In October, Love First, Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel’s Social Justice Team, made the decision to host a weekly vigil for racial justice in Chesterfield MO, a western suburb, at one of the busiest intersections of town, Boone’s Crossing and Chesterfield Airport Road. There were many reasons involved in this decision. Love First wanted our congregation to have a physical presence in relation to the events that have deeply affected our city since Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in early August. The shooting has brought to light many of the tensions faced by people of color in our city, including distrustful relationships with law enforcement. There have been non-stop protests since the day of the shooting. We wanted to bring this issue to West County. For many of our members, this is our home and we know that things are not right here. We know that West County was created by white flight out of the city. Many of the assumptions made about the protesters in Ferguson are part of long standing racial prejudices in this city that created the shape of where we live and how we live. This is not just about Ferguson. This is about our city and our nation. This is about the unfinished work of the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Our vigils take place every Saturday from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. We hold signs that say “Black Lives Matter” or “Ferguson Lives Here” or “E-racism.” We stand for one hour facing the busy traffic of people coming and going from the Chesterfield Commons.
The first Saturday, 17 people joined together. We were joined by two members of the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis and two people unconnected to a UU congregation but who heard about our vigil. The response from the traffic was enlightening. Almost every vehicle with black occupants greeted us with gratitude and excitement. We received thumbs up, the enclosed fist symbolizing black power, honks, lots of pictures and videos, and verbal thanks. The response from whites was primarily silence although we were definitely noticed. A few gave us thumbs down, the finger, or shouted profanities out the window, but that was few and far between.
Last Saturday, 11 of us stood out there in the cold windy morning. We were joined by one member of Eliot Chapel and the same two people who joined us the week prior. The mood was very different today than the first week. There was a higher level of verbal aggression from whites. More shooting the finger and thumbs down. One young man screamed “I hate black people.” A young girl, around 12-13 yrs old, clearly supported by her mother, screamed, “Go home! Go home!” Another older woman shouted, “Support the cops b****es” and yet another screamed, “All lives matter sweetheart!” which is similar to a slogan used at a white protest elsewhere in the city today. A white driver almost seemed to propel himself out the window of his semi truck truck in rage that we were there. There were some whites expressing their support through thumbs up, honking and waving, including the driver of a semi truck who kept honking as he drove by.
We did get a lot of honks from black drivers and occupants, but whereas almost every single car with black occupants expressed their support last Saturday, today more remained silent.
I am wondering if the escalating tension in the city is part of the increased silence from blacks and higher aggression by whites. We all knew the Grand Jury Reveal was unlikely to come before the mid-term elections. The election is finished now, and the grand jury reveal is closer to being a reality.
It was unnerving to be the focus of that kind of hatred. Those of us who stood there have experienced first hand the many ways that whites police each other to preserve the privilege of whiteness. Whites who stand for racial equality often meet incredible anger form other whites and pressure to be silent. Those slurs were about shaming us and intimidating us back into an acceptable whiteness that remains silent in the face of racism. When we gathered for coffee after the vigil, the unanimous feeling around the table is that the resistance we experienced proved why we need to be doing what we’re doing. For many of us, especially those of us who are white, this was a shocking eye opener to a side of our community many of us have never seen this clearly. We knew things were not right in St. Louis, but the increasing boldness of whites to express outright racist ideas and beliefs, with no fear of impunity, has been sobering. The Ferguson situation has exposed a level of racism that has always been there, but more latent and under the surface. This is what our black and brown sisters and brothers have been living with all these years. It saddens and angers me.
This experience has confirmed for me what our primary job is as white allies standing in solidarity with people of color. Our job is to change the hearts and minds of white people because that’s where the institutional power is.
Rev. Barbara Gadon, Senior Minister of Eliot Unitarian Chapel, preached about our vigil to her congregation on Sunday. Eliot Chapel knows about vigils. They have held vigil for racial justice every Tuesday since Michael Brown’s shooting. When they heard about our experience, many became committed to supporting us. A carload of Eliot members will be joining us this Saturday. I hope you will too. We will gather every Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., plus Black Friday, until Christmas.
Many of you have concerns about your children’s safety were they to participate in our vigils. To date, we have received no physical threats. The only aggression we have experienced is from whites. You will need to decide how comfortable you are with your child or youth experiencing verbal aggression, often using foul language, from strangers in moving vehicles.
Thank you to everyone who came on Saturday. I was so proud to stand with you, witnessing in such a real and immediate way to our values of respect and diversity and truth-telling. It was a blessing to stand with you all.
Yours in faith, Rev. Krista.
Saturday, November 8, 2014.