On Interconnected Political Debacles: the City of Birmingham, the State of Alabama, and our never-particularly United States of America

As a rule, I have low expectations of those in political office – at every level. This country’s systems – at every level – have been biased from the outset toward the affluent, so that the pursuit of power, property, and profit frame public policy and public discourse.

That system of power often circumscribes and circumvents even the best efforts, intentions, and characters. 

Nonetheless, a spirit of public interest has managed to survive for a long time, kindled by uneven bits and pieces of a democratic and practical commitment to the greater good – including in some part to those disadvantaged by the system and the very Earth itself. 

The calculated withdrawal from that commitment to public good – and especially from the needs of marginalized people and the planet – traces most immediately back to the Reagan era 1980s, with specific roots in the would-be oligarchy’s opposition to 1860s-70s Reconstruction, 1900s Progressive Era, 1930s New Deal, and 1960s Great Society reformist public policies, as well as the broader enfranchisement represented by Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. 

(and, while embodying specific forms of progress, the reforms of those eras still never went far enough in inclusion and avoidance of harm to vulnerable people and the planet – but that’s a discussion for a different day)

Make no mistake – this autocratic neoliberalism is deliberate and it is comprehensive in its approach. And it has become much more efficient, skillfully manipulative, and technologically adept in its reach. 

At a national level, what we witness in the current president is jaw-dropping in its awfulness, but it is an unsurprising outcome of the trajectory of this country since the Reagan era (and that trajectory has been advanced by both parties, though to different degrees. The Democratic party under both B. Clinton and Obama has also been actively complicit, though Republican abdication of public interest has been of an entire different magnitude. Both are problematic, but one is clearly worse). 

It is wholesale capitulation to the mechanisms of concentrated private profit and ownership – at the expense of everything else, even human life, in a wholesale philosophy of commodification. 

Trump is more unprincipled – and louder – in his manipulation of identity politics to secure his power, but he’s just an unvarnished, unrestrained, accelerated embodiment of that whole agenda. 

On the state level, Alabama’s government has always leaned this way. Such tenets are obviously well-enshrined in the 1901 Constitution. But the Powers-that-Were-&-Are did a clever end run on us 2010-2012. Those forces now maintain an effective stranglehold on power in Montgomery, which ensures that Montgomery continues to have a stranglehold on the rest of the state. That Governor Ivey has maintained a mask ordinance in the actual public interest is a wholesale minor miracle.

And as for this city: those same forces of white-supremacy-entrenched, resource-extraction-based capitalism have also long held sway in Birmingham. But there has also been a long tradition of a public sector structured to at least ensure essential public spaces and institutions (libraries, neighborhood associations, public works, parks and rec, schools, and so on). 

It also provided for a civil service sector to run that infrastructure. That essential sector provided economic mobility for those employed and a significant degree of economic stability for their extended networks. The positive effects permeated the entire community for decades.

Here, as elsewhere, that sector has been the subject of political patronage – and some folks ascend and others take a hit as the top of the municipal tickets change. But on the whole, it’s an infrastructure that provides meaningful services, often through longstanding relationships, to the whole of the city – not just those who can pay for perks and private delights and comforts. 

And if properly directed, it’s a structure that could address issues of widespread poverty and the need for a scaffolding of affordable housing, public transit, food security, accessible healthcare, and quality education. 

If properly directed. 

Birmingham municipal leadership has ebbed and flowed in how well it engaged the public sector and the public platform to tend to the needs of ALL its people. That has been a matter of variable commitment, variable integrity, and variable competence at navigating through civic inertias, possibilities, and external constraints. 

What’s going on now is an entirely different game.

Over the last couple of years, Birmingham has fallen fully into line with this orienting principle of neoliberal privatization that we see at work nationally and globally. 

It is premised upon the dismantling of the public sector (other than increasingly militarized mechanisms of social control) in favor of privatization, which can be outright or through ‘public-private partnerships.’

While these forces have long been one part of the equation, the comparatively recent complete embrace represents a paradigm shift in local politics – and it will benefit the affluent, both of this city and of the surrounding suburbs, at the expense of poor and working-class folks (who in this city are overwhelming Black – this is a narrative of institutional white supremacy, regardless of who advances it). 

