When There is No Peace: Where are the Saints? Reflections on visiting Ferguson.

Pam Nath has been living and working in New Orleans for the past seven years. She works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States and is a Roots of Justice trainer. She wrote this post for distribution to various Mennonite church publications as well as ROJ.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19

“…the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” W.E.B. DuBois

The voice of your brother's blood cries out.On August 21-24, I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, along with Ashana Bigard and Endesha Juakali, two community organizers from New Orleans. We visited the Canfield Green apartments where 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer and where beautiful memorials had been created. One sign referenced the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4: 8-10 – “And the Lord says: ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out.” And indeed, roses lined the street where traces of Michael’s blood were still evident, crying out for those with ears to hear.

We talked with a number of Ferguson residents, including a group camped out in a parking lot across from the police station and some youth camped in the “approved assembly area” in the parking lot of an old car dealership. Both of these groups said they planned to stay until Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown was indicted, and we brought them water and ice and fruit as a way of expressing our support and appreciation for their persistent call for justice.

That evening, we saw how W. Florissant Avenue was closed to all thru traffic beginning at its intersection with Chambers Road, a full mile away from the “approved assembly area.” Anyone who wanted to join the protest had to walk the mile in order to protest in a spot cut off from the rest of the public, where police imposed a “5 second rule” which required protestors to keep moving, breaking up any conversations among groups of protestors who began to gather together.

This was only the most recent attempt to contain and squash people’s cries for justice. Others who had been in Ferguson earlier reported even more intense police repression. Police shot tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed people who were in places they had every right to be including their own backyards, driveways and doorways. Purvi Shah of the Center for Constitutional Rights was part of a multigenerational crowd, including a number of children, into which police fired tear gas with no warning and a full three hours before the midnight curfew that had recently been established. Many first person stories of encounters with police oppression are available if you look for them. What we saw in Ferguson was a community under occupation by police. No one felt safer. The constant threat of violence by police toward protestors was palpable.

Protesters under sign "Approved Assembly Area"

The power of the state arrayed against the people of Ferguson reminds me of Desmond Tutu’s quote about an elephant with its foot on the tail of a mouse. Rev Tutu advised us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

What is extraordinary about Ferguson is not the killing of an unarmed black youth or the ways that institutions like the police, city government, etc. act in racist ways. That happens in New Orleans and it happens across the country. What is special and inspiring about Ferguson is that people’s thirst for justice is so strong there that they persist in protests despite the ways they are persecuted and threatened by the powerful militarized forces arrayed against them. Like Jesus, they are guided not by what is, but by their vision of what can and should be, and because of this, they, like Jesus, have found the courage to speak out in defiance of the powers of Empire, even to the point of risking their lives. They have done this now for two weeks. The evening of Friday, August 22, the thirteenth day after Michael was shot, we joined protestors who had left the approved assembly area and marched three miles to the Ferguson Police Department, to drums and chants like “We want justice!” “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Indict that cop.” Despite the fact that they were met at the police department by a line of armed police who stood in formation, blocking their access to the building, people gathered across the street and continued to cry out for justice through song, drumming and conversation. One young man said on the mic “we are not going to go over there. Let’s be clear that we have a right to go over there, but we are not going to exercise that right tonight.”

Ferguson Protesters sitting with fists in the air. Police line in the distance.
Photo by Abdul Aziz. Printed with permission.

I am reminded of a powerful sermon response that Vincent Harding delivered at the Eighth Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam in the summer of 1967:

The beggars are rising – they refuse to lie on the ground, crippled, crushed, begging. They are rising in Detroit and in Harlem…. and among them is Christ, the beggar of Nazareth. Do you see him? Do you hear him in the noise of all the voices? Do you realize how his spirit blasts all bastions of security, affluence, and greed? He is there. We can hide but he is there. We can continue paying our taxes for armies and bombs, and continue to cry: ‘What can we do?’ We can call on the police and the army. Fearfully we can hide behind law and order or behind the walls of our churches. Nevertheless, there is a spirit walking freely upon the earth. There is a spirit in search of freedom. This spirit will not perish…. We should know one thing – the insurrectionist beggars are not waiting any longer. Christ has promised to help all beggars and he keeps his promise. Let us not misunderstand. He is on the side of the beggars. On which side are we as Mennonites, Christians, and humans who love humanity? …. Are we surrounded by the barricades of a status quo where we pray that the storm may pass on so that we can continue living without disturbance? …. In this case, we must admit that we are…. missionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo, and seekers for peace without a cross.

Ferguson Protester holding a sign, police in background.
Picture by Abdul Aziz. Published with permission.

