Black Lives Still Matter
A Letter, a Reflection, and a Challenge
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 17, 2016
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” April 4, 1967
King called for a “radical revolution of values if our country was to survive. He warned against the ‘giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. I consider the way things are playing out today in our country and shudder at his prophetic warning. In the spirit of his words then, I offer my sermon today in three parts: as a letter, a reflection, and a challenge.
Part I – A Letter:
To the offices of
Police Chief, Joseph T. Zikuski (Binghamton)
Police Chief, Brent G. Dodge (Johnson City)
Police Chief, Michael R. Cox (Endicott)
Police Chief, John A. Butler (Vestal)
Sheriff, David E. Harder (Broome County)
I am writing to the police departments of Binghamton, Johnson City, Endicott, Vestal, and Broome County to be in better relationship with the law enforcement officers in my area.
I have been an active participant in the Black Lives Matter movement, our Unitarian Universalist congregation has recently hung a Black Lives Matter banner on the front of our building, and this past fall we hosted a panel “Beyond Ferguson.” We, as a faith community in Binghamton, are committed to being in the midst of the national conversation about racism. One of the key ways to be involved in a global or national issue is to participate in local actions and to build relationships locally.
Our congregation is predominantly white. We come into this conversation as allies. As a congregation we have been talking among ourselves about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. We hosted a series of community conversations last winter. One potential partner missing from those community conversations a year ago is the voice of law enforcement. As the host but not the organizer, it was not my place to change the agenda of those gatherings. The efforts of those gatherings were to establish and build relationships in the community with residents, students, activists, and particularly with and among people of color.
Now, I would like to build a bridge with law enforcement in my town to better understand the full scope of the situation. I am aware that the Black Lives Matter movement is not received well by some people in law enforcement. I am aware that some people perceive it as anti-cop. I continue to challenge that perception every opportunity I can. As a leader in the community, I am using my voice to cast the vision of unity rather than division.
If you are interested in knowing what I say to the people in my congregation, here is a link to a sermon I preached back at the beginning of 2015 on racism http://uubinghamton.org/2015/01/selma-to-ferguson/ and here is an excerpt of a recent column I wrote for our congregational newsletter.
When I say Black Lives Matter there are some who want to respond saying All Lives Matter. And initially, there was a point in the movement when the two phrases were complimentary and spoken together. But all too quickly, the phrase All Lives Matter became a counterpoint intended to refute the uncomfortable point behind the phrase Black Lives Matter. We have not hung an All Lives Matter banner on our church because that phrase has become a watered-down way of avoiding the hard work of dealing with the police brutality directed at black people in our country. Our Unitarian Universalist theology clearly affirms that all lives matter. I have no disagreement on that point. But for justice work we often need to take a stand, to focus our perspective and single out a community or an issue that needs attention. Thus: Black Lives Matter.
Sometimes when I say Black Lives Matter there are people who respond saying Transgender Lives Matter or Native American Lives Matter. The people saying these things make a very good point. And they are correct – Black people are not the only minority group being brutalized and murdered. My only response to this is to say that at this moment in time in our culture there is a movement that has momentum with a chance to make a difference. If the Black Lives Matter movement has a positive impact on our justice system, it will help all people. The claim is not that Black Lives Matter more … just that they matter, too.
Blue Lives Matter or Cops Lives Matter is a response that gives me great difficulty. I understand the part about wanting to support police officers. Instead of trying to avoid or tone down the conversation (as All Lives Matter can sometimes do) or nuance and expand the conversation (as the other responses can sometimes do), to say Cops Lives Matter is to deny the issue even exists. In fact, police officer fatalities have been declining for decades. In 2013 nationally there were 107 officers killed in the line of duty – the lowest number of officer fatalities since before I was born. Police officers have a very dangerous job. But it is false to say there is a trend or pattern of black citizens killing cops in the name of Black Lives Matter. Of course the lives of police officers matter. And of course the majority of police officers are good people. Yet the system is obviously broken. Police Officers take an oath to protect and to serve. They should be held to a higher standard in terms of the use of violence and deadly force. Black Lives Matter is not anti-cop. It is against the too-frequent use of deadly force and brutality against people of color.
This is why we have posted a Black Lives Matter banner. Because we “affirm and promote” that all lives matter, we raise a banner proclaiming Black Lives Matter. And by all means, let’s talk about it with each other and out in the world around us.
Let me add, that as a clergy person, I understand my own version of being help to a higher standard. Over the past decade there has been a sea-change in the perspective of clergy and sexual abuse. The scandals proved to be a systemic problem that was initially dealt with as if there were merely ‘a few bad apples.’ The Catholics, and indeed all religious groups, had to learn to think systemically about the issue. I learned that while I was not personally connected to any clergy sexual misconduct, the public perspective of clergy had shifted. I am held to a higher standard in terms of the appropriate use of intimacy. People learned, after the clergy sex scandals, that their automatic trust in clergy is not always founded or wise.
