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.



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