You can slash it, steal it, or cut out the words, but you can’t keep a vital message down.
When Black Lives Matter banners were vandalized recently at a number of St. Louis-area churches—including Unitarian Universalist congregations—they got together and decided to make the message even more prominent.
Now tens of thousands of motorists each day read the words “Black Lives Matter” on a huge electronic billboard on Highway 44 in Missouri that will remain up for a month. The interfaith group pooled resources to put the billboard up on August 11, the first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Those who want to silence the conversation [about race], we can’t let them do that,” said the Rev. Dr. Heather Arcovitch, senior minister at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, who helped spearhead the effort in conjunction with area UU churches and others.
UU churches in other parts of the country also have suffered vandalism of their Black Lives Matter banners. In Bethesda, Maryland, the River Road UU Congregation has been hit three times; on July 29 and again on August 11, the banner had the word “Black” sliced out, and on August 17 the banner was stolen.
In Hartland, Wisconsin, someone cut the word “Black” out of the Lake Country UU Church’s banner on August 11; it has been patched up and the word “still” added, so it now reads: “Black Lives Still Matter.” Reaction within the congregation “was very strongly that this is not going to stop us, that we’re not going to be afraid of this, and we’re going to put it back up,” said the Rev. Amy Shaw, minister at Lake Country. “The board vote was unanimous to repair and replace it.”
UU ministers said their congregations are not backing down, and, in fact, see this specific form of vandalism, and controversy over the term “Black Lives Matter,” as an opportunity for deeper conversation about racism, racial justice, and white privilege.
“This phrase has become a centerpiece of understanding what we’re doing” in the work for racial justice, said the Rev. Thomas Perchlik, minister at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, which has had to replace its banner several times this summer due to vandalism. “It’s really important to keep the words up there. A lot of people want to get back to their comfort zone and stop talking about race. But it’s always here—race—and we have to keep talking about it.”
Some who object to the Black Lives Matter wording, including some UUs, perceive it as anti-law enforcement or believe it minimizes the value of white lives.
“There is a presumption that we are racist in saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and they see themselves as crusaders against this racism,” said Shaw, who said the church has gotten two very angry, anonymous phone messages along those lines. “I think it harkens from a long tradition of seeing outspoken black people as angry or uppity, an affront.”
Perchlik said he received several emails from a woman who objected to the phrase before she revealed that she had a brother and nephew who are police officers and that she perceived the Black Lives Matter movement as anti-police. He said he engaged with her in a dialogue of their respective understandings that “ended up being really beautiful.” There is a lot of tension between police and protestors, he noted, with fear, pain, and anguish on both sides. Conversations about the broken relationships between police and the community, and about the intersection between crime and poverty, are “happening more and more. It’s good to see that happening, and Black Lives Matter is part of that,” he said.
The Highway 44 billboard in St. Louis includes the URL for www.prayingwithourfeet.org, a website that offers resources to help people understand the debate around the message “Black Lives Matter.”
“I think all these signs being torn down and defaced actually provides opportunity for more witness,” said the Rev. Julie Taylor, a community minister in St. Louis who works with all the area UU churches, and who is deeply involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. “When someone defaces your own [congregation’s sign], that might prompt someone who’s on the fence to say, ‘That’s not okay,’ and maybe jump in a little deeper.”
In addition to contributing to the electronic billboard, First Unitarian St. Louis has taken a low-tech approach to the ephemeral nature of its own banner. The congregation initially purchased a professionally designed banner and put it up around June; within days, it had been intentionally ripped down. Instead of buying another one, the congregation decided to write the message with black marker on inexpensive yellow plastic sheeting. That banner stayed up about six weeks before bad weather tore it down. Another banner was created and was in place about two weeks before someone wrote on it “Cops’ Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”—and then was ripped down by weather.
“So we made another one,” said Perchlik. “Ours now says: ‘Black Lives Matter: Join the Conversation at First St. Louis.’”
The congregation in Bethesda is now putting up a new banner for the fourth time, said the Rev. Louise Green, minister of River Road, because it will not falter in its commitment despite the vandalism.
“I think for us it really is a solidarity that requires a certain kind of spiritual practice of steadiness, of sticking with it,” said Green. “What the Black Lives Matter message means to me personally is that we can stay in this tension of looking at institutionalized racism and the unequal treatment of African Americans in this country and police brutality and everything else—and we can hold our gaze steady.”
Standing on the Side of Love has created a guide to help congregations whose Black Lives Matter banners are vandalized, including holding a congregational meeting to discuss the vandalism and the racism it reflects, with mindfulness of the differing impacts on people of color and white UUs.