River Oaks is the poster child of white privilege for many in Houston. River Oaks is a neighborhood with concentrated wealth of an order that most human beings have never experienced. It is a powerhouse of pretty houses and oil money, manicured lawns and luxury cars, forming one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. Within the broader imagination of many Houstonians, River Oaks is the very image of whiteness and nice things, a symbol of the preferential option of the white. Now, in reality, most of the residents of River Oaks are kind and generous people, the kind of folks who use their wealth as a force for good. I know a few of these fine people and consider them my friends. However, it is the racial imagination that matters here, the symbols that persons associate with whiteness and niceness, blackness and badness. For many of the non-white and non-wealthy in Houston, River Oaks is synonymous with whiteness and inequality, and in general the injustices that oppress minorities and the poor.
Many in Houston imagine River Oaks to be the kind of place where Travyon Martin was killed.
Two competing groups strategically chose River Oaks for opposing protests last Sunday, July 21st. The Houston leaders of the New Black Panther Party chose the neighborhood for a protest in support of Trayvon Martin and against racial profiling. Their goal was to march through a busy commercial area of the neighborhood, a place where white people buy nice things, and proceed to march through a residential area where those white people live in big houses. Now, a handful of Houstonians upset with the protest formed a counter group in response and named it River Oaks Stand Your Ground. They chose the Confederate flag as an emblem for their website. They promised to meet their opponents on the streets of Houston and ‘stand their ground’ with picketed signs, chants, and rally cries of their own. The stage was set for a pro-Zimmerman vs. pro-Martin battle, a contest that promised to be racially charged, loud and crude, and without much hope for hand-shaking.
When Justin announced on Sunday morning that he would attend the protest on the sidelines in prayer, I knew I had to join him. I wanted to see how the Church could respond to protests taken to the streets. Even more, I wanted to learn how a pastor could function in an environment of verbal violence and hurt feelings. Our pastor for bilingual ministries at the church, Mireya, and two other Duke interns, Brandi and Michelle, promised to join us.
We gathered at the battleground and prayed. Ranks had been formed with the only ammunition available, words, armed to the teeth. Police on horseback held the opposing armies at bay. I stood agape and gawked at the total lack of peace. I looked at the crowds gathered there in River Oaks, assembling on the battlefield for what must be called racial combat, breathed in a sigh of lament and wondered, ‘how did it all come to this?’
The pro-Zimmerman group gathered on one side of the street at the corner of a busy intersection. They wove American flags in the air. They carried signs that bore an oft-forgotten quote from the movie Forrest Gump: ‘Sorry I had to interrupt your Black Panther Party.’ Other signs read ‘You (the other protesters) are the racists,’ ‘Come and take it’ (Remember the Alamo?), ‘Don’t beat up a neighborhood watchman MMA-style,’ and ‘If Zimmerman is white then Obama is white.’ The River Oaks Stand Your Ground group was a collection of angry white people who were upset about accusations of racial profiling in the Zimmerman-Martin case and the fact that non-white people were disgruntled about it.
On the other side of the street, marching down the sidewalk opposite to the Stand Your Ground group, was a much, much larger assembly under the banner of Trayvon Martin. They carried signs that read, ‘Racial profiling is f*ckin wrong’ and ‘No Justice, No Peace.’ Many wore hoodies like the one Travyon Martin was wearing when he was killed. Others carried pictures of Trayvon. There were about three times as many Trayvon supporters as there were Zimmerman supporters, and the prior were much louder. They were not afraid to flip the bird to their opponents across the street. They marched through the busy intersection where the other group was gathered and into a residential area with big fancy houses. The pro-Zimmerman group followed and tried to shout even louder over their rivals.
Before me was the visible reality of division. A white group and a black group were yelling at each other across the street, not thirty feet away from one another. Their physical division embodied their ideological division. They stood on opposing sidewalks as a city street bisected them; asphalt was the line of demarcation between two warring parties. The street served as a wedge that drove these people even farther apart from one another, like one protruding island that divides the sea. They hurled insults and racial slurs over the poor people stuck in traffic. There was zero sense of unity in this dual protest, only division, sad and stark under the hot Houston sun, marching along to the beats of two different drums. A total lack of peace.
My good buddy Paul the epistle writer had a few things to say about reconciliation. My favorite is this one, as found in Ephesians: “For He Himself is our peace who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility […] His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”
One out of the two. That is Jesus’s firm resolve. We shall rejoice with Him at the peace therein when the two becomes one.
Protests are the great de-blanketings of the dirt we try to cover up. In the 1960’s we passed historic amendments and resolutions to ensure equality and justice for all. Yet we pretended that words on paper would mask the feelings of our hearts. All of us, every single one, harbors racism in our hearts and we try everyday to hide it. We hide behind fake smiles and eloquent speech. We suppress what we think and feel in fear of what would happen if we were to speak honestly. Protests are sources of truth-telling about what is really on our hearts. They rip off our precious blankets to reveal the dirt that has been there all along. Protests are shocking and chaotic because they are one of few places in our lives where we tell the real truth; they confront us with the dirty things all of us know to be true but would rather not talk about. The first step to peace-making, and therefore reconciliation, is to speak the truth that lies in the dirt of our hearts.
We prayed there on the streets of Houston as chaos swarmed around us, but now I offer up a different prayer. I pray that truth-telling will happen around one table and not two sidewalks. I pray that open-hearted, frank conversation happens around a table where all are invited. I pray that opposing parties will look past the dividing wall and consider what real reconciliation looks like. I pray for the next step, that we may sheath our picket signs and sit together around a table of truth-telling.
And we shall rejoice with Him at the peace therein when the two becomes one.