Racial justice in Louisville in black and white

Aug 3, 2016 at 12:03 pm
Chanelle Helm and Rebecca Frederick
Chanelle Helm and Rebecca Frederick Photo by Nerissa Sparkman

Read about Anna Rohleder's experience writing this week's cover story in her column "Race as Shadow."

On a hot Sunday afternoon in July, The Carl Braden Center at 32nd Street and West Broadway became direct-action headquarters for the Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice movements. Around 60 to 75 people of a range of ages and races, many in Black Lives Matter T-shirts, were packed into rows of folding chairs, so many that they had begun to trail into the other rooms of the house. Even after the meeting started, people continued to file in. They clustered in the doorway and along the back wall.

At the front of a room was a board reading: “How can we position or align Black Lives Matter to address issues of injustice in Louisville and other blacks/Africans across the diaspora?” Addressing the group was Chanelle Helm, 36, a local Black Lives Matter core leader. As the chairs and chairs of people watched and listened, she began to outline a strategy for defeating the “Blue Lives Matter” bill, which state Rep. Kevin Bratcher recently proposed, to make an attack on police and firefighters a hate crime. Civil rights groups say it may weaken protections for minorities, because they cannot change their identities or public visibility by simply taking off a uniform.

“If this goes through, it’s the beginning of martial law,” Helm told the group in her usual matter-of-fact tone. Even when discussing dire circumstances, Helm rarely raises her voice or becomes emotional. “I know it’s hard for white people to understand, but don’t worry about it. Just do white people work, and let us educate black people.” To explain this division of labor, she told the group that white people should work on voter enrollment and talk to white legislators. Then she paused to make an additional request:

“Some of the white people in the room, give up your seats to the members of the community who just came in,” she said.

Though several whites obliged and gave their seats to the black people who were standing, there were a few confused looks. Then, when the white attendees had to go outside and wait for an hour for a black-only meeting to finish before the street march could begin, there was even a little grumbling.

I asked Helm about the seating request, later. Wasn’t the idea to bring blacks and whites together to work for racial justice? Helm said she wanted to make sure that people from the neighborhood felt they had a place at the meeting. As to the larger issue: “People get upset that there isn’t a unified call to action, but in all of these things there have to be specific calls to action for whites versus blacks,” she explained. “If we’re going to send an e-mail blast to [schools Superintendent] Donna Hargens’ office, there needs to be one letter for white people to call on her about school policies that are funneling students to prison, but there are other things to be said on behalf of black mothers and black children who go to school.”

Call it the new racial realpolitik.

Sunday’s meeting highlighted how the current movement for social justice differs from previous civil rights struggles. For one, Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, made up of white people, exists to support the movement surrounding Black Lives Matter — not to lead it. And then there is the involvement of the LGBTQ community and the leadership of youth of color — all factors shaping the movement nationally and here in Louisville.

That day’s meeting at the Braden Center was one in a series of StandUp Sundays, a weekly program put on by the coalition of StandUp Louisville (for Black Lives), Black Lives Matter Louisville, a black member-only group, and LSURJ, Louisville Showing Up to Support Racial Justice, a white-to-white advocacy and education group. Together, they take on direct actions, such as street protests against police brutality, while also tackling less overt issues of racism, such as housing discrimination and the achievement gap in schools.

“Our goal is to move 3.5 million white people into taking the side of racial justice,” said Carla Wallace, 54, a national and local SURJ leader, and a white, longtime community organizer and activist who was also a founder of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville. “Those are the numbers that can shift policy and transform our economic system.”

More broadly, SURJ is careful to define itself as a supporter in this new civil rights movement, rather than being out front. “Our role is to facilitate white people showing up for racial justice, but the leadership is black and brown people who are leading the movement for black lives in the country,” Wallace said.

LSURJ’s profile in Louisville has risen in tandem with the BLM movement, and its philosophy is in line with one that began during the Civil Rights Movement: to open the eyes of white people who don’t think of themselves as racist, but who still go along with a racist system. Calls have been going out since the 1960s to “organize your own,” meaning white people raising the awareness of other white people around racial issues.

This time, however, the call is gaining new traction and currency, thanks to a magic word that emerged in the interim: “intersectionality.”

Racial justice and LGBTQ

SURJ has found success acting as a hub connecting the spokes of its intersectional subgroups, especially the LGTBQ community, young families and the white working-class. Locally and nationally, women and people who identify as LGTBQ have been prominent leaders in SURJ and the BLM movements.

“In Louisville, the Fairness Campaign was like the forerunner of SURJ, that really talked and taught about racial justice,” said Cate Fosl, a scholar of race who is the director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville.

