Get Out of the Way

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Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon, has a reputation of being one of the “more liberal” Quaker meetings. This is Portland, after all. There’s plenty of action and donations of money in the meeting around climate change, immigrant rights, and many other worthy social-justice causes. But when it comes to action around supporting Black Lives, there seems to be a hesitancy.

Much discernment was needed before the meeting could display a Black Lives Matter poster back in 2015, which revealed a general a lack of understanding around the sentiment, “Black Lives Matter.” We formed the group Friends for Racial Justice in response. Some events this group sponsors are well attended, some not. And yet . . . sometimes when we announce an upcoming event, a voice from the corner says, “Ugh! Why do we have to keep talking about racial justice?” This from one of the “more liberal” quaker meetings!

Since the death of George Floyd, many white people have shown more sympathy for black lives. Many white people have read some books. And even more white people have gone to some of our famous protests in Portland. Recently, some of us have held a (mostly) silent protest in front of a Police Building. This silent protest is during the day, on a Sunday, when there is no one else on the street. Usually, a police officer is stationed out front. Sometimes they wave a friendly greeting.

A difference of opinion has started to divide this group, which is not surprising, considering our entire country is splintering worse than Mickey Mouse’s broom. A suggestion of a banner proclaiming, “Defund the police, invest in Black and Brown communities,” came up. The question was asked: Is there anyone opposed to this banner and would anyone like to help? Even though many white folks believe in following the lead of Black and Brown people in this movement, the response to this proposal varied among white Quakers from fear and upset over the word “defund,” to calling the word “violent,” “divisive,” and “inflammatory.” Some white folks wanted to use an alternative word, something “more positive.” Some white folks claimed that if we have to explain it, then we shouldn’t use it. Some white people claimed the word was “inaccurate” and “too political.”

These same white people were saying they had sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement and wanted to do their part to help, but this line of discussion, which expressed disgust for the one simple word “defund,” showed the centering of whiteness more than the support of Black Lives. Basically, these white folks were saying that the word “defund” was just plain wrong and it made white people mad. Next, they went into an entire line of reasoning around the feelings and needs of white people. It turned out that these white people actually seemed to not understand the need for a Black Lives Matter movement. Evan as they watched George Floyd die and as they began to feel something shift within themselves, to come to a place of witness of the pain of Black folks, there was the still small voice within them that said, “But we need police to protect us. We need police to protect our property from . . . those people.”

My question is this: What do you think police are for? Police has a history directly traced back to slave patrols. This fear from white people of not having police feels to many black folks like fear directed toward themselves as black people and the need to control them through police.

The resistance of white people to Black folks declaring the terms of their own freedom is not surprising. And it’s tempting for Black folks to walk away, cuz after all, y’all white people are not helping. Seriously, declaring who are the “good” protestors and who are the “bad” protestors, telling us which words we can use and which ones we can’t, asking accusingly, “Why are they looting?” Just stop, OK?

Just stop. These words show that not only have white folks not done their work, but that really, they don’t care. Yeah, I said it. Cuz if you are not with us, if you are not behind Black and Brown folks’ self-determined path to liberation, if you are dismissing our words and deeds, then you are not with us. You are blocking the path. So get the hell out of the way. We have work to do.

Lori Patterson is a fiber artist who attends Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).

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