Five Years After Ferguson

Five Years After Ferguson  AUDIO
UU Church of the Palouse · September 1, 2019

 Opening Words

Five years ago, I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, in response to a call that went out far and wide for people, and particularly clergy, to attend protest marches organized in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, Jr.  At the time, we were hearing reports on the news of looting and violence on the part of protesters, and tear gas and violence on the part of police.  Several people expressed concern for my safety.

What I found there was very different than what the news led me to expect.  I found a community in mourning, lamenting the evils of pervasive, systemic racism.  I found a community coming together in strength and solidarity, with tens of thousands of people marching peacefully together.  I found a community full of normal human messiness.  Imagine, not everyone agreed on the strategies and priorities moving forward!

I also found a great deal of food for thought and personal growth.  I came to understand viscerally things that had been abstract.  I saw patterns of oppression that I hadn’t been aware of.  It was clear to me that as a white person, I was there as a witness and a supporter, not a primary actor or a leader.  This led to some discomfort, especially when my normal instinct to respond pastorally to pain butted up against the reality that in many cases, I was simply not the right person to do so.

The five years since have been a rich and challenging time.  In our nation, our faith community, and our spirits…at least my spirit.  I’ve experienced a slow and sometimes painful process of waking up to the ways that white supremacy culture is the air we breathe, the water we swim in.  As we become aware of the issues, how do we respond in ways that express our deep commitment to affirming the worth and dignity of all people?  How do we unhook from the shame-and-blame cycle that causes us to react defensively rather than responding compassionately to our own human mistakes?  How do we go about building the beloved community in times like these?

I don’t have the answers, but we will use our time today to sit in these questions together.  I can imagine no better company.

Time for All Ages              “Something on My Face:  Learning How to Be in Community” by Karen G. Johnston  Click Here

Meditation MARGINAL WISDOM By Leslie Takahashi  Click Here

Readings   

From “5 Years After Ferguson, We’re Losing the Fight Against Police Violence” by Justin Hansford, Law Professor Click Here

“It’s Hard Work” by Rosemary Bray McNatt  Click Here

Sermon  

On August 9th, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a mostly black suburb of Saint Louis, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black teenager known as “Big Mike,” or Michael Brown, Jr.  The body lay on the ground in the middle of the street for more than four hours.  Tensions that had been building for several years both locally and nationally in response to police killings exploded into demonstrations, uprisings, riots.

The governor sent in the National Guard.  The president sent in investigators from the Justice Department and the FBI.  And a fairly new organization called “Black Lives Matter” put out a call for activists to come to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend for training and action.  The response was so overwhelming that they later limited their invitation to young people of color, but I already had my ticket, and attempts to find someone to go in my place didn’t work, probably because the students who were my contacts weren’t back to campus yet.

I also had a place to stay and a local guide- my friend and colleague Susan Maginn.  The local UU ministers were exhausted from several weeks to being on the front lines.  They were relieved to be able to send us in their stead to the meetings and marches scheduled for that weekend.

Susan picked me up at the airport, we grabbed a quick sandwich, and headed straight to an interfaith forum and prayer meeting at St. Paul’s AME church.  I learned that in Ferguson, a town of 23,000, the police issued over 32,000 citations in 2012, most of them for things like speeding or expired tags, and that the fines for those citations were the #2 source of income for the township.

The next day, we went to the big march, which was sponsored by Black Lives Matter as well as the NAACP, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other local organizations.  There were literally thousands of people there- mostly people of color.  A LOT of families with kids.  I spoke to one woman who was a professor of sociology, there with her two boys, 7 and 11.  She said that she felt like she had to march, because her boys are growing up, and things needed to change so that they would be safe.  Her story was way more typical of the people there than the stories we heard about people wearing masks and throwing bottles.

We marched down to Canfield Apartments, where Mike Brown lived, and saw the spot where he was shot.  There were some speeches and prayers, and people as far as the eye could be.  Then the organizers had planned to head to a park for more speeches, but many people wanted to go to the police station- and so a huge chunk of protestors peeled off and walked another 2 miles or so to get there.

