Once an ardent theology student, Marissa Johnson has joined a new generation of confrontational activists swept up in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2013, Marissa Johnson graduated cum laude from Seattle Pacific University. She had taken a lot of theology classes, which deepened her faith.
She also worked as the beloved director of a church’s Sunday school program, and was known for her helpful offers to baby-sit, as well as the striking voice she put to use during worship services.
Then Ferguson happened. “My life really did change,” she said during an April panel discussion on the changing face of the civil-rights struggle.
She showed that new face last weekend, attracting national notice as she and another woman shouted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders off the stage to denounce police brutality before a crowd of thousands. In taking over the microphone and disappointing those who had waited hours to hear the progressive Vermont senator speak, Johnson set off a furious debate about protest tactics, racism and Seattle-style liberals.
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It’s one we may be having for a while. The screaming disruption, shocking as it was, reflects the Black Lives Matter movement that Johnson jumped into after Ferguson — when Missouri prosecutors declined to indict a white officer who killed an unarmed black man.
The movement is comprised of a new generation of activists, with a decidedly different style and mindset than those of generations past. They are either wonderfully bold or appallingly disrespectful, depending on your point of view. Whichever, they embrace confrontation — be that with an aging white politician or veteran black leaders they see as not doing enough.
The cause, they believe, is urgent, explained K.L. Shannon, a Seattle labor organizer who at 45 serves as a mentor to some in the local Black Lives Matter movement. “Every day, some black man is getting killed.”
“We don’t wear suits. We’re not in the church. We’re here in the streets,” Shannon continued, summing up the attitude. It has sparked tension. Elders in the black community, she said, “don’t have very good things to say about the young leaders coming up.”
Theology and the real world
Unlike many of her peers, Johnson, 24, was and continues to be in the church. It seems to have helped shape her activism.
Johnson talked briefly to The Seattle Times last week, but did not get back in touch for an interview about how her views have evolved.
But on a student profile featured on the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) webpage, she wrote about how she came to the Christian school wanting to study business, but gravitated toward theology after taking classes with a couple of inspiring professors.
One of them, David Nienhuis, recalled that Johnson, “a consistently bright and engaged student,” always seemed interested in how theology could affect the real world.
The other professor, Frank Spina, taught Johnson in an independent study. They looked at passages of the Bible often overlooked because of their gruesomeness. One woman is gang-raped. Another stabs an intrusive visitor in his temple with a stake.
Spina encouraged Johnson to take a deeper look, a feminist look. “What the stories are doing is turning the patriarchal order on its head,” Spina said. Against a backdrop of oppression, women become heroines.
Like a lot of students, Spina said, Johnson seemed to find this probing approach to Scripture liberating.
She said on the panel and other occasions that she grew up in Louisiana as the child of “prayer warriors” and tea-party supporters. Their political beliefs perhaps influenced her high-school support of Sarah Palin, which she spoke about in an interview with black radio station TWiB. But clearly she grew to question aspects of her background.
Spina, she wrote in the SPU profile, allowed her to reclaim the Bible.
Meanwhile, Johnson was becoming a presence at Bethany Community Church’s West Seattle campus. The evangelical church is mostly white and Johnson is biracial; she has said her mother is white, her father is black.
Pastor Shonnie Scott said the children in Johnson’s charge loved her, and she loved them.
When she graduated, she gave up the children’s director job and became a nanny. She continues to attend the church, and sings there once a month.
The pastor said she has watched Johnson become more and more upset over the string of killings by police that have come to the nation’s attention.
“Even more than the anger is the grief,” Scott observed. And the worry. Johnson has two brothers, according to Scott.
In church, Johnson has expressed that quietly, in one-on-one conversations that have encouraged fellow members of the congregation to get involved in protests. Scott said the church is talking about ways to do that, but has not yet jumped in.
Scott knows that bothers Johnson. Indeed, Johnson has felt a deep sense of abandonment by her Christian community, she affirmed at the April panel, held at a Fremont pub by a spiritually oriented movement called the Kindlings, and recorded for a podcast.
An SPU theology professor on the panel, Brenda Salter McNeil, said she saw the disconnect between the church and the Black Lives Matters movement firsthand when she went to Ferguson around the time of the riots. Cussing freely in front of her, young people announced they found the church hypocritical and misogynistic.
“There is a big distinction between what is happening now and what happened in the days of Selma,” she said, referring to the famous civil-rights marches of 50 years ago. Then, she said, “people met in churches. They came down the streets singing church songs. This ain’t that movement.”
Johnson, who wore big cross-shaped earrings at the Sanders upstaging, indicated she is accepted despite her church affiliation not because of it.
She also commented on how this generation of activists, unlike those in the past, are decentralized. The reason, she said: All black lives matter, not just those at the top of some hierarchy.
This helps explain how Johnson and fellow activist Mara Jacqueline Willaford could stage a protest at Westlake Park that others in Seattle’s Black Lives Matters movement didn’t know about or necessarily condone.
Tension between generations
Throughout most of the April panel, Johnson spoke engagingly. Then, during the question-and-answer period, a white member of the audience said that he was put off by Johnson’s use of the term “white supremacy.” He preferred the phrase “white privilege.”
Johnson snapped. “Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever tell oppressed people how they should resist their oppression,” she said during a tongue-lashing that lasted several minutes and included her admonishing the man to stop smiling and refrain from speaking further.
She has shown this side of herself repeatedly over the past year. At a series of public meetings, she has yelled, chanted and berated officials, sometimes putting a stop to whatever proceeding was under way.
At one point last year, Johnson paid a call on Tali Hairston, director of SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training and Community Development. They talked about different strategies for affecting social change.
“It was a hard conversation,” said Hairston, 42.
“Some of us take a different approach than just hollering at society,” he said. He contends it’s also essential to tackle issues not strictly categorized as racism, but that deeply affect the black community nonetheless: gang violence, for instance.
The tension between generations could also be felt at this year’s wrap-up meeting for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march, held in January. A cohort of younger activists was there, including Johnson and Willaford, recalled Shannon. “It is time you passed the baton,” she said some indicated.
That didn’t go over well among the older set, one of whom referred to the fiery youth as “dragons.”
Some of these same youth have leveled sharp criticism at Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett for his support of a juvenile-justice center, which the activists see as exacerbating racially biased mass incarceration. They may not be aware, Shannon acknowledged, that Gossett was once one of Seattle’ s most famous radicals — a Black Power devotee who led historic sit-ins.
“We applaud you. We love your passion,” said Reggie Witherspoon, pastor of Mount Calvary Christian Center, speaking as if to the young activists. But he said, “Be willing to understand that you don’t have all the answers … Let us give you some experience and some counsel.”
One piece of advice he would tell them is that confrontation can be counterproductive. “Who’s going to listen to you when they’re angry?”
But it may be that the young activists, including Johnson, will keeping yelling. “They’re moving at a rapid pace,” Witherspoon said. “I don’t know how you can stop them.”