As Ferguson braces for the grand jury’s decision in the case of police officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Mike Brown last August, clergy are preparing for what is likely to be a non-indictment — and for the civil unrest that could follow.
Take Rabbi Susan Talve, who founded Central Reform Congregation 30 years ago, and has dedicated her life to community organizing. Talve is part of a larger coalition of clergy and lay people, the Don’t Shoot Coalition, fighting for change and justice in St. Louis.
In preparation for the verdict, Talve and about 200 additional clergy have conducted and participated in deescalation training sessions, so that they can calm people who may feel inclined to act violently. Deescalation entails talking to the protesters and flagging troublesome individuals so that peaceful demonstrators can surround and stop them. Should protesters take to the streets after the verdict, the goal of the clergy is keeping demonstrations non-violent, while facilitating “militant, organized civil disobedience.” Talve and her fellow participants in this effort will wear orange vests that say “Clergy,” so that protesters know they are present.
As the tension in the community mounts, religious leaders have also reached out to law enforcement officials about their use of excessive force. Although Governor Nixon’s announcement about officers gearing up and training for unrest after the grand jury decision signifies a potential militarized police response, clergy, like Talve, believe the militarization of police was responsible for the violence in August. According to the rabbi, “We’ve had meetings with the police as well, and the hope is that the police will not militarize as they did in the very beginning, because many people believe it was the militarization of the police that brought out the violence.”
Religious leaders also plan to open their doors as sanctuaries to those in need of it near foreseeable “hot spots”: one on the street where the initial clashes happened in August, and another in front of Ferguson Police Department, where there’s a commitment to non-violence. The sanctuaries will act as spaces for people to nourish themselves, recharge their phones, and find general comfort, said Talve. There is an agreement between law enforcement and religious leaders to respect the venues.
And throughout this entire process, cross-faith clergy are balancing their moral commitments to the community and their daily ministerial duties.
Despite different religious backgrounds and political challenges, Talve insists that faith is the “glue” holding the leaders together. “The shared vision for most people, and certainly the clergy that I’m aware of, is to save lives. This began because a life was taken – a young, unarmed man – and whatever happens we’re hoping that life is preserved, that there are no more lives lost.”
Much of the work requires trust-building. “A big thing for us has been winning the trust back of the young people. The older religious leaders, we’ve been kind of hiding out in our religious spaces, and this movement has brought people back onto the streets.”
The work also requires trust in one another and the ability to defer to people with the most at stake. The diverse group of clergy members is capitalizing on black churches as key institutions in the black community. Talve said firmly, “As a white person, I have to take the lead from the black clergy. They have to lead us. White privilege is so engrained in people that if we’re not constantly checking ourselves, we won’t see the next step. We’re really counting on our black clergy sisters and brothers to lead us, so that we stay true to the movement.”
Clergy in St. Louis have maintained a presence in Ferguson since August 9, when Mike Brown was shot and killed, and protesters clashed with police. They were on the front lines “since the beginning, because there’s a call for certain things to change: profiling and provoking, not just by the police, but also by a racist society,” said Talve. “There was one night in the summer where we just knelt down between the protesters and the police. We just knelt down and prayed. It was really quite touching that the young protesters came and put their hands on our shoulders and the police stood down.” Twenty clergy also occupied the jail where 13 activists with the group Millennial Activists United were taken, urging police to release them.
Reverend Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church, located five blocks from where Brown was fatally shot, also opened the church’s doors to demonstrators in search of food, water, and shelter. Reverend Pierson told ThinkProgress that, with the help of community volunteers and nearby churches, Greater St. Mark also supplied first aid and helped protesters wash tear gas out of their eyes. Eventually, activity at the church drew the attention of roughly 35 police officers, who tried to shut down the operation, unsuccessfully.
The primary objective of religious leaders then and now, according to Talve, is to lift up the voices of the youth, who are driving the movement in Ferguson. “Our committment is to all the people, but our faith traditions say we also need to lift up the voices of the most vulnerable, to lift up the voices of those who’ve been marginalized. Our job is to take the margins and move them to the center. Most of our religious traditions are based on that, making sure that we relieve suffering. And the suffering right now is with black and brown youth who are profiled and at risk for being shot. They feel like there’s a genocide going on and we have an obligation to pay attention to that and to save lives.”