Protest. Vigil. Action.
My city is in crisis. We are plagued with the demon of violence. All around us forces ensnare this city, our neighborhoods are choking on blood. We are not without power and recourse. There is a path forward: Protest, Vigil, Action.
Time and time again I hear and read people say, “You can get hundreds of people to respond when a cop shoots someone but where are the protests when it is Black on Black crime?” First of all, stop using the term “black on black” crime. We don’t define other crimes this way. If a white dude shoots another white dude, we don’t call it white on white crime. Same with other people of color. When is the last time you heard someone talk about Hispanic on Hispanic crime? Black on black is meant to reinforce the spiteful notion that people of African descent are violent by nature and that the violence within the community is bred from within. (More on this in a moment).
But secondly, and more importantly, protest is a tool against someone or something. It is a resistance against a power structure. Protests are a resistance not against the status quo – not against the ideas or even the outcomes of the status quo – but against all that perpetuates it. Protests are a means toward change. Protests have a target. Civil disobedience has a target. Direct action has a target. Without a target, it is just a rally, a chance to encourage like-minded folks. But protests identify who and what has the power to bring about change. When policing looks more like an occupying army than officer friendly, there are protests directed at all that perpetuates that policing model: the mayor, the chief of police, the Fire and Police commission. When civil rights are violated protests target the justice system. When there is economic injustice the means and places of commerce are targeted, the CEOs of corporations are called out.
Protests have a target and that target must have the power to bring about change. Protests have the added impact of disrupting all that surrounds the people and power structures that perpetuate the status quo. If you have been silent about matters of policing or civil rights or economic rights then the protests might disrupt your unconscious flow within the status quo. Your traffic might get stopped. Your trip to see Santa might include a die-in. Your basketball game might be disrupted with #BlackLivesMatter chants. You might have to have an uncomfortable conversation with your child.
But even in these moments, YOU are not the target. It is not your commute that is the target – it is the ordinary flow of traffic that occurs everyday, that greatest symbol of status quo in the USA – which is the target. It is not your drive, your shopping trip, your entertainment that is being targeted. It is the recognition that until issues are dealt with, protesters have the power to impact normal conditions that support the unjust norms.
We do not protest in our neighborhoods because there is not a target. Those that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence do not live in our neighborhoods. Again – those that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence do not live our neighborhoods.
Those that make guns. Those that sell guns. Those that make a living protecting gun rights. Law makers that are funded by groups or paid off with endorsements from groups that make a living protecting gun rights. These are targets that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence.
Those that benefit from poverty. Those that operate on markets of scale. Those that shut down factories, outsource jobs. Those that prey on the needs of the vulnerable. I’m talking about CEO’s, corporations, payday lenders, check cashing stations. I’m talking about politicians that are happy to ghettoize certain neighborhoods so that they can keep the “good parts of the city” or the region or the state “good.” I’m talking about those that keep power by cutting bus service to jobs. I’m talking about real estate brokers and bankers the disinvest in communities. These are targets that perpetuate the conditions that encourage gun violence.
It is not the drug dealer that creates the conditions that encourage gun violence. The drug dealer is living in the midst of conditions created by generations of disenfranchisement and perpetuated by a criminal justice system and drug policies that benefit from having drug dealers in our neighborhoods.
Protests need targets that can change the status quo. Those pulling the trigger in our streets did not create the conditions that encourage them to do so. That’s why we don’t protest in our neighborhoods.
Vigil means keeping watch. It means staying awake. It is connected deeply to the midnight worship services that welcome holy days (Christmas Eve’s midnight mass is a vigil; Easter has a vigil). Our vigils have prayers, sometimes readings and speaking and memories.
I don’t like to call our events prayer vigils. Prayer is what we do during them, but I prefer to name that which we are seeking. If we are keeping watch, for what do we watch? We have vigils for peace. We have vigils for justice.
The vigil is a powerful response to violence. It says that we have not lost sight of the hope and the promise for our communities. We are keeping watch for Peace because we expect it to come. We are keeping watch for justice, because we have not lost hope. We will not turn away even though tragedy is right in front of us.
The vigil is a spiritual connecting point. We become united in a common hope. Lines of differences fade away as we unite in a shared yearning.
Vigils bring healing. They bring comfort. Vigils remind us that we are not in our struggle alone. None of us bears the burden of violence by ourselves. We share the load. We bear one another’s burdens. It is a tangible sign of our connected lives.
Families are comforted by the solidarity expressed in vigils. Mourners are encouraged by the power of a vigil.
Vigils can heal us and do confront the violence that plagues our city. It is not just an empty prayer, it is not another tragedy for the news to cover. It is the hope for peace and justice. It is the comfort in our grief. And it is the commitment to stay woke. It is the promise we make that we will not grow weary, we will not turn back, we will not be discouraged, we will not give up hope. We keep watch. We hold vigil.
Vigils are encouraging and encouragement is necessary. But encouragement and watching for peace is not enough. If we want peace in our streets we must be active.
Jesus said Blessed are the Peacemakers not the peace-lovers. Anyone can love peace. Anyone can talk about peace. But the Makers of the Peace are the ones that will be blessed.
