Hundreds, maybe thousands, of passersby taking photos or videos, shouting “Thank you!”, honking their car horns. Countless smiles and cheers. Children waving and clapping their hands. Some drivers asking who we are. Some making the spontaneous decision to park their cars and join us.
And also the regular, but far less frequent, shouts of “ALL lives matter!” or other more vulgar exclamations, sometimes accompanied by equally vulgar hand gestures.
All the while, dozens—sometimes hundreds, sometimes only three or four—of UUCC members, friends, and neighbors, standing with signs declaring that Black Lives Matter, White Supremacy Kills, Silence Is Violence, Side With Love, Say Her Name, Honk If You Love Justice, and more.
We have recently passed the 5th anniversary of Columbia’s monthly Black Lives Matter vigil. Some of the demonstrators have been there nearly every month throughout those years. Others have come and gone. But we have sustained our collective commitment to bear witness with our bodies to the fact that all lives will truly matter only when Black lives matter.
This second-Sunday-of-the-month BLM gathering has become a ritual that matters to those of us who are there. (I have reason to believe that it matters to the passersby, too, but I know that it matters to us who line the sidewalks.) In many ways, it’s much like a Sunday morning gathering in a worshiping congregation. Most of us have our usual spots where we position ourselves. From a distance, strangers may wonder what’s going on over there—especially if the signs are illegible or incomprehensible or hidden behind a tree. Newcomers may be a little bewildered at first, wondering what the protocols and expectations are. A welcoming presence from an old-timer can be helpful.
The public message matters, no doubt. This monthly witness has been a signal to others in our community that UUCC does not deny the reality of white supremacy culture, that we will act in solidarity with communities of color, that we will risk public criticism in service of our justice-seeking values. And it matters for each passerby who is encouraged by a bunch of mostly White folks standing on a street corner bearing witness to the value of their lives.
But even aside from that public witness, it’s a ritual of presence, of showing up. “It’s more a potluck than a protest”, as one regular participant has said of the BLM vigil. As far as I’m aware, not a single one of us believes that our monthly demonstration is, on its own, adequate action for confronting racism and dismantling white supremacy culture. But it’s a regular opportunity to catch up with one another, to strengthen connections, to chit-chat with people with whom we don’t otherwise interact. And it’s fully multi-generational!
This ritual helps me keep some of my racial justice values fresh in my mind, which is important if I am to resist the lure of complacency. Every one of us there knows that, if we are sincerely committed to the work of justice, we must act with vigilance in all the other hours of the month. The monthly one-hour vigil helps me stay true to that intention.
Over the years, I have felt saddened to hear expressions of derision and disdain for the BLM vigil—not from MAGA-hat-wearing White Supremacists, but from left-leaning progressives who suggest that the monthly gathering is meaningless and performative, dismissing it as a poor substitute for the “real work” of racial justice.
If that were all it is, I would agree. But my experience tells another story—a story of loving, dedicated souls who gather in solidarity and support, providing nourishment and strength for one another, consistently bringing a bit of fierce love to one street corner in our suburban town. And every one of them carries that strength and nourishment into the world wherever they go, answering the call of love. It is, for me, a valuable and beloved ritual, month after month.
Maybe we’ll see you there on Sunday, March 14, from 4-5pm—you will be welcome, whether it’s your first time or your 64th!
Thanks for sharing. The BLM vigils have been meaningful for me as well. It is great to see the youth a part of these events.