sovereignty with ugly force.”

Thompson looks at the military-style escalation with the preemptive call of the National Guard and the tanks rolling into Ferguson and she warns:

These are the decisions and actions — historically and today — that turn otherwise peaceful protests volatile, dangerous and violent.

Thompson’s historical analysis mirrors what I see in real-time and makes sense of the knot that has made a home in the pit of my stomach. The anxiety I feel is real and even reasonable. I am watching the horror story morph into a nightmare beyond imagining.

Increasingly I have witnessed in real-time what Thompson chronicles in history. While protestors are committed to non-violence, when we stand in confrontation with violent systems we are burned by the very violence we abhor. The Rev. Rebecca Ragland could be the poster child for peaceful protester; she’s an Episcopal priest, exceedingly gentle, suburban mom, white and even pretty! But the police plucked her from the crowd on Wednesday night and dragged her through the streets, quite literally. (Read)  And not all of us are photogenic, nor should we be expected to be. We are not a perfect people nor a monolithic movement. This is real life and it’s messy. Crowds develop mentalities which are not always helpful, especially crowds pushed to the brink of sanity by zealous hordes of both police and media.  The instinct to wait out the storm at home is a self preservation instinct which is both understandable and not unwarranted.

As I sit in the morning light, holding the angst with fingers on the keyboard, I consider my options.

To stay the course is to stand with those who stand with Mike Brown. To stand in the street as the tensions mount, to stand alongside those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired; sick and tired of being sick and tired while being confronted by a militarized police, a blood thirsty media, and just enough agitators (of all persuasions) to incite disaster. To stay the course is to be willing to witness, to be touched by, and to be changed for good by the reality that is American life for those without white privilege. 

And in that final sentence I realize that my choice is made. I cannot unsee, I cannot unhear. The violence began long before the protestors took to the streets, long before Mike Brown became the name that awoke resistance. The violence is systemic and insidious. Those who perpetuate violence will lay it at the feet of those who resist, suggest that if only we had stayed quiet we wouldn’t not have to be violently subdued, but I cannot allow the lies to guide my steps.

So tonight, like so many nights before, I will put on another layer of warm clothing and head to Ferguson. First stop tonight will be prayer with allies at Greater St. Marks (6pm).

A “mass die in” for justice; mine is the red hat and scarf.



In Wait… November 11, 2014

After a long day with troubled teens, I listen to the winds howl and allow myself to feel the anxiety that burns in my gut. I live in St. Louis, Missouri and this is November 11, 2014. I am keenly aware that I am living in a historical moment.

Each of us has our own story as we come into this important moment. My context is my story. A white woman, a city-dweller, a retired minister, a teacher of troubled teens, a married-to-a-woman woman, a mother of children both white and black who are now out of the nest… and safe, for today.

Once upon a time I had a bully (and literal) pulpit in suburban St. Louis. In addition to a weekly audience, I was a regular contributor of op-eds for the Post-Dispatch, did interviews with the likes of Keith Olbermann and Charlie Rose, was featured in a River Front Times cover story, and worked alongside change activists in our community. Now I have none of those titles or platforms or audiences. The loss of this old life is understood in new ways this week.

After more than 20 years in the business (church work), I cashed in my chips six years ago and got honest with myself, my family and my church about what was real in my heart and body. I had scrupulously followed the rules of marriage for two decades, but to do so I had denied my truest self. Telling my truth, however, was costly. At first everyone (in my family and my church), good liberals all, said the right things but immediately there was a distancing. It was almost imperceptible and denied when’er I queried. Slowly but undeniably fissures became apparent and as my new life unfolded with incredible beauty (and it is oh, so precious), my old life evaporated before my eyes.

A house, the baby books, holidays with family… these were the first things I noticed missing. But soon it was undeniable that the big stuff was in play, even my professional life. The things that matter are won and lost not in courts or with martial law but with innuendo and nuance. When the proverbial delivered a clear message, I walked away. But the lessons are yet to be unpacked.

For the past year I have worked as a teacher with troubled kids, my former life experiences invaluable but unseen. So much of what is important in this world lies just out of view.

From this still unfamiliar vantage I listened to the news when Michael Brown was gunned down on a hot summer day, stunned and silent.  From the safety of my home, I watched in horror as the tanks rolled in and the dogs barred their teeth. I felt paralyzed, as I suspect most well intentioned white folk do. Evil rests on the default of silence.

It was several weeks later, in late September, when a call went out across social media: white folks needed in Ferguson. With the nest cleared and the school year started, my wife and ventured out from our home and spent an evening on the street in Ferguson. We were stunned by the compassion, inclusive welcome and safety we encountered. We were inspired by the hope that was so palpable. And we came back, again and again.

Freed from the glare and the responsibility of professional church life, my wife and I have spent now countless evenings standing with protestors in Ferguson, Clayton and on Shaw. We’ve held signs, marched for miles, and chanted until we were hoarse. And we have seen things. We have heard things. We have been changed.

As I sift through the emotions that collide as we await the grand jury announcement, I am aware that my grief tumbles together and new light shines on old shards.   What I experienced in leaving church was the culmination of micro aggressions, no one of which could have pushed me into abhorring a profession and community that I had loved so deeply. Micro aggressions are tricky because they are typically unseen by the casual observer and not life threatening in isolation. But what we fail to honor is that the wounds carry poison and that each repeated insult adds to the toxic soup. Eventually careers, even beloved ones, come to an end.

In the streets of Ferguson, I am forced to acknowledge that the stakes are yet higher. Micro aggressions are fed by “false Western binaries” (Starsky Wilson) that water the toxic soil of racist and homophobic cultures. Standing across from the Ferguson Police Department, I am face to face with the very struggle for survival. I am unable to unsee the pain.

Leadership (MAU)

School teacher by day and protestor by night, I begin to see what is hidden in plain sight. The twist of a narrative, the embellishment of one (not the other) side of a story. The subtle but undeniably pernicious play to fear-based stereotypes. And the incredible miserable lie that it is. What we have encountered on the street is powerful, is love, is a quest for justice the likes of which I have never seen nor even dared hope. This is the seed of just revolution that if watered with care and love could be so much more.

Stand Off

I am terrified and yet hopeful. The militarization of the police incites the very violence they claim to abhor, and I am fearful. The rush on guns stores by private (white) citizens in legion, and I am fearful. Young black men, the ones whom I privileged to stand with, express a fatalism that takes my breath. The mothers have called for the “wailing women” (Traci Blackmon), determined that they will stand in the streets until the blood stops flowing. And I will stand with them, praying and hoping and standing so that the story of justice is written on our hearts and in our history books.

Yet as I reach for my pen, I realize that my audience is gone. That the very gift of freedom that allows me to stand in the street, to see and understand, is at the same time the loss of the privilege to help craft the narrative. And now I see: a catch 22, the taproot of oppression.