Righteous, Eloquent Rage
by Reverend Dr. Cassandra Gould
June 10, 2020
This interview with Reverend Dr. Cassandra Gould, the Executive Director of Missouri Faith Voices, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Reverend Gould | We are an unapologetically black woman led organization. We're a statewide, nonpartisan, multifaith, multi-racial grassroots organization. We engage in the intersection of faith and justice, faith and politics. Our main objective is to help build up ordinary people's power to make change in their communities. In partnership with other grassroots organizations, we have been able to get an increase in minimum wage, get fair legislative maps, and put Medicaid expansion on the ballot in Missouri.
I'm from Alabama. I am the daughter of a civil rights worker. My mother was there on the bridge on Bloody Sunday. My hometown is 47 miles west of Selma. I have spent 35 years of my life in St. Louis. I raised my children here. When Ferguson happened, I could not, not show up. Ferguson was just several miles from my home in St. Louis. My children's grandmother, who's now deceased, lived in that very same apartment complex, my children played there. They were much older than Mike Brown, but I was really drawn to this space in understanding that it easily could have been one of my children, had it been a different time or different space.
I was not the Executive Director of Missouri Faith Voices at the time– I was just a clergy whose mantle was always to speak truth to power, and to always be in proximity to wherever the pain of the people was.
frank | How did you get involved with Missouri Faith Voices?
I called them the day after Mike Brown was murdered because I knew we needed organizing help and I knew we needed people who could help us imagine a different day. We needed people who could actually be thought partners in helping us get past the pain in the streets and figure out how to amplify that pain in a way that could lead to strategic change.
I spent more than a hundred nights in the streets in Ferguson.
I was deeply impacted by the hopelessness articulated by the young people who shared their experiences with being over-policed. Young people who lived in a community where most of the people looked like them, but had no sense of governance than the community. I felt it myself. I remember on the night of the non-indictment, standing in the street in tears and saying to a colleague that as long as I had breath left in my body, I was going to be fighting towards having a different prosecutor in office and seeing a change of leadership in Ferguson.
Which culminates today, with your work and the election of Ella Jones, Ferguson’s first black female mayor. What’s changed since the first nights of protest in Ferguson?
Our understanding of what our stake is and what the communities stake is where we are different in this moment. When I came on board in 2015, we didn't have a chapter in St. Louis. I thought, we can't consider ourselves to be statewide and not be in what was then in the largest city in the state. Every hegemonic narrative around blackness plays out in St. Louis. It's the place of Dred Scott, the place of Mike Brown's murder.
So we brought clergy out to start listening to people. Not just to hear their pain, but to begin to ask how we actually change lives.
How do we move people along the trajectory that gets them from a place of hopelessness to a place where they can use the tools of democracy?
One of the best ways to become involved in democracy is to become politically educated. Ferguson impacted the urgency of political education, and advanced the understanding as to why the average person needs to understand some basic tenants of government functions.
I think the pain point for our organization now is the question of how to make the information that we have more accessible to people. For young people, like those who are in the streets of Ferguson. How do we actually bring people what they need? We really look at what it looks like to include the people who have been excluded. What is it like to talk to African-Americans, other people of color, and immigrants who historically are not being contacted by campaigns. No one is knocking on their door with literature, but they have perhaps the biggest stake in the game, as bad policies are going to affect them first. The organizing model of our organization has changed because we focus on and invest in the leadership of ordinary citizens who are trying to figure out what to do in this moment.
And so here we are now in a pandemic, that has disproportionately impacted people who look like me, and we have another Ferguson on our hands. I've heard people saying, "Oh my God, I’ve never seen this before I've never seen multiple cities protest." The history books show that it was really Ferguson that re-sparked an era of protest. We were in those streets for more than a year. The consistent, organized protesting was highly effective. We were making demands, and we became a public witness to organizations who had been fighting for things like community police models for 45 years.
It is righteous, eloquent rage out on the streets, then and now. People will be out there until there is very systemic change.
My mother was at Bloody Sunday in 1965. When I stood in the streets of Ferguson less than a foot away from those tanks, I felt as if everything had changed and nothing had changed since my mother was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
How do you think faith leaders fill a space non-faith based organizers can’t?
To me, Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus goes into the church and kicks the tables over. Jesus is crucified. That was state sanctioned murder. We live under those same optics, right? Jesus is hanging on that cross, not able to breathe either. Depending on where you are in society, we all have a lane and all of the lanes look different, but for me, people of faith don't get to sit it out. They don't get to be silent. There has to be the space that we're showing up to make a difference.
Faith and organizing really go together. In the sixties, many of those meetings were held in church basements. Oftentimes the critique is, where is the church? Sometimes the church is in the background actually getting the work done. Not always, but sometimes. I think that the results of these elections show just that.
Many organizations showed up in Ferguson, but few stayed the course to make sure we saw change.
Certainly we cannot take credit for the election. Mayor-elect Jones has not stopped campaigning since the day she lost the last election. But I do think being intentional about organizing, making sure that there was additional voter registration, making sure that there were phone calls made a difference. Reminding people, especially in a pandemic, to go out and vote. We are encouraging everybody that puts their feet in the street to also put your feet in the street and go to the polls for fall primaries as well as the general election.
