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Justice4Jamar: Congregating for Black Lives in Minneapolis

Editor's Note: Actions in Minneapolis have evolved rapidly over the past few days. Please read through to the postscript for the latest news regarding the 4th Precinct.

Having just returned from a weekend on the ground with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis, I reaffirm my own expanded understanding of the term “Congregational Life”. In the two weeks since 24-year-old Jamar Clark was shot down by the police in the north part of the city, members of the surrounding community and activists of Black Lives Matter organized to shut down at least the front side of the Fourth Police Precinct and maintain an occupation. Like the kinds of congregations where Unitarian Universalists gather from week to week, this one deals with its share of opportunities and challenges along the way.
 
As I walked toward the barricade in front of the police precinct last Friday evening, I choked a bit from all the smoke in the air. The temperature had dropped, so several fire pits burned in that block of the four-lane street. Small bunches of people gathered around them, a criss-cross mix of college students, activists, neighbors, bystanders and clergy. Some people were looking to make donations, and others were asking for money. On Nov. 23, a small group of white supremacists began shooting at the gathered protesters, wounding five. The following night shots were also fired though fortunately no one was hit. 

I looked around for familiar faces, but I didn't recognize anyone.  Then I heard someone call my name. I turned around and there was Rev. Barbara Hoag Gadon, my colleague serving Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri. She was in town for Thanksgiving with family and came to the site with a sign that read "Black Lives Matter: St. Louis Stands with You". A self-confessed introvert, she said the sign helped her meet people, and sure enough it did, especially people who had a relationship to that other Midwestern hotspot of racialized tensions.
 
We listened to people express their gratitude for our being there from far away. We met one of Jamar's cousins. Darius, one of the young people on security detail, introduced himself, gave his talk about keeping everyone safe and then offered a group hug to a cluster of newcomers. In time, Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP arrived. She and I met at the Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland back in July — a gathering of 1,200 activists and advocates countering the killing of black people by police and vigilantes. As I walked through the crowd with her, she said to one protester:

We have to fight for justice and most of us aren’t willing to pay the price. The fact that we were silent is what led to Jamar Clark being killed.  Police brutality is the biggest open secret in the state of Minnesota. So why were we silent? Why weren’t we calling the governor for police reform? Why weren’t we calling the Mayor and the City Council? Our silence has played a role in all these issues. We have got to have allies.  We have got to have people use their voices before the next situation happens.  The video of Jamar’s murder needs to be released. People need to know what happened and is happening.

After a couple of hours in the cold, as my feet were beginning to go numb, Lena K. Gardner, a lead Black Lives Matter organizer in Minneapolis and a Unitarian Universalist who puts her faith into action, showed up in her car and away we went to the airport to pick up Leslie MacFadyen, another black UU organizer and creator of the Ferguson Response Network, and Lizzy Bond of the Deep Abiding Love Project. Lena had invited us to come and to stand with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis as concerns rose about a potential police crackdown on the precinct occupation on the far side of Thanksgiving. Lena had already met with Mayor Betsy Hodges several times to press for BLM-Minneapolis's demands. Two weeks ago, a police officer pepper-sprayed her as she live-streamed during an action at the Fourth Precinct. Several times over the weekend, she let us know how glad she was that we were with her and the other local BLM organizers.
 
Leslie and I first met at the Convening in Cleveland also, where she was one of the key organizers. She, Lena, Kenny Wiley—a Black Lives Matter organizer in Denver and a writer for UU World--and I were the team of black Unitarian Universalists who rolled out the Black Lives of UU and Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism platforms in September, and who, along with Elandria Williams—a UU and an organizer with the Highlander Center, have created a proposal for the Black Lives of UU track for the UUA General Assembly in Columbus 2016. Meeting Lizzy for the first time, I felt a connection already through her work with Lena and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who I know from his presence at the 2015 UUA General Assembly in Portland.
 
