Why, and How, I Protest

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

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