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Showing Up for Racial Equality: Remembering Michael Brown

By Marie Campbell and Suha Ahmad-Alsyoufi

Suha: Many times in life, as we live through historical moments we are asked, “Do you remember where you were in that moment?” Yesterday was one of those times that I know and will always remember where I was. It started out as a beautiful day. The weather was nicer than we had seen in a few days; my kids are on break from school for Thanksgiving and we were planning on enjoying it. We went roller skating for the 1st time and the kids fell so many times their bottoms needed a break! We went out for a late lunch and that threw our eating schedule. Once we came home the kids decided it was a perfect night to go out for ice-cream. I was already on edge because the announcement on the decision from the Grand Jury had been delayed. While I am sitting there with my kids, the decision came in and I felt something knot up in my throat immediately. We drove home and a moment I’ll never forget happened. My daughter loudly said “Oooooooooh, look!” She was pointing at the sky and it was clear it could have been hand painted. The stars were many and bright. It was eerily peaceful. I stood there for a minute and I couldn’t help think that in this moment of peace, Michael Brown’s mother can’t see through her tears.

That’s one of the times in recent history that I am overcome with emotion. The occupation of Palestine that has been the theme that streams through my entire life is another one, along with the civil war in Syria that has no end in sight. All of these situations and many more lead me to question where is our humanity? That is what inspired my last blog post but I didn’t want to imagine this. The feeling that the fight continues is a feeling many people all over the world have but it never gets easier to live with the fact that we are fighting this fight in the United States! Aren’t we the ones that model for the world what democracy and due process look like? An indictment doesn’t decide guilt or innocence, rather if there is enough evidence to take a case to trial. Considering the officer in this case wasn’t cross examined by the prosecutor, the words “we have failed” come up short of describing the atrocity of the killing of Michael Brown. Another one of our sons is dead. We remember his name, we remember Trayvon Martin, but what about the countless others that are shot and killed in cold blood by police officers? What about our unjust system that sends our young sons to prison for life for non-violent crimes?

Marie: I heard the announcement while sitting with my family in Rome, GA. My dad flipped between CNN and Fox News for hours. I watched the television, I watched my Facebook news feed, I watched incredulously. My heart was torn from my chest. This country has a long, well-documented and murderous history when it comes to violent crimes committed by white men against black men. And our justice system does not do “justice:” this simply cannot be denied. Among other research, please read this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/10/racial-disparity-police-killings_n_5965706.html.

As a white, Southern woman, I watched many of my white Southern sisters and brothers respond with venomous hate last night. In my most desperate moments, I hope that we haven’t actually allowed our hearts, minds, and bodies to be temples of such violence; I hope that my white sisters and brothers spew such garbage simply because we do not understand black rage. I take a cue here from a white brother, Paul Tillich, who writes: “The first duty of love is to listen.” I believe this. There can be no justice, no healing, if white people do not learn to listen, really listen, to the pleas and cries of our black and brown sisters and brothers in the streets.Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. – Proverbs 1:20

One of the most striking features of white privilege is the reality that white people sometimes do not even recognize the advantages we receive simply because of the skin we carry around. So, before we rush to condemnation and defend the justice system and legal processes, let’s listen and learn to be critical of the reality we take for granted. We can never know the kinds of daily violence black and brown people experience, but we should learn to pay attention and to build relationships built upon mutual respect. So, I plead this: Be quick to listen to the cries of wisdom, to the cries of those who have taken to the streets to be heard. We are called to love, so let’s listen and as we listen… let’s create communities where all people can flourish, communities where white men cannot murder black children with impunity.

White privilege

White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice.

In an essay published by the Knoxville News Sentinel following the George Zimmerman trial, my friend and ally Chris Crass wrote, “It’s time to speak honestly. At all the points in history that we look back on and can’t understand how people supported such racism, in all those eras, white people said “it’s too complicated,” “it’s the way things are,” “that Black person must have done something to deserve it.” Even in the murder of Emmitt Till, many white people said “it may have been extreme, but the boy forgot his place.” Today, the verdict is in, and white people, have to choose what side of history we are on. This is our moment. Our character, values, and legacies are shaped by the choices we make in the times we live, not by the stands we imagine ourselves taking in the past.” (Essay link here: http://www.chriscrass.org/; For more resources, see this: http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/)

Let’s move, people.

