by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff
As I write, the country has begun leaning into a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, against Muslims, against immigrants. In the thick of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, speakers there have made numerous appeals regarding the need for safety and for more armed citizens, more barriers between the US and Mexico, more action to block refugees from war-torn countries from entering the country.
The displays of hyper-masculine braggadocio, nationalistic xenophobia and outrageous farce at the Convention jangle my nerves. I also find them terrifying -- We are no longer in the realm of dog-whistle politics, but have made the leap into shameless, bold-faced racism and white supremacy that will live on, regardless of who wins the presidential election.
Many of us were already in shock from the murders by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., when an attack on police in Dallas left five officers dead. Our UUA Southern Region Presidents' Convocation went forward there, amid tears of grief, pain and disbelief. In a little more than a week, three more officers would be killed in the line of duty in Baton Rouge, not far from our Unitarian Universalist Church there, where Sunday services were in progress.
There is a campaign afoot to lay responsibility for the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge at the feet of Black Lives Matter and related organizations. Some media outlets and politicians seek to portray BLM as a hate group, not dissimilar from the way some Christians want to portray Unitarian Universalism as a satanic cult. It would be laughable, if it were not the case that actual lives are in danger at the intersection of ignorance and state-sanctioned violence.
So let me tell you about my experience of Black Lives Matter as a Unitarian Universalist minister, starting from a year ago this weekend.
Backed by my colleagues both on the Southern Region Congregational Life Staff and in the Multicultural Growth and Witness Office of our Unitarian Universalist Association, I took part in the Movement for Black Lives Convening (M4BL) in Cleveland, along with 20 other Black Unitarian Universalists. There were some 1200 Black people gathered at Cleveland State University that steamy last weekend in July from all over the continent with a few from abroad. We were there to support one another in the struggle against lethal police violence, and to also affirm the apparently radical proposition that Black Lives Matter as much as any other lives.
During the course of that weekend, I reached out to as many of the Black UUs present as I could to coordinate times for us to meet together. That wound up being dinner that Friday evening, lunch Saturday and breakfast Sunday. In particular, with Leslie MacFadyen, Lena K. Gardner and a handful of others at the table Saturday and Sunday, we began to form the foundation for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and Black Lives of UU. As we talked, stories emerged of how challenging it was for Black people in local congregations, so much so that several found it difficult to attend worship services regularly. We realized that we needed explicitly Black spaces within our faith, both in-person as well as through social media and electronic communication, where we could gather, reflect, organize and love one another.
It's been a whirlwind of a year, especially for the five of us who make up the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective: Lena, Leslie, Kenny Wiley, Elandria Williams and me. From our commitment to Black folks inside our Association and beyond, we have created Facebook groups, issued statements, organized fund-raising campaigns, worked collaboratively with partner congregations and with our UUA staff, developed a track of workshops for GA, offered worship at GA, arranged for greater Black presence at GA, educated Unitarian Universalist in general about the Movement for Black Lives and much more. All of this started from gatherings around simple meals twelve months ago ... learn more at our website blacklivesuu.com.
What I want to lift up now though is what happened at the end of M4BL. I was already at the airport when the attendees poured out of the auditorium, uplifted by the closing ceremonies. On the street in front of them, the Cleveland police were about to take a disoriented black youth into custody. The group -- full of powerful activists, organizers, and protestors -- created a tight circle around the officers and demanded the release of the young person. Some of them were pepper-sprayed. Elandria, who was part of the Safety Team for the event, was in the thick of it all and effectively negotiated for the release of the young person into his mother's custody. All of that got accomplished without a gun, or a knife or any threat to the safety of the police whatsoever. As I followed the reports on social media from the airport, I began to cry -- I was so moved by the bravery, strength and discipline of those mostly 20- and 30-something Black people.
That's the epitome of what Black Lives Matter is all about -- Disciplined, effective resistance to random, state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the context of racism and white supremacy, with an over-arching commitment to the love, joy, freedom and thriving of Black people everywhere.
I am forever grateful to be part of the Southern Region Congregational Life Staff Group, which prioritizes Black Lives Matter as a central to its work. I am grateful for our larger Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations and employees who are also making new ways of being possible, based on taking our UU principles to heart and out into the streets. And I am grateful for the great web of existence that holds and connects us all, in spite of the many fears that would keep us afraid. In this time of great turmoil, I give thanks for comrades and partners in the struggle, who also seek justice and freedom for everyone.
I conclude with Assata Shakur's chant, which is often said, then shouted, then yelled at the end of Black Lives Matter gatherings:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains
May it be so.