Archive for December 2014

Communication

December 17, 2014

This past Saturday, I arrived at the protest late. I arrived at Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park around 1 o’clock, and found out the protest had moved on to the corner of Westheimer and Post Oak Boulevard. The few of us that were at the Waterwall Park started walking up that way. I ran into a Hispanic family that was also searching for the protest and we walked together up to the group. Before we got there, we encountered a woman who was in tears. She said that as she pushed through the crowd of protestors, she was called a racist and bigot. The family and I tried to console her, but she was so distraught, our words did little to make her feel better. While we were talking to her, a fellow protestor walked by us and yelled, “Don’t talk to the bourgeois!” Here we were, trying to provide emotional care for a woman who was visibly upset, and this guy is labeling her as the enemy.

I really wanted to berate that gentleman. I wanted to yell, “Hey! She’s upset! Don’t be a jerk!” But, since I was wearing a clerical collar, I thought better of it.

Now that I have had several days to think about it, I would probably yell something like, “Hey! She’s upset! Don’t be a jerk!”

And that has been a problem with the protests here in Houston. If you have seen me at the protests, then you will have noticed that I tend to stay pretty quiet. I have explained that in a previous post, and it is a big part of my presence. A part of this silence is silent prayer. A part of this silence is a reverence for the voice of the black community. A part of this silence is observation and learning.

What I have seen here in Houston is a lot of justified anger mixed with destructive behavior. There is definitely reason to be shouting right now. There is reason to be out on a busy street corner with signs and loud voices. In fact, if you are not out there, screaming and/or demanding justice, then I think you are not paying attention.

But there is a difference between yelling “No Justice, No Peace!” or “Black Lives Matter!” and yelling “F–k the Police!” or “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” when police are trying to communicate with protestors. There is also a stark difference between a black, or other person of color (POC), yelling these things and a white protestor yelling these things.

I have a tendency to not question what a black, or POC, protestor yells. But when a white dude is the one up front, yelling, “No Cop Zone!” and jumping around like a soccer hooligan, I question their motive. Please do not misunderstand and think that white people should not be involved in this movement. We definitely should. But should we be leading these chants? Should we be leading the protests in general? What does that say about us if we are the ones confronting police officers at the front of the gathering?

White people acting out aggression, to me, is out of place here. Our place in this movement should be a one of support and communication. We should be standing with our brothers and sisters of color all the time at these protests. We should be holding signs and chanting when we feel like it, and when it is appropriate. But we should not be telling others not to talk to the bourgeois. We should not be getting in an officer’s face aggressively.

Instead, white people should be willing to communicate with other white people. It is our duty to explain white privilege to those that do not get it or deny that it exists. It is our duty to open lines of communication to eradicate racism. It is our duty to change the system so that it is equal for all. White protestors cannot do this without open lines of communication. By acting out rage in these protests, we only seem like trouble-makers. Further, we need to understand that the system works just fine for us. Therefore, this rage being displayed by white protestors seems out-of-place. Again, I say that we are not out-of-place by being there. We are only out-of-place by taking the spotlight.

Hence, I say to my fellow white protestors: Communicate! Keep all doors of communication open! We have to be able to explain white privilege to those who deny or do not understand this concept. We have to be able to make a system that works for us, work for everyone. Do not discount someone because they are “bourgeois.” Do not yell at people who are not in the protest. Do not call others names. Do not insinuate that someone is less than you because they disagree with what you are doing. If we cut off ties with the people that control the system, we will never be able to change the system.

It is up to us to change the system. If we cannot talk to others, then we cannot change things for everyone.

Why, and How, I Protest

December 10, 2014

Since the non-indictment in Ferguson came down, I have been attending the #HoustonProtest gatherings. The first one that I attended took place at MacGregor Park. We started by the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., continued by flooding into the intersection of Old Spanish Trail and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and then the protest marched up to the University of Houston (I stayed behind at the park at that point). The second protest was out in front of the Houston Police Department (HPD). It was, to say the least, much smaller than the first. That was probably because it started at 4:30 PM on a Wednesday. From what I understand, the protest that started at HPD marched to a meeting, regarding the use of body cameras for police officers, and the turnout was much bigger there (again, I left before the marching action). The latest protest I attended was at the Galleria, which is Houston’s largest mall and shopping area. This protest was very well attended. At the time I left, around 1 PM, there were probably between two to three hundred protestors gathered around the intersection. That group ended up marching into the mall and having a “Die-In,” which momentarily caused several businesses to shut down. Or, as the protestors would say, “We shut it down for Michael Brown!” Amen to that.