Christian Jones, a 16-year-old member of BLM Louisville, said he sees a natural flow between LGBTQ and racial-justice issues. “With all the intersections I face, there’s not just one oppression or privilege, but a whole bunch of privileges,” he explained. “As a gay black male, I try to combat homophobia in the black community and racism in the LGBT community.”

That intersection is one notable difference between what is happening now and the Civil Rights Movement. Another is the youth factor.

Jones is among several teenage BLM members locally. Shalonte Branham, now 19, is a youth leader for BLM who got involved as a high school senior. “I realized I can’t say I’m for black people, justice, all this grandeur stuff, if I’m not doing anything about it,” she said. Now the “oldest of the young group,” Branham is a seasoned chant leader at BLM marches and does outreach at colleges and schools.

“Being a young person in today’s society,” she said, “we don’t have access to jobs, and the education we’re getting doesn’t relate to what’s happening in our world, so I try to create that space.”

Among those who witnessed the push for racial justice in Louisville is Merv Aubespin, a retired journalist and the first African American hired as news artist at The Courier-Journal, in 1967. “The young people now are more vocal than they used to be,” he said. Something else that has changed, Aubespin said, is “face-counting,” or picking out the two or three white people who might have marched with blacks at that time. “It wasn’t in vogue for whites to participate then. Now it’s expected that there’s always going to be a group of whites sympathetic to the movement.”

For BLM, those vocal youth tend to be kids of color. The leaders of SURJ, by contrast, are largely middle-aged, veteran social activists like Wallace.

How SURJ showed up

After such watershed events as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56 and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the next turning point for race relations came in 1984 when Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign put forward the possibility of an African-American president. In 2008, Barack Obama made it a reality.

After his election, many hailed the beginning of a post-racial society. With a black man in the White House, it seemed like a victory for civil rights. Yet on talk radio, in the comments section of blogs and newspapers and along the hallways of schools and universities, Obama’s first term instead marked the start of a racist backlash, with widespread public questioning of everything from the Affordable Care Act to whether he was a native-born American. Right-wing militias increased. The number of active hate groups rose from 888 in 2008 to 1,007 in 2012, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.

In this atmosphere of new racial tension in America, leaders of color asked white social activists to begin educating and organizing white people around issues of racial justice.

SURJ was born as a national network in 2009.

“It started with 60 people on a call — now there are 200 chapters around the U.S.,” said Wallace, who is both a national and local SURJ leader. She said that “accountability conversations” with local leaders of color in Louisville began soon after that to identify ways in which SURJ could organize within the white community over the long haul.

She and other white activists met with groups such as Women in Transition, an advocacy group for poor women, and the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “It was not a matter of getting permission, but having a conversation on what we needed to do to make change,” she said.

Early on, the emphasis was on walking the talk. “We have to take action, or we’re not showing up,” said Wallace. One of the first actions for LSURJ was to stage a counter-demonstration at a neo-Nazi rally in Frankfort in 2012.

How white silence is white violence

At the StandUp Sunday march on July 17, one white protester was holding a sign that read, “White Silence is Violence!” and had lettered the word “solidarity” in marker down his arm. Another white man’s sign said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” If a white person has never done it, participating in a demonstration may seem bold. But that is just a start, said Helm. “If they are ready to come out, they can become allies: Do something safe, in capital letters, like take part in a march,” she said. “When they’re really ready to support marginalized communities — especially black people — and get down and dirty, that’s when they become accomplices.”

That means taking risks.

For white people, the biggest perceived risk can be alienating other white people by speaking out. Rebecca Frederick, 30, an LSURJ leader who is a stay-at-home mom, explained: “Say you’re at the dinner table and your uncle says something racist. Rather than going along with it, you break your silence in the moment,” she said. But that doesn’t mean telling your uncle he’s a racist. “It’s important to call people in, not out,” Frederick added. “We want to create an environment where people can ask questions and make mistakes.”

It sounds straightforward enough, like getting directions to an unfamiliar place. But, at least in my observation, breaking white silence is more like peeling an onion. There are layers and layers, and the possibility is that at some point, someone will start to cry.

At a July meeting for new SURJ members I attended at the downtown library, much of the 90-minute session was spent getting the attendees to talk to one another. When Wallace said, “Turn to your neighbor and tell them why you’re here,” there was a cacophony of 200-plus voices talking at once. But when I told my neighbors I was writing a story about SURJ and Black Lives Matter for LEO, they went quiet. No one wanted to make a public statement for my story. What I can say, without identifying any one person, is that many felt overwhelmed by the news of more racially-tinged shooting deaths and the ugly tone of public discourse surfacing in the presidential campaign. Several said they felt that reacting to, or sharing posts on, social media was no longer enough, and they needed to do something in the real world. But they also said they had come to the SURJ meeting in hope of finding tools: especially, scripts for talking about things for which they lacked the language.

