This Sunday, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, we at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel, located in West St. Louis County, will return to our focus on racial justice in our city. Three members of our congregation who either live or work in North County will be sharing their personal experiences of life during the last several months. Tim Martin grew up in North County and has served as a firefighter in that area for 20 years. Kelly Waymire lived in Florissant and her next- door neighbor and friend is Tom Jackson, Police Chief of the Ferguson Police Department. Megan Demsky and her husband live in the home David’s grandparents own in Ferguson, blocks from the marches that have taken place since August. I chose to ask Kelly and Tim in particular because their understanding of events differs in significant ways from mine. I wanted their voices to have a place in our congregational life. That is what a religious democracy looks like.
We have all changed since August. At the time the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and the community surged into the streets, I would have been extremely uncomfortable using the phrase “police brutality.” It seemed so strident, divisive, inflammatory and extreme. Then through the fall I began to see real evidence of police brutality at the protests. Still, I would not use the phrase. I thought to myself that really, only black people should use that word. It’s their truth, not mine. I have come to the feeling that it is a cop out. Those of us with eyes to see know that police brutality exists and has deeply shaped the black experience. If we wish to be true allies for racial justice, we have to take our black brothers’ and sisters’ word for it. We have to believe them and we have to share that we believe them. I, for one, believe them.
At the same time, I know many police and their families have paid a steep price this fall. Some live in fear of their lives. Kelly Waymire will testify to that in her sharing. In my opinion, there is no room for demonization of the police in this struggle. We do not create justice by creating enemies. We do not create accountability by threatening more lives. There is enough death happening already.
I know that many acts of violence have been committed in these last months, state-sanctioned violence and violence from civilians, and that the type of violence each uses is different. State-sanctioned violence tends to be focused on the bodies of the protesters – beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, incarceration. The violence used by some civilians tends to focus on property damage – trashing cars, burning buildings, smashing windows, theft.
There is also something important to take into consideration that is very rarely spoken of. Some of the property damage has come from white protesters who often self-identify as anarchists, and yet it is the black protesters as a whole who are often blamed for it in the media and put in jail for it.
We know that 99% of the protesters are committed to non-violent resistance and have spent tremendous time, effort and money training in the non-violent resistance used by Martin Luther King and Ghandi, and then translating those methods into a response to today’s realities. If you want to learn more about non-violent resistance watch the movie “Selma” and read about the history of the labor movement. Every tool that the resistance is using was refined in union activism that raised the standard of living for ordinary Americans for more than 60 years and lead to many labor laws that protect us today. These same tools of change and liberation are being used by The Movement today.
This fall, I was exposed to a piece of writing by Martin Luther King that not many whites pay much attention to. It has made a deep impression on me and has influenced some of my decision making this year. It comes from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and was read during an interfaith service I attended with Vice-President of the Board Jake Lyonfields in October:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Whenever I wonder what to do next, I go back to this and it gives me the courage to keep on. I don’t want African Americans in the country to keep paying the price because I’m afraid and resistant. Whenever I get tired or afraid, especially afraid of the reaction of other white people, I think about that. What is happening in our city is not a simple story. On one level nothing has changed. Many of us go to work, send our kids to school, shop for our groceries, live our lives. One another level, everything has changed. My hope is that we resist the impulse to return to the status quo. I hope that we have the courage and vision to stay in the complexity and to show up for the long haul.
Some of that complexity will happen this Sunday. I do hope you will join us this Sunday and listen to our people speak. I admire them for their courage and their focus, their willingness to share what is in their hearts. Let us open our hearts to their stories. Let us be willing to be challenged by them.
Yours in faith and love,