“we need this. we have needed this.”
that is what we heard over and over from the people who showed up to saint john’s church on grand avenue in st. louis this past week. i am now reflecting at home after an incredible and intense week as part of a healing justice team from generative somatics and BOLD who flew in from detroit, new york, cali, hawaii, miami.
we were invited and anchored by patrisse marie cullors-brignac, cofounder of #blacklivesmatter, founder/co-director of dignity and power now, and general sister goddess extraordinaire. she collaborated with the brilliant ashley yates, one of the first st. louis activists to call the nation to attention. it’s something else to be in either of these women’s presence. both at the same time? black girl magic.
our host at saint john’s UCC was reverend starsky, who really does give me andre 3000 pulpit edition, and president marco, who gives hugs that feel like rearrangements. they are flanked by uncle/brother cornelius and kara, who took care of everything we could need, and camielle, who hung in with every single thing we did the whole week.
these blessed people have been offering up a space and structure for healing, gathering, song, prayer and growth for a long time. seven months ago their church became one respite in the war that the st. louis police department is waging against the people. so that’s where we went.
i tried to write y’all while we were there, but i couldn’t. the place is both too beautiful and too heavy. and i actually wasn’t even alone to write or reflect the whole week, except for a few ten minute showers. those who know me well will know how incredible the week was, because i didn’t notice not being alone, i just felt love, love and purpose, the whole time.
octavia butler reminded us that ‘god is change'; st. louis is a city overflowing with god. the conditions and mood change constantly, and each person we met showed that same ever mercurial energy, along and under the surface. they had other jobs, and loves, lives and grief, often very fresh grief, when they were called on to become the front line of a defensive battle.
that is, when mike brown was murdered.
i have to share with y’all about where mike died. not anything new, but something deeply felt. it is different to see something on the news, and then to touch and breathe it.
on our last night in town, after days of healing and loving up on st. louis, we went to the place where he was gunned down. i always knew it was out in the open, i’ve seen the pictures and film. but there are so many windows looking at the street he ghosts. there it is…on a major street in a housing complex where a thousand eyes of all ages were able to easily look out from their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens.
as we pulled up, a young boy walked across the street. as he stepped off the curb i wanted to build a fortress around him, knowing it’s impossible, knowing there are so many boys like him. one of the grown men we did healing work with wept as he spoke of being young, large, awkward and black – feeling the fear people had of him in the face of his innocence.
mike was murdered in a neighborhood ringed by three story apartment buildings, many of which now stand empty. he was murdered on a road folks speed down, between a busy parking lot and a slew of yards and balconies. there are two monuments where he died, one long and slender in the middle of the street, the other a mountain around the base of a streetlamp nearby. they are primarily constructed of stuffed animals – teddy bears, toy elephants, soft floppy birds, pink puppies. mixed into this pyre of toys are candles, letters, protest signs, sandals and shoes, v for vendetta masks, flyers, folded banners, cardinals hats, jerseys, photographs.
mike’s face looks out from the pile, his beautiful young face. his familiar stranger face.
the fur of the toys gives the effect of a muted rainbow in the yellow lamplight, pressed upon by time, slumped, tainted. these teddy bears have been through the first winter mike missed. toys. it’s so sad, so devastating, so enraging.
rage. there is no other way to speak of it. i can’t find anything beautiful in it.
when i stepped from the sidewalk onto the street, my gut started shaking and didn’t stop until we drove away. it’s a stained tar middle passage – the body knows when it crosses a place of hate.
“we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
after the memorial we went to the ferguson police department, one night after the police chief stepped down and two officers were shot. there were black activists holding the center – ‘if we don’t get it, shut it down’ – white activists, clergy, politicians.
i have been many places where we yelled ‘no justice, no peace’, and then, for a million reasons, we went home. but in st. louis right now, the truth of those words is so palpable – i feel it in my bones. this is the gift st. louis has given the nation. this small, tight knit, intimate, imperfect place has been showing us, for 216 days now, what it means to deny any myth of peace in the absence of justice.
being black and loving black people in an armed and militarized police nation infected with unchecked institutionalized racism is traumatizing. the shivers that journeyed my body standing across from the ferguson police department felt like intelligence. i could see the fear, the desperate longing for control on the police faces before me. armed and dangerous humans, and they are in a war against people who are…living and black. some of us are flagrantly and radically living, resisting and calling out the truth.
but the ones getting killed in this war…there’s so much innocence in the murdered ones.
and in the survivors.
“it’s so much scarier when it’s just in your head.”
the people who came to sit with us each day are the heart of this local movement that has captured international attention. they are warriors, comrades, beloveds and people of faith. many of them are young in that way that feels lit from within. several older folks came to check us out and it was humbling to see them look the younger activists in their eyes and say ‘you changed me’.
every single person who came through our doors had trauma before, after, inside and outside of the moment on august 9 when they learned mike brown’s name and story, when they drove to ferguson and wouldn’t go home.
our team was led by lisa thomas-adeyemo and included alta starr, denise perry, prentis hemphill, adaku utah and myself. we centered, taught, did one on one sessions and story circles, sang, saged, practiced, listened and held everyone we could reach. we worked with people as individuals and groups to move trauma out of their bodies, and to give them practices for bringing what they care about to the center of their lives and decision making.
each day was emergent, and each day we learned more about each other’s capacity and the place we had come to. there was a lot of awe, wonder, resilience and love.
the work we came to do, somatics, is not about healing for the sake of individual wellness, though that is a radical act for any people slated for extinction. it is about healing trauma such that individuals and communities are not operating in reaction to oppression, and not relinquishing control over and over again because of changes outside their power. it is about organizing our lives, ourselves, around what we most care about and long for. and then living positive, generative, whole lives from that place.
there is always going to be so much devastation to react to, especially for those of us on the wrong side of racism. the trauma won’t stop. if we hope to advance, we have to find ways to move through and out of the vice grip of trauma that so drastically limits our choices.
it felt like a beginning. so much more is needed.
lisa led us in a song the last day that keeps rolling through me:
‘we gonna rise with the fire of freedom
truth is the fire that will burn our chains
stop the fire of destruction
healing is the fire running through our veins’