“To sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men.” ― Ella Wheeler Wilcox
On Sunday Morning, I was visiting a congregation just outside of Portland to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ. As I had spent the previous 4 days in mourning, confusion, and even anger, the weight of preaching in this time and space was not lost on me. The struggle of preaching to a potentially diverse body in the wake of the election and also the balance to make sure I didn’t get “partisan” but still addressed the social justice message of Christ, weighed heavily on me as I prepared and experienced my own depth of sadness, loss, and fear. My concerns about the message I was to bring started to dissipate though as the congregation began to sing “We Shall Overcome”. I am so proud that this protest song that has served as an anthem for the African-American civil rights movement is also in the Community of Christ hymnal. My Sunday Morning ended up serving as a great foundation for what I was to experience later that day.
Later that afternoon, my friend Audrey and I waited expectantly to attend a protest vigil at 4 PM that afternoon, by sipping coffee at a downtown Portland Starbucks. This same Starbucks ended up being across the street from a police station. While there we started to see police officers leave the parking garage in preparation for the protests that were anticipated that evening. They left in riot gear as they prepared to face what was to come. It was surreal to see this taking shape on the streets of Portland, OR. After watching this for a while, we left and gathered at the Salmon Street Springs Fountain along the Willamette River waterfront for the protest vigil that was put on by Portland’s Resistance. According to their Facebook event page, they shared that “We are hosting a peaceful vigil in support for the survivor of the shooting, for those who were arrested during peaceful protests across the city, for all who have experienced violence for simply living their lives, for those who have passed as a result of hate crimes, and for those in marginalized communities who will be most impacted by Donald Trump’s presidency.” So I purchased my (scented) candle at a nearby Ross store and, in the midst of my own sense of concern and loss, my friend and I joined a few hundred others for this vigil. I came to support, to reflect, and to show solidarity and commitment.
I have many mixed feelings about what was to come. This protest vigil ended up being one part vigil and one part protest rally. I found that to be very unfortunate. I find myself in a position where it is likely that I’ll be attending several protest rallies and marches over the next few years but at this time, I wanted the reverence and peace of a vigil. Several presenters shared about other events and related causes that were coming up. They also shared their perspective about what was going on and what we needed to do through the lens of what organization or cause they represented. One such individual declared that “Since Tuesday night a new civil rights movement has emerged.” This is so true! This declaration profoundly spoke to me. We did pause for 4 1/2 minutes of silence to remember the individuals and groups of people that I quoted above. The significance of the 4 1/2 minutes is that it was to remember the 4 1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body laid in public view on a street in Ferguson, MO, after being shot by a police officer before anything was done to take care of his body. The vigil ended with about 90-120 minutes of open mic time for those present to share the fear and concern they were feeling.
The struggle I had with this vigil was elevated by two things that happened at it. The first was that someone chastised the crowd not to snitch on anyone that was protesting, including those who were doing damage. We were shamed into the idea that doing this was wrong and only helped those who oppressed. I recognize that small business owners are often the unintended recipients of the damage that rioting does. As one person later mentioned, the same small business owners that would otherwise likely support the cause were having their livelihoods ruined by it. This disturbed me because there is no way that I could be silent if I knew which individuals were doing this kind of damage. The second thing was that the leader of the local Anarchist’s group was given a platform to speak. He espoused hatred that wasn’t needed while showing little remorse for the damage his group caused. I was disgusted that Portland’s Resistance would allow space at their event for this speaker. His group is only using the post-election movement to pursue an agenda that is not in harmony with what so many marginalized people are experiencing. Now there were speakers for Portland’s Resistance, including their leader, who did stand for peaceful protesting. They acknowledged that they wouldn’t speak out against how others choose to protest which I actually understand to a point but the fact that Portland’s Resistance actually showed us that they were allies of the Anarchist movement that is at odds with the message that the Resistance is trying to promote, is deeply concerning to me. Couple that with the message that we were not to tell on others who did damage, I realized that I could not support any future events put on by this group.
The one thing that I did appreciate more than anything was the open mic time for those present to share their fear and concern. Bravely, many people shared their story of struggle to feel included and accepted in our culture today. We heard from people all over the LGBT spectrum, varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, people married to illegal immigrants, and those who are allies. We heard a cry from a disabled lady to not forget those who struggle with disability issues and rights. We even heard from those who identified as heterosexual white cisgender males but understood their privilege and wanted to use it for good. After standing for a few hours in the rain, with legs and backs that were now sore, we did leave a little early but I am grateful for the stories that I did hear. It was sobering and deeply moving to just listen. It further reminded me all of the heavy work that is before us.
During his “The Other America” speech, Martin Luther King Jr stated that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”. This quote has been used a lot the past week but in the same paragraph that he said this, King also stated that, “I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results.” King gives a plea for peaceful protests while then also acknowledging that “it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” This is where I am as well. I will engage in, and support, peaceful protests. Protests that may cause disruption but not ones that will do damage. I also won’t speak out against the oppressed who do riot when they feel that they have no other way to be noticed or heard. With that, I absolutely will not support the right to protest for those who are hijacking this “new civil rights movement” to further live out their own unrelated agenda. I will advocate for the justified, while denouncing the actions of the unjustified.
As I look to the future, I am deeply troubled, concerned, and afraid for what is to come but I am also ready. With the message of Christ to empower me, I am reminded that the cause before us will be sure, so I will move forward and protest when necessary while also seeking authentic conversations to mobilize change. I will not be silent and neither should you.