The direction and intent has been clear for a while now, but the COVID era has offered opportunities to accelerate the process.

The current budget debacle has been a clear illustration. We will see more of such maneuvers in the weeks and months to come, I fear. Last night’s City Council meeting, which ultimately passed that budget, was raw theater for this manipulative power. 

So – the combined forces of the Mayor’s office and a (at least) 5-person lockstep voting bloc of the City Council provides all that the Local Powers That Be need to move the agenda of neoliberal privatization on along full apace.  

The current occupants of those offices are apparently willing to ride that heady mix of power’s endorsement and opportunity. It may continue to get them somewhere, especially if they are willing to resurrect ethics only for superficial viewing in campaign promises. Yet they should be aware that the system they’ve pledged into also regards them as disposable. 

That this paradigm shift took hold by manipulating grassroots electoral methods and promises is a particular sin. When some of you pledged a vow of servant leadership, you certainly did not make clear who and whose interests you intended to serve. 

Things will get complicated as we move on along. The 2021 local elections are already kicking in. Some of the critiques we are hearing now and in the time to come are motivated by the speaker’s own political ambitions and opportunism. Let us listen for that – and ask questions. There may be true and honest leaders – and we need those leaders with wisdom and integrity – mixed among those folks, but we will have to discern carefully. Nothing and no one is a given.  

There will also continue to be people who genuinely believe in actual equity, care, and justice for people and the planet – enacted with skill and with a dedicated concern for civic and common good. There are people with real integrity speaking into this struggle. I do my best to count among that number. My own personal interests might be better served by being quiet, but the ethical imperatives of my faith compel me to speak out. This is pastoral work and this is a Christian commitment for me.

On the national level, the choices are pretty clear, if less than we might have hoped for. 

Closer to home, we’ll have to keep paying attention, keep asking questions, keep making demands on the system that it be more genuinely accountable, equitable, and just in service of the public interest, and keep taking it to the streets when the interests of the commons are unheard and unheeded.

Let us never cease to ask the questions: “who benefits from this” “whom is this intended for?” “who may be harmed by this, whether it’s intentional or not?” And if the answer comes at the expense of marginalized people or the planet for the sake of the Affluent Class or the powers of patriarchy and white supremacy, we have to be ready to speak back and push back. 

Many thanks to all who have worked so hard to create structures for participatory budgeting and people’s power, liberated from political manipulation. Your expertise, dedication, witness, and example are a great gift to us all – and it is my joy to journey with you in this work.

Amen

Three Types of Social Change Speech

Reflecting on three distinct types of speech acts in the context of this complicated moment – 

I talk often about two types: (1) saying something because it needs to be said, which is a proclamation of truth as one sees it; and (2) saying something to be heard, which is an invitation to examine a truth (perhaps a truth new or uncomfortable for the listener) in a new way. 

For our purposes here, let’s call those proclamation and invitation. 

Invitation is usually gentler and more relationship-oriented than proclamation – and proclamation more bold and clear than invitation – though ultimately they point to the same truths IF the same truths are in mind at the start. 

Some people focus on one and some on the other. In a healthy view, both groups respect both efforts as a collaborative, multi-faceted strategy rather than as ‘doing it the wrong way.’ In social change work, we need both, provided that they are clear about the liberation-for-all foundation. 

They are two sides of the same valuable coin, two different methods of working toward the same goal. 

(NOTE: that does NOT mean that all people using either of these two tactics have the same goal – just that these are two distinct tactics that can be used in meaningful social change work toward a particular goal). 

In my own complex role, I use both approaches, depending on my assessment of the needs of the moment (note: and sometimes that shift catches people off guard and they get bold from me when they expected warmer-fuzzier or vice versa. I speak to a broad audience here and in many spaces, so I do the best I can given the exigencies of any given moment). 

As for that third type: (3)  there is also speaking because *we* need to be heard. Often it’s because we’re angry, frustrated, or exhausted, though it can be a happier thing too. The words in this case function as a vent. 

