‘Protesters are not the enemy; police are not the enemy; Injustice is the enemy’

We all have thoughts on the events that have transpired over the past several days in our city and country. I’m humbled to have been asked to share mine on this platform.

First, a few details about me: I’m a husband and father to five young children. We’re a multiracial family and live in the heart of the city. I’m an ordained clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, a denomination I chose in my adulthood because of its dual-emphasis on personal holiness and social justice. I serve as one of the pastors at Faith United Methodist Church, a multiracial congregation with a longstanding legacy of advocating for racial justice and modeling racial reconciliation. Born and raised in Fort Wayne, I moved to Atlanta in 2009 to attend graduate school at Emory University, largely because I wanted to study theology while immersing myself in the Civil Rights legacy of the American South. We moved back to Fort Wayne in 2017 in the aftermath of my first cousin’s murder, a tragic event that inspired the recent launch of Alive Community Outreach, a 501(c)(3) focused on promoting nonviolence and supporting families who’ve been affected by homicide. Each of these various identities, roles and experiences inform my thoughts on what we are currently witnessing in our city and across America. And my experience this past weekend will continue to inform my thoughts and emotions moving forward.

On Friday night, I was walking to the Allen County Courthouse with my two oldest daughters to join those protesting the unconscionable murder of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis at the hands—more precisely, the knee—of Officer Derek Chauvin. We didn’t get very far from our vehicle when a group of people passing by told us to turn around because the SWAT team had just arrived and the situation was getting ugly. Had it been just me, I would’ve likely ignored their advice and forged ahead. But with two young girls, I decided it was best for us to go home.

Mante attended the protests in Fort Wayne on May 29-30.

The next day, I felt a responsibility to be part of the protest, but I also felt a responsibility to my family, as we had planned to celebrate our youngest son’s first birthday at my parents’ home that day. It was a lovely and peaceful Saturday afternoon with family, but I continuously found myself on my phone, following the situation downtown. As the afternoon wore on, it became clearer and clearer that Fort Wayne was in for another long, violent night. I felt drawn to go downtown, but I was on the fence. Rev. Cheryl Garbe, Senior Pastor of First Wayne Street United Methodist Church (where my office is located), called me expressing similar feelings. We decided to go downtown together, in hopes of offering a peaceful witness in the midst of all the chaos.

When we first arrived, our corner near Wayne and Barr streets was quiet. I was getting ready to walk closer to the courthouse, when a crowd of people started rushing toward us from the north, followed by a cloud of smoke. This happened multiple times throughout the evening, and our corner became an active and intense area for the remainder of the night. There were cars speeding up and down the street, young men jumping in and out; there were groups of young people all over, plotting their next move, carrying rocks and water bottles. Our area quickly became a target for tear gas canisters, one landing in the intersection, and another in the church parking lot near where we were standing. There was also a young man who was shot with a rubber bullet about 10 feet away from me as he was running toward me.

The first two George Floyd protests in Fort Wayne ended in violence.

I’ve never been to war, so I don’t want to be disrespectful or overdramatic. But I’ve never experienced anything that felt more like war than what I experienced on Saturday night. After failing to have milk on hand for a young girl who had been struck with tear gas, I decided that helping in this way was as good of a role as any to fulfill. So I took a trip to a nearby store and bought $40 worth of milk, and Pastor Cheryl and I stood near that corner for the rest of the night, helping, praying, being present, and yes, getting tear-gassed. It was a scary and Holy night. And God was with us.

In our United Methodist tradition, we teach that all lives are of sacred worth. George Floyd’s life was certainly of sacred worth, worthy of the collective outrage we now see and feel. But these protests are about more than Mr. Floyd. Black people have been oppressed in America for 400 years. As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has said, “Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved.” Mante purchased milk for protesters who were tear-gassed, and ended up having to use some himself.

From slavery, to Jim Crow, to racist hiring and lending practices, to mass incarceration, to police brutality, black people continue to fall victim to social, justice, and economic systems that were designed neither by them nor for them. These protests are not about police, but they are about corrupt officers who abuse their power and a system that far too often seems to be skewed in their favor. If the “bad apples” were simply held accountable, while the good and honorable ones showed up to march with the people with the same numbers and fervor with which they've combatted the violent minority, I believe we’d be well on our way to healing. Protesters are not the enemy; police are not the enemy. Injustice is the enemy. And it’s a common enemy that we should all be able to stand up against together.

So where do we go from here? That depends on who we are and where we’re at on our journey. For my white sisters and brothers who struggle with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” I implore you to simply listen. Read. Have non-judgmental conversations, and try to understand. If your initial instinct in response to riots and looting is to post or comment on the irrationality of property destruction, please spend time seeking to better understand the underlying conditions that have led to such behavior. As Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

So as we condemn violence in all its forms—and we must—let us hear the cries of those who are hurting. Most importantly, let us all get behind our black sisters and brothers who are nonviolently organizing and mobilizing for social change. If you don’t know who these leaders are in our own community, do some homework, and find out.

It’s time for America to follow their lead.

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