I Don’t Need an Ally…

US/Mexico Border Fence - US side

US/Mexico Border Fence – US side

December 13, 2014 saw Millions March across this nation (#millionsmarch) for racial justice. Instead, however, I was at the US/Mexico Border at Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, San Diego for La Posada sin fronteras.  This annual symbolic re-enactment of Joseph and Mary looking for lodging in anticipation of the holy birth is one of many important gestures of solidarity by the border communities for those who are most affected by the US policies on immigration.  

As I stood there, seeing the steel fence and watching the seagulls casually drift above from one side to the other, I thought to myself, how desperately sad that we human beings do this; building walls, boundaries and borders.  What are we keeping out and what are we keeping in?  And I felt my own loss at knowing a world with such tragic structures.  I thought of my own loss at having Latino culture vilified and otherized in my homeland and I felt real sorrow as a faith leader hearing the names of people who had died at this border read aloud.  

don’t want this kind of monstrosity to represent me in the world…yet there it stands and there I stood as a US citizen.  The issue of steel, militarized walls is not some vague concept, it is real and it hurts people in my life every day; and it hurts me.  So I chose to be at La Posada, not because I am an ally in the fight for immigration rights, but because our policies do not allow me to be as free as the seagull or the light that pierces the openings of the fence.  I own a part of this fence and its my job to pull it down.

I pray for my friends and colleagues who are directly involved in the marches and protests for racial justice.  I will be present as often and appropriately as I possibly can, but people in ministry have a lot on our plate in this broken world. However, as a Black man, I will offer to my white liberal friends who ask me what they can do in the face of the current unrest around racism in New York, Berkeley, Oakland and around the country after Ferguson and the Eric Garner decision.  Please remember: 

I don’t need an ally…

I don’t need someone to help me understand my oppression,

I don’t need someone to explain to me how to protest, peacefully or otherwise,

I definitely don’t need or want you to feel my pain.

What I need is for you to put your privilege on the line.

I need you to be appalled by the images of slave owners and leaders of Native American genocide on our currency.

I need you to need an end to racial profiling because it lets white criminals go free.

I need you to stand up and say that the 1st amendment doesn’t have room for the KKK or neo-Nazis or Westboro Baptist Church.

I need you to be willing to be hated by the same people who murdered the Reverend James Reeb in 1965.

I need you to own your part in the struggle for equality and never remain silent when you hear me called nigger behind my back.

I need you to feel so enormously burdened by the gross imbalance of power and opportunity in this country that it is your priority, every day, to fix it.

I don’t need you to feel my pain…

I need for you to feel your pain.

Your struggle

Your oppression

Only when we first feel our own pain can we march in solidarity with the pain of others.

Own your part of the fence and pull it down.

US_$20_twenty_dollar_bill

US President Jackson – Slave Holder/ Native American Killer*

*Seminole Wars

A Voice With No Sound

Lynching

Gordon County, GA 1918

I have been unable to watch the video of Eric Garner’s death for three reasons:

First, I am exceedingly sensitive to such graphic images and when possible, I actually avoid television and any video based news for the internal downward emotional spiral it creates in me. I read almost everything I learn about the world…or I talk to people….or I’m there in person.

Secod, the end of life, no matter how brutal, is sacred. It does not deserve to “go viral” without honoring the very real passing of life.  We should not be able to look at an image like the one of Eric Garner or the image above of a man being lynched without first praying or in some way honoring that a real live person was publicly killed.  They both have names, and families, yet too quickly, we make them into historical and sensational “media.”

Civil Rights

Third, and most importantly, it conjures up an image that I can’t help but see in a historical context. It is an image that will live alongside images of white police beating black men in the 1960’s; It is an image that will live alongside the countless images of black bodies hanging from trees; It is an image that will live along side the picture of timid ignorant slaves being emancipated by the beneficent godlike white man; it is an image that brings to mind the careless and vicious rape of countless black and brown women for white men’s entertainment; it is an image that shows me what it must have looked like when white men captured slaves in Africa; it is an image that shows me exactly what the lives of blacks and all people of color in America has been under white domination:

A conflict with an unjustified beginning.
A battle that is public yet no one will defend.
An image that confounds reality and conscience.
A struggle where death is too often the end.
A voice with no sound.

Rest in Peace Eric Garner and God help us all.

Eric Garner

No Dinner Plans

michael-brown-grad-photo

The following is a statement that was made for the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship upon the news of the “No Indictment” decision from the Grand Jury examining the case against Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown.

The tragic irony of the grand jury decision from Ferguson, Missouri coming so close to the Thanksgiving holiday is inescapable. We should be preparing dinner, not a cultural war. In a metaphorical sense, we should be talking about how many more people we can put around the table, not how many more people will be turned away. This ongoing struggle between black and white is a global disgrace and the combination of this decision and the deluge of news that we sift through also highlights how we are asked to “choose” where we put our attentions for justice. You see, the media and the ignorant would have us believe that Ferguson and Immigration are separate issues; that voting rights and health care, are about different things; that environmental justice and marriage equality effect different populations. But no, they all impact one very specific group of people: The Other.