There is nothing wrong with this. (note: I do this too). In fact, it is critically important. We all need to express our feelings, especially if we are concerned about the plight of the Earth and its people. The work of caring (and acting on that caring) is intense. 

The KEY THING HERE is to understand that this third speech act, vent, is fundamentally about oneself and how one is feeling rather than about strategic engagement in social change work (which is the focus of proclamation and invitation). 

In other words, it’s a human/ego statement more than a tactical statement about an issue. 

An example, steeped in a bit hyperbole — “HEY STUPID! WEAR A DAMN MASK!!!” There are many other versions of this around this and every other issue. 

(SERIOUS NOTE – I’m not here to debate either the science or the ethics of mask wear or the approaches of those who advocate for or against it. I’ve made my position clear in recent weeks: nobody likes wearing a mask, but it is the right thing to do because the science is clear that it significantly reduces the risk that one will transmit COVID to another person. Another option for non-mask wearers (without underlying medical conditions) is just staying home so you don’t endanger others. That’s another legit way of caring for one’s neighbor and fulfilling one’s responsibility to others. You are welcome to express your own perspective, whether you agree or disagree – on your own page. But it’s beside my point here. I am simply using the phrase above as an example). 

This type of speech act suits an internal need – and if you’ve got an audience that hears you and affirms you and keeps you accountable, that is a sure blessing. 

I’d suggest, however,  that this type of engagement is unlikely to (a) persuade or encourage the reluctant, (b) inform and bolster the undecided or tentative, or (c) skillfully express solidarity and shared insight with one’s comrades in the struggle  – i.e., the primary and secondary audiences for proclamation and invitation – and for any form of social change work. 

It can be a space of shared support around the Vent topic – but that’s collective Vent rather than tactical engagement. 

It takes time, energy, intention, patience, and a certain dedication to wisdom to do proclamation and invitation well, at least on an enduring and consistent basis. None of us is perfect at it and hopefully we are all learning all along the way.

Vent, on the other hand, is driven by the energy of the self. Its criteria of success is how much release of tension and energy you gain by it. 

All three are important. All three engage the emotions and the context of the moment. They are just three different things. 

I’d argue we are wise to be mindful of  the distinctions among the three – and their relationship to our end goals – in this moment and as the work continues. 

Amen. 

Two Frameworks

Y’all know I typically preach nuance. This moment, however, allows us a glimpse of two pretty clear-cut foundational frameworks for white folks about racial injustice right now.*

1) a commitment to keep humble, keep learning, keep using that learning to do more effective anti-racist work internally, relationally, and systemically, and keep at it.

A person with this framework can be anywhere along a spectrum of knowledge and prior commitment, from just now realizing that white supremacy is a real, ongoing, pervasive evil in our society to embodying a long history in the struggle for a better world.

2) a belief – sometimes consciously affirmed, sometimes more subtly lurking in the subconscious – that one knows what there is to know, has done the necessary work to arrive at that conclusion, and is satisfied with it and one’s own place within that knowledge construct.

A person with this framework can also be anywhere along a spectrum of knowledge and prior commitment, from openly committed to a white supremacist ideology to long involved in the struggle against it.

For those of you who aim to fall into the first category of praxis, I invite you to reflect on what you do to keep from getting set in your ways or complacent in your learning and actions.

Do you know that this process of learning can be intrinsically life-giving for you and for others, even as it confronts great historical and contemporary sorrows? I assure you it can be.

For folks who fall into the second category – there is another way. Please know that – and know that if you’d like to orient yourself toward it, there are lots of folks who will be glad to walk with you with love on that journey.

Amen

* (I believe this categorization holds true for a lot of other differentials of power and oppression as well, including economic position, gender, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation and gender identity, religious identity, and so on).

Beyond Saying “Black Lives Matter”: the Application of Anti-Racist Learning

Knowledge of the history and present of enacted white supremacy is important.  Many of us white folks neither learned this in our formal education nor recognized it as a part of our lived reality. 

That reading circles and task groups and Sunday School classes are studying White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist and I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is a really good thing. The COVID era’s surge in online webinars and panels has also created new accessible forums for learning and engagement – and those are amazing spaces for hearing new perspectives.

This knowledge changes us, right? 

