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Walking in Missouri

by Martha Kearse

I did not want to go to Ferguson, Missouri. When I heard about the possibility of going, the two sides of my brain began a debate that continues up through this moment as I write this reflection. I have paid attention to the events in Ferguson for many reasons. I was a public school teacher for 11 years in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and many of my students were black. Some of them lived middle-class lives and some lived lives in which they dealt with the realities of poverty, but from all of them I heard about the facts of being black in America: they taught me about getting pulled for “Driving While Black;” I watched as many of them were driven out of the new school I went to in 1989—they were encouraged to go to the school that was “closer to their home” and which would “serve them better.” I’ve worked with Habitat for Humanity, with Charlotte Family Housing and with groups like QC Family Tree for many, many years and I know that white people and black people are not treated the same by the systems we live in.

In addition, in the last two years, I have had a black young man living in my house as one of my children. I cannot adopt him—his mother is both alive and a wonderful person. She is a South Sudanese refugee, though, and her realities include struggles with language and education that have made it impossible for her to get the kind of job that pays a living wage for her and her family. And he wants to go to college, so he has been living with us through high school so that we can help him with homework and with extra-curricular activities so that college is a possibility for him. As I have gone about the task of raising a black boy in my home, I have absorbed things like the different messages I have to say to him about his behavior in public. He has a mischievous mind, and he likes to put on the ski mask we have and talk about going out in public. When he does this, I am absolutely terrified by the thought that he might do it—not because I think for one second that he is interested in breaking laws—he isn’t. I am terrified because he is a large black male and I am afraid that if he wears a ski mask in public, someone will shoot him. This is not a fear I deal with for any of my other children (who, in case you haven’t picked this up yet, are white).

And so I have been paying attention to the events in Ferguson, to the stories about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, about how Michael Brown’s body was treated and how the people in Ferguson have reacted and there was a part of me that thought I should go and see for myself what the realities (as much as I could see them as an outsider) might be. But I am not immune to fear, and I feared Ferguson. I am not generally terrified of confrontation, but this situation, with its potential for violent confrontation, terrified me. And so I tried not to go. I have this problem, though, with something I perceive to be the voice of God. Sometimes this voice tells me to do things. I am almost never happy about the things this voice tells me to do. When I left college, I had no plans to be a minister, I never even heard of South Sudan, and I was not particularly fond of children. I end up a Minister to Children who goes to South Sudan. Go figure. But this voice was telling me something about Ferguson, something powerful about what it meant for that young man to lie in the street for four-and-a-half hours, something spiritual about what has been happening there since that event. So, despite all my efforts, as Mater from “Cars” would say, “To not to,” I went with the delegation from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America to Ferguson, MO.

The training materials we were given by the organizers there in Ferguson included a very strong message for white people: you need to keep your mouth shut. Here’s the problem—white people are used to being the ones in charge; we are used to being listened to. When we are in a group of younger people or of people from different races, and we speak, we take over the conversation. When I read that, I thought, “Yep. We do that.” Our voices silence any ideas from younger people, any strategies from people of different cultural origins. So I decided I would make it my spiritual discipline to shut up. This task was very difficult—I felt I had earned the right by my work and my presence to be part of the conversation. But what became very clear from the first night of our delegations’ time together was that I was not really a welcomed presence. There were six African-American people, all college graduates, all younger than 30, and four white people, including our trainer, only two of whom were older (me and a lady from Raleigh who is in her early 60s).

As we began our training for the event on Monday, the overwhelming emotions in our rooms were fear and distrust. It felt very much like middle school, and I went into middle school mode for a little while. “They don’t like me.” “What am I doing here?” “I don’t like them back.” And then I realized two things: 1) I am not in middle school. I have many friends and don’t need more. I didn’t come to make friends. 2) I cannot contribute ideas, but I probably make more money than the combined incomes of most of these young people and I can by-God cook breakfast. So, I used my food allotment money and bought eggs and flour and milk and sausage and bacon and cheese and orange juice and coffee. And I made them breakfast. And I went to the trainings. And I shut up.

Our trainings did not help allay my fears, as they were largely about how to get arrested without getting your arm broken, and how to clean yourself after they’ve tear-gassed you, and what pain-inducing tactics the police have been using and what “kettling” is (it is a tactic where the police blockade a neighborhood at both ends and then fire tear gas into the center). Our destination on the Moral Monday march was secret, but our basic intent was to invite the federal government into Ferguson to intervene in a system that was clearly not working. I spent a lot of time in prayer, many of which started with, “This was your idea, Bub.” We participated in a couple of events before Monday, which included a vigil at the site where Michael Brown was shot (I laid origami peace cranes at the site) and feeding lunch to about 500 people in a parking lot on Saturday afternoon.

