“I don’t hate you,” he said, as his eyes locked with mine, pleading – or perhaps demanding – that I believe him. The young man, a representative from the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition had just taken to the microphone after a wait that had lasted hours, as residents and non-residents of Ferguson, Missouri vocalized their frustration with the City Council members sitting, removed from the people, upon the stage.
Dead center in the middle of the elevated dias was the mayor who had claimed shortly after Michael Brown’s shooting that Ferguson had no racism problem. To the mayor’s left, sat the only African American member, and non-white member, of the six person council. The latter gentleman was clearly torn after his timid approach towards the microphone in front of him had ended in a silent retreat back from it; this subtle movement of his neck eliciting a seemingly simultaneous outcry of betrayal from the hundreds of African American constituents gathered in the sanctuary of Greater Grace Church. One could only begin to imagine the turmoil within his soul, as the crowd, longing to hear his voice, longing to have him claim them as family, was met with silence from the stage. Two seats further down sat Councilwoman Kim Tihen, who, while a police officer in 2009, had first beaten an African American man, Henry Davis, and then charged him with destruction of property for bleeding on her uniform.
The young man who had just taken the microphone from its stand and slumped into the chair beside me was clearly exhausted from the hours of waiting in line as voice after voice vocalized their long felt frustrations and fears. Now it was his turn, and he had an important point to make. Many of those who had gone before him had made the argument that this was not a race issue, that this was a justice issue. One woman had said, “It is not about black and white to me anymore, it is about right and wrong.” Others had given passionate speeches about their desire to create a community that was just as safe for white children as for black children. The point had been made time and time again that this was not about race, it was about justice.
“You keep saying it’s not about race,” the young man had said to the crowd, “but it is about race. It is about black and white.” As he began to make his point, an important one, his head swung from left to right and with each rotation, the realization began to dawn on him that he was sitting next to a white woman. The reality seemed to be distracting him until he just stopped fighting it. The rotation of his head ceased completely, and his eyes locked with mine. We were having a conversation.
“I don’t hate you,” he said with the microphone still in his hand, “but this is about race, and we have to face that. But we don’t have to wait for them to do something about that,” he said vaguely waving at the stage where the City Council members sat without taking his eyes off mine. “I don’t mean to single you out,” he continued, “but you are here. And while it is not about me hating you, it is about race, and we have to do something. They’re not going to do it for us.”
For the first time in the entire night, you could have heard a pin drop. I tried to nod as reassuringly as I could. Trying to communicate to him that I agreed with all of his points. Yet tension hung in the air as if a paralyzing fog had filled the room; he had said what needed to be said, but it was a truth that – for a room full of people intent on demanding justice from the authority figures on the stage – was hard to hear.
He had named this truth: we cannot expect the people in power to fix things for us. We cannot afford to wait for them to come around. While it is not about a black man like him hating a white woman like me, it is still about race and it is still about the sin of racism, and it will get us nowhere to avoid that fact. We do have to name it. We do have to begin the hard work within our own hearts, minds and lives to fight against the power that it holds over us, our society, our children, and our futures.
He had named the hard truth that justice and peace are something we have to build with our own hands. True justice and true peace are so inextricably bound up with one another, that the false peace that accompanies injustice – otherwise known as oppression – will always leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those silenced by fear and the threat of violence.
As he walked back to his seat, silence fell over the room, the first and the last silence of the night. I wished I had done more than nod in agreement in a room so large that the gentle bobbing of my head may not have been understood as solidarity. I wished I had gotten up and hugged him, or at least shaken his hand. But the weight of his words, and the heaviness of the calling he had placed on us had left me immobilized to do anything but clap quietly in the middle of a silent room.
I found him afterwards, wading through the crowd of youth from nearly every ethnicity and background imaginable that made up the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition. Tapping him on the shoulder, I said, “I’m so sorry, I did not get to shake your hand in there.”
He blushed, still feeling awkward about singling me out. “I’m so sorry, it’s just that you were right there.”
“No, no. Don’t feel awkward. You had an important point to make and you made it very well. Thank you,” I said.
Walking back to the car with my friend Christian, the intensity of emotions that had been expressed throughout the evening almost made my knees buckle. My stomach was sick with how differently I had been treated by the police than my African American companion, who I loved like a sister, who I would do anything for. Each time I had been walked through security, I had received a warm welcome from the officers; while she had been detained, her body wanded and her bag searched. My head was pounding and my heart was beating… and breaking… and expanding.
We both knew how the news media had been portraying the quaint community of Ferguson, and how they would continue to portray the events of this evening. For me, however, the strongest and most consistent theme of the night could have been summarized with that young man’s first words to me, “I don’t hate you.” As person after person had approached the microphone, the message that they had was first that they were tired and fed up with being afraid in their own streets and in their own homes. Second, that they would not take it anymore. Third, that their anger was directed specifically against those that had perpetuated inequality, and that they recognized that there were countless white allies in the room.
The people of Ferguson are not fighting a “race war”, they are fighting a war against racism.
They are engaged in the very same struggle that wages in the other 91 municipalities of the St. Louis metropolitan region, the other 49 states and unincorporated territories of the United States, and the other 195 countries of the world. The struggle that though God has called us family, that has not stopped many from seeing brother as threat and committing fratricide as Cain did.
If we truly understand what it means to be the family of God, injustice becomes intolerable, and complacency becomes impossible.
When we see one another as family, we should have “real talk,” just like family does.
We should be able to lock eyes and say, “I don’t hate you. I need you to take action. Together we can change things.”