Inaugural Triangle SURJ Meeting Packs the Palace Vault

By: Beth Mandel

I had just left the Vault at the Palace, after attending the launch of a new chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), when a close friend called.

Feeling excited and inspired by the evening’s events, I related some of what I had heard. “Did you know that a black person is killed by law enforcement every 28 hours?” I asked.  “Are you sure about that? I’d be shocked if that was true,” my friend said.

“Just think about the insane number of stories there have been over the past several months of police killing blacks,” I said, adding, “And about how many more times that happens and doesn’t make it to the news.”  The reply was swift and defensive: “Oh please. Every time a black person dies it’s all over the television.  I want to know why more stories about blacks killing blacks don’t make it to the news.”

I was stunned into silence.  This is called derailing, and it’s just one of many ways to ruin an otherwise productive or enlightening conversation about racial justice. Beyond derailing, there’s gaslighting, marginalizing, victim-blaming, dismissing and more.  I pretty quickly said I had to go, and then spent the next ten minutes feeling ashamed and worried that maybe my friend was racist.

Conversations like this one are just one piece of evidence that the Triangle desperately needs a chapter of SURJ.  On Thursday, several hundred concerned Triangle citizens were packed wall to wall in The Vault to hear about the nascent group.

SURJ is a national network of groups whose stated purpose is to use “community organizing, mobilizing and education” to “move white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.”

Upon arriving, attendees were encouraged to create a nametag and help themselves to the brimming tables of potluck foods.  The stairwell leading to the Vault was lined with inspirational quotes relating to the struggle for racial justice, and the Vault’s walls were also full of materials posted to alert, educate and inspire. After appetites were sated and a measure of mingling complete, the organizers kicked it off with a series of spiritual and historical welcomes.

Noah (one of the evening’s two MCs) offered up a list recognizing North Carolina’s many indigenous tribes (to honor those who inhabited the space before the evening’s gathering), and lit a yahrzeit candle (to honor those who might no longer be with us but whose spirits ought be acknowledged or included).  Providing a brief introduction, Noah stated, “It is a crucial time to call in white folks to the fight for racial liberation and justice,” adding, “There has been a clear call for whites to organize other whites, and SURJ is just one answer to that call.”  Genna (another MC) gave a brief rundown of Triangle SURJ goals. Among the many stated objectives of the Triangle chapter, a few that were memorable were to challenge racism in ourselves and our communities, to unlearn patterns of supremacy, to be a training ground to seed multiracial efforts to combat racial injustice, and to support Person of Color led racial justice organizations, rather than diverting funds or attention from them.

To kick off the agenda item “Story Sharing,” organizer Aiden Graham told the tale of how he was inspired to join others in starting SURJ.  Aiden’s remarks gave a grave portrait of the racism that is alive and well, but not nearly visible enough or sufficiently challenged. He spoke about attending a Ku Klux Klan rally in Columbia, South Carolina alongside documentarians for the Black Lives Matter movement.  Though only 50-60 Klan members had gathered, they were protected by nearly 1000 law enforcement officials from the 2000+ persons of color who had gathered in protest.  Fights broke out routinely, and the day was chaotic, but received little media coverage.  Aiden also related that in Graham, NC nearly 4000 confederate supporters recently gathered at the courthouse (surely an intentional and disgusting call back to the Reconstruction era lynching of Willy Outlaw).  After yet another pro-confederate rally close to home in Hillsborough, and the counterprotest that many people heard about only after the fact, there was talk of creating SURJ to better organize white participation in showing up for racial justice.

Organizer Sarah Cross then stepped up to lead attendees in a sharing exercise.  We were each asked to find a partner in the room who we did not know, and answer the following question “What brought you to this space tonight and why is this personal to you?”  Sarah explained that our job was not to comment or react or even affirm, but just to give three minutes of our undivided attention to listening to what our partner wanted to share (and getting the same in return).

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After this exchange, Sarah explained she was going to read a list of reasons that might have come up between partners, and if we agreed with those statements, we should stand, or clap or snap.  In an amazing show of solidarity, and one of the evening’s most moving moments, there was some connection and shared sentiment on every statement read. Here’s a sample of some of the powerful statements attendees agreed with:

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I’m here because… …I’m inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement …I’m disturbed by the neo-confederate movement. …I worry about the safety of my friends of color. …I dislike the racialized nature of mass incarceration. …I’m concerned about the impact of racist policies and rhetoric on poor and working class white people. …I believe in immigrant justice and that all religions and all refugees should be welcomed in the US/NC. …I’m tired of the long history of racist, xenophobic, rich white men mobilizing white voters in the US. …I’m ready to risk arrest and risk my body to change racist policies. …I want to understand how to talk to my racist white family. …I want to unlearn my own racism. …my liberation and humanity is inextricably bound to others.

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Sarah then invited us to mention things we heard or shared that weren’t included in that list. I raised my hand and shared something I had heard from my listening partner: “I’m here because white people can’t take a day off.” What my partner had said had really moved me. He related that some days when he saw or read something on Facebook that was racist or detrimental to racial justice, he would comment, disagreeing or debating. And some days he wouldn’t. And how sometimes he would actively fight for racial justice, and how other times, it was easy to fall back on, “Well my partner is a person of color, so I’m covered.” And how he realized that if we really want change, we can’t just decide that we’re too busy or too discouraged to fight back, speak up. How we have to care every day, and never give up caring.

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The rest of the meeting was energizing and encouraging, but this was the eye-opening moment for me. Committing to keep working, to not take any more days off from caring – this was something I could get behind. From what I heard, I think SURJ has some great strategies to help people do that in a way that is accountable, respectful, and productive. So when they meet, I’ll be there. And I hope you will be too. See you soon!

*All photos are by the author

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