When Monday, the day for our Moral Monday Action, arrived, I was not far from a state of panic, which I tried to control through quiet conversations with those around me. There was no part of me that wanted to go to the protest. We had not even been told what we would be doing, and I did not know what I would do if I were asked to do something that I did not believe was right. What message would I convey to these young people if suddenly I said, “I can’t do this”? At the cathedral in downtown St. Louis, we practiced for the event. Again we practiced linking arms and sitting down; again we had practice police, one of whom informed me that she had broken the arm of the person with whom I was linked. This did not improve my state of mind. As we began to sing inspirational songs and line up for the march, the terror seized me again.

I will take a moment here to talk about my buddy. We had been encouraged to partner up and have a “buddy” for the march, so that someone was watching out for us as we went into the fray.  She may not want me to mention her name (although she probably wouldn’t mind), so I won’t, but I will identify her as the other older white woman in our group. She and I had talked about whether or not we were willing to be arrested. Over the course of the time we were there, I had come to believe that it was important for me to volunteer to be arrested for several reasons: first, it seemed to me that I had a whole lot less at stake than did the young people around me. While I knew there would be people in my home church unhappy with me (and, in fact, there have been), I also believed that I would not be fired. At 52, I have pretty much established who I am with those who hire me or offer me space to complete programs in their schools. If they decided, after I was arrested, that the proverbial camel’s straw had been acquired, then I would go on to other things.

The other reason to get arrested was more pressing: clearly, before I came to Ferguson, I had not earned the right to be part of the discussion about how badly we handle race and issues surrounding race in America. I decided that if being arrested were the price, if being arrested standing up for black lives and for fair treatment and for the intervention of the federal government into a corrupt system had become necessary, then it was something I should do. That Monday morning I realized that despite the fact that I said I would get arrested, despite the fact that I had agreed to do so, I was having very, very cold feet. I did NOT want to confront armed police. I did NOT want to experience pepper spray or tear gas. I did NOT want angry police dealing with me harshly. I did NOT want to break a law (or even a rule) in order to get myself arrested.

My intrepid buddy, however, felt otherwise. We marched from the cathedral to the Department of Justice building, chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” and listening to the beat of the drums at the front of the crowd. My buddy was disturbed that we were so far back, but I contented myself that maybe, in the back like this, we could make our statement without having to be arrested. When we arrived at the DOJ building, Homeland Security had placed police barriers up—the metal fences that are just too tall to jump and have no bars to step on to help one get over them. I eyed them with relief, thinking my buddy and I to be a tad too old to jump over such barriers. Being with a group of clergy, I stopped my dithering long enough to enjoy the way that clergy confront power: with a scroll. I just love clergy. They marched on the government building and what they wanted to do was to give them a scroll, the contents of which asked for the federal government to intervene in Ferguson, to investigate the abuses people were registering against police, and as a matter of civil rights, to address the discrepancies between the way white people in the St. Louis area are treated and the way black people are treated. They wanted to anoint each other and the building with oil, to call down the divine presence to be with those in power and help them to see their black citizens as equal and deserving of the same rights as others. I have reflected since that moment that a smart government official would not have put up barriers; instead, he or she would have come down to meet the clergy. A smart government official would have met them at the top of the stairs and said, “Welcome to the Department of Justice! What’s that you’ve got there…a scroll? Well, come on up to my office and let’s take a look at it.” A smart government official would have given Cornel West and Rev. Sekou and the other leaders a tour of the building and 30 minutes of his or her time, and then sent them on their way. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the intelligence of the officials in that building, but that is not what they did.

Instead of diffusing the situation, they escalated the stakes at every turn. Our group did as well—it was our intention to get some of our group arrested (which, as I said, is why a smart official would have denied us that goal). After reading the scroll and anointing the building, several of the leaders of our group went over the gate. I stood back, thinking my buddy was standing beside me, until the moment when I saw her in front of me, in the act of going over the gate. My reaction was not one of joy. But, she was my buddy, and I was damned if I was going to let her and the rest of the group down.

