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When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 

 

*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 

 

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On Appearing in the Senate Intel Report

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.

IslamophobiaFirst 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.

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Photo by Burnell McCray

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.

Jesus the Criminal

Sitting here at the Waller County Jail in hour 44 of the 64 that Sandra Bland spent here before news of her death broke on July 13; making sure her voice is heard here throughout the duration. Sitting here a week after the indefensible killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; as well as a week after the targeted shooting of five Dallas police officers (Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Sgt. Michael Smith, DART Officer Brent Thompson, and Officer Patrick Zamarripa). Sitting here after Breitbart published a piece yesterday falsely claiming that the Dallas shooter was a part of protests here at the Waller County Jail. Sitting here thinking about Jesus. 

Thoughts on Jesus:

• He was born as minority ethnicity within an oppressive Empire.

• He was arrested when religious leaders and the government conspired together to meet their common goals of order and control.

• The government and religious leaders engaged in character assassination, and the majority of people turned on him leaving him with only a handful of supporters.

• He was falsely convicted, and chose to remain silent and plead the 5th.

• He was unable to appeal his conviction because of his ethnicity and the fact that he was not a citizen of the Empire; whereas Paul was later able to appeal the decision all the way to Rome because of his citizenship. 

• After his conviction, the enforcers of the law took him to their headquarters and stripped him and beat him up, making his head and body bleed.

• In the moment of his death, they tried to break his pride and show him his place by putting a mocking sign over his head. 

• He was executed by the Empire/State and died slowly while the world watched; people have replayed it repeatedly over and over ever since. Since they did not have cameras at the time, people have used their own bodies to act it out in Passion plays.

Maybe the question we should be asking is not so much “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather “What Would We Be Doing When Jesus Died?” Currently, in a time removed by 2,000 years, you may believe that Jesus was the perfect Lamb of God; but back then, he would have been just another oppressed man of non-European decent who the State called a criminal and the Religious leaders called a sinner. 

The one we call perfect was rejected as a criminal in his day.

If there were televisions in that day, they would have told you: 

• Jesus frequented prostitutes.

• Jesus was homeless.

• Jesus had verbally attacked church leadership.

• The followers of Jesus claimed he could perform magical feats.

• Jesus was prone to psychotic breaks and had actually waved around a weapon in a public place and destroyed property.

• Jesus mom got pregnant with him when she was not married.

• Jesus family was shiftless and moved around a lot when he was young.

• Jesus was delusional and claimed he was a god.

• Jesus associated with known criminals.

• Jesus had criminal connections in his family, as his cousin John had previously been executed by the State.

• Jesus posed a threat to the stability of the nation.

Now, answer honestly: What would you do? Where would you stand? Is that where you are standing now?

If you still find yourself wanting to hold onto this Jesus, can you not make room for the grief and outrage of those who died in similar ways?

Our theology teaches there was a purpose in the death of Jesus; it does not teach it was right and just to kill him. 

This is why it is an act of faith when I say: #BlackLivesMatter

How Sandra Bland Changed My Life

On August 25, I stood in front of the Prairie View City Council and I said that I was there because Sandra Bland had changed my life.

Despite the fact that I never met Sandra Bland, and sadly will never get to meet her, it was true. Assuredly, she had help: her friends and family helped to put her life in context, while my friends and family helped keep my life in context.

When I saw pictures of her goofing off with her four sisters, it pierced my heart, thinking of my own sisters who are everything to me. When I saw the joy in her eyes in pictures with her nieces and nephews, I recognized the pure delight of getting to be the fun, young aunt who is free to adore and be adored by children who you have a responsibility to without having the full responsibility for them. When I saw pictures of Sandra with her mother, I recognized the fulfillment of figuring out how to have an adult relationship with the woman who once wiped your nose and changed your diapers. When I saw her sign “All white people are not against us,” I knew that Sandra Bland was wise enough to recognize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not about hating white people, it is about loving black people; and the person who believes the former reveals their struggle to do the latter.

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Unlike many people who find themselves in the spotlight, Sandra Bland never had an opportunity to go back over her life and edit it for public consumption. By the time she found herself in the limelight, she was no longer with us. The story she had left behind of her life, both the pain and the beauty, would have to stand on its own.