By the time I arrived at the police station, several hundred people congregated on one side of a line marked by crime scene tape.  On the other side was a line of police officers, standing blank faced while some of the angriest protestors screamed at them.  Frankly, it was really hard to watch.  When a second set of officers with zip ties on their belts came to join their colleagues, protestors started to head home.  At this point, it became clear that the best way to be useful was to give people rides back to the starting point of the march.  My favorite passenger was ayoung man named Michael.  He was a big guy, probably about 6’5”, and worked as a security guard during the week.  He carried a sign with a list of names on one side…Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, all black men gunned down.  And on the other side the Jon Stewart quote, “You think you’re tired of hearing about racism.  Imagine living with it!”  I had watched as he quietly and without saying a word took his sign and went and stood beside the angriest protestors, the ones screaming at the police.  He said to us in the car, “I figure the sign said it all.”

Last month, the NY Times published an entire series of articles on the fifth anniversary of the Ferguson uprising.  In addition to the article I quoted earlier, there’s one detailing what happened to some of the activists that led the protests.  Most of them are still actively fighting to dismantle racism in some way, but they all spoke to Times reporters about the challenges of healing from the trauma they experienced back in 2014.  And then there are the six prominent activists who have been found dead, some of apparent suicides or drug overdoses.  There are suspicious circumstances surrounding some of these deaths.

Another article describes the children of Ferguson, who grew up having the protests as part of their formative identity, in the words of the Times reporters, “a generation of largely African-American children in Ferguson has been molded by the unrest of 2014 and a messy epilogue of halting progress and still-raw racial divides.”   They continue, “Ferguson has become their shared birthmark, a source of pride and stigma.”

Other articles look at changes in the state of policing and the local government.  There are a lot more black police officers and body cameras, but it hadn’t made much of a difference in the rate of police violence, as our reading showed.  A law was passed to limit the percentage of a municipality’s budget that comes from traffic citations, and it helped a little.  However, traffic stops are still overwhelmingly more common in communities of color.  There has been progress, but of the one-step-forward, two-steps back variety.

I believe that something good and liberating was set in motion, and gathered steam in Ferguson five years ago.  As a society, we are learning.  We are waking up.  But there’s also a huge, powerful backlash.  The rising tide of white nationalist extremism.  Boys with tiki torches in Charleston.  The racially motivated mass shootings.  The racist rhetoric being spewed at the highest level of our government, not to mention the racist policies being implemented.

Racism is this nation’s deepest wound.  It’s been festering for hundreds of years.  And every attempt to lance that infection so that it can heal seems to result in an explosive backlash, full of hate.  It’s disheartening.

But at least in our Unitarian Universalist Universe, with our first principle putting us so clearly on the side of human rights and dignity, things are going great, right?  Well…

Those of you who follow denominational politics know that in 2017, there was a controversial hiring decision that led to accusations of white supremacy and several high-profile resignations.  In the chaos that followed, multiple efforts to move us forward in the work were initiated.  A Commission on Institutional Change was formed, and has been working diligently to assess the health of the denomination with regards to race and racism.  The UUA board voted to fund BLUU- Black Lives UU- to the tune of $5 million.  We held White Supremacy teach-ins, and Promise and Practice Sundays.

As a faith community, we have been deliberately centering the voices of people of color and others who hold marginalized identities.  We are having the tough conversations about what constitutes harm, and how to hold one another accountable.  We are doing the work, imperfectly, but as faithfully as we can.

Sadly, though, I have to tell you that even in Unitarian Universalism, there has been a backlash.  And it’s hitting close to home.  My friend Todd Ekloff, the minister of the Spokane church, who preached from this pulpit just last year, wrote a book that has become a rallying point for the people who feel displaced, shamed, and uncomfortable with the way things are going.  In my opinion, it’s not a very good book.  I can’t recommend it.  But it crystalized for me the issue at the heart of the UU specific backlash.  It comes down to two letters.

Todd and his fans believe that a rational approach should be enough to create the beloved community.  That is to say, we ought to be able to think our way to a just world.  Sadly, as the authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) demonstrate quite clearly, none of us are rational as we’d like to think we are.  Every last one of us is subject to confirmation bias.  (This is one of the best books I read on sabbatical.)

