Up until about five months ago, as most of you know, our Black Lives Matter sign was regularly damaged or stolen. Five or six times, we had to put up new banners. Thankfully, that seemed to have stopped. I had honestly almost forgotten about that drama, until one of our own asked if it was still happening, and why not. I’m not sure. My ego, accompanied by perhaps a little superstition, likes to think it might have been the letter I wrote back to a neighbor who complained about our sign. I like to think I represented our church’s position in the following response:
I/we received your letter regarding the Black Lives Matter sign. Thanks for being an engaged citizen. I don’t need to tell you that we are in a significant national moment of reckoning regarding race. Each of these unnecessary and tragic deaths at the hands of the police has become one more moment – one more reason – to disrupt a general business-as-usual pattern of injustice toward black people that has persisted for long before cell phones were capturing them.
Of course “All Lives Matter.” Of course looting is wrong. However, sometimes the status quo needs to be disrupted to fulfill a higher justice.
Internally, as many of us at church and, more importantly, around the world have come to realize is that the deaths of black citizens, filmed for the first time in our history, has truly been too normal a part of American life. It has also caused us as a church to join the many businesses, private citizens, and institutions that have chosen to exercise our free-speech rights and place Black Lives Matter signs on their property.
We also understand that it is also the right of every American to disagree with these statements. These acts of conscience and free speech have not gone unchallenged. Mostly the critique of the provocative phrase and movement “Black Lives Matter” has come in the form of the obviously very true statement “All Lives Matter.”
We understand and respect that active, peaceful debate – your letter included – is part of what makes America great.
Of course, “All Lives Matter.” ALM is a statement so obvious as to be impossible to critique. Of course, as your letter suggested, looting stores under the guise of protest – and a mostly peaceful unrest – is wrong. However, as the Minister of Pacific Unitarian, with the complete support of the church President and our Board of Trustees, we think that when we as a nation look at the present and historic challenges black people in this country face, it is not so obvious that “Black Lives” have truly been or are part of the “All” lives that matter.
When we look at the way we as a nation respond to the consistently higher number of black people killed, the percentage of black people imprisoned, and the number of black people who consistently live in poverty, we feel like the phrase “Black Lives Matter” actually matters.
Here is one small example of how our thinking has been shaped. We have come to discover that, between the official end of slavery in the 1860s and the Civil Rights movement a century later, our nation averaged about one lynching per week. Can we really say that All Lives have or even today do Matter? We’re not sure. “Black Lives Matter” is a phrase that captures quite boldly and passionately the unique way that, historically, black lives have not much mattered in our country.
If 2020 was nothing else, it was a poignant moment of reflection about our path moving forward, and a unique chance to stop to say that we are no longer going to accept the racism that has so long been a systematic part of what our country thinks of as normal.
We respect your right to disagree. Do you respect ours? All we are doing is putting up a sign on our property. We hope that you would side more with the right to free speech than with the people or peoples who have felt compelled to walk onto our property and either mar, cut down, or take our simple sign.
Rev. Steve Wilson