Rainbows as symbols hold deep significance—a promise of no more violence, of relief after the flood. Of unity and solidarity even in the midst of diversities that have been known to be at war. Of pride and power in the face of a world that says in contrast: “You are shameful,” “You are abnormal,” and “therefore you are dispensable” and “minor,”—and you should be dispensed of, marginalized, detained, incarcerated, lynched, ghettoized, killed—you should be silenced and shut-up by whatever means are necessary.
In the face of disaster and death, rainbows appear, hope far above destruction’s debris.
From God and Noah after the flood, to LGBTQAI rights activists in the face of impossible adversity, to multiracial, multiethnic rainbow coalitions here in Chicago, the rainbow has signaled a new and powerful unity-among-difference in the here and now, as well as a longed for, hoped for, more just world for all beings—a world that is not just “black and white,” but in which all shades and hues, colors and variations, might live and thrive and have their being. The rainbow has come to be a sign of hope against hope. It is potent. It holds power that gives life.
Of course, all symbols are complicated—indeed, people, humans, we who make meanings, are complicated. The symbol we love, to another may be a threat. Our signs of belonging “Home Sweet Home!” can be to others a sign of alienation, “NO TRESPASSING!,” “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!”
I think this way especially in regard to specific symbols that marked the neighborhood I loved deeply and lived in for over ten years. I’ll come back to these in a second.
In 2014, Black Lives Matter was ignited by the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and here in Chicago by the murder of Laquan McDonald, as well as so, so, so many others—making it very quickly a national movement. BLM itself, for many, became a symbol of hope against hope, appearing above and in spite of the hopelessness of racist systemic violence. It was potent. It is potent. It holds power that gave and gives life in the midst of tragedy and oppression, and systemic brutal racism, and loss.
Early on, I attended a rally in Hyde Park organized by now Rev. Kwame Pitts. It was outside then President Obama’s house. At the rally, a Black police officer took the megaphone. In uniform, she amplified the message of the speakers—“racism does in fact plague the CPD, and it needs to be addressed immediately.”
"Black lives matter to God," said this group of mostly seminarians, and Black lives should matter to society, to us, to the Church, to Chicagoans. Indeed, if the lives of the oppressed and disenfranchised actually don’t matter to us, we should at least stop pretending that we are followers of the arrested, tortured, and lynched religious minority named Jesus Christ.
Back to the symbols: blue ribbons are an old symbol used by the Fraternal Order of Police and others to mourn the deaths of officers and loved ones, especially those lost in the line of duty. This symbol has been used at in-house police memorials (such as those held on occasion at the Gold Star Families Park and Memorial in Chicago). Blue ribbons, on and off, for decades at least, were the sackcloth and ashes of the “blue” community—a sign of solidarity among friends and family in the face of loss. Loss of partners. Of parents. Of spouses. Of friends. Symbols of mourning and of solidarity are very important. These symbols are potent.
They gave life to those feeling the reverberations of tragedy and loss.
But then there was a symbolic shift.
|The border between our historically segregated black and white communities |
is marked on the "white side" with ribbons, black, white and blue flags, and
surveillance devices, seen immediately after crossing under the bridge that divides.
Black Lives Matter? No! some screamed: BLUE!!!
This symbol of mourning and solidarity among like-folk, was manipulated to simultaneously polarize against Black Lives Matter, and against Black lives. Blue, thanks to Blue Lives messaging, became the opposite of Black. Black and White flags emerged with a Blue ribbon down the middle, symbolically illuminating even more about the racial meanings of that flag, and the racist tones of the movement. Black Lives Matter would be accused of “bullying” police because they demanded respect and dignity. By claiming the role of victim, the Blue were able to illicit their own liberationists and liberation theologians, standing on the side of the Blue oppressed, blessing badges and the like. If you have any question about this, go to the comments section of any news article on the topic, or check out the Blue Lives bills passed in several states.
|A nearby home. "Blue Lives Matter," |
"No Trespassing," "Community Watch..."
I prided myself and was so, so, so proud of my community for years for working to be as intentionally inclusive and incorporative of varied races and ethnicities as possible. So when, as Black Lives Matter took off, and then as Blue Lives Matter took off after it, I saw Blue Ribbons appear all over in my neighborhood, first in 2014—at the ward office, at the police station, on trees in public parks, at dead ends, at the viaduct, etc., I felt encroached upon. The symbols of pride for others made me feel unsafe. To use a metaphor from mammalian territorialism, it felt like all the other dogs were coming into my space to pee on my doghouse and my dog-bed where I sleep. (Please note we are all dogs in this metaphor, including me!) If these symbols had been simply sackcloth and ashes, that would be one thing. The last thing we want is more violence and more death.
|Confederate Flag Flying On a Blue Ribbon Street,|
across the street from a Church.