I saw good news in Ferguson. I encountered the Spirit of Truth and Love and Hope there. As someone who has committed my life to working against racism, sometimes I despair. The systems that we fight against are huge and trap us all, including white people, and it can be hard to believe that things can change. I have often clung to words like Arundhati Roy’s, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” In Ferguson, I heard the whispers of a new world, stirrings of the promise of Hebrews 12:27, that things will be shaken up so that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” The message of the Gospel is that there is a Force more powerful than Empire, more powerful than White Supremacy, and these protesters are preaching the Gospel! I saw in their faces not only righteous anger and determination, but also joy, because they have discovered that they are free because, like Jesus, they no longer are walking in the fear of death. In the face of that sort of Soul-Force, the power of empire fades into the background, like the police line in the beautiful pictures my friend Aziz took of the protesters while we were in Ferguson.

As people who believe in the gospel of peace, now is a time that presents an amazing opportunity for Mennonites to give flesh to our beliefs. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past when way too few Mennonites responded to Vincent Harding’s call to join in the civil rights movement. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Christians to whom Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In order to respond to the Gospel call for Justice coming out of Ferguson, we need to get clarity about what true peacemaking looks like. Peace is not refusing to be in open conflict or refusing to take sides in conflicts which exist. The situation in Ferguson doesn’t call for neutral mediators, bridge-builders between two sides who are in conflict, with us in the role of “peacemakers.” The “two sides” don’t have equal power, and they aren’t both right.

Like Desmond Tutu, historian and social justice worker Howard Zinn warned against neutrality in the face of oppressive power. In Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (a helpful read for those who wish not to conform to the world but instead to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” Romans 12:2), Zinn writes:

Why should we cherish “objectivity,” as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles.

Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.

When we choose neutrality and are unwilling to engage conflict, we are clinging to the false peace that Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Old Testament prophets warned against. “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,” Jeremiah warned, “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) We need to face the cracks in the very structure of our society, rather than just trying to cover up cracks in the walls, as Ezekiel warned: “…they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and … when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.” (Ezekiel 13:10)

What would working toward a positive peace in Ferguson look like? Chris Crass, a white antiracist organizer, gives us one vision:

So I’m seeing all these pictures from last night of adults trying to convince young Black people to leave the streets and only protest during the day in Ferguson, and this is being heralded by the police and mainstream media as “helping bring peace to Ferguson.” Where are the pictures of the white community leaders, the Federal government and the United Nations standing before the police in Ferguson telling them to put their guns down, go back to their homes, to take their frustrations out in constructive ways and to stop making us (the white community and the U.S. government) look like vicious, armed to the teeth, defenders of a white supremacist society without an ounce of regard for Black lives?

“Peace,” as defined by the state and mainstream media, in Ferguson, means a return to the, below the national radar, war against the Black community that is “normal life” in this town that the Mayor repeatedly affirms “has no racial conflict.” Conflict, we are to understand, only exists when oppressed people fight back, but when oppressors rule through racist laws, policies, culture, and violence, it’s “peace.” That is why ever since the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles in 1992, the slogan is “No Justice, No Peace.” The Black young people in Ferguson, bringing discipline, non-violence, and determination in the face of continued violence and media smearing, are heroes!

Roses line the street where Michael Brown was shot.
Roses line the street where Michael Brown was shot.

The positive peace that Jesus calls us to work toward requires the presence of justice. Here are just a few of my ideas about some ways to work for justice that holds the promise of real piece. I am excited to hear others’ ideas as well.

  • We can support the demands of groups organizing on the ground in Ferguson through letters to the editor, letters to your governmental representatives, conversations with friends, family, church and community members
  • Send money to support the organizing in Ferguson
  • Join or organize a solidarity march. See here for a campaign to have September 6 be a national day of community outreach and direct action.
  • Find out what is happening in your city/town to address racial inequities and support the work, particularly groups led by organizers of color
  • Sign this Color of Change petition calling on GoFundMe to cancel the fundraising site for Darren Wilson. Wilson is on paid leave and since he has not yet been charged, has no legal fees, yet donations to support him have exceeded donations to the Brown family.
  • Check out other suggestions for action in this toolkit put out by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a network of white antiracist organizers

Let us not repeat the mistakes of our past. Let us join in this movement for change, this movement for justice, this movement for real peace, this movement where we will experience Jesus walking next to us and the Truth shall set us Free.

Additional Recommended Readings

What’s Up With 68% of White People?

Graphic representing responses to the Pew poll.Pew Research has released a new poll showing that merely 37% of White people believe that the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raises important issues about race. (Compare to 80% of African Americans.) I know that there will always be some who “don’t see race” (supposedly), but a full two-thirds in what seems like such a clear case to me…. I’m not sure what to do with this. What is going on?

