Dear people of faith,
Ever since the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that commenced shortly thereafter I half expected a groundswell of people of faith to begin non-violent civil disobedience and direct action in defense of Black lives. I thought that the video of Floyd’s murder was so horrific that the collective conscience of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others could not help but be moved to disrupt police departments from carrying out repression-as-usual. I thought it was clear that all previous attempts to stop the metastasizing growth of these militarized bunkers called “police stations” that squat in every major city throughout the United States had failed and that the uprising was a popular indictment of those failures. I thought it was beyond question that radical action was needed. But I was wrong — not about the failure of previous attempts to rein in police brutality or the popular uprising as an indictment of those failures. I was wrong to think people of faith would be moved enough to do something about it.
From the beginning of the uprising most civic, political, and religious leaders wanted us off the streets, preferring our activity to be limited to waving signs from sidewalks or parks. If they supported protest it was always confined to the uplift of voices rather than taking action. They pleaded, as they always do, for a tolerance of the intolerable. But their pleas for peaceful protest strike more and more people as scolding, and prescriptions for pointless protest. Increasingly no one is listening to their promises of pie in the sky if we will only get back to normalcy. Meanwhile, we break our teeth and soul against absolutely earthly truncheons.
So we took to the streets. Many of us have remained in the streets.
While there have been thousands of Black Lives Matter protests and marches across the United States, it seems civil disobedience has been generally confined to those of us who are ungovernable; those of us disobedient by default. We need some help. If one is serious about disrupting institutions that systematically kill Black people, there comes a time when raised voices are not enough; when a protest becomes but a parade; when a march merely follows the leader with the bullhorn to nowhere.
That time is now.
Recall that in Minneapolis, during a night of righteous fury, a police station was burned to the ground. Note that in Seattle a police station and adjoining streets were occupied for weeks. Now, in Portland, thousands are putting their bodies on the line between agents of repression and the Black people they target. Multiple cop shops have faced waves of demonstrators for seventy-five straight nights. The determination and bravery of protesters should be beyond question; so too the exposure of those institutions as the wasteful, reactionary, and unaccountable fraternities of extreme violence that they are.
The missing constituency of our rebellion is people of faith — especially white people of faith. Portland’s Wall of Moms gets it right when they risk arrest to protect protesters and use their bodies as shields. But where are those religious witnesses chaining themselves to entrances, blocking arrests, and shutting those buildings down? People of faith should lead with these tactics and perhaps link them to a bolder strategy of transformation: “No cops, no prisons, total abolition.”
While I am no longer a pacifist, I owe much of my political awakening to pacificism. My first action of non-violent civil disobedience and direct action took place in a Portland suburb in the mid-1980s. A tech company called FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) was providing their then cutting edge technology to the government of El Salvador which was, in turn, using that technology to expand their vicious aerial bombing campaign of campesinos and guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) from daylight-only hours to nighttime as well. A couple dozen of us physically blocked the entrance of the company to stop their normal functioning and were arrested. We directly stopped that company from delivering its technology to a repressive regime, if only for a time.
I bring this up because it occurred to me that if more people of faith were willing to join militant comrades in the streets and use their bodies to shut down bunkers of repression, perhaps we could extend our rebellion to a 24-hour affair and concretely begin to make Black Lives Matter.
Indeed, if this is the civil rights movement of our era, where are those tried and true, militant tactics that we know are effective? John Lewis didn’t just protest — he and other activists occupied buses, lunch counters and schools in defiance of the law and de jure segregation and spent countless hours in hellish jails and prisons. Our unfinished civil rights revolution runs through the abolition of those institutions that are beyond reform and redemption.
As the saying goes, those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.
Many comrades who root their activism in more secular traditions are already out in the streets risking their bodies, building barricades, getting arrested, and more.
Where are you?