Saturday, July 11, 2020

movement

Last week three of my kids and I went to a local, youth-led Black Lives Matter protest. Driving down the small town’s mainstreet, we were greeted with a disturbing sight: armed men, their semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders or cradled in their arms, clustered together in parking lots and lining the streets.



photo credit: my older son

As the line of cars crept towards the park where the protest was to be held, my kids stared, horrified.

“Is this even legal?” my younger daughter asked.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. Another student protest, held a few weeks before and at the opposite end of the county, had been greeted with a similar show of force. The day after that protest when I’d seen the photos on social media of the masked men — members of actual organized militias, I learned — some of them lining the perimeter of the gathering and others lurking in the treeline, I’d felt physically ill.  

Still, I’d kind of hoped that sort of craziness was specific to just the other side of the county, not my side.

I was wrong.

*** 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been debating whether or not to put a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard.

I’m not a sign person — or rather, my husband’s not. He finds signs — in yards, on bumpers, printed on clothing — too in-your-face aggressive. Why the need to announce everything you think and believe? he asks. And my mediator friend says that yard signs heighten differences, pitting people against each other.

They both have a point. At a time when the political divide in our country is getting dangerously deep — in our rural county, Trump signs are around every corner, dangling from fences and flag poles, affixed to swimming pools and porch railings — is it pointless, or worse, counterproductive, to take a stand here?

On the other hand, maybe it’s all the more necessary?

At a seminar on bullying a few years back, I learned that it’s most productive to align yourself with the person being attacked, ignoring the bully entirely. This doesn’t mean that the bully is never held accountable; rather, in the heat of the moment it draws focus from the one inflicting harm to the one who is most vulnerable, providing that person the necessary support and connection.

Perhaps we need to quit tiptoeing around those who are clinging, white-knuckled, to biggoted ideology and instead focus squarely on this fact: Racism is so prevalent in our culture that when Black children (at the first protest, some of them even wore bullet-proof vests because of death threats) organize a peaceful protest against systemic racial oppression, white men run for their guns. 

I knew full well that whether or not I put a sign in my yard was inconsequential — a sign wouldn’t make me more anti-racist, and it probably wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind. The issue is endlessly complex — there is no right answer — so round and round I went, unable to let it go because, at its core, my little sign conundrum stood for a much deeper question: For a white woman in a politically conservative, rural Virginian community, what did it look like to try to be anti-racist?

*** 

A couple months back when I learned about our town’s silent march for Black Lives Matter, I wasn’t sure I should attend. Would it be safe? What did Black Lives Matter really mean? I didn’t have any close personal connections to Blacks, so was it even my place to participate? Would I show myself for what I am: a bumbling, awkward white woman?

Finally I decided I’d go. To learn, I told myself. If I felt uncomfortable, oh well — new things often were.

At the march, I was relieved to see lots of people I knew (if they were there, then maybe it was okay that I was, too?) and the whole march unfolded easily, peacefully. I was glad I’d come. I could do this.

But then at the closing gathering, the speaker asked everyone to show their support of Black lives by raising their right fist, and I panicked. I don’t wave my hands in the air at church. I don’t dance. I don’t put my hand over my heart for the pledge of allegiance (and I don’t recite it either). Self-contained, respectful standing is the extent of my physical symbolic gesturing, and now I was supposed to raise a clenched fist into the air?

Not wanting to stand out, I put my fist up. And then I stood there, inwardly cringing and trying to make sense of what I was doing.

“If putting my hand in the air is what they need,” I told myself, “then I need to get over myself and follow their lead.”

It still felt weird, though.

***

At last week’s protest, when we were kneeling in silence for nearly nine minutes, the same amount of time the then-police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, one of the counterprotesters standing on the road at the back of the park started yelling, “Don’t steal for criminals!”

Don’t steal? I thought. But we weren’t stealing anything.

And then I realized, Oh, not steal, kneel. Don’t kneel for criminals.

As his angry shouts continued, his voice cracking under the strain, I noticed people one by one silently — proudly, calmly, courageously — raising their fists.

This time, I didn’t hesitate.

Just two rallys in, and suddenly I was a person who does these things: I am here; my body is here.

It feels so good to finally be moving.

*** 

The other day, my brother sent out an email to our family group. “I’m placing an order for BLM signs. Let me know if you want one.” And my older son immediately responded, “Yeah! Thanks. Get one for me!”

That day at lunch we all took turns going around the table, each person sharing their opinion about putting up the sign. It didn’t take long to reach a consensus, and after lunch my son stuck the sign in our yard.