Then comes the process of really making that knowledge our own – integrating it into our understanding of the world – by putting it to use. 

We put it to use in our own thinking, in our conversations with others, and when we show up to protests. 

But we also must put it to use by engaging with applied, structurally embedded inequalities to help create change. 

This is the long haul of dismantling white supremacy – and it’s a great blessing to be able to do that work. 

I am a big fan of engaging with that work through grassroots efforts, so I’m going to name some groups working on those issues in Alabama. If you are not in Alabama and need help finding local efforts in your area, give me a holler. 

This is long-term, necessary structural change work. 

None of us can do it all. All of us can do something. 

Death Penalty – Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty

Environmental Justice – GASP, PANIC, Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, Alabama Interfaith Power & Light 

Medicaid Expansion for Increased Healthcare Access- Alabama Arise 

Arise is also a great source of information about and advocacy space for tax reform, public transit, and other significant statewide policy issues. 

Land Tenure – Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust

Immigrant Detention – Shut Down Etowah

Payday Lending – Alliance for Responsible Lending in Alabama 

Restorative Justice & Prison Abolition – When We Fight 

Voter Engagement/Voting Rights  – Woke Vote, League of Women Voters of Alabama (and its local chapters)

While we’re here, check out the policy platforms at the Movement for Black Lives. If you are relatively new to anti-racist work, this may feel like a lot to take in. Take a deep breath and ease your way through it with an open mind. This is what meaningful anti-racist structural change looks like. This is what a more just world looks like.

Let’s make it happen – together.

Support Amazing Grassroots BIPOC-led Organizations

These are human-scale, grassroots, BIPOC*-led (and mostly black-women led) organizations doing vital work on the ground in under-resourced communities in Alabama without tons of institutional support. 

(*BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color – this term helps to avoid the erasure of Indigenous Peoples)

These are real folks doing the work of real equity and justice every single day.

Please, please support them. 

Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust
paypal: dynamitehillclt@gmail.com

Fountain Heights Farm 
paypal – https://www.paypal.me/MDVillanueva

No More Martyrs
donation page – https://www.givelify.com/givenow/1.0/MzIxODk=/selection

TAKE Resource Center 
donation page –https://www.takebhm.org/donate

Yes, I Have a Therapist 
paypal – https://www.paypal.me/YesIHaveATherapist

Our Firm Foundation
donation page – https://www.ourfirmfoundation.org/donate

Be a Blessing Birmingham
paypal – https://bit.ly/2ZZcvSY

Black Belt Citizens 
mail a check to
Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice
23355 County Rd 53
Uniontown, AL 36786

Literary Healing Arts Foundation
Cash App $salaamgr

People’s Justice Council 
https://www.thepeoplesjusticecouncil.org/donate

Margins: Women Helping Black Women 
donation page

GASP – not BIPOC-staff-led, but majority POC board. Funnels resources directly into Collegeville/Fairmont/Harriman Park – https://gaspgroup.org/support-gasp/

Offender Alumni Association
https://www.offenderalumniassociation.org/donate

Birmingham Bail Fund –
UPDATED – centralized link
https://givebutter.com/NobodyLeftBehindBailFund

White People and the Appropriation of Black Uprising Spaces

While we’re on the subject of uprisings, rebellion, and riots, let’s talk about white folks hijacking – at least in part – the current action in the streets of our cities:

Have you seen the video footage of #UmbrellaMan, the masked white man who instigated some of the first damage in Minneapolis, even as black protesters discouraged him? There are varying reports and speculation as to who he is (freelance agent provocateur, undercover law enforcement, white supremacist, or anarchist), but any which way this video is clear.

Speaking of anarchists, I have friends who are anarchists. Some are even Christian anarchists (and a compelling argument can be made that Christ himself was an anarchist). I don’t classify myself that way, but there are plenty of good people who do. My sense is that much of the amazing COVID-era mutual aid going on around the country is being done by anarchists. That is certainly true locally (h/t Birmingham Mutual Aid).

However, the small subset of white anarchists who violently escalate black protests to further their own political ends – further endangering black lives in the process – are exploiting black people and the cause of black liberation. This adds them to a long list of other white folks who exploit black people.

