What the Bodies Are Telling You

December 11, 2014
Black Lives Matter Poster
A protester holds up a sign at a rally on the Harvard campus. / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

"When you see the rallies and the protests, listen past the words and look past the signs."

The following reflection is by Irene Routte, MTS '14, who helped organize a group of HDS students and alumni who traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, this past summer to join in the movement that developed there in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. Since returning to Boston, the group has been working in their communities in different ways, with their experiences in Ferguson as their main motivator.

It is hard to write about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent non-indictments of the men who killed them. It's so hard to write about because words seem insignificant. It isn't about wordsit is about the body. Black bodies. And our bodies can't take it anymore.

Our bodies hurt.

This isn't about the body reacting to the violence that is present right now. It is the body responding to another reminder of what it means to be black, to be a person of color, in the history of this country. When institutions appear to fail the most vulnerable in a society, it triggers a sense of aching numbness that is a result of the trauma of being historically devalued. This numbness confirms the truth in those everyday micro-aggressions people of color experiencethe ones that you try to brush off yet find a place to sit and take up residence in the body.

A lot of people have been questioning the protests and critiquing the rallies. This summer, about a week after Michael Brown was killed, a group of 11 students from HDS went Ferguson. Since then I have been trying to understand why we felt so compelled to travel that distance to be with the people there. And why do we feel a need to be part of the protests and rallies happening here in Boston? Why do we feel a need to come together to pray? Why are students shutting down Massachusetts Avenue, protesting in front of Widener, and taking part in a die-in on the steps of Memorial Church?

When systems, rituals, and rules dictate how our bodies can be or how much value our bodies hold, how do we not only envision but embody an affect of hope? When trauma, or the remnants of trauma, and the feelings of grief, numbness, hopelessness seem to consume us how do we find a sense of peace? And what is left when institutions fail us, when words escape us? The answer to these questions, and perhaps to why we need these protests and these rallies, is all that is left is the body.  

In the Christian tradition, it is now Advent season; a preparation for the embodiment of God's love on earth; a preparation that can remind us of the possibilities that the body can hold.

The night after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, 1,600 people walked in protest from the Boston Police Headquarters to the South Bay House of Correction at the entrance to I-93. We stood outside with our hands up chanting "Black Lives Matter" as we faced the men standing inside at their cell windows. I don't know if they could hear the words we were saying, but we could see them pounding against the barred windows and blinking the lights in time with the rhythm of our chants. At one point, we all sat down on the ground with our hands still up, and everyone was silent.

The rhetoric in the press would still be the same. The words in the grand jury decision would not change. But every(body) seemed aware and awake to one another on both sides of the prison walls. Nothing had changed, but there was a sense of peace in that body of people.

And so I ask when you see the rallies and the protests, listen past the words and look past the signs. See the bodies and try to feel what those bodies are telling you.

Irene Routte graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2014 with a master of theological studies degree.