Working Harder to Listen

How white Americans can be better allies and join protests without making it about themselves.
June 1, 2020
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Protesters lock arms during a demonstration on May 31, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Across the country, protests have erupted following the recent death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

The extrajudicial police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among so many others, spurred protests this weekend. While many of the uprisings were peaceful, violence broke out in the midst of protests across the country, sparking concerns among many legitimate protesters that their cause is being drowned out by rioters and opportunists who are hijacking their real pain to engage in unbridled destruction. In addition, many of these hijackers are white people who are often found leading the way in vandalism and violence. This is so wrong.

One example of the hijacking of peaceful protest comes from Nia Miranda in an Instagram video in Los Angeles. Nia confronted two white women who were spray-painting graffiti on a Starbucks on May 30. She told them to stop, that this wasn’t the way, and that black people were going to be blamed for the destruction they were causing. They blew her off and unapologetically kept going.

“The news and everyone else needs to know and see the Truth! STOP reporting black people as ‘thugs’ and saying we are destroying the community,” Miranda said. “This is NOT the face of the #BlackLivesMatter community. This is NOT US! We will not accept this! We will speak up and speak out!”

Chas Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition in Austin, Texas, canceled his organization’s participation in a rally set for Sunday because of the presence of white “allies” attending protests and engaging in violence across the country. Moore said, “White people have colonized the black anger and the black movement in this particular time frame and have used black pain and black outrage to just completely become anarchists in this moment.”

In response to this cancellation and news of white people engaging in violence, Kathryn Freeman tweeted: “It’s crazy that these white anarchists get to incite police violence, but completely escape the consequences of their violence while simultaneously drowning out the voices of Black people. This is white supremacy too so don’t let them steal your attention!”

These are just a few of many examples of black protesters confronting white (and black) rioters telling them to stop, that violence isn’t their message, and that they are making things worse. Seeing this should cause us all to work that much harder to make sure we continue to listen to a sincere cry for justice, mercy, and humility rising from the streets.

So here’s the point: If you are white and you go to a rally or protest, your voice and your feelings aren’t the main point. This shouldn’t have to be said, but if you go, you should submit to and follow the black leaders who are leading in peaceful protest. Listen to and follow local leaders and organizers who are endeavoring to direct peaceful, legitimate, and legal protest against police brutality and racially motivated violence in their communities. As Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, there is “a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.” It is right to listen to the pain and the frustration that is overflowing from the black community in this moment in American history. It is never right to co-opt that pain for your own ends.

And for those using this occasion to say that the violent rioters are obscuring the message of the legitimate protesters, I say we should listen more closely to the voices of the real protesters, peacemakers, and mourners all around us. All weekend long there were myriad black voices speaking this message clearly across the country: All lives don’t matter in America unless black lives matter, too. If we can’t hear the peaceful, lamenting, grieving voices begging for justice and righteousness in our land because of those using legitimate pain as an excuse to promote illegitimate chaos and destruction, then it is incumbent upon us to lean in, try harder, and stay focused.

As a Christian, I’m reminded that Jesus was moved in his guts with compassion for the harassed crowds (Matthew 9:36). While we should all denounce and oppose violence, we should also make sure that we are attentive to the pain of our neighbor. And that can only happen when we humble ourselves, put the interests of others ahead of our own, and listen to the cry for justice and righteousness.

And this cry is coming from black people all around us. I am haunted by the words of my friend Jonathan Avant, a black businessman in Montgomery, Alabama, who said a few days ago:

“I’ll be lying to you if I said that the murder of George Floyd didn’t break something in me. I’ll also be lying if I say I didn’t have a tearful breakdown this morning over it. Let that sit . . . a grown black man miles away in Montgomery, Alabama experienced a connection so strong that it brought him to tears. Black people live in a different world than anyone else and I am fully aware that my tears don’t mean a thing in corporate America so for that reason, I wiped my face put on my clothes, went to work and jumped back in the game like my Dad always taught me.”

We need to hear this pain right now. And lament that it is still our reality.

Alan Cross

Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014.