Staten Island

Advent as Protest

a katz / Shutterstock.com

Demonstration in New York City on Dec. 7, protesting the non-indictment in Eric Garner death, a katz / Shutterstock.com

At the point of the writing of this article, it has been 124 days since unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Blocks from the spot where Brown lay dead in the tightknit Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo., protestors filled West Florissant Avenue, where Brown had been only minutes before his death. They were met by the local police force decked out in camouflage and body armor, armed to the gills with military-grade weapons, and rolling around in armored cars. Many commented that the streets of Ferguson looked like Fallujah.

It was both shocking and clarifying at once.

For the first time, Americans witnessed real-time outcomes of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funnels military weapons left over from past wars to local police municipalities across the country — in theory, to fortify local efforts in America’s drug war. Cable news cameras swarmed as wartime weapons, tactics, and protocols were enacted on unarmed, mostly black citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble and exercise free speech.

Here’s the thing about war: There are only enemies and allies. There is no in-between.

What Good Is Christian Faith to Contemporary Protesters?

Protesters march in downtown Washington, D.C., on March 4. Photo by Kaeley McEvoy / Sojourners

As I followed protesters along the National Mall after the non-indictment of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, I was particularly struck by the comments of one black gentleman named Houston. Putting down a sign that said “Boycott Christmas,” he took a speaker, called for quiet, and, in the midst of the crowd, began to preach:

“We must move on to that new day in which justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. It is time for black and whites to take hand and hand and move this nation beyond the pitiful historical dilemma … So black and white together, we must move on to where even the stones will shout out, ‘It’s time for America to be one.’”

“Amen,” someone shouted.

Amen, indeed.

Drawing on Amos 5:24 and Luke 19:40, Houston had brought the riches of a deep biblical tradition to bear on our contemporary political struggle. Like the early Christians, he called not only for justice but also for reconciliation between races. His faith had inspired him to act.

Or so I thought.

Listen and Learn

Krasimira Nevenova / Shutterstock.com

Krasimira Nevenova / Shutterstock.com

A few days ago, a friend of mine commented on a picture I posted on Facebook. It captured one of those rare moments in the daily grind of stay-at-home parenting where — in the midst of the diaper changes, meltdowns, and mealtime madness — there is a moment of pure delight. In this case, my two sons were sitting together for the first time in the front of a race car-themed shopping cart. My 3-year-old son was thrilled to have his infant brother “driving” with him. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo and posting it immediately. Having two sons of his own, my friend commented, “2 boys! What a great idea!”

I thought of this comment last Monday night when I heard the painful news of the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case, and later when I heard of the same conclusion in the Eric Garner case. Yes, it was a great idea to have boys. My husband and I love them more than anything. They’ve brought more joy into our lives than we could ever have imagined. But, I wondered, how different would our experience be if we were parents of black sons instead of white sons? How much more worry and heartache would we face knowing the cards were stacked against them from birth? What would it be like to have to figure out how and when to have the talk — the one about law enforcement, no second chances and the need to go above and beyond in every situation?

I wasn’t always aware of the vastly different realities for people of color living in this country. My conversion was slow. Not the Damascus Road type of experience where I was blind for three days and then instantly I could see. No, it was and continues to be a long, slow, sometimes painful process of listening and learning.

D.C. Protesters Confront Police, Christmas Season in March for Racial Justice

Photo by Charissa Laisy / Sojourners

Protesters stage a 'die-in' in downtown Washington, D.C., Dec. 4. Photo by Charissa Laisy / Sojourners

Protests have again erupted across the United States following the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking and killing of Eric Garner. Building off the online mobilizing network established in response to Ferguson, the most recent wave of community actions have gathered support via social media. After events are posted on Facebook or Tumblr, or simply spread through word of mouth, Twitter hashtags provide real-time updates that direct potential supporters to the location of a march.

In Washington, D.C., protests began outside the Department of Justice at 4:00 p.m. and continued throughout the city late into the night — through the National Mall, near the White House, the D.C. police department, and city hall. Comprising many races and many ages, crowds chanted phrases like, “Black lives matter” and “This is what democracy looks like.” One black mother, Shantelle, who was pushing her toddler in a stroller, explained why she was out marching today:

“We’re proud to be American. We’re military. We love our country. But we keep getting it, my son is gonna’ keep getting it. We’re not valued and we’re not looked at. I want him to grow up in a place where he doesn’t have to worry he wore the wrong hoodie, or he was playing with a toy gun, or he gets a chokehold, and dies.”

Another, older woman simply said, “I’m old. I hate that I have to be out here. I’m sick of doin’ the same old stuff.”

