Note: Liz Oppenheimer is a Quaker who has been very involved in supporting AFSC's Healing Justice program in Minneapolis. During Ferguson October she traveled to St. Louis and participated in protests and in supporting activists on the ground. The experience opened her eyes and led her to wonder about Quaker readiness to lend support to the communities of color most impacted by police brutality and other injustice. These are some of her reflections on her time in Ferguson, with an invitation to Quakers to become engaged and activated as allies in this movement. - Lucy
“People in power don’t care what’s legal or not.” – 19-year-old protestor and one of the 19 young people arrested at the Quik Trip in south St. Louis on Oct. 12, 2014.
A couple of weeks after Mike Brown’s death, I saw a post on Twitter that read something like this:
“Read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. If you’ve already read it, read it again. #Ferguson”
I searched for and found the thin booklet among my Quaker books. The American Friends Service Committee had reprinted it in 2003 (and had been the first to publish it the 1960s); I probably bought it from Friends General Conference’s bookstore around the same time. I had already underlined a few items from my first reading but I had no recollection of what was in its thirty-some pages. That was about to change. And reading Letter from a Birmingham Jail was about to change me as Ferguson’s unrest was building.
About a month later, I was in Ferguson with the rest of my household. Seeing so many passionate people of color in Ferguson has left permanent impressions on my mind, heart, and spirit. Clergy, aging women, fathers, teens, whole families of color—all of them were participating in daytime marches and nighttime protests, often going toe-to-toe with white police officers in riot gear. What had happened to inspire an entire subset of people to show up and speak out against law enforcement and the local justice system in this U.S. Midwestern city?
I’m not really asking, of course. I need only to remember how sick to my stomach I felt as we crossed out of Iowa* and into Missouri, historically known as a slave state. I need only to remember why we ourselves were making this trip: for Mike Brown, an unarmed African American teenager who had been killed by a White police officer, because the officer didn’t like how the young man and his friend were walking in the street. I need only to remember that the officer has had no charges filed against him, despite multiple eyewitness accounts of his disproportionate aggression against Brown, and his subsequent killing of him.
Until my experience in Ferguson, I understood systemic and structural racism as intellectual concepts, constructs presented at workshops, and all based on modern and historical examples of institutional patterns of oppression. But unlike 10 years ago, I now have people of color in my life. They are my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, fellow worshipers, and housemates. I thought of each of them while being immersed in Ferguson for nearly four days in October. Being a witness to events and seeing the conversion of facts to false narrative in such a short time has made systemic and structural racism a living reality for me, not just a historical one.
I witnessed the mechanism of the multi-layered, white-controlled, interlocking systems of racism, spinning and whirring their invisible cogs, all to “protect and serve” a white community, while brutalizing and criminalizing a non-white one.
One specific structure that made itself plain to me is the relationship between the police and the mainstream media. Whatever the police chief reported, if it made the power structure look good and the protesters look bad, the media would pick it up, rebroadcast it without fact-checking, and ignore the multitude of voices that were blogging, Facebooking, tweeting, and otherwise crying out in a single word: “Foul!”
For example, my spouse and I watched the events that unfolded in South St. Louis the night of October 11-12 via Livestream. Protestors, including the young man who lives with us, staged a sit-in at a local QuikTrip convenience store, near the site where a police officer had shot and killed Vonderrit Myers just a few days earlier. Between 1:00-2:00 a.m., scores of police in full riot gear, accompanied by a SWAT van, moved in on the protestors and eventually blocked the cameras that were broadcasting live. At 2:06 a.m., just minutes after losing sight of our housemate and the other protestors, the St. Louis police chief posted on Twitter that the protesters were arrested for throwing rocks and for storming a convenience store. No video evidence exists of this.
Our housemate and his friends who protested insist that no rocks were thrown. But within minutes after the police chief’s post, and without any fact-checking—or in disregard of any facts they did come across—CNN picked up the single tweet and shared it on their own Twitter account. The same news outlet chose to omit reporting on the plainly heard instruction from an organizer that the assembled group would be conducting a peaceful sit-in, that no one was to destroy or take anything from the store…
The facts of what had or hadn’t happened were completely erased; only the narrative that was crafted by the police chief was broadcast and distributed. And the white population that doesn’t understand systemic or structural oppression, that doesn’t see or recognize the socialization process to conform to the (white middle class) mainstream; the average white American simply believes the false narrative that CNN and Time and other news sources put before us.