I suppose a lot of friends on my Facebook newsfeed and my Twitter timeline are wondering why I choose to protest. I have lent some minor explanation in past posts, but here I am going to try to draw those ideas out just a bit more.

In case you have never read anything from me before, or have never interacted with me at all, I am very, very progressive in my social and political views. Most people would label “progressive” as left or liberal. That is not wrong, but I just prefer progressive.

Despite my progressive tendencies, I have conservative friends in my social networks. These people are my friends on social networks, because I want to be friends with them. Everyone that I am friends with on Facebook, I choose to be friends with. I am not someone who adds folks just to add folks. If we are connected on Facebook, it is because we already have an established personal connection. And I enjoy hearing the voices that I hear on Facebook.

Recently, in the wake of everything (read: non-indictments from Ferguson and Staten Island), some of my conservative friends have been defending police. There is absolutely nothing wrong with most of the articles and posts that I see. But, I read this as a response to the outcries from communities that are demanding justice. As a white person participating in the protest, this is where it becomes complicated for me. I have always grown up with a deep respect for police officers. I have always been taught that persons in the blue uniforms of various police departments are there to protect me and serve my community. I have seen the valor and complete sacrifice of officers running into the crumbling buildings during 9/11. I have seen police collect toys and food for various charity drives around the holidays. I have seen officers protect and serve their communities time and time again.

I also understand how dangerous it is to be a police officer. Growing up in a town of 10,000 people in Arkansas, there was not a lot of violence. We had a significant drug problem, mostly dealing with crystal meth, but we were not overrun with violent crime. Still, we saw the problems in Little Rock of the 1980s and 1990s. Even in small-town Arkansas, we knew how dangerous it could be to be a cop, and the white community had a deep respect for that. Today, it is not lost on me the potential dangers that officers inherit when taking on that job. There is a reason, whether or not a good one, that police officers carry guns.

However, there is another side to this narrative as well. There is a different story that arises from communities of color. While we white kids are taught to respect and even care for our police officers, people of color are taught to be, at the very least, wary of the blue uniform. Since the inception of our country, the black community has had trouble with authority, particularly white authority. There is the obvious stuff to point out, like slavery and Jim Crow, but the complexity in today’s day and age is much more complex. From job statistics to treatment by the justice system, it is largely perceived that black people are treated worse than white people.

This seems to be the case, particularly in instances where unarmed black persons are shot by police. Check out this string of tweets from @ShaunKing. It is important to realize that there is a clear and systemic oppression of persons going on. This treatment outlined here is a helpful reminder how the black community is treated as non-persons.

There are countless narratives, including this blog post from a white pastor, that point out the difference between white and black police interactions. What about when this white guy just held his gun out in the open and the comparisons between black persons with toy guns? This dude that points his gun at cops and children and is not killed? Compare that to this list of unarmed persons of color killed by police between 1999 and now.  There is a stark difference between the way people of color and white people are treated when it comes to police. Again, I say, this is a systemic oppression, which brings us to why I protest.

There were two distinct paths in Jesus’ ministry in this world. The first one was aimed at the people that were being oppressed. Jesus talked to, and healed, the lepers who were not let into the outermost walls of the temple (Mark 1:40-45 & Luke 17:11-19). Jesus talked to the woman at the well, who was systemically put into the lowest part of the social pyramid (John 4:1-26). Jesus cast demons from people who had been deemed worthless by their peers (Mark 1:32-34 & Matthew 8:28-34). Perhaps Luke 4:18-19 gives the best overall summary of Jesus’ ministry on Earth.