America, We've Got a Problem

 Photo by Joey Longley

New York City protest following the Eric Garner announcement on Dec. 3. Photo by Joey Longley

I was in Ferguson Wednesday when it happened: In a morally stunning decision, a Staten Island grand jury announced it would not bring criminal charges against a white police officer who choked a black man to death during a brutal incident last July. Stopped for allegedly selling some loose and therefore untaxed cigarettes, officer Daniel Pantaleo put a “chokehold” on Eric Garner, despite the fact that the move is against NYPD rules. Video of the incident shows Garner uttering his last words, “I can’t breathe.” New York’s medical examiner officially called this a “homicide,” but the grand jury said no charges will be made.

Of course, this comes just 10 days after the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict another white police officer, Darren Wilson, for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown on Aug. 9. Sojourners had convened a retreat in Ferguson for both national faith leaders and local pastors to look deeply at the historical and theological foundations of the Ferguson events and reflect upon how the church must respond. Emotional calls from pastors in New York City came with the horrible news, and people just began to weep — one young man wailing, “This time it was all on video …. and it still didn’t matter! How can I as a black man bring a black son into this world?” Lament and prayers followed with a resolve from an extraordinary two days on the ground in Ferguson — to act.

Local experts in St. Louis County helped us understand the damage done to their local communities for decades that led to the response that erupted after the killing of Michael Brown. We walked silently and prayerfully alongside the memorial to the slain teenager on West Canfield Avenue with black parents imagining their own sons lying there, and white parents realizing this would never happen to our kids. We kept looking at the street where this bloody incident had taken place, feeling more and more doubt about the narratives the county prosecutor had used to exonerate and excuse the white police officer from any responsibility — or at least a trial to publically sort out “conflicting testimonies.”

We met in a church with seven young leaders of the Ferguson protest movement. In just 116 days, these young people had become self-educated and extraordinary leaders, and we listened to a compelling analysis of their urgent situation and how they were trying to apply the history of social movements to change their oppressive circumstances. Their chilling stories of police harassment and brutality, preceded by a narrative of the educational and economic brutality that black young people like them experience daily were transforming words for those of us who listened, spellbound. As I listened, I realized America would be converted by these young people’s honest and earnest conversation — they would win the national debate about our criminal justice system’s response to young people of color.

#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Need to Stop Replying ALL LIVES MATTER

There’s this microaggression happening online, offline, and all around that has a nice sentiment, but really needs to stop. Can we call for a week-long moratorium on decrying “ALL LIVES MATTER?”

This is a request specifically for my white brothers and sisters, especially those in the church.

I, of course, as a white heterosexual married middle-class highly educated American male, believe that all lives matter. It’s something I’ve been fighting for my entire adult life. Whether it is the mother infected with HIV by her wayward husband in western Africa, whether it is the undocumented immigrant father who may be separated from his American-born children, whether it is the NRA card-carrying white uncle who does an honest job and is a good neighbor back in the midwest, whether it is the homeless thirty-something woman coming off a bad meth addiction but needing shelter during a difficult winter, of course, by all means, every life matters.

Your life matters. My life matters. All lives matter.

This is a non-negotiable. This is true. This is what it means to be made in the image of God, as we’re told in the Book of Genesis — everyone, whether you’re white, black, brown, male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, nice, kind of a jerk, young, old, middle-aged, we all matter.

But these past couple weeks — these past four months, five months, 22 months? — it’s important that we stand with the ever-growing chorus and declare, yes, black lives matter. With the heartbreaking, soul-wrenching death of Michael Brown, the news just yesterday of another non-indictment in the death Eric Garner, or the dark night when Trayvon Martin was shot down in Florida, a chorus of voices has risen to declare with one voice and hashtag that #BLACKLIVESMATTER.

Anti-abortion Priest Frank Pavone is Back With Eyes on Obama, Bishops

Rev. Frank Pavone, RNS photo by David Gibson

Rev. Frank Pavone, RNS photo by David Gibson

NEW YORK — A year ago, the Rev. Frank Pavone was facing an existential crisis in the unlikeliest of places.

The longtime head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, Pavone had been confined to the Diocese of Amarillo by his bishop, Patrick J. Zurek, who sent a letter to every other U.S. bishop declaring that he had so many concerns about the group’s $10 million budget that Pavone shouldn’t be trusted with donors’ money.

Pavone’s backers were stunned, and many stopped giving, which only exacerbated the problems that helped get Priests for Life into trouble in the first place. Pavone also couldn’t go on the road to reassure funders and drum up desperately needed cash.

Instead, the New York-born priest was stuck in a convent in the Texas panhandle where he served as chaplain to an order of nuns in a place called Prayer Town, a virtual prisoner in a war of words with Zurek, who had blasted his “incorrigible defiance of my legitimate authority as his bishop.”

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