In a parallel manner, all police officers now need to work to rebuild trust that they most likely have not personally broken. I would like to be part of that rebuilding of trust. In that spirit, I ask for two things.
First, I invite you to have coffee with me to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, my congregation, your work, and how you see racism impacting our local area.
Second, I would appreciate the opportunity to do a ‘ride-along’ with any willing officer that I might better understand what your work is like. As a minister, I am often called on to be present in the difficult experiences people live through. I imagine this is true for police officers as well but in a very different way.
I appreciate your consideration of my perspective and I hope to learn more about your perspective. And further, I hope for us to find common ground in creating a more just and compassionate community for all people.
Yours in faith,
The Reverend Douglas A Taylor
Part II – A Reflection:
Last week I wore one of the Black Lives Matter buttons everywhere I went. Perhaps you’ve seen the buttons. A member of our congregation has continued to stock the basket with them. Some people have chosen to donate a dollar when they take one, but that was not the intention of the member who makes them available. Anyway, it was last week that I finally put one on. I was in Chicago for half that week and wandering around Binghamton the other half. The maître d’ at one Chicago restaurant commented appreciatively at my button the first day. But other than that, my Black Lives Matter button received no noticeable interest from people around me.
In truth I will admit I have been hesitant to wear the button. Why? That is exactly the question I have been asking myself. Initially my response has been that I am not a buttons or jewelry type of person. But I think it is more than that. There is a biography of William Ellery Channing title The Reluctant Radical. I’ve secretly identified with the sense of personality offered in that title. I have come to see that I push myself to be more of an activist because of my calling and my role as the minister of a progressive congregation. My calling compels me into actions I would otherwise forego.
Left to my own inclinations I would still care about racism and I would still take steps to educate myself about white privilege, micro-aggressions, Dr. King’s legacy of non-violent direct action, and Unitarian Universalism’s stance in favor of equality and multiculturalism. But it is my calling that spurs me to act, that spurs me, though perhaps reluctantly, to shift from being a non-racist to being an anti-racist.
A recent video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm5DWa2bpbs by Marlon James talks about the difference between being a non-racist: a person who does not agree with racism and does not behave as a racist, and an anti-racist: a person who takes active steps to oppose racism in our society. I am comfortably a non-racist. I find myself becoming more of an anti-racist as the years go by. And I don’t think that just wearing that button makes me an anti-racist, but my commitment to wear it despite my hesitation is an example of the shift from non-racist to anti-racist.
And earlier this month I discovered I have shifted enough to be asked to participate in a panel. I’ve been invited to speak up at our sister UU congregation up in Oneonta next week as they consider posting their own Black Lives Matter banner. I’m bringing Shawn Steketee with me; because a lay leader’s perspective may carry a different gravitas there. They want to know more about our process and the community response we’ve received.
I will tell them that so far, when I have talked specifically about my support for “Black Lives Matter” in sermons, newsletter column, and board reports, I have received little feedback and no pushback. Many of my colleagues talk about the responses they receive from with their congregations ranging from mild resistance to severe backlash. Posting the banner and hosting the forum last fall revealed nothing but support. I will tell them I do not interpret that to mean every person in our congregation is in full and unequivocal agreement on this point. Only that we have a general sense of support around here. And that we tried to heed the promptings of the spirit and of wise souls from our past that lived the values we espouse today.
Part III – A Challenge:
After the service, Libby Anderson, our worship associate for this Sunday, will lead a discussion about racism, Black Lives Matter, and what we as individuals and as a congregation can do to be more involved and make a difference. My challenge to you is to consider what it would like for you to make that sift from a non-racist to an anti-racist. What would mean for you? What would it mean for us as a congregation?
Perhaps you are an activist already in another aspect of the justice-making tapestry – caring for the environment, women’s issues, LGBTQ concerns, the refugee situation, poverty, or peace. What are the intersections of racism with these other justice issues? Or if this is not something for you personally, how can you support our congregation making an intentional shift from being non-racist to anti-racist?
Perhaps it is as simple as being in relationship with folks in a particular way. Seek out people whose perspective or life situation is different from your own. Learn to listen more deeply.
Perhaps you are only at the beginning stages of any shift that may or may not happen for your life on this issue. Your participation in the conversation is still of value. We are a whole community seeking justice and compassion and spirit together. Our goal is beloved community for all people; this work is one step on that journey.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for people to resist hate; to act not with violence but with love – an undeniable power of soul. In that sermon at Riverside Church one year before his death, when he spoke out as we heard this morning against the war in Vietnam, he warned against the triple threat of Racism, Extreme Materialism (or poverty) and Militarism. He called us to combat the chaos of our times with community. Let our community stand as one more living cell in the great body that shall one day be the Beloved Community for all humanity.
In a world without end, may it be so.