Rioting, Oppression, and Compassion


Image credit: T. Thorn Coyle

What would you do if a Pagan was being murdered by the police once a month? What about once a week? What about more frequently than that? What if a bunch of Pagans in some cities started protesting, but nobody else cared? What if a riot broke out? Would you stand there blaming those Pagans for being too violent?

I’m white. I’m not a person of color, and I can’t speak for people of color. What I can do is call attention, as a white ally, to the tone policing that I see many white Pagans engaging in. Tonight it’s Baltimore. Months ago it was Ferguson. The truth is, you can complain about the violence and click your teeth at how “those people aren’t representing their cause well,” but if you haven’t been where they are, who are you to judge?

The call for justice is rarely clean. Rarely to people seem to listen to the whisper, to the polite question. It seems that people only notice when shit is set on fire.

“If they’re coming for me in the morning, they’re coming for you in the evening.”

I heard this from a Black woman at Pantheacon, I never caught her name. These words have echoed through my head for months now. I remembered back to the fear I felt standing in a protest, standing in front of armored riot cops and a giant vehicle with a sound weapon that could deafen me. All I can think of is, what would I do if my loved ones were in danger?

How bad does the oppression have to get before I can hold compassion for it?

Tonight my Facebook feed is full of different posts. Some solidarity for the protestors, and other Pagans posting about the property damage and the rioting. I’ll share what Crystal Blanton has to say. I respect Crystal’s voice on this as both a Pagan, and as an activist for people of color, and she says it better than I could.

Crystal Blanton writes:

I get very discouraged during these times. People make the most insensitive statements, lines get drawn in the sand, biases become apparent, ugliness becomes the norm. I hate it in society and it makes me sick within Paganism.

We saw this when Ferguson happened, when Oscar Grant and Trayvon happened. And now Baltimore.

When systemic oppression is beating the shit out of people of color on the daily…..people are silent, dismissive, patronizing and ignore the needs of those who are harmed. When a “something” happens that mainstream society can’t ignore….. Then all the voices come out in judgement of the reactions of those who are subjected to the daily horrors of a society that care more about things than Black people.

You see, this has always been true. We have always been valued less than, not just other people, but property, goods, and “things”. We have always had to appease the concerns of others in order to be valued as human beings….while being treated worse than society treats animals. General society can drum up more sympathy for a dog or a horse than they can for a dead black person in the street.

We often can’t even get the emergency response to pick up the bodies of our skinfolk while they lay dead in the street for 4 or 5 hours. Why? Because we are valued as less than humans. We are treated as a burden on society.

And then we can begin to understand why windows and goods get more of a rise from people than dead black people…… Hundreds of dead black people mean nothing, but a “riot” will get people talking.

I am sick. Reading people’s words, reading comments, news article responses, overhearing conversations……. They make me sad beyond comprehension. They make me scared… see, my black children are in the other room. If those people just see my child as a nuisance, a thug, a hood rat, a criminal, a nigger…….. Then how do I save them? How do I Make them safe? How do I teach them to live in a world that compares the value of their lives to a smashed car window?

What I know is this…… For the first time in a long time we are demanding that we are heard. I may or may not agree with all the methods being taken on the streets in the protests but this is life or death for my family. We are tired. We are scared. We are struggling to find our power in a system that has strategically made sure we have never learned that we could have it.

Dead black and brown bodies do not seem to matter as much as people’s property or their fears of us…….. And while we are trying to make sense of those things that are happening, we should keep that in mind.

When we deprive a people of justice, equity and the ability to thrive….. We are just as responsible for the outcome. Who’s the thug? Who’s the looter?

Cognitive dissonance is a mutha.

Yes, the rioting is a tragedy. The harm to innocent people caught in the rioting is a tragedy. Of course it is. I can hold compassion for those harmed by the rioting, and also hold space for the systemic oppression that has fueled the riot. It’s not for me to stand and judge how the oppressed fight back, not from my place of privilege as one who is not oppressed.

Riot is the language of the unheard, and people of color have certainly been unheard for far too long.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Image Credit: T. Thorn Coyle

Before you complain about the rioting, do you know who Freddie Gray is? Do you know why there’s a riot at all?

If you are shaking your head at the violence and thinking, “If those people were just more strategic about things, then we’d listen to them, but they’re just proving the point,” if you’re thinking, “Well, they’re acting like animals, so….”

If you’re thinking, “They should be more peaceful,”

I ask you to think about what you’d do if you were oppressed in that way.

What would you do? What would you do if you knew every day that your children could be murdered just for being ___. And you’d been told for decades–for your whole life–to be patient. “Things are changing.” But they aren’t, and you know it.