Meanwhile, the current national UU leadership is taking a relational approach.  They believe that ours is a covenantal faith, and as such, we are connected by our promise to remain in loving, respectful relationship.  In the context of relationship, we choose our words and change our behavior in response to people we care about telling us that the impact of the things we’ve said or done is painful.  Avoiding ableist language, then, isn’t ‘political correctness,’ or censorship, or thought policing- it’s an act of love we choose out of respect and caring for the person who has been brave enough to say, ‘those words hurt me.’  If we accept the notion that we are held, gently, in a web of mutually respectful and mutually accountable relationships, then we navigate our conflicts and misunderstandings in ways that lead to growth and deepening.

Unfortunately, some people experience being held accountable as a threat.  They feel ‘called out’ when someone tells them they’ve made a mistake, rather than feeling ‘called in’ to repair the relationship.  They experience the setting of boundaries as rejection or even attack.  Hence the backlash.

I understand the backlash, because I feel it inside myself, too.  I feel the flood of defensiveness, the desire to assert that I am a good person, the temptation to slide into arguments about grammar or to critique techniques or tone.  One of the things that makes this work so hard is that I think all of us to some extent and some of us to great extent have internalized a sense that to be worthy, we have to be above reproach.  Being held accountable for our mistakes triggers feelings of shame.  Shame is a tough emotion to feel, and a tough emotion to work with.

Rev. Theresa, your sabbatical minister, once offered one of the most brilliant mini-sermons I’ve ever seen.  She wrote, “People are mistake-y, but good.”  One of the things I have been working on is unhooking my own shame response.  Which doesn’t mean I don’t have it.  I do, and it’s hard and painful.  But I figure it’s my responsibility to work with it, soften it, transform it- not the work of people who I may have unwittingly harmed in my mistake-y-ness.  Being mistake-y, being imperfect, messing up and having blind spots and acting without thinking and even causing harm, that’s all part of being human.  It doesn’t mean I am bad or unworthy of love.  When I ground myself in that knowing, that I am worthy and lovable, then I can find my way to a gracious response when I am called in, when my mistakes are brought to my attention.

Dismantling white supremacy, in our world, our faith, and ourselves, is heart work, not just head work.  We need to metabolize the grief, the guilt, and the trauma so that our nation’s ugly history doesn’t keep us from doing what is right in the present and the future.  We need to grieve whatever it is we are losing as we do the work- whether it’s our illusion that we are exceptional or actual power and influence.  We need to unhook our shame response and find our way to something more helpful.  It’s not easy.  But if you are tired of talking (and thinking and feeling) about racism, imagine living with it.

We are launching a Racial Justice Book Discussion Group here at church.  Through the lens of narrative and poetry, we’ll sit together in the questions, in the hardness of these issues.  Compassionately and patiently, we’ll do the heart work.  We’ll allow ourselves to be transformed by our relationships to the texts and our relationships with each other.  We’ll meet on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of each month, from 6-7:30.  We’ve been invited to have dinner with the participants in the Family Support Group before our meetings, as well.  Find Nancy during coffee hour if you’d like to take part.

With regards to the backlash out there, in our nation, we know what we need to do.  Vote our consciences.  Support local initiatives that advance human rights and combat bullying and racial profiling.  Act in solidarity with people who are the victims of racism and hate.  Show up for those who are being targeted, and, if need be, put our bodies between them and those who would cause harm.

With regards to the backlash in the UU Universe, I feel like I want get between the backlash and this congregation.  Maybe that’s a little paternalistic?  I guess I just don’t think it’s worth a lot of our energy and time.  There are too many real issues to work on.  The ‘backlash’ is a fake fight.  We know who we are, and we know what our values are.  Thoughts and prayers aren’t going to solve the gun violence epidemic, and thoughts and prayers aren’t going to build the Beloved Community, either.  Relationships are.  I support the work that the current leaders of our faith are doing, to the extent that I agreed to serve a second term on the UU Ministers’ Association’s Board in order to move forward a small piece of that work.

And with regards to the backlash in our hearts, I think the most important thing we can do is to remain open.  Let ourselves feel the heartbreak.  Untangle the feelings of shame.  Remember that being mistake-y doesn’t mean we’re not good.  We can choose to treat everyone as if they are beloved, and holy- starting with ourselves.  We can trust that web of relationships, and allow it to hold us even as it transforms us and calls us onward.

 

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