The organizers called me an “ally” because I am white. As an ally, I was instructed to line up behind the people of color. I was at a Black Lives Matter protest for police accountability that gathered around noon on this rainy, cold Saturday in January at MLK Memorial Park. Organized by women of color for systemic change, they lead the march to our Seattle detention center where the city plans to spend $210 million rebuilding and expanding so they can lock up more of our youth. Statistically, this will mostly hold youth of color; currently, for example, black youth comprise 8% of the state’s youth but 42% of our detention center. And recent events have shown us that the school to prison pipeline is becoming a school to graveyard pipeline. Black lives that have become a hashtag should have received justice (and many more deaths go completely unnoticed).
Caring about this injustice is something that my community of faith, and primarily my friends of color, have made me aware of in recent years. So I was surprised when a group of non-religious white friends (whom I affectionately refer to as my “hippie circle”) invited me to the event. I was even more surprised to see that the majority of the 200-300 participants who showed up to protest were white. The organizers expressed appreciation for us allies who were showing solidarity, but emphasized that the movement should be lead by people of color.
Earlier in the day I had tried to imagine what our world would look like had the people of Africa risen to prominence, conquered North America, and enslaved my ancestors from Germany and England…then hauled them here against their will to work their farms and businesses without pay. What would it have looked like to grow up in a country where for 200 years black men were the prominent figures in media, newspapers and history books? Where the justice system was created by black men to the disadvantage of a white minority and where I was always considered “the other,” or not even considered at all. Where I had trouble finding hair products that were not designed for curly hair and the food I liked to eat was considered “ethnic” and the music white people produced was considered part of a subculture. But to be honest, even with my vivid imagination, I couldn’t fully imagine that as a reality. So when the organizers of our protest asked that we “allies” line up in the back, I personally was not offended. I was getting only a tiny taste of the way we white people have for centuries treated our brothers and sisters of color.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” we shouted as we marched. The response of most African Americans we passed was an instantaneous motion of flinging their hands in the air as well. Drivers gave short honks of support or punched their fists in the air in agreement. Meanwhile, most white people we passed simply stared back or looked annoyed that we were disrupting the roads. At intersections, the organizers ordered us to block off traffic.
“We intend to inconvenience people!” they shouted. I could tell the vehicles’ drivers were perturbed to be stopped in the middle of their journeys and I couldn’t blame them–I would be too! But I understood what the organizers were emphasizing: privilege and comfort must be inconvenienced in order for people to stop and think and consider that black lives matter just as much as the busy lives of us who still live do.
At the second intersection, we blocked off an extra exit from the interstate. This was the busiest intersection we blockaded during the protest and lasted for probably 10 minutes. A couple minutes in, cars began honking and a few illegally drove through a nearby business parking lot.
“Let’s block them off!” someone said. I headed over, thinking others would join me. A car loaded with young white guys rolled down their windows and hollered profanities at us as they rolled past. Another car was about to follow but I stepped in the way, yelling “Wait! Stop!” A righteous anger overcame me and I yelled at impatient people in their cars, “Black lives matter! Stop and think about that for a minute. We all need to stop and think about this!” Some people cautioned me that I was outside of the main road but a guy who was videoing the scene from his phone said not to worry because he was capturing it all. A couple minutes later a young guy sauntered over; I thought he was coming to join me but he just cautioned me not to get hurt standing there by myself and I told him “Well, then stand here with me!” He said he needed to be back in the circle for something but that we would be there for awhile longer, for 4 minutes for a die in (I later realized he was a First Aid medic).
About that time an older man joined me and got to his knees, along with most of the crowd. As I did I prayed that Jesus would give me strength. My legs were wobbly but I remembered our prayer time from yesterday and thought of Abel and Martin Luther King Jr and innocent black youth who have died. I knew if I was hit or injured, it would be for this struggle all have shared for justice for humanity. The courage to stand there alone could only come from God and I began to pray that God’s kingdom would come and will would be done here on earth as it is in heaven.
I thought of how yesterday we were praying at my office for racial reconciliation after a staff-wide conversation the day before on reflections from Ferguson. Someone had mentioned during that conversation that we would always have conflict on earth–conflict that started with the first two brothers, Cain and Abel, one of whom killed the other one! Someone else spoke about how the death of youth like Michael Brown is especially angering because it was the result of the color of his skin. In similar situations of conflict between police and young white guys, less violent methods have been employed, whereas many of our youth of color have simply been killed, unjustly, on the spot. These young men can no longer speak at all!
During our prayer time I meditated on the story of Abel. God spoke to me from Hebrews 11:4 which says:
“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”
And in Genesis 4:10:
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
This young man continues to shout to God and to humanity, his blood screaming to God from the dirt, his story teaching us today that injustices do not go unnoticed.
After the march, I concluded the day watching Selma. The stone-cold expressions depicted on the faces of the police in the movie, preventing Black people from voting in the 1960’s, were almost a mirror reflection of the nearly two dozen police I saw lining in front of the detention center earlier. The hatred remarks of the young white guys who drove by our traffic circle could have just as easily come from the mouths of the white people of Alabama over 50 years ago. Most disheartening was the fact that the only online news coverage I could find from the event was a piece about how traffic was disrupted with comments like:
“so just use a few fire hoses from fire trucks and hose them all down black white or what ever . just get the road ways clear”
“Just run ‘em down…..Black Lives Splatter.”
Even here in a city that prides itself in being progressive, I am appalled by how much racism continues to choke us. May the blood not splatter but speak!
Note: photos for this piece along with additional images of the day can be found here.