I don’t have any great answers. All I can say is, if you’re coming at this from a place of judgment of the Black and Brown people who are protesting, who are screaming for their rights, consider all this. Consider holding compassion for the oppressed. Consider examining how systemic racism is that it seeps into us.

Systemic racism is real. I can remain a part of the system of the oppressor by denying systemic racism, or I can put my energy into trying to become a better ally.

Revolution isn’t clean. It’s not accomplished with pretty words. No entrenched system ever seems to change with things done in an orderly fashion the way the oppressor would like it to proceed. Revolution and standing up for justice is going to be a mess. Mistakes will be made. It’s not going to be perfect and pretty. Because there’s rage and hurt and trauma and death.

Instead of judging those who are screaming to be heard, consider, what can you do to help bring justice? What can each of us do? How can we become allies for people of color instead of roadblocks and naysayers and disbelievers?

I have no easy answers. But perhaps a start is to take a breath and try and hold compassion.

7 thoughts on “Rioting, Oppression, and Compassion

  1. Pingback: Rioting, Oppression, and Compassion | Pagan Activist | Loki's Bruid

  2. saffronrose

    Really? No one has commented yet?

    Like you, Shauna, I want to be a better ally to PoC. I don’t know about any other well-meaning sympathetic white would-be allies, but since Trayvon Martin in February 2012, it seems not a month goes by that I don’t hear of some innocent black person, mostly men, shot or otherwise killed–by a white person, usually male, claiming self-defense. Most often police, but in the cases where civilians did the killing or battering, local ordinances seemed to include “stand your ground” or “open carry”. Oddly enough (yeah, right) a black person citing these, if found with a gun, is charged harshly, unlike a white person who has murdered someone in cold blood while claiming fear for his life. I have yet to hear about a white woman doing criminal damage to a black person, but wouldn’t be surprised to hear of any having been supressed.

    I hear people saying, these are isolated incidents, [victim] was to blame for the situation, if [victim] had only behaved more politely, defenders of black victims are “just playing the race card” (can you say, pot calling kettle black, or projecting much?)…and I wonder where their eyes and minds have been, because it’s certainly not here and now. Aside from that, there’s the overwhelming proportion and numbers of people of color imprisoned AND charged more harshly than a white person for the same offence. White inmates are more likely to be exhonerated or pardoned of crimes they did not commit, and more quickly as well: how many attorneys of death-row whites have been able to get a new trial when new evidence–or evidence of framing or false/forced confessions–come forth, vs. how many black men?

    How can you not see an entrenched pattern? I don’t know how to fix this, save by constant political action including contacting your elected representative, and informed voting by ALL of us–especially where voting rights and fraudulent agenda-driven restrictions thereof are concerned.

    Here in the Bay Area, member of the Board of Supervisors (and former State Senator, termed out) of Santa Clara County, Joe Simitian moderated the City of Mountain View Human Relations Commission’s sixth “Civility Roundtable” at the Mountain View Senior Center on 22 April, last week. The program was titled “How Can We Prevent Ferguson from Happening in Mountain View?”

    The roundtable addressed questions of public safety, race, and community confidence in law enforcement raised by the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere around the country over the last year.

    I couldn’t make it, but I hope it was a fruitful discussion. Mr. Simitian has always been a thoughtful lawmaker. I think discussions like this need to show up in a lot of places–so that people of good will (and maybe some that would be) can see pervasive underlying racism and privilege. I’ve learned a lot about situations I’ve never had to face by hearing people’s stories–and I have “lightbulb” moments during many of them. The most vivid memory is of a young Latino man who was trying to get other Latino men out of gangs and into more productive and creative ways to earn a good living. He was one of the darker skinned Latinos. He told a story about his childhood, how because of the colonial mentality that lighter skin provided prestige (gee, how come we can’t see that?), and that if you were a darker-skinned child, your family said you were a cousin or a friend, and would not own up that you were an immediate family member. He said most of the gang kids have darker skins–that gangs would provide the belonging your birth family often denied you.

    I wanted to cry for that child. At PCon this year, in an over-filled ballroom, there was a young black woman at the back of the room during the panel on Appreciation or Appropriation, who talked about her experience of casual pervasive exclusion at PCon and other Pagan gatherings. I think much of the audience was moved to tears, and on leaving a number of folks lined up to talk to her, including me. I told her I would never engage in that, and indeed, I thought it was about time that the greater Pagan/Polytheist community was less pale. I offered her a hug and a blessing, and then let the next person in line have a turn. I hope she felt heartened by the end of the line–Crystal, do you know anything about this?

    To all persons of color, Pagan/Polytheist or otherwise, Namaste: the divine in me sees the divine in you, and honors it.

  3. Pingback: PWN 2015.4.5: Listen to the Heartbeat of the Earth | Pagan-Musings Podcast Channel

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