After a week full of “Black Lives Matter” workshops—of discussions about Ferguson and talks by racial justice activists from across the country, of speeches from civil rights leaders Dr. Cornel West, Rep. John Lewis, and the Rev. Clark Olsen, and a passionate, sometimes heated debate over word choices in an Action of Immediate Witness introduced by the Youth Caucus—many UUA General Assembly attendees’ desire to take a more active stance on racial justice spilled over into a Portland intersection Sunday afternoon.
Co-planned by Amanda Weatherspoon, a student at Starr King School for the Ministry, and supported by an initially tentative but prayerful and boisterous crowd, the afternoon rally of approximately 200 people, mostly Unitarian Universalists, briefly shut down the intersection of NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and NE Holladay Street next to the Oregon Convention Center.
Sunday afternoon’s rally—which was planned only hours before it happened—was one of many such events for experienced activists such as Elandria Williams, a black UU from Knoxville, Tennessee, who electrified the crowd. “This is not new. The struggle is long. It didn’t start last week, last month, or even last year,” Williams said. “Organize, organize, organize!” she sang along with the gathering.
The rally, and subsequent “die-in”—a now oft-used tactic in which participants lay in the street for four-and-a-half minutes, to honor the four-and-a-half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the Ferguson street August 9, 2014—was, for some, a cathartic release after a Sunday afternoon General Session full of tension. “It’s not all about me, but it was a release to say those things to other UUs and have them be heard,” said Weatherspoon, who helped organize the rally and is black.
General Assembly delegates had overwhelmingly approved an Action of Immediate Witness entitled “Support the Black Lives Matter Movement” only 40 minutes before the rally started—but before they raised their voting cards, they took an awkward and confusing tour through Robert’s Rules of Order.
“We must continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement and Black-led racial justice organizations,” the adopted resolution says. “The 2015 General Assembly calls member congregations to action, in order to become closer to a just world community . . .; urges member congregations to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice with recognition of the interconnected nature of racism coupled with systems of oppression that impact people based on class, gender identiy, sexual orientation, ability, and language . . .; encourages member congregations and all Unitarian Universalists to work towards police reform and prison abolition, which seeks to replace the current prison system with a system that is more just and equitable; and . . . recognizes that the fight for civil rights and equality is as real today as it was decades ago, and urges member congregations to take initiative in collaboration with local and national organizations fighting for racial justice against the harsh racist practices many black people are exposed to.”
Almost all of the debate in General Session was focused on parliamentary procedures delegates introduced to clarify the phrase “prison abolition,” but the convoluted process generated enough discomfort that chaplains paused the process for a few moments for prayer. At one point, a vote to call the question on an amendment was counted by tellers, a situation that former UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff said she had never seen before in her 47 General Assemblies.
When the AIW passed with overwhelming support, delegates stood and chanted “Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”
At the rally beside a statue honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Weatherspoon, Williams, and the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou articulated for UU participants—many of whom had never before participated in a racial justice action—directions on how the die-in would proceed, as well as a primer for what was needed from white attendees. “The task now is to be more than allies, but to be freedom fighters,” Sekou said to roaring approval. Sekou, a noted Ferguson, Missouri, activist, then linked arms with fellow rally leaders Williams, Weatherspoon, Chris Crass, and the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen and led a procession into the intersection.
Police officers quickly approached the action, and multiple drivers who were inconvenienced by the traffic yelled obscenities at the protest. Two teenage passersby were heard questioning whether messing up people’s day was the best way to “get us on your side.” Rally organizers repeatedly encouraged participants not to engage with police, or with hecklers. As the minutes of silence went on, an ambulance came through the intersection, which made some attendees anxious and others skeptical. “I honestly think they sent that ambulance through to throw us off,” said one white woman UU who did not give permission to be idenified.
The idea of stopping traffic was disconcerting to some UUs in attendance. “I believe in racial justice, but I’m not sure getting in the way of others’ day is the thing to do,” one UU man said. Despite trepidation from some, many enthusiastically participated, or at least supported the action. Emrys Staton, of the UU Church of Tuscon, Arizona, said after the action, “I’ve come to understand that a tactic of disrupting ‘business as usual’ is an important tactic for the movement.” Staton said he deeply appreciated the experience and was moved by it.
Ada van Tine, a white young adult from Bull Run UU in Manassas, Virginia, who attended the rally, said, “I think a lot of people want to be invested in ‘black lives matter’ but hold themselves back because they’re afraid to jump in, or don’t know how.”
Colin Luken, a Youth Caucus member who helped put forward the “Black Lives Matter” Action of Immediate Witness, said that the die-in—and a longer-term commitment to work for racial justice—are essential. “These are important tactics to call attention to systemic racism. This message is the most important of our time,” said Luken, who is white, as the "Black Lives Matter” chants continued. At the end of the rally, the chanting gathering went back into the convention center, stopping their chant just outside the plenary hall, where the Closing Worship was already underway.
Worshippers inside the main hall could clearly hear the chants. The Rev. Cecelia Kingman, who was preaching, briefly diverted from her prepared text to affirm the chanters’ words. In the convention center hallway, Williams quieted the crowd: “We can chant this all day, but what really matters is that we take this energy home with us and are willing to do this work in our churches and schools and our own cities.”
“It’s not enough to say black lives matter,” Weatherspoon told the gathering. “You have to believe it, and to live it.”
In other business, the UUA General Assembly:
- Adopted a Statement of Conscience in support of reproductive justice—a broad framework “which espouses the human right to have children, not to have children, to parent the children one has in healthy environments, and to safeguard bodily autonomy and to express one’s sexuality freely.” The statement explicitly acknowledges “reproductive justice” as a concept developed by women of color.
- Passed an Action of Immediate Witness urging UU support for local, national, and international climate justice campaigns, including the Lummi Nation’s opposition to the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal in Washington State, the Moral March for Climate Justice during Pope Francis’s September 2015 visit to the United States, and the United Nations Climate Agreement Talks in December 2015.
- Passed an Action of Immediate Witness calling for the closure of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers.
- Approved bylaw amendments that allow UUA districts and regions flexibility in determining their governance and that place new campaign spending limits on UUA presidential elections.
- Rejected a bylaw amendment that would have transformed the elected Commission on Appraisal into a smaller appointed committee.
UU World’s comprehensive coverage of the 2015 General Assembly will appear in the Fall issue of the magazine. See our General Assembly section for additional coverage from the past week. We will add links to the final text of resolutions as they are published.
Christopher L. Walton contributed additional reporting.