Community Organizing, Vigils, and How Plans Go Awry

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“Don’t become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You’ll learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your heart.” -Yuri Kochiyama

Lunch with a friend that I love and admire so much – we caught up as we don’t spend nearly enough time together. She’s in academic and intellectual circles, church and other social circles, and just well-connected. We shifted to remembering the #nmos14 vigil back in August and I realized I hadn’t blogged or reflected much on it.

When Michael Brown was murdered in cold blood by police on the streets of his neighborhood I knew I needed space to confront, to reflect, to mourn, to confess, to process everything. Twitter came out with ideas for mobilizing people for local protests and vigils and I jumped on the opportunity to help organize one for Bloomington. I assumed that in a university town someone or some org would be spearheading it even in the middle of summer when the students were still gone. I asked around. Wrote emails. Made phone calls.

Nothing.

So I did it. I made more phone calls. Used the few contacts I had through church and the university. Asked people to speak and help spread the word. Made posters. Found a karaoke machine. Got candles.

I realized I had no idea what I was doing. At all.

But the day came. And as word spread I received messages from all sides of the political spectrum. This was a concern to Andy so he went to the local police station and asked for police presence at the event. Two showed up and remained pretty inconspicuous standing a couple hundred feet away – we only noticed them when we left.

But a couple people insisted that I not make this about police brutality or an anti-police campaign especially since they were so … accommodating to us. In my opening remarks:

…the reality of racism and antiblackness is that white supremacist violence is a threat whenever we gather to uphold people of color. (Feminista Jones:) We are here “to remember the forgotten, ignored, killed, and abused.”

We honor the victims of police brutality. We are mindful of the ongoing tragedy of police violence and media suppression in Ferguson, and we recognize these things as direct expressions of racialized state power in the United States. We recognize that, as activist Kelly Hayes said this week, “State violence can’t cure street violence.”

This is not a time for blame but a chance to bear with each other. Our presence, your presence means that you acknowledge the reality that we are all complicit in these structures that give some of us privilege and marginalize these communities. To begin to work towards a solution means we confess and repent, and listen to others.

I inserted at the very beginning, “we are grateful for the peaceful presence of the Bloomington Police.”

And I felt awful saying it. Because I didn’t feel grateful. Because I didn’t want to center any narrative around them in the moment. Because I wanted to speak the truth. But I gave in and did it.

From there it felt like it spiraled down. Watching through different eyes I noticed the all-White music group, though they were sincere and well-intentioned, the almost all-White speakers, the almost all-White faces in the middle of the crowd, and the mostly all-White testimonies during the speakout.

I looked at the periphery and saw a dozen black people. Watching.

Per @feministajones‘s suggestion during the conference call we mimicked the photo of the Howard University students all standing with arms raised up. And I noticed that the black people stayed on the sidelines.

Everything felt strained. Awkward. Forced. Everything felt … Wrong.

Only a few black people speaking out. Christian religious leaders organizing it. White people with their hands up in the air. Bob Dillon-ish song as the opening music appropriating MLK Jr’s words.

The wrong people were up front. The wrong people and stories and music were in the center. The wrong words were said outloud.

I wondered if I should have stayed out of it. There was a vigil up in Indy. Maybe I should have just driven up.

And then I was reminded that everything is subject to critique. Someone will always find something wrong. This dear friend of mine reminded me that no matter what is said or how something is said that someone will be unhappy or upset.

But. What was right was that we tried even in our fumbling and inept way to make things right and do things right. We tried and sucked and failed a little. But as a Presbyterian minister (which I understood was even critiqued because God-Forbid a religious person be involved in secular affairs) and Christian I knew that I wanted to stand with the victims and their families even if it was 1000 miles away. Even if it was bumbling and ungraceful.

Someone remarked on a blog that I could now pat myself on the back as a social justice advocate and organizer, and that essentially I did this for me. I DID do this for me. I’m thinking about 9/11 and the ways that we keep terrorizing, oppressing, neglecting, and doing violence to people both here and abroad. So yes, I did it – this “organizing” – to acknowledge and confess my guilt, my complicity, my wrongdoing. And I will keep doing it. I will keep leading and organizing moments where we have to confront our fuckups, our racism, our egos, our lack, and the work that needs to be done to enact and live into justice.

“Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society.” -Yuri Kochiyama

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