Last night I had the privilege of sitting with a room full of millenials at the Jail Support Hotline Office, a service provided to the St. Louis activists who are protesting nightly for the complete reform of the legal system so that it is equally protective of people of color as it is of white people. The Jail Support Hotline tracks arrests, arranges for legal representation and bail support, contacts the family and friends of those who are arrested, contacts the police stations regularly for updates about those arrested, and arranges for transportation for those released. To be sitting with this group of dedicated volunteers, who staff the hotline 24/7, was such a powerful experience. Everyone was tweeting and facebooking. Laptops carried the local media coverage, the 24/7 cable news channels, and livestreamers who were embedded with the protesters to ensure that there is accurate footage of what is happening on the ground. We also watched Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough’s press release together last night. It was good to be together and it was extremely hard to be together.
I have no doubt that Bob McCullough believes in what he is doing. I have no doubt that law enforcement believes in what it is doing. I have no doubt that first responders believe in what they are doing. I have no doubt that the politicians believe what they are doing. I have no doubt that the Grand Jury believes in what it has done. I have no doubt many Americans believe that the democratic process came to bear on this situation. I have no doubt that Governor Jay Nixon believed that it was the right thing to call a State of Emergency. I have no doubt that those who cancelled school and cancelled concerts and cancelled social gatherings believed in what they were doing. Many many people believe in the legitimacy of response to what is happening in our city.
But what the protesters have said repeatedly is that the problem is not with individuals, it is with the system. The system is corrupt. Our law enforcement is charged to uphold a system that is corrupt. The Grand Jury was asked to make a determination within a corrupt system. We ask law enforcement and our politicians and our governor to be able to determine what is a true threat, what is true danger, when we know that black anger is frequently interpreted differently from white anger and that those different interpretations often have the force of the law behind them. The system as it exists, the way the investigation regarding Michael Brown was carried out, the process by which Bob McCullough convened the Grand Jury, the way the evidence has been interpreted, and the way the city has responded to largely peaceful protesters shows us that the system is broken. It shows us that some lives matter more than others.
After the decision was revealed, there was peaceful protest and there was violent protest. Not surprisingly, given our society’s addiction to violence and sensationalism, the mainstream media has focused on the violent protest and largely continued to define an entire movement by that violence. This is another example of tokenism. The actions of a small minority are used to define an entire group, sometimes even an entire race.
I cannot condone violence, but there is a difference between condoning violence and trying to understand it. The media owes it to the public, to us, to help us understand the longstanding history and experience behind the violence that we saw on our TV screens last night, both from some protesters and some law enforcement. The mainstream media has failed in its responsibility to hold up this experience and to help the public understand its many layers. Instead they have by and large drawn on the cultural stereotype of black rage as violence.
The mainstream media has failed to help the American people understand the racist systems that enact daily violence on people of color. Centuries of bearing that violence have built up layers and layers of rage and pain. Here are some of last night’s tweets from Deray McKesson, one of the leaders of the protest movement in our city:
If you think people “enjoyed” last night, then you don’t understand the performance of masking deep, deep, pain.
See, some people want our love to look like silence. They want us to honor our dead children in tears only.
Know it. Love is what keeps us here 109 days later. Love sometimes sits with rage. And anger. And pain. And grief. But it is love.
Love is in the heart of every protester who is fighting so her son, neighbor, daughter can live another day.
I would cry if I had the energy. Protesters are in pain. If you can’t understand this pain, then you don’t understand blackness.
As Deray so eloquently put it, we have to have the courage to understand the violence and the pain behind it. And, in a national culture that gives such primary to the power of the individual and the value of the individual, we have to find a way to wrap our heads around the truth that there are deep systems of racism in this country that are incredibly violent and that we are all a part of this violence. When white people deny the reality of this systemic violence, we strengthen it.
It is putting our heads in the sand to think that our society can enact the daily violence of structural racism on the bodies and minds of people of color and expect no violence from those who are oppressed. Who among us could withstand such pressure, and for how long?
When the Grand Jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson, this became a sign to many people of color that once again, the white guy got away with it. The system consciously and unconsciously protected the privileged place of whites in our society. Black lives really don’t matter, not when it comes down to the wire.
So what do we do now? The protest organizers were pretty sure this non-indictment was coming. They know this is just the beginning and have been planning for this for a long time.
So I’m going to head back to the Jail Support Hotline because the protesters aren’t going home, not for a long time. Some of you have been participating in weekly vigils, some at Eliot Unitarian Chapel’s Tuesday night vigil, others at Emerson Unitarian Universalist’s Saturday morning vigil. These will continue. We will keep educating ourselves and talking about what we have learned. We will keep pressuring law enforcement and the legal system and the legislative system to make systematic changes. We’ll be there for our friends and family who are in positions of power and privilege as they struggle with what is being asked of them. Some of us will take this into our schools and our churches and our neighborhoods and our families. We will take risks with our relationships to speak truth to power. We will donate to the Jail Support Bail Fund. We’ll donate to the St. Louis Area Foodbank. We’ll go down into the communities most affected and help clean up. We’ll make sure we go beyond the mainstream media to get our information. We’ll talk to our children. We will pray and meditate. We will cry and we will ponder. We will sing. We’ll go to church. And we’ll know when to ask for help because it’s just getting too hard to hold it all.
But mostly, we’ll keep loving. Because that’s what this is about. This is about love, the power of love, and the enduring abiding truth that love always has the last word.
Yours, always, in faith,
Rev. Krista Taves
Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel, Chesterfield MO