Circling Up

“Malcolm X was a freedom fighter, and he taught us how to fight!”

“Sandra Bland. Say her name!”

“Black. Lives. Matter!”

The New York City subway rang with chants and songs echoing off the tiled walls. Our coalition, gathered in the city for Union Theological Seminary’s Millennial Leaders Project, had just returned from Union Square where we were protesting the killing of Sandra Bland at the hands of the state. As we moved from train to train, we sang these freedom songs, our grief and rage filling cars and stations.

The responses that our group received were varied. Some passengers expressed encouragement. Some sang along when we invited them to, while others actively mocked our chanting and muttered “what is this actually going to change?”

At each station, we had made the decision to have a member of the group bless or pray over the space. I decided to initiate a prayer at the final station, but I was quickly interrupted by a local activist, who instructed me that I needed to stop. Concerned that I had done or said something wrong, I began talking to him to clarify the situation. However, before the situation was resolved, a stunned silence fell over our group of freedom fighters. As we looked around the crowded subway station, we saw that police officers, who slipped in unnoticed, had filled the station, and more were coming down the stairs.

I quickly looked around to find our group surrounded. There was at least one officer for every protester, if not more. I became very anxious, and noticed this anxiety spreading through the rest of the group. The train was nowhere to be seen. As we frantically looked to each other, trying to decide the next steps, someone shouted “White people circle up! Outside barrier!”

While it took a moment for the command to register, it was taken seriously. The white people of the group (probably around a fourth of the 30 or so activists) did the best we could to link arms and surround the people of color present. As we began to sing once again, I started to notice activity in the crowded subway station.

“We shall overcome…”

The subway riders who had been filming us chanting now began to turn their cameras away from our group and towards the police.

“Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe…”

The local subway drummer joined us in singing, passionately drumming along as he did so.

“We shall overcome someday”

A white woman, who was not part of our group, joined the outer circle, linking her arms in ours.

As we sang, the train arrived, and we were pushed onto the cars by the police officers, who did not follow us. The chants and songs continued as we thanked those who had joined us. When we returned to the conference, we carried this moment with us.

Throughout the Millennial Leaders conference, which focused on spirituality and social justice, the notion of allyship and white solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement was explored in-depth. The subway station action, along with this discussion, taught me what it means for us as white people to ally ourselves with #BlackLivesMatter.

The main lesson learned from this space and the broader conference was remarkably simple.

White solidarity with Black Lives Matter is only solidarity if Black activists say it is. We, as white folks, don’t make the call on what constitutes solidarity.

Let me repeat that. White solidarity with Black Lives Matter is not defined by me, or any other white person.

If a Black person at an action tells us we’re taking up too much space or “hogging the mic,” we as white folks must listen and immediately change said behavior. If a Black person says step up, step up. If a Black person says back down, back down.

Solidarity is always defined by the group being allied with, not those allying themselves.

Rev. Jennifer Bailey, an AME pastor and conference participant, proposed replacing “allyship” with an “ethic of accompaniment.” This phrase requires accountability from those working to be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

When an “ally” is something that you can become, the implication is that your work is done at some point. An ethic of accompaniment is a series of actions in which one works to not be an ally, but ally themselves. This framework implies ever-changing action and accountability.

Undertaking an ethic of accompaniment means risk. In our current context, it means white people literally putting our comfort, relationships, and bodies on the line. It means doing the challenging work of educating our fellow white people so that this responsibility does not continue to fall on Black people. It means being open to critique and instruction from Black activists, without violently expecting them to instruct us whenever we would like them to.

To draw upon the prophetic Jewish tradition my Christian faith is grounded in, we don’t do justice for a reward, or love mercy to be celebrated. We don’t only walk humbly when it’s simple. We do these things because they are quite literally what is “required of us” (Micah 6:8). As white people, constantly working to ally ourselves with #BlackLivesMatter is not an option. It is a sacred obligation.

John Noble

John Noble is a junior at Drake University studying Religion and Rhetoric, Media, & Social Change. He is a white Catholic active in the church reform movement. John is interested in how the Catholic Church, especially predominantly white progressive reform groups, can work for racial reparations. He worships at the Des Moines Intentional Eucharistic Community and Downtown Disciples. John has theological crushes on Elizabeth Johnson, Thomas Merton, M. Shawn Copeland, Bryan Massingale, Bruce Springsteen, and Rosemary Ruether.

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