White anarchists who want to support the current uprising need to take their cues from black folks. If there are aspects of their agenda that do not coincide with the stated needs of black folks on the scene, they need to save those for a different space.

Taking advantage of unrest is also straight from organized militant white supremacy’s tactical playbook. I haven’t yet seen trust-worthy onsite documentation of white supremacist violent manipulation of these uprising spaces, but it is certainly plausible that they could be present and active. EDIT – check out link to comments from MSP activists in comments.

If you’ve seen other ways that you think white folks are hijacking the movement or the moment, you are invited to drop them in the comments. I am aware that that charge could be labeled at me. To that I can only respond that my longstanding focus in all of my work is on information and ideas that may be helpful to people who are trying to engage with integrity around these issues – not an agenda about myself or any institution, even my church.

IMPORTANT NOTE: my argument here is also not about further militarizing urban spaces in response. I’m also not taking a position in favor or opposing urban uprisings. My point is about white people not taking up space – and not taking violent actions – at the expense of black agenda, leadership, and bodies, whether that’s intentional or collateral damage.

I also would like to help people who are not familiar with contemporary anarchism to understand that it is no more a monolith than any other political movement – so it’s better neither to have a knee-jerk reaction to the term, nor to group all anarchists as the same in method or commitment.

This is the 3rd post in a series today – and an ongoing series that can be found under the tag race.

Power, Community, and the Politics of Kinship

On one of the grassroots Live feeds last night (and I can’t remember if it was St. Louis or Atlanta because I was watching several at once), a young black woman spoke of how good it was to be out in the community, caring for one another on the streets and letting their voices be heard – not only by those in power, but also by those around them.

There is power in community – and it was a joy to be in (careful) community with some friends at the White Birminghamians for Black Lives vigil yesterday.

We gather for justice – and to make a statement about vitally important issues. That’s the primary point.

But we also gather in support of one another – in solidarity, kinship, and friendship.

Weaving the bonds of community – acknowledging and manifesting the reality of our interdependence – is a key function.

When we can do that in person, it’s an extra blessing.

But we also do that work online all the time as well – and especially in this time – and that makes it even more accessible to people who can’t make it in person (which is any of us at any given time).

One additional note of awareness: caring relationships in community are built upon truth, mutuality, and an awareness of differential power.

So if you are white, realize that it takes time and repeated demonstrations of humble, genuine commitment to create trust in relationships with Black, Brown, and other folks of color – and they may still never fully trust us. That has to be okay. We have given them every reason not to trust us. We need to continue the diligent work of being trust-worthy anyway – and without having to get public or private credit for us. The responsibility is on us.

This can be hard. We want people to like us (I certainly want people to like me) – but “us” is always present in the context of broader cultural conditions. We best deal with that through our awareness of it, not by pretending it’s not there or ducking the responsibility.

And of course that matrix of power persists in all of our relationships – straight folks with LGBTQ+ people, affluent folks with poor people, people currently without disabilities with disabled folks, cisgender people (straight or LGB+) with trans people, and so on.

Just as there is intersectionality of marginalization, there is also intersectionality of privilege – and each of us needs to be aware of the power we wield.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be real kinship and friendship across differences, but it does mean that when we have power we need to be aware of it and bear the responsibility of being and ever-more becoming trust-worthy.

Doing that self-work is a part of how we care for our neighbors – and a part of how we continually build those communities of solidarity, kinship, and friendship.

Amen

This is the 2nd post in a series today – and an ongoing series that can be found under the tag race

On White Folks and the work of #blacklivesmatter

I’ll be sharing several thoughts today – and the ones in this post are particularly intended for us white folks, though of course the post is welcome for all:

1) being able to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a critical step.

2) one next critical step is to be able to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and then NOT adding ‘BUT’ followed by any statement about riots or nonviolence.

If our responses don’t contribute to empathy, respect, and an understanding that the expression of rage has a historical and present-moment foundation, then it’s better to keep it to ourselves – and keep listening to black folks around us and black media sources so that we keep learning.

