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On Charlottesville: Be the bridge that marries love and justice

Acting in Faith  |  By Jude-Laure Denis, Aug 16, 2017

Jude-Laure Denis speaks at a rally at Thomas Paine Plaza in Philadelphia in response to the white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville

Photo: Milton Lindsay / Milton Lindsay

These remarks by Jude-Laure Denis, the executive director of POWER Northeast, were shared at a rally on Sunday, August 13th in response to the white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville, VA on Friday and Saturday, August 11th and 12th. Jude provides a powerful statement about confronting white supremacy in our communities and offers a vision for how to begin to work for healing and justice. - Lucy

It’s exciting to see that this movement towards hate has pushed all of us, out of our homes, into the streets, to stand together in this moment, to make America really what it really needs to be—what it has never been—a place where we are all equal, a place where we are all one.

We can’t make America great again, because America hasn’t been great yet.

Last night at 7:30, my team at Power Northeast—the Rev Gregory Edwards, my Board chair, and Carrie Santoro, my community organizer, and i started a text chain. And we were agitated by Charlottesville. We were feeling that tightness in our hearts, that ache in our soul, that grinding feeling in our belly, and Greg said to us, “I can't go to sleep if we can’t figure out some way to create a public space, for lamenting, and coming together as a community to respond to this event.”  And so, within an hour and a half, between us and our partners, we built and promoted an event that just happened at 4 o’clock.  So we left Allentown after speaking to a large crowd of folks who were as engaged and passionate as you. And I’m excited to continue that by being here with you in solidarity today.

“Justice” Cornel West said, “is what love looks like in public.

And I have come here in the spirit of love, in the spirit of justice, in the spirit of the grace bestowed upon me, from the moment I came forth from my mother’s womb and took my first breath, to this moment right here with you.

Pope Francis said that he would rather have a good Atheist than a bad Christian. And I stand with him on those words because whether you believe in the eternal everlasting multidimensional consciousness I choose to call God or you believe in science, whether you call on Christ or Allah or Buddha; whether your religion is kindness, in the words of the Dalai Lama, or service, in the words of Mother Teresa, I stand with you today in the breach between love and hate, faith and injustice, hope and despair. 

What happened in Charlottesville this weekend is neither new nor surprising. But it, like Trump, has presented us with an opportunity to see the massive tumor which has long isolated us from one another, and prevented us from being able to name race and white supremacy and domination, without blame and without shame. 

Jude-Laure Denis speaks at Charlottesville rally at Thomas Paine plaze in Philadelphia, photo by Milton Lindsay

None of us here created any of that, but we’ve inherited it. Rabbi Abraham Herschel says,  a "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Amerikkka, unlike Germany, has never reckoned with its history. Amerikkka has told Black folks to forget about slavery, to forget about Jim Crow. Hey you got your desegregated education in the 50s, your civil rights in the 60s, affirmative action in the 70s, why don’t you stop playing the race card?! That’s what America says to us. As if being Black and Brown in Amerikkka holds any privilege. As if people of color, have suddenly taken over the hallways of power, the offices of CEOs. As if we’re not still just tokens to check off on the diversity and inclusion quota checklist.

Amerikkka wants to stop being reminded, of the horror, of how we as a country used the free labor of enslaved Africans, stolen from across the globe, to toil for free on stolen land, from dusk to dawn, to build the wealth that has made us the leader of the free world, because money, not morality, talks. 

And now the chickens have come home to roost. It's a lot easier to see the hate in the eyes of these overt white supremacists without their hoods on, though they look very much like regular white people.  It's a lot easier to see their rage, and recognize it for what it is at its root - demonic, destructive, dangerous. 

“Justice is what love looks like in public.” There is no love in this country when Philando Castile is shot during a routine traffic stop and his girlfriend and his 4-year-old bear witness, covered in his blood splatter, and the outcry, is not anywhere near universal, but Justine Diamond’s death leaves the police chief fired and the cop disciplined cause the cop is black and Muslim and Justine Diamond was white. And you know what, what happened to Justine Diamond, how that was treated, is how everybody in this country should be treated.

There is no love in this country when cops who murder our brothers and sisters like Mike Brown in Ferguson are protected and rewarded by GoFundMes that make them millionaires.

There is a double standard in America and that double standard weaves itself through our system of criminal injustice and police overreach. Nonviolent protesters in Ferguson were greeted with riot gear and tear gas and tanks. Did you see any of that in Charlottesville?

We call ourselves a "Christian" nation and wrap ourselves in the mantle of a Nordic Jesus that couldn't have possibly existed in Palestine. The founders of this country used Christianity to reinforce their dominion over Native Americans and enslaved Africans and eventually over all people of color. It took both Christian supremacy and white supremacy to build this country from the ground up. 

There’s an African proverb that says, “Until the lion learns to tell its own history, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Here’s some more hard truth. As a Black queer woman in America I am constantly rendered invisible. I am constantly ignored or worse, asked to prove over and over what I know, despite my qualifications, despite my proven expertise, even when I’m in a room full of folks who share the same ideology.

As a Black queer woman in America I’ve had to swallow the dirty looks I get from some white people, because speaking my truth, about my experiences, often makes them uncomfortable.

