Monday, February 23, 2015
Today was a turning point for me. I acted on what I’ve been saying I respect for a long time while watching from a distance. I know that many people whose opinions and approval are important to me may disagree with what I did. The best I can hope for is their understanding of my need to act on what my gut tells me is right. Here’s the story…
I’ve been fortunate to meet some pretty amazing people in the months following Ferguson. Some of those people are White, most are Black. All of them are sympathetic to “Black Lives Matter” but most know the truth of that slogan from a lifetime of personal experience. I am doing my best to listen when they talk of White privilege. I am doing my best to untangle my emotional reactions to that concept from the reality of its truth. I am doing my best to identify ways to make a difference in a meaningful rather than merely a rhetorical way. So, after much thought, I decided to attend the first Moral Monday in CT, set to address the urgency of “Black Lives Matter”. I knew we’d be meeting at a church and that following some speakers we’d be marching to City Hall. After that, I didn’t know what to expect. (Debra, you can walk away at anytime if your comfort level is challenged beyond tolerance) Some call that ability White privilege.
Walking into the church I found tables and chairs, a hospitality table offering drinks and cookies and a stage, all in a stately old building that I’m sure has seen significant history. My first thoughts went to how it must have felt years ago when the first Labor organizers met, not knowing what the consequences of their efforts would be but believing in their hearts that their cause was a just one and worthy of all risk. I thought about the people who met clandestinely in the early and not-so-early days of the Civil Rights movement, knowing they were coming together for something more important than their individual considerations. No fancy surroundings but a community of like minded people. And the constant question… what have I gotten myself into? Do I have the strength of my convictions? What if…?
We were a diverse crowd in a multitude of ways: race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and certainly life experience. Several speakers addressed the important reasons we were all there. Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a powerful representative from the Moral Monday movement’s North Carolina roots and Ferguson was among the speakers. When he mentioned our religious diversity I called out to add Pagans to the list and his response was “Yes, Pagans too!” Following the speakers came the plan for the afternoon. We would march to City Hall, enter the building and participate in a “die-in” in the main lobby. We would lie down in silence for 4 ½ minutes, representing the 4 plus hours that Michael Brown lay in the streets of Ferguson after having been killed by a Ferguson cop. No one needs to be reminded that Michael Brown’s killer has faced no consequences. (Okay, it’s time to get going. Put your coat on, Debra. There’s still time to back out. You aren’t at City Hall yet)
The march to City Hall was a march as usual: chants, signs, a huge sense of solidarity with my marching community and approving recognition from many of the pedestrians we passed along the way. City Hall was about three blocks away, now two, now one, now across the street. Now we are there. (Debra, you can turn around. There is still time)
We walked in to City Hall. Proclamations that Black lives matter announced our arrival and continued until everyone was in. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how we would be greeted. Many of the City Hall employees came out to see what was going on and stayed in approval. I wasn’t aware of any disapproving responses to our presence. We formed a circle – the universal symbol of unity, precious solidarity. Bishop John Selders read the names of many who have paid the ultimate price of being Black in a White world. And then….it was time for the die-in. We didn’t know if the police had been called or if they would come in while we were lying down and announce our imminent arrest if we didn’t leave. I began to feel fear that I might be caught up in that possibility but then perspective kicked in. What was that fear compared to the fear faced by countless generations of American citizens who faced far worse all the time? What was that fear compared to the people who gathered in Selma who knew exactly what was on the line as they met, marched, sat in?
The 4 ½ minutes passed with no incident save my new perspective. Someone near me seemed to be softly singing and I thought about how song has been such an important motivator and healer throughout all social struggles. I looked up past the glass roof panels to the sky above and thought, “Daddy, I hope I’m doing you proud.”
It was time to return to the church. We started down the sidewalk, chants and bull horn amplification at work. A police car pulled along side us and the man leading the chants with the bull horn was approached. A quiet, private conversation occurred between him and an officer. The bull horn was deactivated for reasons I’m not aware of but we continued to move along with voices raised. At an important intersection, our route ceased to be the sidewalk and we literally took to the middle of the street. Behind us we could hear the police announcement, “Move to the sidewalk immediately or you will be subject to arrest. Move to the sidewalk immediately or you will be subject to arrest.” (Debra, you can move to the side walk and reduce your risk) We linked arms and continued marching as the police warning kept up behind us. I will admit to some relief when we arrived back at the church with no arrests, not even a scuffle. Imagine our disbelief when, several minutes later as we were settling down and getting ready for a review of the afternoon, an estimated half dozen police officers entered the church uninvited and demanded to see Bishop Selders whom they identified as one of the leaders of our action. Not knowing what to expect, we followed the Bishop and our uninvited guests into the church lobby to witness whatever was going to happen. Greater alarm was raised when the Bishop and the officers moved to a room behind a closed door with several of the cops remaining in the lobby with us. I recall feeling the possibility of being corralled first at Occupy’s 2012 anniversary march in New York and again in New York at the 2012 silent march in protest of that state’s “Stop and Frisk” law. In both cases we were on the street. This was in a church! My thoughts again went back to activists over the years who have been herded into inescapable positions, not only politically but physically. Did these cops think we would even consider trying to leave? Did they not know we were, at that moment, family?????? As a family, we sang under Rev. Sekou’s leadership. We raised our voices. Some prayed.
Eventually, all parties emerged from the room unscathed and the police left. We returned to the main room for a debriefing. The main charge was violation of the noise ordinance and using a bull horn without a permit. In the past two years, I have planned and helped to lead marches and rallies in Hartford where we used bull horns without a permit. I was never sought out by the police. Oh wait; I’m a white post-middle aged woman. Our leaders today were Black men and women. It was also suggested that the next time such an event was planned it would be prudent to give a heads up to the police. Would anyone like to place a bet on that happening? I will be filing a Freedom of Information request later this week for the written noise / bull horn ordinance.
As we talked more about the experience, we were asked how we felt. How could I articulate why my tears began, why I needed to put my head in my hands and hide my reaction, embarrassed because I knew that ultimately the day wasn’t about me? I felt suddenly released from fear, proud of having participated, relieved that no one was hauled off to jail or hurt. I felt honored to be among the people in that room. A young Black pastor who was sitting next to me noticed my tears. His hand reaching out to rest on my shoulder, with no words exchanged between us, was appreciated beyond description and will be remembered for a long time to come. Perhaps he understood that a White talker is becoming a White walker.
Here’s to Peace, Justice and Solidarity…
P.S. This morning I was introduced to a song from the play Ragtime. It is titled “Make Them Hear You.” The line that struck a chord with me says, “Your sword can be a sermon or the power of the pen…..” Thanks to Pagan Activist for providing a safe place to tell our stories.