Flowers on the spot where Michael Brown was shot and killed just over a year ago in in Ferguson, Missouri.
Flowers on the spot where Michael Brown was shot and killed just over a year ago in in Ferguson, Missouri. R. Gino Santa Maria /Shutterstock.com

In the Seattle Times article "Marissa Johnson part of a new, disruptive generation of activists," it is revealed that Ferguson was the event that transformed or radicalized Marissa Johnson, one of the two Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted the Social Security and Medicare rally in Westlake Park on August 8.

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The author of the story, Nina Shapiro, sees Johnson as having two faces. The one before Ferguson, the old face, was a "beloved director of a church’s Sunday school program," a theology student who graduated from Seattle Pacific University with distinction, and a woman whose Christian upbringing was so extreme (her parents are prayer warriors) that at one point in her life she saw the world through tea-party goggles. The "new face" of Johnson was seen jumping on the stage at Westlake Park, screaming at Sanders, and firing the charge of "white supremacy" in every direction.

I did not agree with Johnson's actions, as I've explained. But I'm interested in Johnson's transformation experience; I think it holds some answers to the Westlake incident and why it upset me and many others.

Johnson described her moment of transformation on an episode of the Kindlings Muse podcast (whose aim is to "rekindle the spiritual, intellectual and creative legacy of Christians in culture") that was recorded this spring at Hale's Ales Brewery & Pub (to hear Johnson's remarks, jump ahead to the 51:50 mark). Her transformation happened, she says, when St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury's decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth.

This announcement, and also the earlier protests that followed the death of Brown, impacted people differently. For some, it was transformative; for others, it was eye-opening; and for many, it provided yet more evidence of what they had already known for many years: Police oppression of black Americans is systemic, and despite the election of a black president, the United States is not anywhere near being post-racial. The events of Ferguson, in short, presented an opening through which the details of American life could be seen by a large part of the population.

Not all major events open our society and force it to face some hard truths. There are events that actually close it and increase the nation's ignorance; 9/11 was such an event. It did not reveal truths about American foreign policy but instead led to the fabrication of a whole narrative about Iraq's involvement with the terrorists and its possession of weapons of mass destruction. This country paid dearly for that fiction. (And so did Iraq.)

September 11 transformed a lot of people but in a bad direction. One only has to think of the late Christopher Hitchens, whose "post-9/11 [writing lurched] from anti-establishment left to imperialist right." Many on the left became apologists for petrol imperialism.

Now here is my point: The transformation of Johnson was in the right direction, and that's what we should expect from an eye-opening event. But why did her disruption aggravate so many people? I think it is because Johnson's transformation is still in an inchoate stage, it is still dealing with a complicated Christian past and the urgency of present secular realities. And the root to understanding this conflict is in the way Johnson uses "white supremacy," an expression that is for her a bowling ball that's supposed to knock down all pins and thereby clear every contradiction.

Before Johnson turned on the white progressives at the Westlake event with this blunt expression, it was turned on her own religion, which in her opinion has been "colonized... and continues to uphold white supremacy" (jump to 10:38). As a person who was exposed to liberation theology in college, and who attended seminars by James Cone, I can say with some certainty that this is not an easy or stable position to maintain in the Christian context. Even the colonial metaphor is packed with all sorts of historical, geographical, and cultural problems and contradictions, many of which require a great amount of work to sort and resolve. The same goes with the secular context of white progressives—it is way too easy to call them all white supremacists.

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Think about it: Johnson's use of the term white supremacy implies, due to its universal application, that whites are not oppressing whites but all other groups. White people are not oppressed or exploited in the US? But it only takes a little research on the web or a short trip in the car to see white people are not at all unified. And if that is the case, how do we make sense of Johnson's broad-spectrum "white supremacy"? Should exploited white people see their oppression in the terms of white supremacy? If not, what is it then? And if their oppression is not due to white supremacy, why is that the case for people of color? How does Johnson's veiw fit into this puzzle of a society?

And so when we examine the Westlake Park disruption, we find one urgency (bringing attention to police oppression and structural racism) has in Johnson collapsed with another, more personal, urgency: to resolve possibly unresolvable contradictions made thorny by the peculiar path her personal transformation has taken. She was critiquing Christianity for "uphold[ing] white supremacy" before she was critiquing the crowd at Bernie Sanders's rally for being "white supremacist." This is where the problem is for me. Who again are the white supremacists? Are black pastors white supremacists? Are white socialists white supremacists? What do you mean when you say "white supremacists"? This term has been hijacked, and I don't know what it means anymore.

But terms are important. They can block or open possibilities. Her use simply closed the situation because it was not true or at all helpful.