But there is another part of Jesus’ ministry. That is the ministry to the oppressors themselves. Like when Jesus ate with the Pharisee named Simon (Luke 7:36-50). What does that say when Jesus stands up for the woman who is washing his feet? How about when Jesus meets with the Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)? What about in Luke 19 when Jesus ate at the house of Zacchaeus? In each of these instances, Jesus is speaking directly to the oppressor. The Pharisees and tax collectors were part of the hierarchy that had developed the system used to control others. If Jesus was for the oppressed, why would he waste time with the oppressor? Because in order to save the oppressed, you have to change the system. Sometimes, most of the time, that change only comes from the top. The movement from Selma to Montgomery brought attention to an issue, but it was not until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that things were forced to change. The movement on the ground is what starts it all, but the people on the top acting is what makes the difference. That is why I am involved in this movement. We have to start from the ground in order to change the systemic oppression of peoples.

As a candidate for ordination, who is certified and ready for a call, in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., I have to be involved. My national church is mostly white. I have to preach to my church. As a white, upper middle-class man, I have to preach to others like me. As a straight man, I have to reach out to my peers. People like me have to realize that even though we are not actively racist, we are inherently racist. Most of us do not go out and burn crosses in yards or lynch persons of color. But all people like me live in a system that benefits us. We do not have to worry about much. That doe not mean that things will always be easy for us. But rather, it means we do not have to worry about things like police brutality. I will never have to tell a police officer, “I can’t breathe,” or “Hands up, don’t shoot!” But I see that other people do have to. That is unfair. That is oppression. That is why I take part in the movement.

And because I will never have to say, “I can’t breathe,” or “Hands up, don’t shoot!” I take part in the movement in a very specific way. The way that I participate is a way in which I try to understand that this movement has nothing to do with my narrative. This series of protests is solely about black persons and their struggle with inherent racism that oppresses them to their core. And if you do not think this is about race, then you need to check your privilege at the door and move along.

At these rallies, I have held signs. One of the signs that I held, that I made myself, said, “Black Lives Matter,” and had a list of names of unarmed black people killed by police on the other side. It was a staggering list. After much inner and outer-debate, I decided wear my clerical collar to the protests, despite not being ordained. I stand there, in my collar, with my sign, and I am present. But, there is one thing I do not do often, and that is chant. I believe that is unfair for me to chant, “I can’t breathe!” because, as I said before, I will never have to say that to a police officer. I do not chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” because, if I am unarmed, I will never have to say that to a cop. Chanting those specific phrases is not my narrative, so I do not feel it is appropriate to take part in it. I will chant, “Shut it down for Michael Brown!” I will chant, “No justice, no peace!” I will chant a variety of other things, but I am not in this movement to make the narrative mine. I am in this movement to help others’ voices be heard and recognized as fully human.

Ultimately, I am here because Jesus would be. Jesus would be present in a two-fold way. The first would be to be present with the oppressed. The second would be to teach the oppressors. That is what I am striving to attempt. I believe that my presence at these protests is a moment where I can be present with the oppressed as well as teach the oppressors. It is our duty as white people to change the system. So, let us do just that. Let us go out and change the system for the betterment of all.

“Human Rights begin in small places close to home.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Talking about racism is… complex…

December 6, 2014

My social networks have gotten complex since the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo. They have gotten complex because I have dived into the world of institutionalized racism head-first. Before the non-indictment, I preached a sermon series called “Turn Signals” as pulpit supply here in Houston. After the non-indictment, I joined protestors here in Houston at MacGregor Park, where the group flooded the streets and blocked the intersections of Old Spanish Trail and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. The first Sunday of Advent, delivered a sermon called “Before Hope…” In this sermon, I tried to use the doom and gloom of the texts for that day to link our broken society to those of Ancient Israel. And after the non-indictment came from Staten Island, I protested again, this time out in front of the Houston Police Department.

What these movements have done for me is complex. My narrative as a white man in this world has changed. The conversations I used to have about race have morphed. The way I look at this system has been altered even more.

And I want to talk to you about that process. I want to talk about how I, as a white man, seek and yearn for the justice that the black community needs and deserves. I want to talk to you about how my privilege has hindered me and also helped me. I want to talk to you about what I think the proper role of an ally is and is not. This is a big, big subject and I am not going to get everything right. That is not possible for a straight, white, upper-middle class man to do. What I am seeking to do is just help myself, and hopefully you, understand what white privilege is in this unjust and skewed world.

First, I want to start this this video. Do not worry, it is not long.