“White people want to be perfect and right,” said Kelly McCall, an LSURJ leader at the meeting. “We don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

To that end, SURJ includes resources on the families section of its website for having difficult conversations. These talking points come in tailored formats, including a conversation guide for Thanksgiving and a Fourth of July place-mat, a printable sheet to set on the table detailing “What you might hear about Trump at your July 4th cookout” such as “Trump will be tough on terrorism and Muslims,” along with suggested responses, such as asking, “Has there ever been a time that you or a loved one has been unfairly targeted because of your beliefs and identity?”.

Stories are integral to SURJ’s efforts to recruit in the immediate term and to accomplish bigger goals. “Everybody’s stories are bound up together, and if you can hear people’s stories, you can identify the mutual interest [in racial justice],” said McCall.

That is the philosophy behind the deep-canvassing pilot project that SURJ is undertaking in Louisville and other cities: going door to door for conversations with white people about racism. In tandem, SURJ also organizes response to events as they are happening.

Showing up on Bardstown Road

On a recent sweltering Saturday morning, McCall and I were standing in the inadequate shade of a telephone pole outside the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market. It was just a few days after the new-members meeting downtown, and 40 or so people had turned out for a “Say No to Hate and Yes to Black and Brown Lives” action.

Co-organized by the same coalition behind StandUp Sundays — Stand Up Louisville and Black Lives Matter Louisville, along with Parents of Social Justice and LSURJ — the Saturday rally was a response to fliers with racist and anti-refugee messages that had recently appeared in The Highlands. A petition to the mayor making a statement against the fliers was circulated. Signatures were not allowed to be gathered inside the market. But LSURJ leaders said they still collected about 100 in an hour from passersby. In addition to “Black Lives Matter” signs, participants also held placards saying “We Love Our Muslim Neighbors” and “Train Police for Peace.” Among the demonstrators were Episcopal priests, Amy Coultas and Benjamin Hart. “Working in a white church in an affluent area of the city [St. Matthews], we’re very concerned with this,” said Hart, who was wearing his clerical collar. “I think people of privilege need to use it to speak for people who don’t.”

Coultas saw protesting as part of her religious work. “The church has to point out places in society that are unjust.”

My feeling is that the media should point out injustice too. I was surprised to be the only reporter present that day, just as I was at the SURJ new members’ meeting earlier in the week and at the previous StandUp Sunday.

I did, however, count three police cars that drove by in that hour. Passing motorists who acknowledged the demonstrators responded mostly with horn toots, waves or the occasional fist-pump. Two drivers yelled out their windows, “All lives matter!”

Where we are now – and where we’re going

The angry tone in which this was barked made it clear that, far from being an inclusive statement, “all lives matter!” is actually white-person-in-denial code for “How dare you?”

How dare you question the way things are?

How dare you suggest I am not right (and perfect)?

But most of all: How dare you disturb me?

In researching and reporting this story, I concluded that a main goal of whiteness is not an elaborate, cackling-mastermind plan of world domination, but something simple, subconscious and even banal.

The primary goal of whiteness is to be comfortable.

And for white people in America, among whom I count myself, that means using our white privilege to remain blissfully ignorant of how terrorized people of color are in this country. It is the terror of knowing your world can end at any moment, for any arbitrary reason. For looking someone in the eye, or looking away. For smiling, or not smiling. For wearing a sweatshirt with a hood.

For going to get a soda.

“Even before [George] Zimmerman was acquitted, when white people were saying, ‘[Trayvon Martin] deserved it,’ I started to understand I could die just for living,” said Shalonte Branham.

Christian Jones recalled fearing for his life while protesting at the rally in April for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. “It was just me and my two friends in a sea of white people, and it was really scary,” he said. “They weren’t doing or saying anything — though someone did call me the N-word that day — but being surrounded by people who believed all those horrible things, anything could happen.”

Trump supporters fall into the 10 percent category of white people SURJ says are not even worth trying to have a conversation with. But what about the white folks who might come to a SURJ meeting or a StandUp Sunday but still grumble,when asked to give up their seats to black people?

Sixty-one years ago, Rosa Parks launched the headline phase of the American Civil Rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man.

The irony struck me as almost too perfect.

Are we still on that bus?

I was sitting with Helm in the rectory where she works as a church secretary. What would she have said to the white people who balked at giving up their chairs at the Carl Braden Center the previous Sunday?

“You would not be doing this work if there weren’t a Civil Rights Movement where white people said, ‘I benefit from white privilege, I benefit from racism, but we’re going to build a house for black leadership.’” •