So, gracelessly and with much help from the younger members of my delegation, over the metal fence I went. At first there was more clapping and chanting and singing while Homeland Security officers glared at us with their hands on their tasers. Then we moved around them and sat down in front of the doors. We linked arms. We chanted. Someone came up behind me and got my full name and birthday so they would know who was in jail. And then the St. Louis Police showed up. I heard someone being arrested behind me. And a man said in my ear, “You are being arrested. Put your hands behind your back.” Although I had practiced non-cooperation, I made the split-second decision to cooperate as I had used up all the courage I had for one event.

I put my hands behind my back and the officer slipped the plastic handcuffs on my wrists. He tightened the one on my right wrist, then tightened it again until it was painful. He put the cuff on my left wrist and as he pulled it tight, it slipped onto my hand, so that when he tightened—twice—it went around the meat of my hand, missing my wrist completely. This hurt very badly, and as they stood me up, I realized that I could not feel my fingers.

“These cuffs are too tight,” I said. “They are hurting me.”

“I am not resisting,” I said. “Please cut these off and do this again—these are cutting off my circulation.”

At this point, the fear and humiliation of the day and of that moment, matched by the pain in my hands, overwhelmed me and I dissolved into “white lady tears.” I had not meant to cry. My buddy was defiant; she stood up and yelled, “Black lives matter!” when they arrested her. I did not. I was so upset that they ushered me quickly inside, somehow unable to locate a cutter to remove the cuffs. Twice, one of the officers called me “dear.” In my brain, I said, “Call me ‘dear’ one more time.” But I was crying. And I did not say it out loud.

By the time they finally cut the cuffs off my hand (leaving a very satisfying mark which lasted for a couple of days), my anger had returned. Before they took my phone away, I took a picture of my hand, just in case it was really injured (it wasn’t—just bruised). I had control of myself again, but I think they just didn’t want to deal with me anymore. I was not searched (unlike most of the other people, especially the young, black women who were arrested with me). I even got to keep my shoelaces, which got me some disdain among my cell mates. “White lady tears,” they said. The rest of my time in the jail was uneventful—the DOJ people who were processing us were disinterested in the whole thing. They were far more concerned with getting to their pizza than they were with us. They treated us with derision and impatience and got us all out in a matter of six or seven hours. I have a thing—call it a trigger—about bullies. These guys were used to using bullying behavior to get their jobs done. It was a standard part of their day. It did not endear them to me.

They gave us our tickets (mine was a $125 fine for blocking a doorway) and ushered us out, the way you would people who came to a party to which they had not been invited. When we left the building, we sat or stood for about an hour in the same spot where we had been arrested seven hours earlier. Somehow, it was not illegal to sit there anymore. By the time our group got to dinner that night, we were all kind of giddy with the adrenaline of the event. It was the first meal we shared together in which we were truly one group. We went to Steak & Shake, because the birthday of one of the young women (who happened to also be one of the African-American people in our group to get arrested) was that day. We bought her a large milk shake.

I am still quite a ways from completely processing all that happened during our time in St. Louis and all that it might mean. I find that I do not regret having been arrested—I am seriously considering getting tattoos around my wrists with the words “Place handcuffs here” written under them for future arrests. Many people have said they are proud of me, many have expressed confusion about why I went and a few are angry. As always, I appreciate working for a church that offers me the opportunity to follow what to me felt like every other call I have ever felt from God—right down to the part where I didn’t want to do it. The question I have for myself is what I will do with this new knowledge I have gained. How can I translate this experience into something that has benefit to my children? To my church and my community? To my country? I am not sure how to answer those questions yet. I gained some powerful friendships, though. I have no idea how or to what degree our lives will intersect again, but there was something remarkably human and wonderful about the last 24 hours our group had together. It is my fervent hope that whatever else I did, whatever else WE did as a group and a delegation, we proclaimed our belief that Black Lives Matter and that we are willing to go some distance to make sure the world hears it from our lips. 

Rev. Martha Dixon Kearse serves as Associate Pastor at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Martha is married to Monty Kearse (a BPFNA-BPLA Board Member) and they have four children: Mattie, a recent graduate of UNCW; Conner, a junior at UNCG; Anna, a senior at Myers Park HS; and Rep Dimo, also a senior at MPHS, whom they co-parent with his mother, Debora Thon. Martha is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, with an MA in English and Rhetoric from UNC-Charlotte and an MDiv in Pastoral Studies from the M. Christopher White School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University. She is currently working on a DMin from GWU.

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