Last night, I sat at my dining room table watching protests on my phone as over the country people poured into the street to express their anger and disappointment over the grand jury decision not charge the three police officers indicted in the Breonna Taylor case with her murder. In my kitchen, my wife, Aziza, was working to save a distressed orchid. The two scenes, taking place simultaneously before my eyes, created a compelling contrast that helped bring into focus what was happening in my own thoughts and emotions.
I definitely share the frustrations of the protesters. Throughout the years (and a few times this year), I have been a participant in nonviolent demonstrations over the pandemic of unchecked police violence against Black people in America. The fact that no officer was charged with Ms. Taylor’s murder is a gross miscarriage of justice. The fact that the wall of her apartment received more attention in the case than did a dead first responder is insulting.
But, last night I did not want to join the protests. Last night, I wasn’t angry. I was sad. Sad for Breonna Taylor’s family. Sad for the city of Louisville. Sad for the United States of America. Sad for the drooping orchid.
And then an interesting thought came to me. What if the orchid was trying to grow and needed more trellis? Orchids are climbing vines. In order to grow, they need a structure to grow up around. And what if America, like the orchid, is ready to grow, but the current structures that we have in our society are not strong enough to accommodate the moral growth?
Then I knew I did not want to protest. I no longer want to be a part of the traditional “movement building”, I want to be a part of a new “building movement”.
As a trained organizer who has been involved with activism and advocacy since the sixth grade, I am all too familiar with organized efforts to dismantle unjust systems. This is not a repudiation of those efforts. They are meaningful and can be credited in many ways with America’s arrival at this moment where moral growth can even be imagined. But, there is currently a need to build new structures that will allow our nation to grow beyond this difficult moment in our history. And I fear that if we only focus on dismantling systems, our country could well face the fate of a potted orchid with no more room to grow. It will begin to die.
So what should this “building movement” focus on building? I have a few ideas.
We can focus on building our base institutions. We can work together to find ways to strengthen marriages and families that are charged with the basic formation of human lives. We can create campaigns to make every home anti-racist. We can work to rebuild our local churches and faith communities, not as houses of religiosity, hypocritical leadership, and social control, but as beacons of light in communities, houses of help and hope for those in need, and centers of moral development rooted in both compassion and conviction. The movement can work to build new civic associations; grassroots operations that are devoted to the practical welfare of neighborhoods and constituencies; not partisan power-mongering or ideological tribalism.
The “building movement” could focus on building new electoral pathways. I’m talking about the hard work of winning campaigns with candidates who do not represent the polarized partisan narrative that is keeping America stuck rather than her move forward. In some cases, this may mean helping actual independent candidates beat the two-party system at the ballot box. In some cases, it will mean helping independent thinking members of one or the other party. But, it would take thoughtful, organized, and diligent work to get it done. It would likely start at the local level and bubble up to larger and larger elections. But, isn’t that what movements are made of?
The “building movement” could focus on building new coalitions; imagine urban and rural poor working together to end poverty. Think of the power Black and White Christians standing together in efforts to restore the moral soul of a nation that won’t protect the lives and well-being of its most vulnerable and oppressed populations from the unborn child to his brown-skinned mother. We could establish new leadership pipelines in which young people are trained in a kind of civic engagement that rejects ideological tribalism and partisan polarization in favor of thoughtful mental engagement and a moral conviction that values the integrity of the witness above the impact of the win.
This “building movement” could be very exciting.
Such an effort would not be for the faint of heart. While a “building movement” would be nonviolent, it would not be “peaceful”. A “building movement” would require a radical devotion to principle. Leaders in this work will need to strident in their rejection of the status quo. Nobody would burn a building or shoot a police officer. But, it would be aimed at overtaking the existing structures with better and stronger ones and shifting the balance of power in our society. This work would be completely disruptive.
Make no mistake, there is still plenty of need for dismantling certain systems and mindsets. Just like the orchid, dead leaves need to be cut off so that they don't suck too many resources from the healthy parts of the plant. So, let the marchers march on.
But, there is a great need for leaders to step forward with the language of radical building. Who will, in the difficult moments like the one we experienced yesterday, cause us to envision and push harder for something new, rather than destroy something old. Even before the announcement of the complete failure of a Kentucky grand jury to do justice for an innocent victim of wanton violence at the hand of the state, “builder leaders” would have been preaching to us that punishment for these officers is not the greatest victory, but a complete rebuild of the police department in Louisville and in cities across the country. Builders don’t celebrate when something bad comes down (even though it may be necessary). Builders celebrate when something good goes up.
The announcement was yet another sign that our country is in trouble. The dissenters and dismantlers are doing their noble work. It is time for the builders to come forward and build.
Originally published at: https://www.christophermbutler.com/my-blog/after-taylor-decision-america-needs-builders
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