My friend Chris texted me the week before a Black Lives Matter rally in Cleveland last month that was held to protest the murder of Desmond Franklin, who was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer while driving down a street. “Are you thinking of going?” she asked. I was thinking about it, but I didn’t know anyone else going and masked up as we were, it was unlikely I’d be striking up conversations to get to know others. As extroverted as I am, I admit I was a little hesitant.
When we learned that we would be welcome in our clergy collars that settled it. Chris and I secured the number of an attorney we could call if we got arrested, and stocked up on water and snacks. We got a ride to the rally (and the promise of a pickup afterwards). We made commitments to check in with family regularly and had our spouses exchange numbers so they could be in touch with each other. We masked up, put on sunscreen, and had hand sanitizer at the ready.
There is so much more to this work than just showing up. We planned together: Are we willing to be arrested? Are we willing to risk police brutality by putting our bodies between police and the organizers’ bodies? Who is an attorney we can call if we get arrested? What’s the time for our family to worry if they haven’t heard from us? Do we have enough food and water? Did we pack sunscreen? We shared our discernment with each other and with our families.
We understood our roles: to bear witness to the pain of Desmond’s family, to listen and obey the directions of the rally organizers, to ensure that the police knew there were clergy watching them, to stand between Black leaders and police if necessary, and to disrupt any white agitators from diluting the peaceful message of the organizers. We were not leaders in this moment, but followers and participants. We did not expect kudos for wearing our collars; in fact, sometimes a clergy collar is a symbol of oppression rather than liberation, so we expected a variety of responses to our presence.
The organizers were well-prepared and responsive to the crowd of thousands who showed up, giving clear directions throughout the rally and march. Masks were encouraged and worn; medical students and others walked throughout the crowd to hand out hand sanitizer and water to those in need. The police were armed to the teeth, but mostly respectful as far as I observed. After the march, we met up with my family a few blocks away and made our way back home.
Here is my advice to white folks who haven’t attended many rallies/marches/protests but who want to increase their activism (and are able to in this season of Covid-19): find a buddy or two to accompany you and show up. Discern your level of engagement and set your limits. Remember that you are not a leader in this space, but you can be a trustworthy follower and co-conspirator. Wear a mask, put on sunscreen, and be prepared to be uncomfortable inside and out. Prepare, and then show up.
The Rev. Elizabeth Dilley serves as the Team Leader for the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization ministry team in the national setting of the United Church of Christ.