Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter Protests

It’s been a busy week. Two weeks ago my family joined the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Minneapolis. Last Saturday they protested at Mall of America (we did not attend) and police turned out in riot gear and shut down the mall for a peaceful protest.

On the same day two New York police officers were shot and killed by a mentally unstable man who had killed his girlfriend earlier in the day, killed himself after the incident, and has spouted revenge rhetoric, implying his actions were in response to recent police killings of black people.

Some of the response to that tragedy has blamed the protestors. Not just mild finger pointing, but incendiary language about “blood on your hands.” (Here’s perhaps the best response I’ve seen.)

So here I sit on Christmas Eve writing about it. The whole situation is pretty intense (especially as yet another case is breaking news).

Taking a Break

On Saturday, after watching the Mall of America protests from the comfort and safety of my couch, I saw the tragic news breaking from New York and saw the hateful comments begin. I saw the anger-fueled responses coming out of the Mall of America protest.

I also saw plenty of positive responses, calls for prayer and mourning for the killed officers and their families. But the negative always weighs much heavier.

It’d been a rough couple of weeks, having these conversations with my kids, watching my black son cry and fear for his own safety, trying to figure out how our family can respond in a way that’s appropriate, safe and constructive for everyone. It’s tough (and I’m not even black).

(A peaceful, family-friendly protest in Minneapolis that Milo wanted to go to turned out to be a good idea. He was uncharacteristically stoic through the whole thing, but I think it was good. Staying away from the Mall of America protest that included a real risk of arrest and ultimately included riot police lined up in front of the Build-a-Bear Workshop turned out to be a good move. As much as I wanted to be there, I don’t think my son was ready to see a line of helmeted riot police staring him down [is anybody ready for that?].)

I stepped back a bit from social media and news reports after Saturday, not able to stomach all the anger and hatred. I needed a few days away.

Coming Back

But speaking out about injustice is not something we can stop just because it gets hard. It’s not something I can remain quiet about.

I have an immense appreciation for the people who showed up at the Mall of America on Saturday. They risked arrest. There are still threats of criminal charges against the organizers.

Standing up for justice is never convenient or easy. There is risk. Sometimes it is illegal (the Mall of America is private property). But just because it’s illegal does not mean it’s wrong. The Boston Tea Party was illegal.

And I have reservations about whether protesting in a mall is the best strategy. The Mall of America is not Greensboro lunch counters in the 1960s. It’s indirect action at best and I think that’s a fair criticism.

But we’re also dealing with an issue that demands to be heard. Sometimes interrupting and inconveniencing people is the only way to be heard. And the intense negative response and completely racist reactions prove to me that we have work to do. I expect Internet comments to be nasty, but on this issue it’s unbelievably worse.

And for all that, there are incredible people helping. (What did Mr. Rogers say in a tragedy? Look for the people who are helping.) The images of clergy praying over the police and protesters are powerful.

New Civil Rights Movement

I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of a new civil rights movement. Maybe that’s overstating it, but the parallels are there. There is injustice happening. It’s harder to define and clearly delineate than Jim Crow, but it’s there nonetheless. A people are oppressed and they’re taking to the streets. They want change. They need change.

This issue has been building and brewing for years. It exploded with Ferguson and it continues to grow.

Black Lives Matter is about pointing out the injustice that black lives are gunned down and then dismissed, criminalized and written off. It’s about the fact that black people are more likely to be killed by police than whites, more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to end up in jail, and all while black people are committing less crime than whites.

Read a book like The New Jim Crow to see how this country has created a pipeline sending black people to prison. A black male (like my son) is more likely to go jail than to college.

That should be staggering and heart breaking.

But it’s not. They’re thugs, criminals and poor. So nobody cares.

Moving Forward

And it gets especially ugly when we start talking about cops. I’ve said again and again that I support cops. We get stuck in some place where we’re not allowed to support both police and protesters. That somehow questioning police is being anti-police, that calling for better from our officers or wanting more oversight or wanting fewer people dead is not supporting our officers.

Here’s the thing: I want everybody to be safe. I want police officers to go home to their families at the end of their shift. But I also want people on the street to be safe. I want a kid to be able to play at a playground with being gunned down.

I don’t think it’s anti-police to suggest that the terms of engagement or the authorization of deadly force should take more than two seconds so an officer can determine if that big scary guy who is actually a 12-year-old kid is a threat. I want police to deescalate a situation instead of making things worse (like we saw in St. Paul when white officers tazered a black man who hadn’t done anything wrong).

We should be able to have both.

We need better training for our police, that values life and doesn’t criminalize everyone. We need better oversight for our police. We need to be able to ask tough questions of our police forces and get real answers and legal justice. We need bodycams and real policies surrounding them to make sure we see what happens. And as we’ve known since Rodney King, video is not enough. We need legitimate policies to hold police accountable.

The greatest hope I have for all of this is watching how the Minneapolis Police Department has responded to protesters. They’ve supported them, issuing statements about the importance of the freedom of speech. I never thought I’d see police support protesters who march on to an Interstate to stop traffic. In doing so, they’re giving voice to the voiceless, keeping people safe and allowing the issues to be discussed.

On the flip side, we get Mall of America shutting itself down with riot police, refusing protesters and making a bigger mess of things. Mall of America was not an issue in this before last Saturday. Now they’ve made themselves an issue.

How are we going to respond and what are we going to tell our children?

Writing About All This

So there’s my rambling, poorly written blog post on Christmas Eve. Once upon a time I would have spend hours and hours reworking this and trying to say something poignant and powerful.

These days it’s the best I can do to get the words out of my head. The result is a mess. It’s not coherent. It’s not powerful. I’m sure it has holes in it. But it’s what in my heart. It’s what I’m struggling with. That’s always messy.

This blog has changed a lot over the years, and I sense that happening again.

What’s interesting to me is that when I broke my silence on this issue it was easier to do so on Twitter. Those 140-character rants were easier to get out there. My blog feels like a mopping up after the fact, a way to archive some of my thoughts for posterity (or something), while the real action happens on Twitter.

I’m navel-gazing here, but whatever.

Here are the Twitter posts just because I feel like they’re more engaging:

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