Why I Attend Protest Marches

The Rev. Peter Stebinger

Why I Attend Protest Marches

Why do I attend protest marches? 

Three reasons:

  • To hear different voices from those that I would normally hear.
  • To increase the safety of people, especially people of color or LGBTQ+ folk, who are protesting situations that they feel need to be changed.
  • Because I wish to join with others to protest an injustice, a situation, or a policy.  

The first time I went to a protest march it was to protest our involvement in the war in Vietnam. I think I next attended one in the 1980s to request that the US and the Soviet Union talk about nuclear disarmament. My wife Caron and I brought our then-two-year-old child to that march in New York City, where there were more than a million people present. I went to protests from time to time over the next years, but as an active congregational leader, I was careful not to engage in any activity that would cause needless conflict in the congregation. 

And then I retired and moved to Minneapolis and suddenly I had time, and no congregational responsibilities. I found myself volunteering with an environmental organization because I was very concerned about the planet we would leave to my grandchildren, then five years old. Because I have been a volunteer firefighter for over 30 years, I was asked if I would work as a safety marshal. These are the people in yellow vests who help to direct traffic, keep an eye out for medical emergencies, help people cross the street safely, and often work with the local police to make sure that everything is working smoothly. I was asked to marshal several times for various environmental marches and protests over the next two years and became a member of the larger informal community of protest marshals. It was at these marches that I heard many Indigenous voices reminding us of our treaty responsibilities and of the sacred nature of water and of our relationship to the planet.

And then in May of 2020 George Floyd was murdered a little more than a mile from where I live in South Minneapolis. A call went out that day from many community leaders who were protesting this crime for community clergy to come and support those who were protesting this horrible death. This was before there were COVID vaccines. We were asked to wear clericals and masks and to try to socially distance ourselves. I walked from my home to the area of 38th and Chicago wearing clericals, carrying my backpack, which held my marshal’s vest in case I was needed in that role, some snack bars, and some water. When I got there, I realized that there were thousands of people. I heard a lot of angry speakers. I found the clergy group, mostly younger Lutheran clergy, and settled in. After some speeches, the leaders asked us to walk down 38th street to the third precinct to inform the mayor and police that Mr. Floyd’s death/murder was unacceptable. It was spontaneous, and I soon found other marshals, put on my vest, and we began to safely stop traffic at intersections. I took up the intersection of 38th and Cedar, one I often drive through, with two other marshals, and we helped people turn around and gave them directions to drive around the protest. During the almost two hours it took for this incredibly diverse river of people of all communities, genders, and orientations with signs and banners and passion that the death of unarmed black men needs to stop, we acted to keep them safe. Once, we stopped the march to let an ambulance through with its emergency lights and sirens on. We saw police officers in their squads, but they were blocks away and not helping us keep people safe at that march. And then it got close to sunset and I headed home. 

The events of the next few days and weeks are well known. Often, I did not respond to requests to join protest marches. Once I marched with Episcopal clergy from our cathedral to another police precinct. Once I helped provide a calming presence at a large gathering near the burned-out Target on Lake Street. Always, I heard voices that I would not have heard had I stayed in my home or in my local church. And always, I was welcomed and often acknowledged by the community of people who were gathered. And always, I felt safe.

Soon I was invited to join a new group, the Twin Cities Interfaith Movement Chaplains, established by Native Theologian Rev. Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy. The Movement Chaplains are a group of people who volunteer to provide, when invited, a calming pastoral and prayer presence at protests, marches, or anywhere else we are needed. We are trained in multicultural awareness and in de-escalation techniques. We wear very bright orange shirts and hats with CHAPLAIN on them. We always work in teams of two or three and can respond on very little notice, as we did to Brooklyn Center the day Daunte Wright was killed. We usually move at the edges of a march or crowd and are sometimes asked to help with a situation, are often asked to pray, and often just listen to speeches.

I have been at many marches, at the courthouse, and at George Floyd Square often, including for the verdict in the Chauvin trial. I usually remain quiet and hear many new ideas, many prayers, and many words of welcome. I also believe that my six-foot, white, married, straight, cis-gendered male, clergy presence helps keep everyone safer. This is because even when there is a heavy law enforcement presence and lots of tension, my social privilege—rooted in the sad truth that if I testify, I will usually be believed—often seems to cause the government presence, with which there has been so much conflict lately, to be more aware of their behavior. For this reason I am often asked to speak to the police if it looks like there might be a problem, before it gets out of hand. I would note that I stayed very far away from the violence and burning which erupted on Lake Street after Mr. Floyd’s murder. There are times and places where even I am unwilling to go. 

I hope you will join me at a march or protest. Often the weather is beautiful and I always learn something. We all live in our small islands of community and family. This is one way to see the whole Body of Christ and to support those who have a clear issue with the system as it is. I often—not always—but often agree.