We know the black community is not a monolith – but we can let black folks hash out the politics and meaning of the riots without imposing our judgments. We can work on our judgments instead and keep educating ourselves. Finding a black voice that agrees with us does not count as enough.

We have more important work to do than condemning riots (more critical steps), such as . . .

3) check out the advocacy actions assembled by Judy Hand-Truitt. These can be done by people anywhere –

4) It’s a GREAT time (all the time) to materially support black- and other POC- led organizations. I’ve mentioned some already in past posts and will add another post today with more ideas.

5) Check out Rev. Dr. Dave Barnhart’s wisdom about white folks and policy. He and I both will have more to say about policy matters in the days ahead, but this is a great focus.

6) We can keep listening, keep educating ourselves, keep offering witness and engagement with other white folks who are willing to listen – and keep strategically disrupting the illusion of consensus among our alllivesmatter or nobodyslifereallymattersbutmyown circles of white friends.

Each of us has to figure out how to do that well – and where it’s even possible. We’ll always have to pick our battles, but that fact shouldn’t allow us to abdicate from engagement entirely.

7) Figuring out how to be and act anti-racist is an ongoing, life-long active process. It never ends, but that also means that it offers constant possibility for learning and growth and becoming a better person. It is transformative. It is hard. It is vital. And it is blessing.

May we actively participate in our own transformation and in the transformation of the world around us.

Amen

This is the 1st post in a series today – and an ongoing series that can be found under the tag race.

On Listening While White

I believe that the first call upon those of us who are white is to listen – with humility, without condemning – to the expression of black rage in this moment.

None of us knows what it is like to be black in America.

Not a one of us.

There is much work to be done to address the terrible inequities that give rise to that rage.

We will do that work better if we begin by listening before we speak and before we act.

None of us does that perfectly, but all of us can keep doing it better.

We also can do a better job of listening to the fact that black people are made not only of righteous rage, but also of creativity, joy, love, connection, and meaning.

In other words, black folks are fully human, created in God’s image.

Understanding that is critical work in resisting the impulse toward dehumanization as well.

Here are three organizations doing vital work on the ground in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Freedom Fund
Black Visions Collective
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Supporting such efforts in a tangible way is also really important right now.

If you do not have access to a range of black voices to inform your listening, message me and I will share links to some of the public voices that I listen to and learn from.

There is much more work to be done, but the very first work we must do today is not cause more harm.

Amen

White Supremacy as a Demon

My kind of theology doesn’t talk much about demons.

I am much more comfortable with an intellectual analysis of problematic systems. I tend to carefully examine all of the constituent historical pieces that, put together, cause such prevalent harm in our society – and I can rationally explain how each of us is bound up in those systems, for some by choice and for many of us unwillingly, but inescapably.

But in reading this morning about the terrible killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was targeted for #joggingwhileblack in Brunswick, GA . . .

and in thinking about how the federal government is ready to dismantle the COVID task force now that it’s clear that the virus’s primary class of victims are black and brown (or elderly or imprisoned or disabled or otherwise considered disposable in a profit-focused society) . . .

and seeing the video of a black woman slammed to the floor in a local Walmart for non-compliance with a mask ordinance (yes, by a black officer – but we are well aware that the system weaponizes people of color against one another) (and yes, people should absolutely be wearing masks, but non-compliance is widespread and the escalation captured in that video cannot be the answer) . . .

it sits on my heart that white supremacy is a demon.

It is our country’s dearest demon.

It is pervasive and powerful, but it does not have to be.

The problem is that we are much more inclined to exercise it than exorcise it.

As a nation – and as individual agents of white supremacy – we owe due repentance as an active material and spiritual practice.

We have to commit – and indefatigably re-commit – to exorcising white supremacy from our own souls, from our relationships with one another, and from our systems of governance, commerce, and culture.

To do otherwise is to assent to the flourishing of evil – and while I know there are people who gleefully traffic in venality – no one I know – none of you out there reading this – wants to be a perpetrator of evil. I know I don’t.

White supremacy is a demon. It’s a demon when it’s polite and subtle. It’s a demon when it’s seductively comforting. It’s a demon when it’s happily bloody from terrible enacted violence.

White supremacy is a demon.

It’s our demon.

Amen