“Greet the people next to you. That’s how we’re going to dismantle this racist system.” This is how our protest started. For those who have been wondering what it means to march for #shutitdown or #blacklivesmatter or other phrases without hashtags; for those who see the description “largely peaceful”–this is what “largely peaceful” means. It means you begin by finding a friend and promising to lookout for their well-being for the next three hours.
I’m going to give you the takeaway up front: these marches are a theological statement. The church–especially the black church–is so woven into these marches that they are a theological act. When we talk about “creative nonviolence,” it’s not sitting in an office writing books and praying. It’s getting into the streets and introducing yourself to a stranger.
We marched for an hour, snaking up and down the commercial and financial district, ballooning from about 75 people to 300 (and this was only one of at least three marches in Chicago on Sunday). When we started, the police escort was almost as big as the protest. Cop cars trailed us, along with two paddywagons. It felt absurd–but violence is always absurd when faced with creative nonviolence. The bicycle cops blocked us from crossing streets where we might disrupt traffic or Christmas shoppers. We stayed on sidewalks, surging across crosswalks but creating only a couple minutes’ delay for waiting cars. We marched more or less in circles for 45 minutes, ending at our starting place. Then the front of the march stalled, blocking the north/south crosswalk, deciding where to go. They turned north, blocking both the north/south and east/west crosswalk. Our police entourage followed.
Then the marchers veered suddenly, going south. We were in the street now! Our police escort was gone! The police regrouped quickly. It was less than a block before they pushed us back onto the sidewalk, threatening arrest. The police cars turned onto the block, shutting us in. Marchers retreated to the sidewalk, shouting “Now who’s blocking traffic?”
This is the miracle of nonviolence. Those who wield force accuse nonviolence of being “disorderly” and “disruptive.” But it is violence which disrupts God’s work in the world. The marchers worked patiently, creatively, until they exposed the logic of violence–show us why you are allowed to block traffic to arrest people, and we are not allowed to block traffic in a gathering where we great each other, chant, and sing. The only difference between this march and a block party is that we come from different blocks.
Not all police are violent; not all police are bigots. But they are the enforcers of an order that is at odds with God’s work. This has always been the Anabaptist conviction and this is why for years Anabaptists never sought employment in law enforcement. They enforce an order that criminalizes homelessness and people of color; they protect those in power. As marchers, we demanded that they radically reorient their work toward justice.
Another example. After a handful of arrests (as best as I could see, only three or four, all voluntary), we continued marching. We walked south to the District 1 Chicago Police Station. A line of police–in addition to our entourage–blocked the entrance. The organizer, Nicole–a young, slim black woman in her 20’s who had first instructed us to greet each other–gestured for silence. She spoke to the police officers. She spoke about the good police officers–the ones who do good work, who deescalate situations, who dismantle racist assumptions–she said: we believe you. we see you. we’re calling you to do better. out the bad officers, the ones who are power tripping on their immunity. clean up your own community. earn our trust back. She spoke for a long time. The police line on either side of us was stony.
When she finished speaking, she turned back to us and gestured for us to sit. We did–several hundred of us on the 6 o’clock sidewalk in freezing temperatures. In silence. “We’re gonna sit here for a while,” Nicole said. “We’re just gonna sit with you.” That silence felt long, too.
It broke when a young black man with a rich tenor began to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” The crowd took up the song, wavering after the first line as those who didn’t remember it tried to recall the words. But we finished, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
In that holy moment, Nicole drew us to stand up. We began to walk away. Now a new song began, “This Little Light of Mine.” Then “We Shall Overcome.”
And this, too, is theology. There was no Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s without the church. And now? The church is here, in short bursts. But the church’s influence has faded in the last 50 years. The church has lost its relevance.
If the church is to prove its relevance, it has to stay in the streets. Protestors have to keep singing “Amazing Grace” as they also sing
“Back up, back up
we want freedom, freedom
all these racist-ass cops
we don’t need ’em, need ’em.”
The white church needs to teach its congregations to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Needs to teach its members that theology doesn’t happen in books, it happens in streets. Take Christ to the streets, where he began his ministry 2000 years ago, to back alleys where God was first incarnate.
As we marched past fancy downtown apartments, we paused on residential blocks to shout “Out of your homes and into the streets, out of your homes and into the streets!” How often was Christ in private residences? Most of his ministry was in the streets, with those who were left out in the streets. With the blind and the sick and those who were too unclean to come inside.
It’s a challenge to all of us: “Out of your homes and into the streets.”