The weekend involves little sleep and lots of sitting in on late-night meetings of the lead team for BLM Minneapolis; supporting militant nonviolent resistance trainings led primarily by Rev. Sekou, Lena, Leslie and Lizzy; some reconnaissance for future nonviolent protests, and visits to the smoky occupation site in front of the precinct. At the time of this writing, the BLM organizers were speculating on what the charges would be against the white supremacist shooters and formulating a plan of action for getting their demands met.
 
And what are those demands? In conjunction with Jamar Clark’s family, BLM Minneapolis is demanding:

  • the release of all video footage of Jamar Clark’s shooting
  • direct prosecution of the officers involved, i.e., no grand jury
  • a community protection plan to guard the people of North Minneapolis from police retaliation

Sunday morning,  the Minneapolis NAACP sponsored a worship service at the occupation site. Rev. Brian Herrron, Minister of Zion Baptist Church and member of the faith-based community organization ISAIAH, gave the message. Before I left, I took the time to walk the two blocks along Plymouth Avenue to the site where Jamar Clark was shot killed. There, his family and neighbors created a makeshift memorial. “Justice 4 Jamar” is the largest sign, and calls to mind for me what the Black Lives movement is all about -- holding killers accountable and preventing senseless killings of people like Jamar. We simply want a country where black lives are as valuable as white lives, where black people can go about their daily affairs without harassment or reckless police/vigilante violence. We believe that valuing black lives is in everyone's interest, and makes the world safer for us all.
 
I left Minneapolis Monday with deep respect for the young adults — and specifically, the mostly young black and brown queer women — who are leading the struggle for justice there against a backdrop of intense racism, sexism and homophobia. 
 
I see their work in the context of the life of the congregation that is the community occupying the Fourth Precinct. BLM Minneapolis leaders are facing some of the same questions I support congregations in answering with my work as UUA staff for the Southern Region. Who is authorized to speak for the group? How do we manage donations? Get our message out? Tend to our own spiritual needs and self-care? Handle disruptive persons? Stay on message? Make decisions? What supports are there for people in deep grief over the loss of loved ones, as well as for people needing social and mental health services? How do we act effectively and responsibly for justice?
 
How will Unitarian Universalists rise to these troubling times? How will we support these new congregations in the streets? How do we become dues-paying members of these congregations, with all the rights and responsibilities thereof? What do we do with this opportunity to step out of the comfort zone that being white-identified affords UU congregations, such that this nation and the world is transformed?
 
These words by Assata Shakur are an ongoing touchstone for Black Lives Matter, and one that I’ve taken to heart. I look forward to the days ahead when more and more Unitarian Universalists and people of all ethnicities can act upon them with true conviction: 

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.


In faith,
 
Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith
UUA Congregational Life Staff, Southern Region

p.s. December 1, the day after this blog was drafted, a group of Minneapolis clergy and other BLM activists occupied City Hall, making the demands listed above. Mayor Hodges called for the end of the BLM Fourth Precinct occupation, citing concerns about community safety. In response, BLM Minneapolis Miski Noor said on Facebook, "If Mayor Hodges is so concerned about safety, she should join us and call for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Jamar Clark's murder to avoid using a broken grand jury system." Meanwhile, the white supremacists who injured five people when they shot at the occupation last week were charged with the softer crime of rioting with a dangerous weapon, rather than attempted murder or domestic terrorism. "We just feel like this is more evidence that the system does not work for black people to bring people that hurt us to justice," Lena K. Gardner told protesters at Hennepin County Government Center Tuesday night. "It fails us at every turn." In the early hours of this morning, the Minneapolis Police bulldozed the occupation site in front of the 4th Precinct. Six people were arrested, and no injuries were reported. The 4th Precinct Shutdown Eviction Rally is 4:00pm this afternoon at City Hall.

p.p.s. As we enter this holiday season, if you are interested in socially-conscious purchases, I invite you to consider www.fergusonresponseholidayguide.com.