When I first saw myself in collar and Sandra Bland pin, front and center of a photo released by Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I laughed it off. “Well, I’m part of Russian propaganda, now,” I told my friend as we watched the Houston Astros crush Game 7 of the World Series.
When I took a closer look at what the photo was supposed to portray, however, I became concerned. The photo was not part of the propaganda the Russians had employed, rather it was photos the government had on file of a protest they were describing as one which the Russians planned in an attempt to bring together two volatile groups to fight in the street.
By the next morning, when I awakened to a clip of Jimmy Fallon talking about the thousands of people who had been manipulated to show up for contrasting pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim protests, I began to realize that this was more than a laughing matter. By mid-morning, when receiving messages from friends assuring me that they knew I wasn’t a servant of the Russian state, I was concerned.
Let me set a few things straight.
First of all, no one that I know holding “Peace on Earth” posters and boxes of Arm & Hammer baking soda had come to stand outside the Islamic Dawah Center because of a Facebook event planned by Russia under the premise of claiming to be “United Muslims of America.” Folks were there because of a Facebook event put together by a real, live, Lonestar College student who delivers pizza when he is not studying criminal justice and was wise enough to change from Papa John’s to Pizza Hut before their stocks tanked this week. The event was called “Stop Islamophobia: Defend the Muslim Community.”
And, yes, for those of you who may already have guessed, people brought boxes of Arm & Hammer so that we could make light of the fact that we were standing across the street from men and women with AK-47’s who actually had been brought there by Russia under it’s “Heart of Texas” disguise. We were “armed” too… with baking soda. You have to smile when you can.
What people need to know about the past few years, and let’s just call it decades, in Texas, is that, for some of us, confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee. Pre-election, that same group that was summoned by the Russians would show up on regular occasions with their assault rifles and vitriol. They did it in front of the NAACP; they did it in front of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League; they pretty much went anywhere that Hitler would have gone. They may have shown up on May 21, 2016 because the Russians summoned them, but the Russians did not create their racism; the Russians only created one more of many opportunities they had to exhibit it.
“…confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee…”
On September 26, 2016, several months after the event that Burr released photos of, and just shy of a month before the election of Donald Trump, a disgruntled attorney wearing a Nazi uniform showed up at a strip mall near the offices of the Anti-Defamation League and opened fire. He injured nine people before being shot by police.
What Senator Richard Burr failed to include in his comments is that standing up against white supremacy in Texas means looking death in the eye every day. To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth.
“To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth…”
So, let me tell you who was hanging out there across from those assault rifles on May 21, summoned not by the Russians, but by a pizza delivering college student who wanted Muslims to feel safe and loved in our city of Houston.
Instead of Jimmy Fallon’s thousands, there was probably more like a hundred of us. We were poets, and musicians, and grandmothers and children. There was a hilarious comedian, David, who got on the mic to do a set about flying while being a brown man to lighten the mood. There was a band that often showed up to these kinds of events with brass instruments and drums to keep the atmosphere light-hearted; you don’t want things to get too serious when you are staring at the barrel of a Nazi’s gun. There was a whole crew of Unitarian Universalists in their highly recognizable yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tshirts. I think it was Amir, one of the most influential poets in Houston, who brought the Arm & Hammer baking soda that cracked me up. There were folks from SURJ, and a sweet older woman who had brought the speaker that the comedian did his set on. I also used it to talk to the folks across the street about Jesus and our calling to love. Surprisingly, they actually stopped their taunts and listened, causing me to wonder if hearing a preacher speak against racism was that rare in their life that it merited curiosity.
We showed up there not to fight with white supremacists, in the street or otherwise; and to be clear, Russia had nothing to do with our presence. The reason we showed up was very simple: our Muslim brothers and sisters were going to be faced with armed men and we did not want them to do it alone. We placed our bodies, as we often did between hate and its object and we spoke love into the space.
In the year that followed, white supremacists became even bolder. With the election of Trump, they made every sidewalk a potential place to encounter their hate. The week after the election, while attending one of the poetry events that Amir curates at Avant Garden, a white man who works for “Hook it Up, Towing” in Houston, Texas began to heckle the Black woman who was performing poetry over the fence of the courtyard with the words, “White Power, Donald Trump Rules! White Power, Donald Trump Rules!” When we came outside the venue and I found him cowering in his black BMW with a license plate reading Euro Power, he threatened us by telling us he had a gun before speeding off into the night. He would continue to be an intimidating presence in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston.
In January, when Trump’s travel ban kept some of our college students trapped at Bush International Airport, I would be physically assaulted by William Fears, a white supremacist who now lies in custody at the Alachua County Jail for attempted homicide of protestors in Florida.
We do not stand against white supremacy because Russia compels us to do so. We stand against white supremacy because our consciences compel us not to leave hate unanswered.
Some took a stand for love because they were Muslim; or assumed to be, because when hate is looking for a place to land, it is not overly picky. Some because they know that violence against one is violence against all. For me, it was because some wise people once said these words:
“If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom.” -Fannie Lou Hamer (beaten to the brink of death by racist jailers, June 9th, 1963)
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (martyred by white supremacist, April 4, 1968)
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” -Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred by the Nazis, April 9, 1945)
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” -Jesus of Nazareth (martyred by the Roman Empire, AD 33)
To Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, let’s be careful about creating any appearance that we are equating racists with those who stand against them. History has taught us how easily it is for those who preach peace to find themselves under the heel of the boot.