But in light of the clear and anti-Black polarization named through “Blue Lives Matter,” these ribbons were clearly racial territorial markings—and they were thickest, I might add, along the borders to the east and the south of Bridgeport and Canaryville. That is, they were thickest along the traditional geographic dividing lines between historically Black and historically white communities. It is clear that this was not every community member’s intent. Many really only wanted to lament. Let me say that again: many were only lamenting. But the symbols spoke their meanings regardless, no matter what meaning was intended by the symbols’ creators. And of course some outspoken and unapologetic racists knew exactly what they were doing. For some the Blue meant “we are home.” And “Home Sweet Home” meant for others “Keep the F* Out.” "You do not belong here." For some they meant both, and more.
A couple of weeks ago, a church like the one I loved and served in my old neighborhood planned a vigil with others as they anticipated the verdict of the Van Dyke trial. Van Dyke was the officer who killed Laquan McDonald, shooting him sixteen times here in Chicago—he was convicted October 5 of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the sixteen shots he fired into his victim. Van Dyke was found not guilty of official misconduct.
This church is on the Northwest side.
Together with the Northwest Side Coalition Against Racism & Hate, Friendship Presbyterian and other community members planned the vigil for these stated purposes: “Express continuing grief for the loss of Laquan to the McDonald family. Acknowledge that nothing can change the injustice of losing Laquan McDonald, and the guilty verdict is the first step toward justice. Remind the community of the ongoing need to work for police accountability and systemic change.”
Prayer is a potent symbol of desire for a better, less painful and more just world. It gives the community a sense of life and solidarity in the midst of ongoing tragedies and pain.
|The park outside Friendship Church after it had been blue-ribboned before the vigil.|
The morning before the evening of the vigil, the park (which is the church’s front lawn) became mysteriously Blue-ribboned-up. The fences, the trees, anything vertical in the whole space had Blue ribbons tied to it. The bar next door boasted a large blue and white sign “Support Your Local Police.” Good color coordination. The territory was marked: “you might pray here,” the territorial markings said, “but we own it. It belongs to the Blue.” Symbolically, the Blue crew peed all over the church’s holy lawn.
The very act of planning a prayer vigil in honor of an unjustly murdered Black man, and praying for justice—and, well, praying for grief—elicited an act of symbolic power-over “putting these [praying] trouble makers in their place”—or, more accurately, letting them know this is not their place. You don’t belong here, said the symbols. It is ours. And if you come up against us, we will pound you back into place. We will dis-place you, force you out…
You'll have to leave.
That night, October 10, 2018, as the community who gathered for the vigil attempted to pray, other community members gathered around the newly marked territory to “heckle.” They set off car alarms, blew air horns and car horns, and yelled racial slurs attempting to disrupt and drown out the prayers. Members who gathered to pray described the experience as terrifying and intimidating. Nonetheless, they prayed.
Police presence was requested to escort vigil attendees safely home, but none came to serve or protect those who prayed.
None came to serve or protect those who prayed.
None came to serve.
Yet they prayed.
October 11… October 12… October 13… October 14: Sunday.
On Sunday something happened on the Northwest side that I could never have imagined in my time in my community—my mind was not yet imagining in this way. Some days I wanted to tear the ribbons down, make a scene—some did and their lives were threatened. They were called “dirtbags,” "scumbags," and other typical online slurs. This became even more heated after the death of a well loved CPD commander, when the symbol's varied meanings were intensified by grief, loss and violence, and intense racist fear.
Instead of giving into the territorialization of public space—space that belongs to no one, yet in which all people should belong—space that should never be marked in the first place, this small band of church and community members imagined something New for Sunday morning.
They did not “territorialize back” tearing down others’ altars to build their own, removing one flag to plant another.
No act of even liberative symbolic violence. At all. None.
I imagine this took some restraint.
Instead of destroying, this group “added to.” They built.
They created beauty.
Early in the morning… as the darkness was dissipating… (literally about 7:15/7:30AM) the community gathered in church to cut ribbons of many colors.
The colors of the rainbow.
ROY G _IV + Black + Brown!
The blue was already there—no need for more.
And it remained there as a symbol with many divergent meanings, sackcloth and ashes, memories of uncomfortable aggression, fear, terror.
Yet above and around it, a rainbow brighter shown—this place is not one person’s or groups’ territory. It belongs to no one. And in it we all belong.
Of course the police came after one call from a concerned neighbor claiming, "THEY are taking ribbons down." When questioned, Pastor Bowman said to the officer, "No. We are not taking anything down. We are adding to them. Here is our permit." The officer said, "Well OK then," and drove away.
And the community continued to create.
On Sunday morning, a transformation took place. A resurrection.
It was symbolic. And it was potent. And it was beautiful.
A symbolic rebellion by the territorialized against those who wished to claim exclusive control.
A symbol of hope against a symbol of warning.
A communal act in the face of grief, giving birth to a rainbow,
to an ancient symbol of hope given new meaning by loving people once again.
Much love to Pr. Bowman and the people of Friendship for showing us another, loving Way.
|After Church, October 14, 2018. Resurrection.|