Since the poll doesn’t get into the reasons why people chose their answers, I’ve been trying to imagine why so many people say that Michael Brown’s killing doesn’t “raise important issues about race.” Maybe it’s these arguments:

  • The officer, Darren Wilson, didn’t use a racial expletive, therefore it didn’t have anything to do with race, or at least we don’t really know what was in his heart. (My response: For race to be an aspect of a situation, what is in anybody’s “heart” or intention is really superficial. Do the results of Wilson’s, or the Ferguson PD’s, actions reinforce white power and privilege? Is it even possible that Wilson’s racial socialization helped shape his actions? If so, then “Yes, the situation raises important issues about race.”)
  • Michael Brown was breaking the law (jaywalking) and the officer was only trying to enforce the law, but then things got out of hand, and Wilson made some poor decisions. But it’s a law enforcement issue, not a race issue. (My response: Do officers treat all jaywalkers the same? Why are you so sure that Wilson’s “poor decisions” (drawing his gun on a jaywalker) weren’t especially “poor” because of race?)
  • Michael Brown was a thief and a thug and had it coming, regardless of his race. (My response: It isn’t even true that he stole some smokes. Anyone who can’t bother to get simple facts correct can’t be expected to analyze racial dynamics with reason.)

If there is anything hopeful in the Pew poll, it’s that the 37% is higher than the 28% of White people who responded similarly regarding Trayvon Martin’s killing in a poll last summer. I guess that’s progress.

Favoritism (Privilege) is a Form of Discrimination

I came across an interesting article summarizing a study that found that “Favoritism, not hostility, causes most discrimination.” The main point of the findings is that social scientists have studied discrimination as hostility towards out-groups (negative discrimination) and have not spent much time studying the effects of favoritism towards in-groups (positive discrimination).

I find this helpful in bringing to light that the driving force of oppressions is usually not hostility toward other groups, but to favoritism one’s own group – i.e. white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc.

A co-author of the study, University of Washington psychologist Tony Greenwald, also made this point about the good intentions of decent people: “We can produce discrimination without having any intent to discriminate or any dislike for those who end up being disadvantaged by our behavior.”

However, as write-ups of very targeted studies do, one could be left with the notion that oppression is simply about individuals being extra-nice to people they feel affinity with, and occasionally mean people being hostile toward those they see as Others. The next piece of oppression is how those favoritisms and hostilities get encoded into policies and practices of governments and institutions. Institutions can continue discriminatory effects on people’s lives regardless of which individuals are involved. See our short video about the Iceberg of Racism for a quick explanation of white privilege and how it plays out in institutions.

The good news is that institutions can change and contribute life-giving, equitable effects among all communities.

Andrea Smith on Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism

Since 2000, colonialism has been an important part of the Damascus Road Antiracism Analysis Training. Andrea Smith brings her insightful analysis in this fine piece on her Decolonization blog, “The Colonialism That is Settled and the Colonialism That Never Happened.” With a historical analysis, she points to the interconnections between settler colonialism and anti-Black racism:

[S]ettler colonialism does not merely operate by racializing Native peoples, positioning them as racial minorities rather than as colonized nations, but also through domesticating Black struggle within the framework of anti-racist rather than anti-colonial struggle. Anti-Blackness is effectuated through the disappearance of colonialism in order to render Black peoples as the internal property of the United States, such that anti-Black struggle must be contained within a domesticated anti-racist framework that cannot challenge the settler state itself. Why, for example, is Martin Luther King always described as a civil rights leader rather than an anti-colonial organizer, despite his clear anti-colonial organizing against the war in Vietnam? Through anti-Blackness, not only are Black peoples rendered the property of the settler state, but Black struggle itself remains its property – solely containable within the confines of the settler state.

Read Andrea Smith’s entire post here.

Round Up: The Rodger Murders, Misogyny, and White Supremacy

A lot is being written about the mass killing spree of Elliot Rodger. I though I’d just post a quick summary and link to some articles, but the more I read, the more wished articles took on a more rounded, intersectional analysis. Rodger’s complex story includes male entitlement and misogyny, internalized racism/white supremacy, heteronormativity, mental illness, and adolescent angst.

Rodger’s misogyny — well-documented through his YouTube videos and manifesto — has been covered pretty well. He intended to kill women because they were women. He said as much.

Rodger’s internalized racism has not been covered as thoroughly. Some articles drawing lines between Rodger’s whiteness and the preponderance of mass murders committed by white men fall flat because they miss the complexity of Rodger’s mixed racial background (his father comes from a white background, his mother has Malasian Chinese heritage). But Rodger had internalized messages of white supremacy, as demonstrated in these quotes:

“Full Asian men are disgustingly ugly and white girls would never go for you. You’re just butthurt that you were born as an Asian piece of shit….” (from a post Rodger made in an on-line community)

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.” (from his manifesto)

It would be inappropriate for me, a middle-aged white man, to analyze his struggles as a white/Asian mixed-race young man, but he was clearly struggling with his racial identity. His first three victims were all young men of Asian descent. He killed them with a knife, a brutal and intimate weapon. Were they proxies for his own Asian heritage? Did he attribute his own lack of girlfriends to his “Asian-ness”?