You see, it is “The Other” that is feared. It is “The Other” that is vilified. It is “The Other” that is left behind, left out, marginalized and shot in the street.

Yes, we should be preparing dinner…

You see, if we were preparing dinner, we would be asking ourselves, “what will feed the people coming to table?” “What will make them feel welcome and nourished?” “What can we share that will fill their needs?”

Instead, too much of our time is focused on getting and keeping stuff or defending our rights to stuff or creating more stuff…

…when we should all be enjoying the stuffing and stuffing ourselves full with an abundance of love.

Right now, we are seeing the product of setting a table for some instead of a table for all. The food is there; the finest dishes are set, the crystal and flatware polished; the linen is crisp and clean. But with only a few at the table, most of the food will go to waste, the place settings will collect dust and tarnish and the meal will be incomplete. Only one opinion will be expressed in a flat conversation and everyone will leave deeply unsatisfied.

So let this be a lesson to us moving forward. Black people are not the enemy; white people are not the enemy; Immigrants are not the enemy; Latinos are not the enemy; Asian people are not the enemy; Transgender people are not the enemy; Bisexual people are not the enemy. The only enemy is when any of us is treated like “The Other,” and turned away from a table that should be set first with love. And let’s not forget that even then the real enemy is not “The Other” but “The Us.”

Let’s start preparing dinner…a meal where we are all welcome and fed.

Sending a prayer to the family of Michael Brown, the people of Ferguson and to everyone else who is feeling utterly helpless at this moment to a “system” that is not a system, but a sickness.

Voting Day

Just a reminder as people go to the polls that #blacklivesmatter…

On voting day,
Thanks to the casual Supreme Court erasure
Of 100 years of struggle for suffrage,
Tangled restrictions and loopholes
Will block the opportunity
For large pockets of American black people
To make their voices heard in a government
That originally wanted only 3/5ths of them anyhow.
…do #blacklivesmatter?

On protest day,
In Ferguson, Missouri where a white police officer
Shot and killed a black teenager
And where the officer will probably walk free,
Tension will continue to simmer just below the boiling point
And nothing will be done.
It will not spill over, or truly ignite,
Once again, the intense heat will just burn itself out
From 400 years of battle fatigue.
…do #blacklivesmatter?

On sentencing day,
A million black men will look across at each other
From ‘cells’ and ‘pens’
Hating each other hating themselves
For being made into animals by forced desperation.
An entire generation screaming for validation and truth
But they are left mute…their vocal cords cut
By a white system of “justice.”
…do #blacklivesmatter?

On vaccination day,
Liberia, distant and invisible, created from the guilt
Of the slave holding 5th US President Monroe,
Will continue to bleed thousands of black lives
Into fetid, dismal streets, decimated by Ebola.
This horror will miss the news cycle,
While a white nurse defending her “rights”
To ride a bike on a crisp, clean, clear Autumn day,
Is front page news.
…do #blacklivesmatter?

On Thanksgiving Day,
Black people will swarm the commercial circuses known as
Target, Walmart, Macy’s, Nordstrom,
McDonalds, Jack In the Box,
Searching for some way to reflect a true sense of self.
In the end they are forced to buy warped images
From the “anything-but-fun house” mirrors
Put up by a capitalist ring master
Who still only sees a price tag when he sees a black body.
…do #blacklivesmatter?

Do black lives matter?

White people…Do black lives matter?

Black people…Do black lives matter?

America…Do black lives matter?

World…Do black lives matter?

It is voting day,

But it is also judgment day.

#blacklivesmatter.

Crazy Making: The Short Road from Boston to Ferguson

Crispus AttucksOctober 22, 2014 is the 19th Annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.  This day has received renewed interest in light of the events at Ferguson, Missouri this year and because we are finally hearing the real stories of police brutality against people of color. Men, women and children of color as well as transgender men and women, people with physical and mental disabilities  who have suffered at the hands of those who are being paid to serve and protect are finally being seen and heard.  Sadly however, too many of their voices are being heard only after they have been silenced.  We are all called to action to fight the institutionalized oppression by militarized police that has been at work much too long in the United States.

On October 18, I attended the 59th Annual Freedom Fund Dinner of the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP and I was particularly grateful for the keynote speaker, Professor Theodore M. Shaw from the University of North Carolina School of Law. During this distinguished and much lauded professor’s address, he used an expression that immediately made me perk up: “Crazy Making.” This is a common urban slang expression that I also often use to describe the effect of insane, repetitive behavior, and I’m sure I got the expression from a sitcom or at least from pop culture somewhere. He said it several times to great effect speaking about the state of black people in America: the continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men is “crazy making”; if you come from a legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual, it is “crazy making”; to be viewed as a monster by a culture…”crazy making.” He’s right; it’s a wonder more of us aren’t truly insane.