Have you watched it? Good. Let us start there, then. Building a house is a great analogy. Ms. Ramsey hits that nail on the head (get it?). It is important for us as white people to show up at these rallies. It is important for all of us who believe in justice. Show up in gear, or in this case a sign or two, and be present. But, and this is important, know that this is not our place to grab a bullhorn. It is not our place to chant, “I Can’t Breathe!” It is not our place to chant, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” It is not our place because we will never have to say those things. Instead, be there, present, and let people know that Black Lives Matter.

Ms. Ramsey’s next idea is critical too. Take those blinders off. We are not allowed to shout those things because we will never have to do it. I am not going to be choked to death by the police. I am not going to be shot by the police. I will not be pulled over because of the color of my skin. That is my privilege.We have to understand, as white people, what has been given to us in order to properly stand with the black community.

If you were to go to a protest, the best thing you could do is listen. Stand in silence as the black community roars forward those shouts. Form a protective ring around a “Die-In” and watch the pain of that community as they demonstrate their loss. Listen to what they have to go through and see those emotions they feel. I think this covers the “Support” in Ms. Ramsey’s video as well.

Moving along from that video, I want to talk about something that has come up quite a bit in my social media circles: “All Lives Matter.” First off, I would like to address this statement a little harshly with the comeback, “No shit.” Of course all lives matter. And if someone said this any other day of the week, I would cheer that right along with them. But that’s not why people are saying, “All Lives Matter.” This is being said because of the supposed divisiveness of “Black Lives Matter.” And I kind of understand the intent. The people chanting “All Lives Matter” see “Black Lives Matter” as an effort to separate communities. But that is not what it is. Instead, it is an effort to gain recognition for a community, so that they can be a part of the community. “Black Lives Matter” is not separating a community from the larger group. Instead, it is standing up to the community that has already ostracized the black community and saying, “HEY! We are important, too! You cannot brush us aside any longer!”

Put in a more simple manner: When someone yells, “All Lives Matter!” they are disrupting the narrative. This would be the equivalent of a Roman soldier approaching Jesus and saying, “Why are you only preaching to the poor and destitute? WE ARE ALSO HERE!” This takes us right back to the listening. If you are yelling, “All Lives Matter,” you are not listening to the narrative of the black community. Yes, it is that simple. As Shaun King (@ShaunKing) said on Twitter, it is important to look at how the black persons that were recently killed by police were treated after they were killed. Michael Brown lay in the street for 4.5 hours. Akai Gurley suffered, asking for help, while the police looked on, doing nothing. Eric Garner lay on the sidewalk for seven minutes, unconscious on his way to death, before the police called an ambulance. Tamir Rice, as shown in the video, received no first aid from Cleveland Police, despite officers saying they provided first aid, until an FBI officer who happened to be in the area arrived on scene. “Black Lives Matter” is important to this narrative, because in this time and age, the opposite seems to be the law of the land. Respect that narrative.

In the same vein, there has been a hashtag floating around Twitter and Facebook: #CrimingWhileWhite. I have used this hashtag. I have seen it used by many other people. On the positive side of its use, it provides a narrative that points out the stark difference between the treatment that white people and black people receive under the guise of law and order. It has probably opened the eyes of white folks around the country. I do not use this hashtag anymore, though. Let me tell you why.

Many people in the black community see it as an affront to the suffering they constantly have to endure. #CrimingWhileWhite points out privilege that the black community is sick and tired of hearing. “Oh, you can get away with that? That’s nice! Meanwhile, my brother was shot dead for doing the exact same thing! THANKS!” If what we say, however well-intentioned, becomes hurtful to any of the community that we are trying to help, then we need to stop, listen, and ask what can be done that would be better.

This is hard work, y’all. It is hard to take those blinders off and see the injustice around us. It is hard to get up and into the streets and demand change. It is hard to demand that change because we, as white people, will never face those problems. But listen to that last sentence. We will never face those problems, and that is unfair. That is why we have to stand up and say something. That is why we have to listen and support and be present. This shit is hard work. But it will never be as hard as burying your child who was shot without justification.

PostScript

I am grateful for a group of friends who volunteered to read drafts of this post. When I stared putting all of these thoughts together, I was about to take a path that I believe I would have come to regret. This group of friends prevented me from making a decision that would have alienated other friends. So to BS (ha), DA, DW, KJ, MH, and SR, many, many thanks!