It felt right to have the sign up, but I was still conflicted. A sign didn’t solve anything. Was I doing more harm than good? Was it my place to speak up?

And then the next day when I was up in my room working on this post and the rest of the family was outside doing yardwork, a pick-up drove by and a male voice bellowed “White lives matter!” and all my doubts vanished.

Clearly, it’s high time I speak up.

P.S. We’re already on our second sign: last night someone climbed our fence, came into our yard, and took the first one.

This same time, years previous: all things Thursday, the quotidian (7.9.19), the quotidian (7.10.17), one weekend only, let's talk, what my refrigerator told me, soft and chewy breadsticks.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks Jennifer for your post on Black Lives Matter. It is a journey. One that is life long. I am glad you are being vocal and joining the cause. I am working on adding my voice too. Together we need to be anti-racist. It matters.

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  2. Beautifully spoken. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Mostly I stay on my farm, but when I venture out, I am also bombarded with signs supporting Trump. Very depressing. Good for you in taking a visible stand on the issue of Black Lives Matter. Those guns are really scary.

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  4. It took me a number of years before I put up a Black Lives Matter sign. My husband was also anti-sign, nobody on our block puts up signs, but a few years ago I cracked (Philando Castile? I can't remember who put me over the edge...) I live in very liberal Washington DC, but in a very white neighborhood. I can count the number of black families in our neighborhood on two hands (10 years ago, it was still one hand). Within a month of me putting up the sign, the (black) nanny next door said that my putting up the sign made her happy, and that she told her kids and they were excited about it. She's been working next door for 11 years, we talk at least once a week, she knows all our political opinions and I couldn't imagine she ever felt unwelcome, but maybe just not 100% welcome/safe. I'm not surprised you're already on your second sign. Even here in 90% democratic DC, our sign gets pulled out of the ground about once every month or two. Some girls were putting up BLM signs on telephone poles and have had them ripped down the next street over. And there's the house at the far end of our street (1/2 mile away?) that has a big sign suggesting that if you break into their house they will shoot you with their 2d amendment gun.
    This is turning into a short story, but we also fly the rainbow flag semi-regularly, and get thanked every time we do by people in the neighborhood. Knowing that our white, hetero-, every norm there is family can make someone else feel a little bit safer is why I keep doing what I do.
    It hasn't encouraged anyone else in our block to have a sign, but who knows what might happen someday.

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  5. I an a long time reader, first time commenter. Beautifully and thoughtfully written. My best to you and your family.

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  6. I have gone through the same soul searching and ended up putting a sign in my yard as well. It's not a BLM sign, but a locally made sign that says, "Ahmaud, Breonna, George, may justice rain down like water. Amos 5:24" A black and white couple who are friends in my city made these available to people who were willing to put them up. There are about 4 of these signs on my street. It feels good (but a little scary) when I see it in my yard, but I know it's the right thing to do.

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  7. Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone. We all need to do this right now. I sincerely hope we're at a turning point as a society. As a world.

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  8. sending you love and support from Aotearoa, thanks for writing and sharing your lives with us, I admire your honesty, and your courage. Very inspirational, thanks.

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  9. A protest I attended a few weeks back also observed the 8min 43sec of silence and I found it very profound. Our silence was not disturbed and was ended by a local church ringing their bells in solidarity. We all need to keep showing up whether its marching, writing to those in power, voting with our dollars or placing signs. Taking a stand matters and carries power. There are way more people of reason then not. Those who feel they benefit from continued oppression bring guns because they don't have the numbers and they know it.

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  10. Oh, thank you Jennifer. I'm spending this quarantine time back in the conservative, rural area where I grew up. We've been talking a lot about how we don't know who will listen when we raise our voice. Maybe it's a neighbor, as a commenter here said — maybe it's a young person who drives by and feels like they are not alone in wanting to fight the profound racial injustice we are living in. So - thank you for using your voice here - as well as in your local community.

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  11. My husband & I also discussed for a long time putting a BLM sign in our yard. He was against the sign, because he didn't know what the neighbors would say & do. This is strange to me because Bob is a POC, from South America, Indian Sub-continent heritage. We also live in a mostly white neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago. He prioritized blending in, more than voicing what is right. I'm still trying to understand this, but the sign is in our front yard.

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  12. I've debated for days about commenting on this post. I believe that all lives matter to Jesus. And we need to love ALL our neighbors as ourselves. But I cannot support the BLM movement because of the other causes they have attached to it. Causes I do not believe reflect the love of Christ. Wondering if other believers realize some of the "other" issues BLM is attached to, and if they did, would they still support it. I believe we can support anti-racism without being a racist or supporting abortion etc.

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