There’s a decent possibility that this post will contain stupid, offensive, or disappointing content. Please know I’m absolutely open to being corrected. Please, please remember we’re friends and this is the place where I think out loud. Also, I conceal discomfort with humor, which is rarely appropriate and often not actually funny. Grace, please.
At the top of my bucket list, I’ve written this: Get arrested for civil disobedience. Weird, right?
A number of years ago, some long-time friends of mine were arrested at a protest in Washington, DC, and I was more than a little jealous. From that moment forward, they had the perfect response to those “What’s the most interesting thing about you?” ice-breakers. I could see their kids on the playground: “Oh, yeah? You think your mom’s tough? Has she been arrested? I didn’t think so.” *Drops mic.*
Beyond jealous, though, I was inspired. These friends of mine believed in something so thoroughly and passionately that they were willing to get arrested for their cause. How many of us have convictions that strong?
People who are aware of my desire to get arrested offer suggestions on a regular basis, usually for lame things like leaving a garage sale sign up too long or jaywalking (which, you’ll discover, is beautifully ironic). My response to such suggestions is, “Nah. That’s not worth it. If I’m gonna get arrested, it’s gonna be for something huge.”
(An aside: I can’t use the word huge anymore without hearing Bernie Sanders in my head. He drops the h entirely, so it’s more like youge. It’s a Brooklyn thing, and I’m adopting that pronunciation because it sounds sort of mafia-esque…which may increase my chances of getting arrested.)
The Voiced Protest
Anyway, a couple of days ago a friend and I decided to participate in a peaceful protest in Ferguson, MO, organized by The Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Jr. Neither my friend nor I had ever done such a thing before, which put this opportunity squarely in the Adventure column. We do love an adventure.
This is where the disclaimer up there kicks in.
We met at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, received instructions, walked to the protest site, and soon joined our voices with other demonstrators. And by “our,” I mean “everyone else’s,” because I wasn’t saying a word. Why? Because I couldn’t be certain I could participate authentically. Why? Because I wasn’t sure I agreed with some things being said. Why? Because I haven’t had enough conversations about Ferguson and racial injustice and militarization and all those tough things we’ve been talking-but-not-really-listening-about for a year now.
So I was in a dilemma: “Should I just go ahead and voice these chants, even though I’m not sure I agree 100%? Am I over-thinking this? Is it rude to just march without shouting? Should I fake laryngitis?” Then, and here’s the kicker, “Maybe I should lip-sync.”
Yeah. I know.
I’m going to be completely transparent (offensive, stupid, disappointing) here: I considered lip-syncing because there were sundry news channels and indie film crews shooting footage, and I didn’t want to be caught on film as a sweaty, confused-looking, not-participating white chick. Also, I didn’t want the Black guys watching from the sidelines to think I was one of those white people who just doesn’t get it. Actually, any time I’m with someone from a marginalized group—people of color, people from the LGBT community, people with disabilities—I’m afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. So afraid, in fact, that I get all weird and awkward and end up saying or doing the wrong thing. So, all of this is going through my head as I’m not-chanting down West Florissant Avenue. In other words, at this point, my participation in this peaceful protest was about me, rather than in support of the community.
Yeah. I know.
(Another aside: When I told my mom about this experience, she asked, “So, what exactly were you protesting?” Great question, and it may be one you’re asking, too. I was protesting systemic, racial injustice, and I was doing what I think Jesus would be doing—walking alongside people who’ve been deeply affected by said injustice. But here’s yet another moment of transparency: Being able to say, “The other night when I was protesting up in Ferguson” feels edgy and daring and aren’t I soooo coooool? Ugh.) (Transparency sucks.)
Okay, back to my ridiculousness (because what I just wrote wasn’t ridiculous?)… Luckily, the chant soon switched to something I could get behind without hesitation (or lip-syncing): “This is what democracy looks like! This is what the clergy look like! This is what theology looks like!” I especially dig the theology one, because it gets God out of our heads and into our hearts and our voices and our feet.
That went on for a while, we did a u-turn and began marching back in the direction we’d come, and then during a brief pause in the shouting, I began hearing a new bit of instruction: “Form a single-file line at the stoplight.”
Oh. Oh no. I know what’s about to happen: We’re about to block traffic. It’s not I-70 or anything, but it shares some similarities. Like, you know, cars.
I turned to look at my friend. “Are we really gonna do this?” she asked.
“Ummm, I dunno. Maybe? Let’s see what Willis does.”
The stoplight turned red, our signal turned white (Why isn’t it green?), and, because Willis began walking, so did we. A woman at the front of the line barked directions: “Stay in the crosswalk. Single-file. No clumping! Single-file! Slowly. Walk slloooowwwllly.”
Fortunately, we got to the other side of the street before the light turned. Unfortunately, my sigh of relief was interrupted by, “Loop back around. Keep walking. Slow down! You must stay in the crosswalk.” (Is the crosswalk the civil disobedience safety zone?)
Since we weren’t allowed to “clump,” I could no longer see my friend’s facial expression, but I suspect she had the same question I had: “So, what happens when the light turns? Are we then no longer ‘peacefully’ protesting? And are people irritated enough that they’d consider plowing us over?”
Normally when a crosswalk signal starts flashing its red hand, people take a light jog to get out of the street before the stoplight turns green, right? Well, “normally” doesn’t apply here. As I feared, the light turned green, and we just kept on walking sauntering back and forth across West Florissant Avenue. A pile of police officers stood in a nearby parking lot, watching us rather intently.
Cars began to honk and edge forward. Suddenly I wasn’t really all that interested in getting arrested—a terribly disappointing turn of events. (I fancy myself a bit of a rebel, but I don’t like getting in trouble for real.) I looked at the light, the cars, the protestors in front of me, and the cops. And I began to laugh. Right there in the middle of the street.
Yeah. I know. I’m fully aware that laughing was completely inappropriate for the occasion. It truly was nervous laughter, if that makes it any better.
This went on for several light cycles before a St. Louis County police officer approached Willis. Although I couldn’t hear their conversation, it seemed cordial enough—but nevertheless ended with the officer asking Willis to bring our demonstration to a close. Which he did. And suddenly we were done.
Since I’ve rather successfully made this thing all about me, I’m going to switch gears and make it about you instead.
It’s difficult to see things from a distance, and with the ocean of information we have available to us, it’s nearly impossible to tease out what’s real and true and what’s just speculation or even outright lies. The only way to know for certain what’s really happening is to go there.
If you do, you’ll process the media coverage differently because you’ve stood right next to that McDonald’s. When you’ve walked past a group of young, Black men in a parking lot—faces partially concealed by bandanas—you’ll be surprised to discover that what you’d really like to do is turn back and hear their stories.
At first, maybe you’ll make the experience about you, but then suddenly, because you’re there, you’ll realize how much Ferguson truly matters and you’ll feel the injustice and you’ll see the human beings—not “thugs”—who are suffering because of it. And then you’ll want to—have to—do something about it.
Which, incidentally, is what theology looks like.