Posted by: MC | February 26, 2012

Man Up – Dedication to Community before Distraction

“In a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness terrify us.”

A friend in North Dakota just sent this to me.  His name is Anthony.  He’s a black man, a gay man.  He’s a playful prophet who lingers profoundly on the living side of dead serious.  Today, his quote came from a man named Sogyal Rimpoche.

The trouble with distraction seems vast.  The people I’ve been spending time with here in the South notice the breathless paces of their lives…but only when the stillness sneaks in to claim some noticeable space between.  One man, an older professor of history at Kennesaw College, mused, “How can we ever listen to one another when we’re moving so fast to keep up with our lives?”

My friend Michelle Browder (Voice 053 in 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change) stands on the constancy of stillness and silence to hold ground for the dignity of community in Montgomery, AL.  Lots of the difficulty we have with opposing and fearing each other comes from losing our sense of community, a sense that takes time and space and confidence to see and to nurture.

I mentioned Michelle two posts ago (EX:C blog “Keeping Courage,” 2-19-2012).  Michelle lives community.  Watch the news video  of her recent activism.  You’ll see what I mean.

The issue at hand is proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Mont­gomery, that would render illegal publicly wear pants three inches below the waist, i.e. saggin’. According to Brian Lyman of the Montgomery Advertiser “Juveniles found breaking the law would face fines of up to $100; adults could see fines of up to $150. In addition, judges would have the ability to sen­tence offenders to community service of up to 20 hours for ju­veniles and 40 hours for adults.”

When I was through Montgomery, Michelle was hot on the issue, acutely aware of the civil rights concerns inhering in the bill.  These concerns included likely violations of substantive due process, equal protection and freedom of expression and arose in significant part from the lack of demonstrable government interest.  Nonetheless, the bill is very popular, at least judging from the Alabama House voting 59-0 in its support.

All of this is immediately relevant in the context of legislative discussion, but in the neighborhoods, Michelle was seeing something else.  “We’ve got to stop fearing our young black men,” she said.  She went on to say that her community does not need the government legislating clothing, but more significantly that the people of Montgomery are capable of raising their youth and supporting one another without legislation.

“These young men are not their sagging pants.”  They are, however, significantly outside the discourse of their communities, be it in neighborhoods, cities, counties, states or in our nation.  As Michelle says, “We are the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Montgomery Alabama started the social justice movement that has gripped every nation, every country in the world. … I just believe we can be more creative I believe we need to jump start a new movement right here at home.”

Michelle took the issues to the people of Montgomery.  In the space of days the vibrant campaign, “Man Up – Pants Up” (see facebook page) sprang into being and Michelle and others hit the streets with community petitions to halt the legislation.

The journalist who interviewed Michelle for the news video also wrote, “Browder says she is not in favor of sagging pants and thinks it is a distasteful way to wear clothing, but she says trying to outlaw it is even more distasteful.  Browder says the law would put more young men into the Alabama Criminal Justice System, and suggests churches and social organizations would do a better job convincing the young men to pull up their pants.”

The day we spent together in Montgomery, Michelle stopped twice to talk with young men.  “Do you know what is going to happen next Tuesday if you don’t pull your pants up?

“They said they knew what I was going to say to them,” Michelle said later.  “But they stayed in the conversation, because it’s about way more than how they wear their pants.”  The contribution to a system already stacked against young black men was stark.  “From stopping a young man because his pants are too low, to his likely incapacity to pay the fine, to the circumstantial justification for frisking that young man and finding some rationale for his arrest – well, it’s not far.”

So the legislation has implications for unequal treatment under the law, but in Michelle’s view it’s also profoundly about the black community in Montgomery.  It’s about people like Michelle herself – the adults of the community showing up like the adults in her growing-up communities showed up to her.  “You’ve got to have that to learn what caring, invested, related community looks like,” Michelle said.  “That way you can do it for the youth behind you.  That’s the way it’s always worked for us.  We have to reclaim that.”

Listening to and watching Michelle Browder, I get that community is not just a civil right.  It’s a birth right.

Stillness and silence – the enduring presence beneath all the distraction of opposition and making-it-through – may seem a long way from discussions of sagging pants, civil rights and community health.  Watching this activism emerge in the neighborhoods of Montgomery I’m seeing how a return to community, a return to responsibility for instead of fear of youth, requires the breathing room for relationship to build.  And that comes in the context of the stillness and silence that distraction leads us to fear.

Mine is a removed perspective here on the road north and east of Montgomery and headed up the Atlantic Coast.  But I can say for sure that these days have reminded me to notice how the echoes of courage from the origination and continuation of our nation’s Civil Rights Movement are constants for me.  Like stillness and silence, they are there as resources for all of us – always.


  1. I just saw an amazing video and commented on it… I received a thank you from them… I forwarded your blog to them….

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