Jude-Laure Denis speaking at a Charlottesville rally at Thomas Paine Plaza in Philadelphia, photo by Milton Lindsay

I sat at a progressive meeting, a few months ago, the only Black person in the room, as I often am, where a white woman's discomfort was on full display. 

And I’m telling you this story not to demonize this white woman, who I’ll call Becky, but to elucidate my everyday reality.

Becky in her earnestness thought breaking bread with Black and Brown folks would position her to somehow change those people in Allentown who quote unquote "didn't vote and impacted my life by getting Trump elected."

The hard truth is Trump won almost every white demographic last November. People of color didn’t have crap to do with this.

White supremacists may look like Charlottesville, but paternalistic transactional white domination looks like progressive Becky, whose fragility about race not only led her to push against every attempt to help her see and interrupt the inner narrative, that made her believe she somehow had more insight on race than me as a Black woman who for fifty years has had to live in this skin, and learn to navigate and understand white people, and by extension white supremacy and domination in order to survive my everyday life.

That she accused me of attacking and berating her is par for the course; though my voice remained calm throughout that exchange, I was still labeled with the stereotype of the angry Black woman and she refused to return to the table because she felt “besieged.”

I’m telling you this story about Becky not to box her into a good/bad binary but to showcase for all of us that we can't get free without naming what white domination and white supremacy has stolen from us, that we can't get free until we look at the steaming pile of turds that for 400 plus years has been stinking up our America as we all hold our noses, and pretend everything smells like roses. As we pretend that the ideals of our founding documents are not only a reality for white people and mostly an illusion for people of color, regardless of Oprah or Obama. 

I’m telling you this story because truth is we won't get free as a people, as a city, as a commonwealth, as a country, without doing the intentional work of dismantling the unexamined, unconscious idea buried inside of most of us—including people of color—that being white is superior.

Because the soft, covert bigotry of progressives like Becky, and our inability to confront it, is much harder to undo, because it doesn't look like the white supremacists marching through Charlottesville yelling “Sieg heil!”

Because passive, unintentional bigotry prevents us from building a truly progressive movement that sees and hears and believes Black folks in particular and people of color and indigenous people in general. 

We need to be the bridge that marries love and justice both internally and externally. 

I'm telling you this story because those white men and women who marched in Charlottesville are our brothers and sisters, and I’m standing here praying for their souls that have been taken over by the demons of white supremacy, because true love does not discriminate; true love recognizes that somewhere deep inside each of them and each of us, there is a wound that is the source of our brokenness.

The Sufi mystic Rumi says “The wound is the place where the light enters you.

We have all been wounded by the wages of whiteness. It has stolen from people of color and indigenous people the ability to walk through the world with full confidence, antennae always out for where the next attack on our sense of self will come, never knowing which white person will judge you or prevent you from accessing what you need—be it housing, jobs, credit, a home in the neighborhood you want to live in. 

Whiteness has stolen from white people the ability to connect with people who don't look like you. 

It has stolen from all of us the ability to be honest with one another about our experiences. 

Jude-Laure Denis speaks at Charlottesville rally at Thomas Paine Plaza, photo by Milton Lindsay

We smile at each other if we work together, we go to school together, we work out at the gym together and still I guarantee you that people of color like me mostly wear a mask as W.E.B. Dubois said, "to keep you away from our true selves," because regardless of a white person’s ideology, we never know, if we can really trust you.

If I could choose one good thing to come out of this rally today, I would hope it to be, that you all, irrespective of race, gender, orientation, creed or land of origin, would commit to doing the work of interrupting how white domination manifests inside you.

This is not work you do for others, rather it's the critical work you do to allow yourself to heal, from the painful history that has isolated us from one another.

According to a recent study over 77% of white people don't have any friends of color. And that's important because when we don't know people, we replicate the false narratives about them, white supremacy has given us. 

I'm not asking you to artificially make friends, to randomly go through this crowd and say, “Oh my God! a Black person!” I’m not asking that. What I’m asking you to do is to understand that the only person here today you can actually change is you. Because the first revolution is internal.

The aboriginal community in Australia as coined by Lila Watson said, “If you've come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you've come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

I'm going to leave you with some questions, and I’m looking, for an answer:

Are you willing to do your internal work, so we can work together?!!!

Are you willing to drop your fragility, so we can all grow together?

Are you willing to do the work that we need to do, so we can all get free?!!!

I stand here before you and I’m grateful for your presence, I’m grateful for your hearts, I’m grateful for the love that you’re expressing by being here with us in solidarity, and I pray for all of you to do this critical work to build this kind of critical organizing community rooted in radical love, radical acceptance, and the ability to name the ugliness of whiteness, not just when it’s white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA but when you are at work tomorrow and when you are in the gym and when you are in a restaurant, wherever you are, it's time to call it out.

Carrie told us to lean in and push and that is exactly what we need to do, because Valerie Kaur was right, we can either decide that this is the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb and if it is indeed the darkness of the womb all of us must push!

About the Author

Jude-Laure Denis is a Haitian-American woman of Catholic and Jewish heritage, with a passion for justice for all people.  Leaving behind a successful career in corporate event management for Merrill Lynch to become a community organizer on the 2008 Obama campaign, she has been working diligently to create spaces for both individual and community transformation ever since.

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan and Greg Elliott work together and with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Greg is the Friends Relations Associate. He grew attending North Branch Monthly Meeting in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Greg currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

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