The Ability to Protest Peacefully: A Threatened Right or a Right Threat?

By Rev. Christy Close Erskine

I was born on November 28, 1956, baptized on April 20, 1957 and ordained an Episcopal Priest on July 9, 1994. I have always been active in the Episcopal Church and for over 25 years I led congregations in Vancouver, Wa, Bend, OR and Coos Bay, OR before retiring a year ago in Sisters, OR.  I believe that our baptism is our call to ministry and our baptismal covenant has always had a claim on my heart.  

As the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to threaten our country and our world there has been an increasing awareness of a pandemic of inequality and inequity among our black, brown and indigenous sisters and brothers that is difficult to ignore.  It's not new by any means but we have an opportunity to see it with new eyes, leaving many of us wanting to learn and understand our history in new ways.  As we soften our hearts, many of us are learning how pervasive our white privilege is.  Debby Irving in Waking Up White asks us to consider another question:  "How might we use our white privilege to dismantle racism?"

As I sit with that question, I hear in my mind , "Will you strive for peace and justice and respect the dignity of every human being?

I answer in my heart, "I will with God's help!"  ...and I wonder, when did peace become so difficult in our own country?

Our country claims to be an inclusive democracy for all people. I'm becoming aware of a painful reality that from the time those words were first written down there were people working hard to ensure that the democracy was really only for white men.  Later on words were added to include black men, women and people of color, but there are still people working hard to ensure that the democracy is only for the powerful white men.  

As the Black Lives Matter protests have continued across our country we are increasingly hearing about crowd munitions-- tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and others-- being used by law enforcement to control peaceful crowds. Our own Portland, OR has been highlighted nationally as being out of control with violence and looting and yet nothing is mentioned about the peaceful protests. Messages of violence and lawlessness have again and again co-opted the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests from the majority of people across our country. 

I am very concerned about the increased use of crowd munitions to control protests, even when they are peaceful in nature.  This represents an erosion of our constitutional right to protest and gather peacefully. Over the last several months there have been many examples across our country and state of peaceful protests that have been disbursed by the use of crowd control munitions by police and federal agents and I believe that this is an abuse of power that needs to end. The argument is that this use of force is the only way to control the "unruly crowd", but in my experience this is simply not true.

Several weeks ago I was part of a peaceful protest of about 500+ people in a parking lot in Bend, OR.  Our intent was to support and come alongside two undocumented community members (living in Bend for 15 years) who had been detained by ICE early that morning and were being held in an unmarked ICE bus without having been told their rights or why they had been detained. As it started to get dark we were told that it had been confirmed that 50 federal agents were on their way and we needed to be prepared for possible tear gas or rubber bullets.  We were asked to sit down so that it would be very clear that we were a peaceful protest.  Someone pointed out a drone overhead and federal agents observing through the windows in the building behind us as we waited peacefully.

During the whole protest, I was sitting about 50 feet in front of the ICE bus which gave me a great vantage point to observe.  When the federal agents arrived, I was shocked to see fully armed and aggressive agents in front of us forcefully removing anyone in their way in order to take the two men from the bus.  The only violence I witnessed that night was initiated by the federal agents. 

As I sat there with armed federal agents in front of me, and a drone overhead I realized that the last time I had experienced something like this was when I was in Gaza last October.  Drones overhead and armed Israeli guards everywhere you looked to supposedly keep order and control over the Palestinians.  In Jerusalem an attorney who runs "Court Watch", a non-profit that helps educate Palestinian children and youth about their rights, had spoken to us.  He helped us understand that it was common practice for Israeli's to unlawfully go into homes and detain children and youth in the middle of the night. 

That was my experience in October 2019 in Gaza, an area where there is known "apartheid like" oppression that has been going on for decades:  Israelis subjugating Palestinians.  Now in August, 2020, I am in a hotel parking lot in Bend, OR, a resort-like place to live, destination spot for many to visit, a sanctuary city in a sanctuary state and I'm witnessing two men who had been detained at 5:30 am in an unmarked vehicle without being told why, not told their rights, not given access to an attorney or adequate water and food...with a drone overhead and armed federal agents using tear gas and rubber bullets to control a crowd that was sitting down on the pavement.  It was later reported by news media that we were a violent crowd and it was the only way to control us, but in no way was that my experience!

I was stunned that this was happening in my town and in our country and I'm not sure I would have believed it if I hadn't witnessed it myself.  I love our country and believe in the democracy that it stands for, an inclusive democracy for all people.  As citizens of this country our rights are being threatened.  We all need to work hard to defend our democracy and to ensure that it really is for all people and that it does truly protect everyone. As Christians we need to commit over and over again to working hard for peace and justice and to truly respect the dignity of every human being...and yes, gratefully all of that hard work will be with God's help!  What action are you being called to? How might you respond?

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