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Uncertainty and Solidarity: Reflections on Shutting it Down with Black Lives Matter

This reflection was initially shared at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis as part of the assembly on Sunday, December 27th, 2015 and published on the Quest for Meaning website here.

I was there last Wednesday, at the Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America, at the airport, and on the light rail.

I was there last Wednesday with my 12 and 7-year-old daughters.

I was there because we were there a year ago—our first visit to the mall with 3,000 of our closest friends. As my older daughter pointed out when I was wavering on my decision to go, “It’s our holiday tradition, Dad! On Thanksgiving we protest Walmart. At Christmas, we go to the mall with Black Lives Matter!”

And, I was there because in this season of Christmas, I believe that there is almost nothing that is more in the spirit of the man whose birth Christmas celebrates, than standing for justice with people at the margins who are fighting for their freedom.

It was the most Christian thing I could think to do and I’m not even Christian (though as a seminary student, I’m spending a lot of time with the teachings of Jesus and find them to be deeply inspirational).

So in the wake of those protests at the mall, at the airport, at the light rail, and not just here in the Twin Cities, but in 6-7 other cities around the country I’ve seen and heard that folks have some responses, some feelings about the tactics and the like.

This is what happens when Black Lives Matter shuts something down—a road, a state fair, a precinct, a highway, a city hall, a mall, an airport. People have feelings.

I share this reflection with you, because on Wednesday I found myself sitting in a number of different places physically and metaphorically. I had some feelings myself.

This concern about tactics is not unfamiliar to me.

You see, when I showed up at the mall on Wednesday with my kids I did not know what we were going to do—what we would be asked to do, and there were moments during the action on Wednesday when I felt uncomfortable and uncertain and uneasy. Particularly when we were doing things that were directly confronting the authorities and power.

I felt uncomfortable when we confronted the police officers blocking us from walking up from the light rail station into airport. I felt uncomfortable when we took over the intersection across the light rail lines, when it became clear that we were going to occupy that intersection, and prevent trains from running. I felt uncomfortable, uncertain, and uneasy because what we were doing was very clearly confronting authority, and my tendency is to not confront authority. Confronting state power is sometimes scary for me.

Those feelings of discomfort and tension in confrontation were all telling me at a visceral level that what we were doing was wrong, and dangerous, and that I needed to stop.

But I didn’t stop. I stayed in there, and stood with Black Lives Matter and the hundreds of other people who were there with us—it is always easier to stand with when you are not standing alone.

Later that evening, a friend reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s words from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963”:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I returned to those words Wednesday evening and felt convicted.

I felt convicted because in his writing I saw aspects of myself. In my discomfort and my dis-ease, in my tension, I saw my capacity, tendency even, to paternalistically believe that I could set the timetable or the tactics for another person’s freedom. Earlier that day, when it became clear to me what we were going to do, there was a part of me that felt “not today, don’t disrupt traffic today.” A part of me wished for a more convenient season.

It isn’t easy for me to share this. But I do because I believe it’s important that we think about where we stand. I certainly am. Some of you may be as well.

I am not black. I cannot know what it is to live as a black person in this society. But my brownness has taught me enough to know that the racism that I experience—heightened right now in the climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment, (thank you very much Donald Trump), the racism that I experience is minor compared to the racism experienced by black folks in this country.

As such I know that my understanding is woefully inadequate and incomplete. Any criticism I may have about tactics is more my own internalized racism and fear than it is about anything else. As King notes, I cannot and must not set the timetable for another person’s freedom. It is simply not something that I can do.

I also know that solidarity is our only hope for creating the world I want my kids and grandkids to live in; solidarity with each other, with this planet, with the whole beautiful catastrophe.

What that means for me is that when Black Lives Matter, or any other group that is self directing its efforts toward liberation, puts out a call for support—a call to stand with them, to put my time and energy to work to work of freedom—I show up, I stand with, and I follow directions; uncomfortable, uncertain, and uneasy as I may be in the moment.

Those opportunities are opportunities for me to feel the practices that we’ve been taught to live out—the stories of “this isn’t my fight, I’m not involved” or “this isn’t the right way,” or “wait for a better time,” “use nicer tactics,” “don’t get in the way.”

I’ve internalized all those stories. Those practices are a part of me. And, what I’ve been reflecting on since Wednesday is how the tension and unease that I felt in those moments of confrontation was a small price to pay for what we did on Wednesday, which was to take one more step toward freedom.

Arif Mamdani is pursuing his Master of Divinity Degree at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He is also an Associate Director at the Kaleo Center for Faith, Justice & Social Transformation. Arif serves on the boards of the the Church of the Larger Fellowship (clfuu.org), and the Movement Strategy Center (movementstrategy.org). He lives in St. Paul, MN, with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.