Divided by the Banner

Published: Jan. 4, 2018 at 7:55 PM CST
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- One banner, three words, 25-feet-long in black and gold. It reads "Black Lives Matter.”

Senior Minister Reverend Dr. Matthew Johnson at The Unitarian Universalist Church says it's been up more than four years. He says it’s hung in different places outside the church. It’s come down and been put back up several times.

“When you believe that everybody matters and you live in a society where some lives don't seem to matter to those in power, you have to say those particular lives are the ones that we're going to focus on,” says Johnson.

While some have expressed their displeasure in the past, it seems the banner is getting people's attention all over again. That's because on church property, right under the banner, Rockford police officer Jaimie Cox and Eddie Patterson were killed in November 2017.

Johnson hosted a vigil for both men the day after the crash, but the banner was gone. Johnson says it came down because some people told him they would be uncomfortable attending the vigil if the banner was up. In an open letter to the community he wrote:

"If I take down the banner, will the people who mistakenly believe that 'Blue Lives Matter' and 'Black Lives Matter' are in conflict now be willing to hear me and others teach them otherwise? If I take it down, will years and years spent building trust with leaders of color disappear? If I leave it up, do I close forever a door that's open to change?"

When asked if he regrets taking the banner down, Johnson feels it depends on the day.

“I've struggled with the question of what was the right thing to do in that moment, and I don't know there was a right thing,” he says.

“I knew he was getting some kind of flack from the community in general about having those signs up,” says community organizer Bryant Moore.

Moore helped put the banner back up after the vigil. He says he understands why some wouldn't feel comfortable attending the vigil if that banner was up.

“I think Black Lives Matter has been tainted to some extent,” he says.

According to the Black Lives Matter website, the organization formed four years ago as a response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Bryant says Black Lives Matter is twofold. It's a physical organization and a socio-political movement that calls for police and justice reform.

“They're upset with police officers, they're upset with the system, they're upset with judges, they're upset with the overall causes of it…. Black Lives Matter is not saying we hate cops. It's just saying we want justice for black lives. We want accountability for police officers,” says Bryant.

But others feel the banner should've stayed down.

“I was just a little disturbed by it,” admits Lisa Johnson.

She says prior to the interview, she wasn't familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement. Once explained, she still feels the sign is divisive and should not have been put back up or should read "All Lives Matter."

“I don't think we need any more racial tension, she says.” “There's plenty to be had without that sign up.”

Others expressed their displeasure on Facebook:

"Should have never been up in the first place leave it down."

"For a church that is supposed to be open to all, welcome to all, love all, it's wrong for them to have this up."

"I’ll burn that banner."

Rev. Johnson says the banner was never meant to offend, upset or divide. He hopes whatever your stance on the banner, it sparks a discussion.

“I hope that people will decide to learn about the truth of American history and the present world that we live in. That they will engage with seriousness about what it means to live in a black body in this country,” he says. “Whatever side of the issue you're on that you will look for people's heart and engage with people's pain and their hope at a deeper level than slogans."

Rev. Johnson says the church often hangs signs up that share messages of racial or social justice. He says the Black Lives Matter banner was was put up to stand in solidarity with other Unitarian churches that work for racial justice.

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