Letter From Missouri: Why I Stand With the Ferguson Protestors

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November 24, 2014

The past three months have challenged us to “walk the walk” as a congregation. As a community that embraces Jews of color, and has always been committed to challenging the injustices of racism in St. Louis, we could not stand idly by as Michael Brown’s death touched a nerve throughout the nation, and forced St. Louis to confront the reality that there are two Fergusons, and two Americas.

As the story unfolds, it is clear that we cannot let the narrative be reduced to an oversimplified battle between police and protestors. We have police officers in our congregation and our families, yet we must not be afraid to demand accountability from law enforcement that practices racial profiling and provocation and has done so for many years. Our own founder, Roger Goldman, has dedicated his career to holding police accountable.

A Historical Moment

This is a historical moment that has the potential to grow a movement that pushes the demands for civil rights further in this country, regardless of the outcome of the grand jury in the Michael Brown case. Our core values of being a civil-minded and justice-seeking congregation guide us and challenge us to be part of the budding solution.

So, I stand with the protestors because the death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for me and many others who were ready to say enough to profiling of young black men by the police in St. Louis and beyond.

I stand with the protestors because they have their fingers on the pulse for change and are demanding the entire St. Louis community to step out of our comfort zones day and night.

I stand with the protestors because in our liturgy we say that every life matters and their lives should not be more at risk because they are black and brown women and men.

I stand with the protestors because they are calling for a serious confrontation with institutional racism, and I believe that we all need to do this work.

I stand with the protestors because many of them are our children, the children of the baby boom, and we taught them to expect more from their lives than to keep their heads down in fear because of the color of their skin.

I stand with the protestors because they are drawing from the experiences of other communities like Oakland, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to lead a successful campaign for social and political change. I stand with the protestors because they have kept the peace for over 80 days by promoting nonviolent civil disobedience and providing ways for many who are frustrated and angry to express themselves through marching, acts of civil disobedience and building memorials to those who have died, and by showing us what democracy looks like.

I stand with the protestors because they are the only ones who can identify and de-escalate those who would use violence and those who would use the protests for their own agendas.

I stand with the protestors because they are each individual whole worlds of potential. They are graduate students and nurses and mothers and they are kind and smart and have seen their brothers and sisters dying around them for too long and shaken their heads in silence. Now it’s time to show up, time to care, time to be an ally.

I stand with the protestors because I believe that they are our future leaders.

I stand with the protestors because we are standing at the edge of a crisis that is about to erupt whether or not there is a grand jury indictment. There will likely be riots and militarization of the police. Years from now, I want to say that I stood on the right side of history even though it wasn’t the easy thing to do.

I stand with the protesters because they have brought us out of our churches, our synagogues, our mosques and into the street to pray with our feet. As Jews who believe that our purpose is tikkun olam, we are required to recognize the brokenness before we can repair the damage.

These are a few of the changes the protestors are asking for:

• Civilian Oversight Board for Police for the City and the County.

• Legislation that limits the practice of profiling by police.

• Body cameras that are working, turned on and visible name tags on all officers.

• Departments that reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they serve.

• An end to departmental practices that measure a police officer’s performance by the number of stops and 

• The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulting in reparations for police brutality 

• Consolidation of county police departments.

• Cultural diversity training for law enforcement departments. 

These are some of the ways clergy are trying to be present to de-escalate the impending violence:

• Sanctuaries will be set up in the hot spots of Ferguson, Clayton and Shaw. These churches and offices will be equipped with spiritual, psychological, medical, and legal support as well as food and other supplies. 
These sanctuaries are for protestors expressing their support for the movement and not for those who may use a volatile situation for their own personal gain.

• Safe spaces will be open in churches to give neighbors a place to congregate, get reliable news and pray. These places will also have resources.

• Clergy and others have received de-escalation training though it’s clear that no one is expected to put themselves at risk if the violence becomes unmanageable. 

This is challenging and complicated work. This movement has also unleashed a strain of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It has been messy, and being white and Jewish has not made it easy to show up.
 But I stand with the protestors because this is my home, and I have to believe that our vision of spreading our Sukkat Shalom, our shelter of peace, is possible.

Rabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, the only Jewish congregation located within the City limits of St. Louis. When other congregations were leaving the city for the suburbs, Rabbi Talve joined with a small group to keep a vibrant presence in the city to be on the front line of fighting the racism and poverty plaguing the urban center.

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