A Few Random Thoughts on Black Lives Matter

BLACK LIVES MATTER-LARGEby Rabbi David J. Cooper 

  • Black lives matter. ?? Well, Duh! Or is it Duh? It should be Duh. Well it isn’t Duh. And until it is Duh, we have to repeat the refrain not only to impress it upon those who are consciously racist, but to remind ourselves. Certainly those of us with some white privilege need the reminder, but even those without such privilege need to remember to not allow society’s devaluing to be unconsciously internalized.
  • In the movie Selma there is a scene between Rev. M.L. King and LBJ after white minister James Reeb is killed by some Klansmen in Selma. King tells Johnson that it was proper that the president called his widow to express condolence, but why, MLK asks rhetorically, hadn’t the president thought to call the family of unarmed demonstrator Jimmy Lee Jackson when he was shot to death by Alabama state troopers.
  • Just after the grand jury decision not to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown, we had demonstrations in downtown Oakland. Mostly these were peaceful although angry and militant. But then there were people, mostly from out of town, who came and smashed windows. In my view, this was a hijacking of the movement. The manner in which it stole attention and the way it made it feel unsafe for people to come out to demonstrate, meant that the effect of the vandalism was essentially racist – that the snuffing of black lives only mattered to the degree it gave these mostly white people license to destroy, in total disregard of the real needs of the black community.
  • The disincentives created by the vandalism had to be overcome – and it wasn’t easy. #BlackLivesMatter organizers and local African American leadership (many from OCO) succeeded in wresting the attention away from those who vandalized in order to bring out people from the Black neighborhoods of Oakland to confidently demonstrate and do civil disobedience without the fear of having their actions hijacked. This was accomplished through a call for discipline and a recognition of the need for leadership, much of it provided by young African Americans. As someone who was a supporter and criticizer of Occupy, it was a relief to see these developments.
  • Don’t all lives matter? Sure. But we are dealing here with a serious issue that in particular is affecting African Americans. To change the call to “All lives” seems to be a way of saying that “my life too matters and this movement should also be about me.” Sure. But for those of us who are white, given the specificity of the issue at hand, the self-interest is not direct. We remember Pastor Martin Niemöller in Nazi Germany famous for saying words to the effect, “When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out because I was not Jewish.” In the long run, his silence directly hurt himself. So for him to say “Jewish lives matter” would indeed have been in his own self-interest indirectly. But self-interest or not, we are commanded to not stand idly by another’s suffering (Leviticus 19:16).
  • There have been many actions locally in regard to Black Lives Matter, enough that even though I try to make it to many, I know that no Kehilla person could make it to all of them. Especially notable for us was the action on the first night of Chanukah that had its inspiration from our own Talya Husbands-Hankin. A wet rainy night may have decreased the turnout and yet 300 or more people came and, during a break in the downpour, stopped traffic at Market Street near Powell long enough to read the names of African Americans killed by police and a mass declaration of the Mourner’s Kaddish to a city block of Christmas shoppers that went quiet in order to witness the action.
  • On short notice, I joined Rev, Michael McBride at the Hall of Justice for two mornings in early January to support the BlackFriday14, the demonstrators who chained themselves to a BART train at the West Oakland station on November 28 and were arrested and are being threatened with a restitution charge of $70,000. I was deeply impressed by these young people (and a few oldsters) who were disciplined and thoughtful and made me think.

   Yes, it is inconvenient when a roadway is blocked temporarily or the trains don’t run on time. There is a danger that people affected by the inconvenience might regard themselves as targets of the demonstrators despite their own innocence of wrongdoing. But I do not see it converting those inconvenienced into racists. That a black person is killed every number of hours by law enforcement does require us to acknowledge that if this fact is business-as-usual, then we need our default expectations shaken up from time to time. A day after I participated in a traffic-stopping die-in after the Selma showing at the Grand Lake, I was held up in traffic by a demonstration. I turned off the motor so that the action would not increase my carbon footprint and resolved to be patient in the face of a movement that cannot and should not be patient.

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