None of this, of course, lessens the fact that that Rodger was a perpetrator of violence and made choices to act as he did. 


So, as you read about Elliot Rodger, keep in mind that he was a complex human being, saturated with society’s messages of misogyny and white supremacy. The facts that he was only “half-white” and that he killed more men than women, do not negate that he was acting out those messages. And those same messages that each of us experience daily and pass on in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Here are some quotes from a few worthwhile articles about Rodger, misogyny, and masculinity:

Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. If you read nothing else coming out of this, pay attention to these stories from actual women.

8 Things You May Not Know About Elliot Rodger’s Killing Spree. AlterNet

[V]ery little attention has been given to the overwhelming message of society that for heterosexual men—if you are not attracting women, if you are not getting laid—you are an utter failure.

Misogyny Is Poison, And You’re Drinking It. Jess Zimmerman

Killing women because women reject you is the act of a monster, but that monster isn’t Elliot Rodger. The monster was whispering in his ear that women owe men sex, and that those who don’t comply should be punished (along, let’s be clear here, with those who do). It told him women did not have the right to make choices about their bodies, that for them to withhold access to those bodies is cruel and unjust. It told him that winning, or wresting, attention and service from a woman is the way to prove you are a man. But it told you that too, and your sons and brothers and fathers and teachers.

Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds. Arthur Chu

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.




[T]he killer [left] a 140-page rant and several YouTube videos describing exactly why he did it. No he-said-she-said, no muffled sounds through the dorm ceiling, no “Maybe he has other issues.” The fruits of our culture’s ingrained misogyny laid bare for all to see.


And yet. When this story broke, the initial mainstream coverage only talked about “mental illness,” not misogyny….

It’s Not All Men. But It’s Men. Kate Harding

It’s not all men. Of course it’s not all men. The idea that anyone might be talking about all men when talking about those who commit violence against women is ludicrous on its face. Pointing it out serves absolutely no purpose except to derail a conversation that might have been lurching toward productivity.

It’s not all men. It’s not all men. It’s not all men.

But listen, you guys, it’s men.

Vincent Harding has Transitioned

Vincent Harding, one of the great Civil Rights leaders, died yesterday. Roots of Justice feels a special connection to him, since he and his wife Rosemarie we involved in some early racial justice work with Mennonite Central Committee, ROJ’s former parent organization.

“You can’t start a movement,” Harding said, “but you can prepare for one.”

via Rest in peace, Vincent Harding | The Christian Century.

Easy Racism: Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and a lot of other people

It’s been a good week for those who like to be incensed. Two aging white men said some very offensive and racist things on tape and the media has showered us all with righteous anger. Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers pro basketball team, has been banned from pro ball and fined as much as possible by the NBA commissioner and he may lose ownership of his team. That’s all great. Seriously, I’m glad he’s paying a hefty price.

But this is easy stuff, tip-of-the-iceberg racism.

Bomani Jones, ESPN host, says it way better than I could. On a sports radio program he called out the easy racism of Sterlings comments and connected it to actual, lethal violence against African Americans and housing discrimination in Chicago. Sterling has been a housing discriminating landlord for years, and when Jones exposed this in a 2003 article, no one paid attention to him. But when he speaks his impolite and racist mind out loud instead of just maintaining one of the most racially segregated housing patterns in the world, people pay attention.

Listen to Bomani Jones’s skillful analysis. It gets good at about 2:45. Some key quotes are below. Also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, This Town Needs a Better Class of Racists, in which he writes, “The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt.”

We hear all this stuff that goes on in Chicago and all these people who die, who lose their lives. All that stuff that’s happening in Chicago is a byproduct of housing discrimination. … Housing discrimination is the biggest reason that we can point to historically for why we’ve got all these dead kids in Chicago fighting for turf, fighting for real estate with poor accommodations and facilities and everything that you’re supposed to have in a city, poor education, all of this because the tax dollars and everything else decided to move away.

So when all these guys get up here and stand on their soapbox and wag their fingers and start talking about ‘we won’t tolerate this racism, we won’t tolerate what Donald Sterling says’ what they’re not tolerating about what Donald Sterling said is the fact that it was impolite and what he said was gauche. That’s what their problem is, but when Donald Sterling was out here toying with people’s lives on matters of life and death, the media, the NBA, the sponsors and all these people now who want to get patted on the back for what good people they are didn’t say a mumbling word.