This is where, as my good friend says, we activate the power of the people. Wringing our hands, worrying about what’s happening, posting SMDH – this is not action. Walking around your block is action. Mentoring a student is action. Supporting a local business is action. Starting your own business is action. Providing positive opportunities for youth is action. Putting your money where your mouth is, is action. Voting is action. Policing our own communities is action. Safe Zones are action. Supporting jobs, creating jobs, encouraging the development of jobs are actions. Advocating for legislative change is action. Praying is action. Riding your bike, planting a garden or even a flower, showing up for work every damn day, checking homework, these are actions. Listening to the elders is actions. Following the youth is action. Being unafraid is action.
And loving is the greatest action.
Imagine the power of love. Not the lust that has fellas hollering out the window to a woman walking down the street (by the way, stop that). Not the happily ever after myth that gets churned out by entertainment moguls. But real deep love. The love that says I will honor and respect you and the divine within you.
What if we loved the drug dealer? Some of us do because he is our son, she is our cousin, they go to my church. But what if the neighborhood loved the dealer, even those who have no personal connection? What if even those that are terrorized by the actions of those doing harm can act from a place of love? What if our police saw not just the rap sheet but instead loved this sister and brother? What if our police chief or sheriff looked at our neighborhoods not out of the blight and crime but out of the capacity to love?
And what if we loved ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to be loved?
So much of our violence is rooted in a history of hatred. You cannot have the worst outcomes for African Americans – education, incarceration, employment, and on and on and on – and expect peace. You cannot expect to love and be loved when the conditions of our neighborhoods are built upon hatred.
This is not a moral crisis. Morals are shaped by the conditions of the time. Morality shifts. Everything from tattoos to taboos change from generation to generation. We cannot say, “The city has lost its moral compass.” We cannot call this a crisis of faith or a failure of parents. This is not the fault of single moms.
If morality is built upon the conditions that surround us, why should we expect a moral righteousness that values life? Does Milwaukee value Black lives? Does Milwaukee value the lives of people in poverty? Does Wisconsin value people of color? If media and educational systems and employers and police leadership and frightened neighbors and every message surrounding our city is about all that is wrong and terrible and violent then I would say the violence we see in the streets is directly inline with our current moral conditions.
It is not a crisis of morality, but it is indeed a crisis. I call it a crisis of unbelief. This is not a religious unbelief. We have come to believe the lies and reject the truth.
We believe that our lives are not valuable. We believe that others’ lives are not valuable. We believe that we are better than someone. We believe that someone – or everyone – is better than us. We believe that it isn’t our problem. We believe that it isn’t our place. We believe that there’s nothing we can do. We believe that we don’t have power. We believe we’re above the law. We believe that things will always be this way. We believe that if it isn’t in my neighborhood – or on my block – then it isn’t my problem. We believe we can isolate our selves from the suffering. We believe that we can medicate ourselves from the suffering. We believe we can convince ourselves that we aren’t suffering. We believe someone else can do something, should do something, will do something. We believe a block party won’t make a difference. Or picking up a piece of trash. Or going to school. Or going to church. Or going to make sure our neighbor is ok. We believe the only way to protect honor is to escalate the situation. We believe that when the city turns its back on us they have good reason. We believe we’re the exception.
THESE ARE ALL LIES.
The truth is we all deserve love. The truth is we all have the ability to give love. The truth is it doesn’t have to be like this, it wasn’t always like this and it won’t always be like this. The truth is we are powerful. The truth is we can be weak and even our weakness can manifest greatness. The truth is we have all we need. The truth is we are better than this moment. The truth is we know better. The truth is our actions do bring about change. The truth is someone is praying for you…right now. The truth is our elders have the wisdom we seek in this moment. The truth is the youth have the energy to deliver us. The truth is we are loved. The truth is we are love. The truth is that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. The truth is the fire refines us like gold. The truth is we can learn from our mistakes. The truth is we are more than what is wrong with us. The truth is the revolution has not stopped, the dream is not deferred. “Sí se puede” es la verdad. The truth is our actions make a difference. The truth is we can educate our communities. The truth is we can organize our communities. The truth is our parks can be safe. The truth is we are winning. The truth is we are winning. The truth is we are winning. The truth is that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The truth is that good triumphs over evil. The truth is you can be a man and walk away. The truth is your worth as a woman is not tied exclusively to your sexuality. The truth is a change is gonna come. The truth is you’ve made it this far. The truth is you are loved. The truth is you are love. The truth is you can be the best person you desire to be. The truth is that being your best does not mean being perfect. The truth is mountains tremble because of your faith. The truth is you do not have to hate your enemy. The truth is we are not alone. The truth is you can act now. The truth is we need you to act now. The truth is you have been acting now. The truth is your actions make peace. The truth is you are loved. The truth is you are love.
The truth is we don’t need that status quo to change for us to change our own conditions.
The truth is we can create our new normal.
The truth is we don’t need perfect and lasting peace to arrive before we see peace in our midst.
The truth is that love is action.
And we shall know the truth and it shall set us free.