I was watching the revision of history taking place right before my eyes.**
When I began worshiping with the Religious Society of Friends in the 1990s, I understood myself and my Quaker peers as being dedicated to the principles of peacemaking and nonviolence. A few years ago, though, the Inward Teacher showed me that my attitude and my actions did not match up: if one were to assess my commitment to justice simply by looking at my checkbook and my calendar, there would be no evidence at all of such involvement and commitment!
King’s Letter challenged me to ask myself whether I was in fact actively working for justice, or was I unknowingly supporting the status quo, resisting change that otherwise might help people who are treated unjustly because of the color of their skin, their economic conditions, their employment history, or all of the above?
Traveling to Ferguson, I felt relief: I was doing something, I was choosing to be an active witness and participant. Just a few weeks later, now I am much more equipped to see how the mainstream media can collude with the existing system of law enforcement, while the immediate truth of what actually happened is transmitted through social media (Twitter, Tumblr, FB).
The experience has also awoken in me a vestige of the Loving Principle that had lain asleep deep within my soul. Even before going to Ferguson, I understood George Fox’s often truncated counsel to “answer that of God in everyone” to mean that we are to awaken that of God in everyone. Awakening the Principle that for so long has been drugged or asleep or socialized to stay quiet requires a lot of nudges, care, attention, and interaction. In other words, we need meaningful relationships, not token or superficial ones, if we are to answer and awaken that of God in one another, in the strangers among us, and in the people who are in decision-making positions of power.
In his letter, King expresses his hope “that the white religious leadership… see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure.” (emphasis mine)
I fear there is a deep complicit silence embedded in our corporate insistence for worship at a time when our sisters and brothers of color are suffering outrageous injustice. If our own father or mother, sister or brother, daughter or son were to call us one day in the dead of night, saying “Come to us quick! Your loved one is in the hospital; it’s urgent!” How many of us would insist on waiting first to know how God leads us, rather than clear our calendars and just go? Wouldn’t we simply call our workplaces, cancel our meetings, fill up our gas tanks or make our plane reservations and just go?
Well. These are our sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters who are crying out, “Come to us quick! We are dying, we are being massacred!”
We are Friends of the Truth, not Friends of the Silence. In regards to Ferguson, in regards to Trayvon Martin, in regards to mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, we have been asking in our meetings for worship with attention to business, “How is God leading us?”
Now, with the horrific experience and awakening I have had in Ferguson, Missouri, an alternate query becomes even more pressing for us as Friends:
Is the Way open for us to get involved?
Just because we have no visceral sense of the Holy Spirit pushing us off our chair to offer a message from the silence; just because we have no unity on what to do first doesn’t mean that we mustn’t start.
Is the Way open for us to ask questions of another house of worship that somehow is already taking action on an issue we say we care about? Can we be humble enough to do that, to acknowledge that others might have experience and suggestions that aren’t in our corporate lived experience?
Is the Way open for us to send two or three Friends to an event that is being organized and led by a community of color in order to begin seeing the world through their eyes, after so much trauma, so much injustice, so much horror?
Is the Way open for our adult education committees, our ministry and counsel committees, or an ad hoc group of interested Friends to provide a structure for inspiring learning about difficult, complex issues; to unpack them; and to consider making new choices as a result?
From a place of historical trauma and multigenerational oppression, people of color can easily view our practice of waiting worship and decision making as oppressive white-people’s mechanisms. Our recorded minutes and clerk-signed letters to elected officials do little to change the status quo. While our rhetoric and “talk” carry weight in our Quaker meetings and Friends churches; while these artifacts of faithfulness will be pointed to by historians generations from now, our brothers and sisters of color will continue to admonish us: “But were you there? Which side are you on? Did you show up?”
*Thanks to the AFSC staff who raised my awareness by telling me that Iowa was a land of “sundown towns,” even though it was part of the Union during the Civil War. Similarly, northern states were not at all free of systemic or structural racism.
**For another blatant example of media bias to promote a particular narrative and craft an immediate revision of facts at the expense of justice, look for Dr. Judy Melinicks’ refutal of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about her remarks on the autopsy of Mike Brown.
Do you have meaningful relationships with people who are negatively impacted by decisions made by the people in power?
What are some low-risk activities you or your worship community can participate in while working for meaningful systemic change? What are some high-risk activities?
What inward preparations are you or your worship community making, in terms of civil disobedience, speaking Truth to power, etc.? What are some outward preparations you can pursue?
Does your checkbook or calendar provide evidence of your active commitment to racial justice?
What would it mean to shift from affirming “There is that of God in everyone” to lifting up the question “How might we awaken (or answer) that of God in those who are part of the power structure?”
What might happen if we were to shift from raising the question “How are we led?” to “Is the Way open for us [me] to get involved?” Are we ready to live into that experiment?