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Suha & Marie: This is not a time to say there is nothing we can do. This is a time to organize and mobilize! This should be a defining moment in our history that changes the system that allows for our Michael Browns to be killed with their hands up!

Scarritt Bennett Center has never been reactive but proactive in our programs and thoughts. We will continue to be a safe place in the community for all voices to be heard. Please be in touch with us if you want a space for constructive conversation. We’re here for that.

To find a listing of responses around the country, check this out: http://fergusonresponse.tumblr.com/?og=1. And this: http://fergusonaction.com/.

Here are some steps in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri that can provide solutions.

1. Join with others who want to create change on this issue.

As you join with others, think about how you can:

Include all voices in the community, especially those who have been marginalized or excluded. Think about the neighborhoods, racial/ethnic groups, people with various viewpoints, and people who work in specific sectors who may be affected by this issue; invite them to take part in community conversations and action steps. Community conversation and action work best when people from all parts of the community come together.

Involve local officials and members of the police community. Having these groups take part in the conversation and action steps will begin to open a different form of communication between police and residents.

Involve young people. The disconnect between police and the community is particularly wide between police and young people, especially youth of color. That’s why it’s essential for young people be involved from the beginning both in decision-making and implementation of change.

Work with bridge-building organizations and leaders in your community. Find local organizations and people to partner with who have trusting relationships with both the police department and community members.

2. Create opportunities for genuine community engagement.

Having a structured process for people, institutions, and government to work together can lead to real change. The discussion guide that we use, “Protecting Communities, Serving the Public: Police and Residents Building Relationships to Work Together,” helps to create a space for community members and police to talk about trust, expectations, policing strategies and tactics. This allows residents to communicate their concerns and allows the police community to communicate how residents can play critical roles in effective partnership strategies.

3. Address the history of mistrust and disconnection between the community and the police.

Tragic incidents don’t happen in a vacuum – there are hundreds of years of history and policies that have shaped our communities today. Another guide that we use, “Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation,” can help you have a conversation with your community to begin to dismantle stereotypes, understand the impact of structural racism, build mutual trust and respect, and develop strategies for changing institutions and policies.

4. Link dialogue to action and community change.

With appropriate planning and organizing, the buy-in of local officials and the police community is possible. A dialogue initiative with community residents and police can become a springboard not just for building relationships, but also for transforming the practices and policies of our public institutions. We must address the systemic roots of the recurring tragedies in our communities and work toward inclusive, equitable communities where everyone has voice and opportunity.

Today, the day after the one that will play in our minds for years to come, we all have work to do. We will begin our mornings like we do every morning, with coffee and some quiet time that will provide us with some sense of calm. Hopefully enough to gather our thoughts and attempt to contribute towards peaceful solutions.

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Suha Ahmad-Alsyoufi

Suha Ahmad Alsyoufi is currently Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center. In her current position Suha is responsible for Diversity training for individuals and organizations, facilitator training, cultural sensitivity training, as well as other programs such as Hot Topics and World Harmony Interfaith Breakfast. As a highly skilled trainer, she couldn’t have found a better place than Scarritt-Bennett Center whose mission statement is dedicated to the eradication of racism, the empowerment of women, and spiritual formation. Contact Suha at saalsyoufi@scarrittbennett.org.

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Marie Campbell is currently Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center.  In her current position, Marie coordinates the Belle H. Bennett House, a 10-month fellowship program for young women discerning vocation at the intersection of radical social justice and spirituality. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a B.A. in Sociology from Belmont University. Marie is passionate about environmental justice, liberatory education, and bold, intersectional feminism. Contact Marie at emcampbell@scarrittbennett.org.