Which Side Are You On, Friends? | Sojourners

Which Side Are You On, Friends?

“Empires don’t like it when you dream about a kingdom with qualities different from their own.”
 An illustration of a protest for Michael Brown at a concert hall. Banners hang from the balcony on the left side over the audience as a conductor leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on stage on the right side.
Illustration by Jocelyn Reiter

IN FALL 2014, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms’ Requiem on a Saturday evening two months after the murder of Michael Brown Jr., at a concert hall about 10 miles from Canfield Green, where Brown was killed and his adolescent body left out in the Missouri August sun for four and a half hours.

That summer and fall, people in the city and county of St. Louis lived in the tension of waiting — we were waiting for a grand jury to make a decision. Not a verdict about the officer’s guilt: The grand jury was tasked with deciding whether this murder was even a murder at all — whether anything happened on Aug. 9 that could even be considered maybe a crime. Maybe worth investigating. Or whether it was just a regular day’s work.

As intermission was ending and folks were back in their seats, just as the orchestra was regathered and the conductor was raising his baton, a small group of ticketholders in the audience stood up and sang. In singing, they asked the audience, made up largely of people who could choose whether or not they were impacted by the grand jury’s decision that loomed over the city like the shadow of death, to make a decision of their own. They stood up, one by one, and joined their voices in an old labor song: “Which side are you on, friend, which side are you on?” they sang. “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all. Which side are you on, friend, which side are you on?” They hung banners made of bedsheets over the balcony; one that echoed the piece being performed that evening was painted: “Requiem for Mike Brown, 1996-2014.”

These protesters brought this question — this disruption — into a space that could’ve kept it to business as usual. They sang the two refrains in repetition, almost like a Taizé chant, for several minutes, then they left the hall together, chanting a chant that at the time was still brand-new to most Americans: Black Lives Matter.

The disrupters left to a mix of silence and applause from the audience and the musicians. The concert continued, but the question hung in the air. It’s the same question that hangs in the air of many of Jesus’ disciple-calling stories, and it’s certainly the question that pervades Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ good news.

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The cover for Sojourners' August 2023 issue, called "The Paradox of Poverty." Small figurines of a white couple in fancy garbs stand on top of a tall stack of silver and gold coins. There are other figurines below working by carrying around dollar bills.
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