No Justice, No Peace

By Liz Moore

This piece was written primarily with white people and non-Black people of color in mind as readers.

I first heard this chant when I was a first-year student at Oberlin College, when I looked out of a classroom window and witnessed a group of mainly African American students and professors protesting the acquittal of the four officers who beat Rodney King in LA. I remember asking something like “Is it a threat? Or are they saying that without justice there can’t be peace?” I was sympathetic but also suspicious and alarmed.

I became a bit more conscious of my ignorance and privilege in a moment years later when, on the first day of an internship in LA, a fellow Organizer in Training, also white, asked me what race relations were like at Oberlin. I sat in embarrassed silence, realizing that I didn’t really know enough to answer, and I knew just enough to identify the privilege of my ignorance.

Former PJALS intern Alyssa Henderson shared a podcast from Brant & Sherri “On Race and Jesus” where Brant Hansen asserts “Unity isn’t just a thing. Unity is THE thing.” It’s not trivial, it’s not a side project, it’s not a tangent. He also asserts white people do not grieve as we should the damage that our racist past and present has done to people of color; this is necessary before we can move forward.

These reflections have moved me to consider again the relationship between justice and peace. I’ve seen so many admonitions that protestors should be “peaceful” in spite of the outrage and grief African Americans and others are feeling at the injustice of the Ferguson Grand Jury’s failure to bring Officer Wilson to trial for his killing of young, unarmed Michael Brown. Who is peaceful, who is violent? The answer to that question in our culture, in our media depictions, in our early-learned subconscious inner voices, is a racialized and racist answer. And that’s not new — for example, Demos’ Donovan Ramsey documents “Long Before Ferguson, Authorities Feared Riots at King’s March on Washington.” (1)

Another permutation: former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper writes in Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing: “Simply put, white cops are afraid of black men. We don’t talk about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist, we claim ‘color blindness,’ we say white officers treat black men the same way they treat white men. But that’s a lie. In fact, the bigger, the darker the black man the greater the fear. The African-American community knows this. Hell, most whites know it. Yet, even though it’s a central, if not the defining ingredient in the makeup of police racism, white cops won’t admit it to themselves, or to others.”

Tim Wise, in “Most White People in America Are Completely Oblivious,” shares history of white violence against blacks laid out by Robin D.G. Kelley, detailing ways that “The law has been a weapon used against black bodies, not a shield intended to defend them, and for a very long time.” Who is violent? The history of white domination in America is violent, in daily acts, in legal structures, in culture.

With candles and pictures of African American women and men killed by law enforcement, over 200 people marched together the day after the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced, chanting together, “No Justice, No Peace!” As we walked through downtown Spokane, I greeted friends and acquaintances. What I observed is that I and other whites seemed to respond lightly to the standard but genuine “Nice to see you. How are you?” while African Americans were not feeling light inside. They were in deep and great pain, sorrow and anger, and did not answer “fine.” Instead, a young woman put her fist to her heart, shook her head, and moaned. An older man said he wished we were seeing each other in better circumstances–the kind of answer I have mostly heard at funerals. I take comfort and joy in the unity of marching together. But that is a mark of my privilege. It is not my white sons who may face mortal danger every time they leave the house. Pondering that privilege, no matter how often, does not mean I don’t forget it every time, because that is one way privilege operates.

Tim Wise asks “Can we perhaps, just this once, admit our collective blind spot? Admit that there are things going on, and that have been going on a very long time, about which we know nothing? Might we suspend our disbelief, just long enough to gain some much needed insights about the society we share? One wonders what it will take for us to not merely listen but actually to hear the voices of black parents, fearful that the next time their child walks out the door may be the last, and all because someone—an officer or a self-appointed vigilante—sees them as dangerous, as disrespectful, as reaching for their gun? Might we be able to hear that without deftly pivoting to the much more comfortable (for us) topic of black crime or single-parent homes? Without deflecting the real and understandable fear of police abuse with lectures about the danger of having a victim mentality—especially ironic given that such lectures come from a people who apparently see ourselves as the always imminent victims of big black men?” (2)

The parents of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others, and African American parents and family members joining protests all over the country, are publicly sharing their pain, fear, loss, and anger.

Rachel Dolezal, writing in the Inlander, says “The flames erupting in Ferguson are the fires burning in the hearts of mothers of black sons in this nation. We cry for the life nurtured inside us those nine months, for the years of tending and mending our child, for the brief pride we felt in his manhood before the light left his eyes. We tell our sons to walk with both eyes open, hands visible and quick feet ready to run. We advise them to keep receipts for everything they purchase, speak politely and dress sensibly. We hoped that the toil of our ancestors would have freed them from the curse of these limitations and the threat of harm, and we dreamed that we would never awake to feel this pain.” (3)

The horrific power of parents’ pain is beginning to transform public dialog by making it more possible for white parents like me and others to witness their heartbreak and to imagine the pain of losing a child to oppressive violence and the fear and anger at the prospect of that possibility. I hurt for the fact that our education is at their expense.