On Tuesday night, about 150 people gathered in the rain under the oculus of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to protest police brutality. The event was held in the wake of recent rulings to not prosecute police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men.
It was not unlike many of the recent series of protests during the current furor. What set this particular protest apart was that it was organized by JFREJ, Jews for Racial Equality and Justice) in conjunction with the first night of Hanukkah. Many of the picket signs were in the shape of hamsa symbols and the protest included prayers augmented to include mentions of Eric Garner and calls for justice. The protest was one of many across the country in several cities including San Francisco, Washington, and Chicago.
The gathering included a public lighting of a candle menorah with the blessings said collectively. Present at the rally was former New York City mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger and Robert Cornegy, the city council member from Bedford-Stuyvesant. The rally was organized in cooperation with the Arab Association of New York as part of the 11 days of action. The number 11 was chosen because it was the number of times Eric Garner screamed the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” before he was killed.
“We are demanding an end to broken windows policing,” said JFREJ executive director Marjorie Dove Kent. She described broken windows policing, the strategy of policing crime starting at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder with the hopes that it will set the tone for the rest of society. Kent also described her organization’s commitment to empowering Jews of color. “We are here as white Jews in support of Jews of color in this movement to change the policing system to end violent policing.”
The noble spirit of their left-wing and progressive forbearers seem very much alive amongst the mostly-young crowd. Unlike the famous student-led freedom rides of the 1960s, this crowd was mostly heterogeneously white. By my count, there were maybe a half-dozen people of color present. There were no speeches by any Jews of color during the 60-plus minutes of speaking, singing, and chanting.
As a man who is both black and Jewish, I’m glad there are those trying to raise awareness. I feel strongly that the condition of police/minorities is terrible. I feel that young black men suffer increased risk from police misconduct.
But I have to confess some discomfort too. I worry that the rhetoric used by well-intentioned white friends, Jewish and not, can be extreme and alienating. This is a double concern for me, since the issue of police brutality has been largely ignored by the greater Jewish community—not least because it makes those who do care seem all the more extreme and fringe.
It is especially disappointing since pretty much all Jews have at one point or another been subjugated by the authority of hostile states. Lubavitch lore, for one, is filled with stories of rabbis who were constantly being harassed by authorities and thrown into jail. We just passed Yud-Tes Kislev, the biggest of Chabad’s celebration days, the release of the first Lubavitch Rebbe from prison.
Passion for social justice should not be esoteric, it should be universal.
Maybe it’s something we can work toward in 2015.
Ben Faulding is a photographer and writer living in Crown Heights. He received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Queens College.