People will feel the way they feel about faith. Some people have no faith. Church attendance, Christian church attendance, was already down prior to COVID-19. But churches, mosques, synagogues are still the place where, no matter what, someone will show up. There's always an audience. That is the way in which faith leaders, good and bad, have the opportunity to shape narratives, to create narratives and to influence how people think and certainly how they vote.
The conservative components of faith based organizations have been extremely loud.
Conservative evangelicals tend to get more air time. Sometimes it's because they own our waves. Or it's picked up by Fox news, and then it is picked up by the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania. Reverend Al Sharpton said yesterday, Trump was using the Bible and the church as a prop and as propaganda. It was a political message more than it was a faith message.
I do believe that those of us who understand our faith, who understand that it's synonymous with justice for all, need to do a better job of amplifying that. We need to not just talk to the people in our pulpits, but we need to also make sure that those messages are in the public square. Or else people are going to be left with those who spew political propaganda in the name of God. They might call themselves Christian, but we are not praying to the same God, and we're not preaching about the same God. If you can actually still support the kind of reckless, racist rhetoric, then you are bowing at the altar of white supremacy. And that's not the God that I believe in.
The manipulation of Christianity in politics is so completely interesting and bizarre, but also so effective.
It is also the reason so many people turn away from the church.
I've had the opportunity to be in Ghana, and I had the poignant experience of being in the castles that enslaved my ancestors. Above those dungeons of inhumanity were churches. The church, specifically in the United States and Britain, has turned to the anti-blackness that has been a key tenant of some religious practitioners. I think that's something that the church needs to grapple with.
The church needs to grapple with reparations, because many still standing endowments that started with the enslavement of my ancestors.
Hopefully we'll keep this conversation about anti-blackness in the public square, and in the minds and miles of those who get to have microphones and platforms and interviews, so that we can deal with this. We've not dealt with it for 401 years, not adequately, which is why it just keeps returning. It never really goes anywhere. It's Mike Brown. It's Breonna Taylor, whose birthday is today. A close sibling of racism and white supremacy, is genderism. It comes out of the same patriarchal systems. And when black women are killed, there is not that much focus on them.
I was speaking to someone this morning about the lingering effects that police violence has on women. The way in which they are physically and emotionally harmed by the trauma of police brutality, and how that trauma is often left out of the conversation.
In many of our households, black men are extracted, whether that is through the pipeline to prison or though state sanctioned violence. We live in a carceral state and that model extracts resources from us.
If my black son or husband or significant other is incarcerated and there's a bail or a bond, I am left to make that happen. So even if black men are incarcerated at a higher level than black women, and if they are killed at a level that's higher than black women, black women are still left with the burden of either bailing or burying them, and then trying to go on and continue to create life. It is a necessary conversation. In 1962, during a speech, Malcolm X said that the most neglected person in America was a black woman.
While I'm so excited about the election of Ella Jones to the mayorship, I also worry about the attacks that she will be subjected to from white people in society. There was a pet shop owner in Ferguson that immediately after the election said that he would be closing the store and moving on due to the election. It is that kind of racist, reckless rhetoric that fuels fires of people who would actually seek to do harm to black women in leadership harm. Sometimes that harm is done by tears. It is the white fragility. It is the white women who undermine your leadership, your authority, or your intellect. I have certainly lived through that. And sometimes the harm is actually directed at your humanity, at your very being. As a faith leader, I'm certainly also covering her in prayer because there will be people in Ferguson who will not be happy that there is a black female mayor.
How can we better include women in the conversation about police brutality?
Women are raped, harassed, physically threatened by law enforcement officers. Especially black trans women. This goes back to my conversation around how we haven't grappled with the guilt and the sin of the church and faith communities.
Part of it is this fraudulent hierarchy of humanity that we've created.
The constitution was written to say that a black man is three fifths of a human, a black woman is less than that. We actually have to deal with the historical ideology and the psychological impact of that, which has made women invisible. I love the Bible, but the Bible is a document that was also written by patriarchal misogynistic men.
As a grassroots leader, I know that even as we critique outside systems, no system can actually escape the same critique. What is the rubric that we use to ensure that whether it is in the church or in a protest space, that there is equity. Having racial and gender equity conversations in training and understanding around that is really going to be key. You know, if you can't protest all of the dead black bodies, then don't don't protest any of them.
We have a tendency to make ourselves feel better, by saying, oh thats not us. It's easy to say that the issues are stemming from law enforcement. We shift the blame away from ourselves. But every system, every institution in America needs to actually examine themselves.
People are still doing diversity training, I'm not really sure why. I guess it makes them feel better, and they check off a box to say that they did something. There needs to be a system of accountability after you sit on that Zoom training for two hours. How are we actually assessing its impact? What is the assessment of the black people who work with you and their interactions with you? The law enforcement officer who was responsible for George Floyd's murder had 18 instances of misconduct. How do you have that many instances and still have a job, any job?
That is the accountability piece. It is time for everyone to become accountable to and for these principles.