Rev. Tracey Blackman, speaking on “webinar video” about the Gamaliel Foundations’s activism in Ferguson,[i] said that the Gamaliel-involved clergy must be “protectors of the narrative” and that they would be the ones to tell what really happened in Ferguson.
In an era when media regularly “shape” the news for their own political ends, we understand what Rev. Blackman means by a “narrative.” The facts – that a young Missouri man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a policeman or that “communities of color” suffer disenfranchizement, disproportionate unemployment, and substandard education – are rarely presented in unadorned form. They are “embroidered” with unsubstantiated claims. One hears from one source that “Michael Brown was weaponless and unresisting” and from another that “Michael Brown had gunpowder on his hands.” Eyewitnesses say he was shot despite having his hands in the air; eyewitness say he didn’t have his hands in the air.
Gamaliel wants to be sure that its “narrative” is the one broadcast across the country – that Michael Brown was a victim of police brutality and a racist system that targets young black men. This narrative counters another that would dismiss Michael Brown’s neighborhood as violent, crime-riddled, disrespectful of the law, and trying to blame the police for its problems.
In between these two “narratives” sits a frightened, long-suffering community with far more of its share of problems than anyone deserves.
In true Alinskyian fashion, the Gamaliel Foundation is “rubbing raw the sores of discontent” to further its own ends. On the webinar, Rev. Blackman says that violence not coming from the men of Michael Brown’s neighborhood but from outsiders. That’s an important point to her – an example, she says, of what she means by “controlling the narrative.”
Organizing the people of Michael Brown’s neighborhood for non-violent protest is also coming from “outsiders,” however. The Gamaliel local in St. Louis, Metropolitan Congeregations United (MCU), staged a Call to Action – an “organized resistence” of people joining “those already standing in Ferguson” – during October 10-13, calling it a “Weekend of Resistence.”
People from around the country were asked to travel to Ferguson for an October 10 training in nonviolent resistence, in preparation for a march the following day. Gamaliel’s National Campaign Director wrote after the event that: “Luminaries, old guard civil rights leaders, and out-of-state activists poured into St. Louis for the Mass Mobilization on Oct 11-13, wanting to participate in, or organize, what they may be deem to be the latest incarnation of the civil rights movement.”[ii]
Sunday, October 12 was designated as “Hands Up Sabbath.” The clergy of “faith communities” were asked to address speak about the issues of police brutality and racism, using materials specially prepared by a coalition of groups that include another Alinskyian organzing network, PICO. The “Hands Up Sabbath Toolkit” contains “reflections” and prayers for congregational use, such as a liberationist “Prayer Patterned after the Lord’s Prayer” with the stunningly twisted and telling petition: “May our will be done on earth and in heaven and in the church in the United States.” [emphasis added.][iii]
Then, on Monday, Gamaliel called for clergy-led civil disobedience, with the plan being that many would go to jail, presumably gaining national media coverage by the act.
Lastly, protestors encouraged the signing of a national petition directed at local county executive candidates. [iv] MCU’s – and Gamaliel’s – demands are that, whoever wins the election, will “within 30 days of taking office… hold a summit for the 90+ mayors of St. Louis County municipalities and all heads of law enforcement divisions. MCU wants the summit to focus on commitments from each mayor and police chief to implement community policing procedures, reform excessive traffic fines and abolishing the unjust debtor prison system, so that traffic violators, especially those of low income, are not being exploited to boost city coffers.”[v]
Debtor prison? Boost city coffers? Really?
Gamaliel rhetoric is inflammatory and rousing. One speaker on the webinar called the shooting of Michael Brown an act of genocide and that “Jesus was martryed in same manner as a lot of our black men… we have churches that are ready to get out there on the front line but other churches are ready to retreat and close their doors…as an organizer, I have to navigate that tension between those that are ready to be there.”
Another, Rev. John Welch, chair of Gamaliel’s board of directors, said in response to a pointed question that it was not the role of clergy to be “peacemakers” but “developers of disturbance.”
Is this a “narrative” that best serves a beleagured people or is there, perhaps, still another, yet to be explored? Is there “good news” that clergy might carry, petitioning God’s will rather than Gamaliel’s? Are there ways to help hurting people that don’t perpetuate structures of injustice?
If Gamaliel were a purely secular political organization, such questions would make no sense. As an organization with clergy among its leadship and that is funded by religious institutions,[vi] these questions are not merely reasonable – they are long overdue.
[i] Gamaliel webinar video, ““MCU and Gamaliel's October Push for Ferguson” October 7, 2014: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgGE3gfJwcM&feature=youtu.be (accessed 10-15-14). Link to the video appeared on the Gamaliel Foundation homepage: www.gamaliel.org (also accessed 10-15-14).
[ii] Laura Barrett, “A Generational Divide Between Organizers in Ferguson,” Rooflines (Shelterforce blog), 10-15-14.
[iii] “Hands Up Sabbath Toolkit:” www.gamaliel.org/Portals/0/Documents/Hands-Up-Sabbath-Toolkit.pdf
[iv] Gamaliel petition, “After Ferguson, We Must Change Police and Court Practices in St. Louis County, To: County Executive Candidates Rick Stream and Steve Stenger:”
[v] Laura Barrett, “A Generational Divide Between Organizers in Ferguson,” Rooflines (Shelterforce blog), 10-15-14.
[vi] To give an example, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has given MCU the following national grants: $25,000 (2007-2008); $30,000 (2008-2009); $30,000 (2009-2010); $40,000 (2010-2011); $45,000 (2011-2012); $55,000 (2012-2013).