Over the weekend at a rally in Washington to protest the election results, the Proud Boys were involved in several violent incidents. Aside from some stabbings, two videos captured the moment rallygoers ripped Black Lives Matter banners from two historic Black churches—and burned at least one of them.
Cornell William Brooks has attended one of the churches, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, since he was a child. A longtime activist, he said he was shocked by what he saw in those videos. The fourth-generation minister is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Divinity School. (He was previously president of the NAACP.) We talked on the phone this weekend about what he witnessed as a continuation of hostility toward the Black community—and a “tragically poignant” coda to a year of protest.
Aymann Ismail: Tell me about the history of the church, and about the Black Lives Matter banner going up.
Cornell William Brooks: I’ve been a part of the AME church since I was a child. The AME church is a historic church. Many American presidents have spoken from that pulpit. Many distinguished African Americans have spoken from that pulpit. It really is a cathedral of Black Methodists, so to hang a banner that reads Black Lives Matter is more than a statement of solidarity in respect to the present. It’s an affirmation with respect to the past. In other words, our church has long believed that Black Lives Matter. The banner on the outside of the church simply mirrors values, the convictions, on the inside of the church. The United Methodist church is the church from which the AME church was born back in 1787. That is the same year that gave birth to the American Constitution. At least two signers of the American Declaration of Independence started the AME church. The AME Church was essentially born as a protest movement, a civil rights movement. So fast forward to 2020, we have one church, which emerged from another church as a consequence of segregation—to have both been targeted as an act of vandalism and desecration is more than ironic. It’s tragically poignant.
How did you learn that the banner was ripped down?
Yesterday was my wedding anniversary, so I wasn’t paying as much attention to the media as I normally would. I got up Sunday morning in anticipation of listening to the service online. And I look at my phone and I see the video of Asbury United Methodist Church with its banner being burned, and the Metropolitan AME Church with its banner being torn down.
Could you walk us through what happens in the video and your thoughts?
So the first video of Asbury United Methodist Church depicts a Black Lives Matter banner on the ground, taken from the church, being burned, surrounded by people shouting and acting in ways that you would never act in a mosque, temple, synagogue, or church. Just acting like human obscenities. In the second video, you see people snatch a banner from a church that has a little rod iron fence. To get to the banner, you got to jump a fence. So they apparently took a banner that’s a part of a church that’s literally within walking distance of the White House, from literally what’s known as the cathedral of African Methodists. And you have people not acting like vandals or looters—they’re really acting like walking obscenities profaning God’s house. So let’s be clear about this. Some people might say, “Well, he didn’t enter the church.” Well, in my church and in many religious houses, when you step on church grounds, we say you’re standing on sacred ground. So to have these people behaving the way they did, having almost like a racist frenzy—when people in Atlanta were burning Wendy’s and throwing objects at CNN, it was considered violence. Taking what doesn’t belong to you, where other people pray and preach, and destroying it is sacrilege. It’s desecration, not vandalism.
What feelings do you have as a native of Washington seeing these protests occurring in your neighborhood?
It’s traumatizing. You see these Proud Boys, anti–Black Lives Matter protesters, marching through the streets engaging in mayhem and violence and attacking an emblem to Black Lives Matter. You can’t attack a banner and assure any Black person you wouldn’t be willing to attack the people the banner represents. It reminds me of people marching before a lynching. It reminds me of people shouting out the N-word before lynching the people called by the N-word. It’s a statement of a precariousness that when Black Lives Matter protesters assemble in the largest demonstrations in American history, 26 million Americans protesting and 97 percent of the time peaceful, they are met with police violence. When these anti–Black Lives Matter protesters take to the streets to rescind an election, do we hear the president saying we need to call the National Guard? Do we hear the president say, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”? When largely white people engage in protest against Black Lives Matter, there’s a presumption of benevolence. People were beaten and stabbed. Churches vandalized and desecrated. And we’ve heard nothing from the attorney general, the president, nothing from these “law and order” governors and mayors.
How do you expect the people who attend that church to react to that video? And do you think there’s a correct way or a wrong way to respond to it?
About 10 years ago, I stood in the pulpit of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, after Dylann Roof killed nine Christians in the church.* I stood less than a hundred feet from where people were assassinated. When I saw that video this morning, it took me back to that place. Why? Because Dylann Roof didn’t start out a racist assassin.* He started out as a troll on racist websites. Racist violence doesn’t begin with the act. It begins with the thought, the image, and the voice in people’s hearts and minds. When I saw that video this morning, it took me back to Charleston 10 years ago when I was the president of the NAACP and went to Charleston to speak in that pulpit. There’s a history here, right? In other words, when you desecrate church property, it’s not an isolated incident in 2020. It’s racially evocative, and it goes back decades and hundreds of years of racial violence.
The right way to respond is to uphold the values taught by those churches in the videos. The wrong way to respond would be to behave in the fashion of the people and their violence and imitate the violence that caused those videos to go viral. The values that are taught on Sundays can be modeled every day of the week. Rev. William Lamar is great at teaching from the pulpit, and he’s also great at pastoring in his pews. So I trust that he will handle this magnificently.
Is there a way to appeal to those people who tore down that banner?
I’m not sure there is. This isn’t a matter of reason or logic. These aren’t isolated incidents. I’m sure people will dismiss this as the acts of hooligans or drunken vandals. It’s pretty hard to walk past our church and not notice all the religious iconography on this massive church that goes back to the 1800s in the midst of all of these D.C. office buildings and think of it as anything other than a house of God. The people who think that it is somehow more patriotic, more American, [to fight this election] than be one of the people in African American churches—according to almost every American poll, African Americans are the most religious and churchgoing people in the country. And if you’re talking patriotism, and think that military service is some indicator of patriotism, the people who join the military the most are African Americans. So if you want to attack our religiosity, check the facts. Nobody’s done any more work to build this country than we have. It’s not to say African Americans are better or less than anybody else. It is to say nobody should question our commitment to this country.
What do you hope the congregants you share your church with learn from this experience?
We, as people of faith, have to be very clear that we deserve the full protections from local and federal prosecutors who have to treat these crimes as what they are. Religious desecration can be federal and local crimes. We can’t pray in isolation because bigotry and hatred, the racism, the anti-Semitism, is literally at our doorstep. Our faith teaches us that we ought to be in the room, but not of the room. We take our ministries into places that are hateful and dangerous and violent. That is the call of our faith. And if you look at our history, in particular Black churches in this country, we have never demonstrated a willingness to be intimidated by hate. When four little girls were bombed at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the next Sunday they held church as normal. When nine people were killed at Mother Emanuel Church, they held church as normal. Next Sunday, Metropolitan AME Church will no doubt broadcast their ministry and church services as normal.
Correction, Dec. 15, 2020: This article originally misspelled Dylann Roof’s first name.