The events this summer in Ferguson, Missouri have become another touchstone in what seems to be an ongoing pattern of police targeting black youths with excessive gun violence. There are those who have already written off the court case, believing that the accused murderer Darren Wilson will be acquitted. But the sad truth is, not only is this not new, but there is an eerie precedent going back nearly 250 years that makes it clear the degree to which this situation is status quo in America. In 1770, John Adams, future President of the United States, stood in court and defended 6 British soldiers who had fired upon and killed a number of unarmed men in what would be called the Boston Massacre. Most specifically, one of the casualties was a black runaway slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. We often get the picture of the men killed in the massacre (including Samuel Gray, James Caldwell and ultimately Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr) as being heroes of the early American Revolution. In addition, we also think of John Adams as a man who dedicated his life and career to “liberty.” But the historical data comes across a bit differently. Adams’ words from the original court documents describing the crowd that attacked the soldiers say a great deal about his opinion of the accused:

“We have been entertained with a great variety of phrases, to avoid calling this sort of people a mob.-Some call them shavers, some call them genius’s. -The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.-And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them: The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers”[1]

Further on in the court documents we also find this assessment of Attucks (who was classed as ‘mulatto’) by Adams:

“[…]this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.”[2] 

Crispus Attucks had escaped from his enslaver some 20 years previous and had endured not only the persecution of being black in a slave economy, but the continued fear of being caught as a fugitive. His post slavery career had been spent largely at sea where, again, he was always subject to oppression and threat of recapture. By the night he was killed, Attucks had banded with a group of other seamen, and by dint of their trade they had an already contentious relationship with the British Army. But as an escaped slave, Attucks was particularly at risk of being pressed into service in the army at any time against his will. Simply put, by any standard, the life that Crispus Attucks had led to this point would have been “crazy making.”

Michael Brown was killed on August 9, 2014 for walking in the street. But video footage shows him having a confrontation with a convenience store clerk over cigars just prior to his murder. Darren Wilson’s traffic stop was unrelated to this at the time alleged theft, but certainly Michael Brown was carrying the awareness of his  previous interaction with the store clerk with him. The court will now try to paint Brown as someone who was dangerous and “worth” killing. Brown was headed to college in a few days and by all reasonable character accounts, had a clear sense of wanting and knowing how to manifest a productive future. So why have a confrontation with a store clerk over cigars (note: video footage shows he actually paid for them)? Why put up even a slight fight against an armed and clearly confrontational officer? The continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men…the legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual…being viewed as a monster by a culture…it is all “crazy making.”

I won’t ever claim that black men are not to be held accountable for their actions. Nor do I intend to make the point that all black men are crazy or that we all steal. But to think that black men have had a 200+ year history of being public targets for various kinds of police brutality in the United States is astonishing. Both Crispus Attucks and Michael Brown are regarded as martyrs, but for very different reasons. We are taught to look at Crispus Attucks through the rosy view of his contribution to the American Revolutionary War. Clearly by John Adams account, there were those who would prefer to have seen him as the 18th century equivalent of a “thug” just as some would like to paint Michael Brown the same way today. Part of me has to believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions actually had little or nothing to do with feeling a patriotic kinship with a nation and people who would enslave him, make him a 20 year fugitive and keep his life in constant threat. I believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions had more in common with Michael Brown in that moment when he had the altercation in the convenience store. These are both acts of social disobedience that say to a hostile American culture, “I am not a slave in body or in spirit! I am here! I am real!  I am a human being!” These are both men demanding a place in their world and willing to do something crazy as a way to show it.  But in the end, the only truly crazy ones are us if we don’t use their legacies to end the real “crazy making” policies, systems and psychologies that plague people of color and primarily black men in this country.

End racialized police brutality NOW!

National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, October 22, 2014 – #O22

[1] http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/

[2] Ibid.

Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People

The Only Fight

brown-cancer-ribbon

The symbol to the left is normally used to denote support for cancer awareness.  I’ve turned it upside down as a symbol of my commitment to end the cancer of racism.  Upside down, its shape is also a reminder that the United States never passed a law against lynching…one of the most explicit and brutal acts of institutional racism in the history of this nation (although the government “apologized” in 2005.)  One of my earliest memories is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  46 years later, black men are still being gunned down out of racially motivated hatred.  Where is my government?  Where is my church?  Where are my people?  

I offer the following plea to all people during what sometimes feels like a perpetual night of horror that has lasted my entire life.  If you agree, please share this image and these words:

WE believe in a truly United States…

We demand an immediate and more engaged national response to racism.  We insist on aggressive action from our leadership (government, faith, social, etc.) and we encourage hands on action and vocal responses to injustice that demonstrate the power and will of THE PEOPLE to dismantle institutionalized racism in America once and for all. 

Racism in the United States is a global embarrassment and demands our priority attention.  The question of race is part of every cultural, ethical and spiritual aspect of life in this country.  As a result, American racism is a sickness that lies at the root of economic inequity, environmental abuse, health disparity, immigration justice, gender, sexuality and gender identity marginalization, political and social disenfranchisement as well as countless other gross injustices, past and present.

We will no longer tolerate the specific issue of racism being sidelined.  THE PEOPLE have the power to turn American racism into history.  We demand change TODAY. 

– A.D.