Yet, stand it does. It stands as the testimony of a bold and loving woman, who was in a moment of emergence. A woman who stood for love. A woman discovering new levels of strength and courage within herself in moments of struggle. A woman who would take a vocal stand against excessive force by police, only to find herself on the receiving end of it. A woman doing the hard work to figure out how to use her voice in a culture that often silences women, and particularly African American women.

In the end, it was that voice that she used to change my life:

“I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help.”

My friend Jeremyah brought her words to my attention the day after her death when he told me that the news was saying a friend from school hung herself in jail. The next morning, I asked if there were any updates and he told me his friends believed it couldn’t be true and were asking “What happened to Sandra Bland?” He had asked me to do something about it, and I wrestled all day. By the time I left Bible Study that night, I was visibly distressed; so my friend Rhys, who had also gone to Prairie View, asked what I wanted to do it about it. I said I did not know, but we had to do something physical with our feet and not just our tweets. He suggested we go to the jail and take one of the nine candles we had lit the week before for the victims of the Charleston shooting and light one for Sandra. We grabbed our friend Nina, and headed out into the darkness. We arrived around 10:00 pm, just in time to see a Texas Ranger load his rifle back into their vehicle and drove away. We pulled in and lit the candle. When someone blew it out, I lit it again while Rhys anointed the step with oil.

The next day we still heard her words, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help,” and we went back again. Others joined us and the vigil still continues. Over the last 49 days of going to the Waller County Jail, we have turned consistently to the scriptures, prayer and Sandra Bland’s “Sandy Speaks” videos to keep our conviction strong.

In doing so there are three life changing lessons for which I would like to thank Sandra Bland.

First, Sandra Band taught me that you can’t truly fight for justice for others if you won’t fight for it for yourself. When Sandra Bland came back to Texas to work at her alma mater, she told her mother, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas and end social injustice in the South.” She very quickly had the opportunity to test her resolve when she found herself pulled over by an officer who escalated the situation by making unnecessary demands. Many people have said she should have just stayed quiet and stayed alive. Yet, the fact that African Americans in this nation are expected to bow the head and keep quiet to stay alive, systemic injustices such as racial profiling, was exactly the situation she felt called to end. How could she be silent about her rights and remain consistent? Someday, someone has to say no. To stand with Sandra, there were things I would have to say no to as well. This was explained to me very early on in this journey by a friend, the Rev. Kea Westbrook, who told me that if I was not strong enough to stand up for myself, I would not be strong enough to stand up with Sandra.

Second, Sandra Bland taught me that courage is contagious. Her belief in spreading love and courage was pervasive throughout her “Sandy Speaks” videos. She was constantly sharing what she was doing in her community to try to make a difference and encouraging others to do likewise. With every move she made she invited others into action. She promoted seeking justice as a community, but she was willing to take action even if she was all alone. When she was trying to get a petition signed while eating lunch in the food court, she was asked to leave by security. Her courage inspired another young man to speak up for her and then he was asked to leave as well. When he was sent home, Sandra Bland was worried he would lose his job so she committed to sit outside his work every day if he did: because Sandra Bland also had something to teach us about solidarity. Sandra was willing to do the bold and right thing, even if she was the only one doing it. Her courage commanded a response from others. Her courage commands our response now.

Third, Sandra Bland taught me that if your faith is central to who you are, you cannot be wholly present in the world if you do not talk about it. In her first video she pauses near the end to think about whether she wants to continue with what she has begun to say because it involves her faith. She finally continues, stating that she is going to talk about God in her videos because it is God that has opened her eyes and given her this calling to seek justice. I identify so strongly with that pause. It is a moment I have experienced many times in my life, while working to build solidarity between those who seek justice within the church and those who seek justice but will not go near a church. When those seeking to end injustice through a faith motivation come into contact with those seeking to end the same injustice, while also articulating that the church has had a hand in creating it, it can be tense. It is a difficult space in which to stand. I have rarely had the courage to make the choice Sandra Bland did, not to leave her faith in her pocket when putting her cards on the table. What I very quickly realized in keeping vigil for Sandra Bland was that if my faith is the source of my courage, conviction and motivation in this struggle, then I am weaker without it. I am weaker if I do not talk about it. I am only partly me, and I need every bit of me to keep going in this journey. Every last bit.

So, like Sandra Bland, I’m bringing all of me to the table. Strength. Courage. Faith.