On Bearing Witness at the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion

This is a post by Emilie Bouvier: a community organizer and artist living in St. Paul, MN. Emilie serves the Minneapolis area ELCA synod as Congregational Organizer for Environmental Justice. Her art website is www.emiliebouvier.com. These are a few words that Emilie shared with us in a spirit of ecumenism about her experiences last week/weekend holding vigil for Philando Castile at the Minnesota Governor’s residence.

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For the first few days I felt kind of numb. Gathering for prayer, for worship, for lament was what I needed, but I could hardly even start speaking about things. It all felt like a jumbled pit in my stomach… disgust at the state of racial injustice in our nation, heartbroken that yet another black body was broken in the street, 1.8 miles from my apartment, overwhelmed by the horror of the particular glimpse we got into the last few moments of Philando’s life, bitterly angry at the constant resistance on behalf of white folks to the radical re-orienting of our selves and the structures of a society built on oppression.

Spending some long hours at the Governor’s Mansion yesterday afternoon and evening didn’t change those things, but it was such a powerful place of community, story, compassion, and truth-telling that I suddenly could feel my feet on the ground again — re-grounded and recommitted by the love and voices of those who showed up in that space to process the events, tell their own stories, give hugs, and even just dance.

I watched a beautiful healing dance performed by two Native American teenagers who made powerful statements about standing in solidarity with the black community – dancing as a way to show support, offer healing, and inviting all of us who were gathered around to join in.

I heard a young African American man start a story with “you know, when it’s hot out and you just really want an icy?” and end with describing how an officer demanded he confess what he was hiding, sure that the empty icy cup was a drug stash. It was nothing other than a soggy paper cup. (Can I just say, never in my life has anyone interrogated me about and then actually gone into the trash can to examine something that I’ve thrown away.)

I listened and teared up as an eleven year old African American girl stand up and speak through tears about how adults say that if you’re in trouble you should call the police, but now she’s sacred to. Even in her nervousness and occasional pauses to wipe tears, she had the most courageous strength and composure of anyone I heard come to the mic. And she kept talking. She talked about how things need to change. She talked about how she wasn’t going to stop speaking. Someone in the crowd asked for her name again, then shouted “Ellen for President!” We all started cheering her name and she smiled and cried as the leaders at the mic came around her and held her in a group hug. I hope she now knows that her community sees her as a leader and that she will in fact run for office. I vow to work on her campaign.

I heard a mom talk about how her daughter is 18, got straight As in school, was involved in her community, and went on to serve in the military. She’s proud her daughter is serving. But then her daughter calls her up and says “Mom, I feel “conflicted,” I feel like I’m serving a country that hates me.”

I also listened to people processing the events of Saturday night’s protest. Some talked about their own experiences being held in handcuffs that weren’t cuffs but ties that were drawn so tight they still had wounds on their wrists. Others talked about how moved they were by the white allies who helped act as a buffer in the midst of the 94 shutdown. Another talked about how someone in the neighborhood offered her a warm shower and lent her clothes. She said “I’m still angry, but I understand love now. I understand humanity now.” And many talked about how they saw and participated in peaceful demonstration – how violence was not present and not what we’re about here. How those white anarchists who were throwing bricks were not with us, and how infuriating it is that the media and those we’ve elected as officials don’t see the difference. There is a huge difference. The movement of people standing up for racial justice, taking the streets, disrupting business as usual, is not violent. We need our cities’ leaders to be held accountable, not let a few unaffiliated protesters be political grounds to write off the movement.

If you’re like me, you might be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and like you’re just floating, or in a slog, or paralyzed, especially when reading about this stuff online or trying to process by yourself or even just trying to process with people who look like you. Go out to the Governor’s mansion (or join the Black Lives Matter folks near you). This community space to gather and hear stories is not going away. Is a place of love and story and openness. Go and sit for awhile. For a few hours, actually. Just listen. Just do it.

 

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