How A New York Seminary Became A Hub For Eric Garner Protests

Protesters participate in a “die-in” at Grand Central Station during a demonstration against a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. CREDIT: AP
Protesters participate in a “die-in” at Grand Central Station during a demonstration against a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. CREDIT: AP

Clergy, seminarians, and people of faith are taking to the streets of New York City and other towns across the country, making religious calls for justice as they join the wave of protests decrying the deaths of two black men — Eric Garner and Mike Brown — at the hands of white law enforcement officials.

In New York City, one of the newest organizing hubs for the recent protests has been Union Theological Seminary, a historically progressive theological school located in Upper Manhattan. Soon after news broke regarding the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer accused of choking Garner to death in July, outraged Union students and faculty converted one of the school’s rooms into a “protest hub” — or, as some students call it, a “love hub.” Students say they are staffing the space 24 hours a day to help with the growing protest movement in the city, stocking it with bandages, baked goods, and guides for how people should respond if arrested.

Candace Simpson, a first-year Masters of Divinity student at Union and a key organizer in the school’s protest efforts, said the student’s activism was a natural reflection of their faith.

“[The protest hub] is truly a place of practical ministry,” Candace said, texting ThinkProgress on Sunday while helping lead a group of black churches in a march protesting the grand jury decision. “My faith celebrates a person who represented a threat to the empire. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of our lost brothers and sisters represent a threat to the empire, just by their very lives.”

“Our faith sustains our acts. Our acts sustain our faith … If we are here to do ministry, this is where we learn,” Simpson added.

Using the command center as a launching pad, Union administrators know of at least six students that have been arrested so far, putting them alongside the hundreds who have been detained by police since demonstrations began last week. Often joining up with existing protest actions, Union students say they are working to bring a spiritual message to the movement: After two seminarians were arrested at a protest near a NYPD police stations last Thursday, one student, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, approached the line of police and began reading from Psalm 109, which concludes with the line, “For [God] shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.”

“It was a perfect God moment, and a perfect way to witness to my faith and perhaps to the shared faith of the five or so cops that I was reading to,” Graves-Fitzsimmons told ThinkProgress.

Serene Jones, president of Union, echoed her students’ righteous indignation while appearing on Melissa Harris Perry’s show this Sunday.

“Christianity is the story of a black body being killed by the most powerful nation in the world,” Jones said on the MSNBC program. “If racism isn’t the topic of conversation in every church this morning, what the hell kind of church do we have?”

Other religious leaders in the city are also joining the cause. Last Thursday, four prominent NYC Rabbis — Jill Jacobs, Sharon Kleinbaum, David Rosenn and Shai Held — were arrested for participating in a “sit-in” to the protest the Garner decision. Before they were detained, demonstrators collectively recited the kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning for loved ones. Participants also read aloud the names of more than 20 black people killed by New York City police, reportedly responding with the phrase “I am responsible.”

“Rabbis and all Jews need to stand up and say that every single person is a creation in the divine image — that black lives matter,” Rabbi Jacobs told the Huffington Post. “We put our bodies on the line to show how crucial it is that the systems meant to protect us do protect all of us.”

Faith groups outside of New York are also citing their faith as they respond to both Garner’s death and the recent fatal shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Clergy in Philadelphia are helping organize a “Die-In” outside of the Philadelphia Eagles game on Sunday afternoon, where participants plan to lay down in the street for four minutes and thirty seconds — a move meant to symbolize the four hours and thirty minutes that Mike Brown laid dead in the streets of Ferguson. And in an unusual show of theological solidarity, Russell Moore, a prominent Christian conservative and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, issued a statement last week passionately condemning both racism and the Garner ruling.

“I’m stunned speechless by this news,” Moore said. “We hear a lot about the rule of law — and rightly so. But a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.”

“It’s time for us in Christian churches to not just talk about the gospel but live out the gospel by tearing down these dividing walls not only by learning and listening to one another but also by standing up and speaking out for one another,” he added.

Spiritual leaders were also active participants in the Ferguson protests earlier this year, marching in the streets to denounce the killing of Brown and offering their churches as safe havens for demonstrators after the grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who shot the unarmed teen on August 9. Although the faith leaders have tried to be ambassadors of civility at protests, their calls for peace are not always returned: A local pastor was shot in the abdomen with a rubber bullet during the early demonstrations in Ferguson, with police officers firing on her as she tried to calm the crowd by chanting “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

Meanwhile, the movement for racial justice in NYC doesn’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. Demonstrations have continued unabated since the grand jury decision was announced last week, and at least one student told ThinkProgress that they plan to participate in faith-based protest actions over the next few days.