I was on my way out the door last Sunday when another First Parish member called to say that First Parish’s Black Lives Matter banner had been vandalized.
When I got there I discovered that someone had painted over the word “Black” with white paint. They had bent and broken the metal banner frame. And they had stabbed a pair of scissors into the earth – a little bizarrely, since they had not used the scissors to cut the banner or its ties.
Our minister, Marta Flanagan, came out to see the banner right before the service, her robe blowing behind her in the wind. Her plan was to preach on Harper Lee’s two books, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, and she wove the news of the banner vandalism into her sermon.
A member of our congregation has been making Black Lives Matter buttons, which we have been making available in a low-key way. By coincidence he had brought a bag full of new buttons just that morning, so after the service we asked people whether they would like to wear a Black Lives Matter button. Most people responded eagerly, clearly glad to have some way to respond to what had happened. Two people averted their eyes.
Since then there have been a lot of emails. Some pained by the hostility implicit in this act. Some gracious and sympathetic. Some angry and hostile.
I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” phrase.
To those who argue that saying Black Lives Matter is not sufficient to address the problems of racism in our country – of course you’re right. But that’s also beside the point.
I’m troubled when people seem to translate Black Lives Matter as Black Deaths Matter. Wrongful deaths are wrong, of course. But I care more about the living than the dead.
I’m also troubled when people assume that Black Lives Matter is a statement just about police.
Police carry guns and are authorized to use force in the name of the state, so their bad decisions are more likely to be lethal. And some – not all – police departments have encouraged a macho culture that leads to unnecessary belligerence and too many bad decisions. That culture needs to change.
But very often police are asked to deal with problems that the rest of us don’t want to deal with. Mental illness and the paucity of good mental health care. The emptiness of the heart that leads to substance abuse, and the heartache that ensues. Schools that focus more on punishment than learning. Entrenched poverty. Entrenched unemployment, creating a lack of structure and purpose as well as material want. Disappointed dreams and expectations. These deep problems lie behind many police calls, and the police have only a limited ability to deal with them.
In ancient times, a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem would confess the sins of the people over the head of a goat and then drive it into the wilderness, carrying the people’s sins with it.
When we scapegoat an officer who dealt poorly with a tough situation, we attempt to do much the same thing.
We live in a punishing society that responds to harm by trying to inflict pain and expel the wrongdoer. But the reality is inflicting pain does not heal the harm.
Yes, police training should include techniques for de-escalating conflict, treating people compassionately while maintaining social order, and restorative justice. Sometimes it does – including here in Arlington. But good policing alone cannot possibly solve the spiritual and material problems rooted in racism – in the belief that some people are more valuable than others because of their appearance and/or ancestry.
I’m troubled above all by the way “all lives matter” has become a riposte rather than an affirmation.
I grew up believing that all lives matter. Black lives, white lives, Syrian lives. Native American lives, Bangladeshi lives, Ethiopian lives. Chinese lives, Russian lives, Ukrainian lives. Iraqi lives, Afghan lives. Mexican lives, Honduran lives. LGBT and heterosexual lives too.
But that’s not what I hear when people respond to Black Lives Matter by saying that all lives matter. Or by painting out the word “Black” on a banner.
The reality is that people with darker skins are more likely to be looked at with suspicion, subjected to punishment, and considered outside the “we” of majority concern. Too often black Americans receive the message that their hurt, their suffering, doesn’t matter.
White Americans hurt too. Some of us suffer from financial and material want. All of us are vulnerable to illness, loneliness, death, grief, and heartache. That’s all true. But we don’t have the added burden of knowing that people who look like us are often treated poorly, and wondering how much the color of our skin has contributed to life’s many disappointments.
I believe that racism and racial inequalities have persisted in this country in part because too many people feel that black people’s suffering is somehow less important, less suffering.
And that is why I think it is important to affirm that Black Lives Matter.
When I was a child there was a popular saying that “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” I see Black Lives Matter banners and buttons and such as one step in a journey of a thousand miles – a journey that many of us are on, experimenting with different approaches and finding our way, seeking a goal that we don’t know how to find but we know in our hearts is worth reaching for.
Lori Kenschaft is the Clerk of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist and coordinator of First Parish’s Mass Incarceration Working Group. She has a Masters of Theological Studies and a Ph.D. in American Studies, and recently co-authored Gender Inequality in Our Changing World: A Comparative Approach (Routledge, 2015).
The views expressed in this blog are those of Lori Kenschaft personally, not as a representative of any organization. Pictures by Lori Kenschaft.