Photo: courtesy Pastor Michael McBride.
Photo: courtesy Pastor Michael McBride

Some people, angered by events in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY, take their protests to the streets in Berkeley. Others fly across the country to where the outrage began.

Pastor Michael McBride, who founded the progressive Way Christian Center congregation on University Avenue, recently returned from Ferguson. McBride has gained some national prominence as the leader of Live Free, a nationwide, faith-based campaign against gun violence and mass incarceration. Along with other members of Live Free, McBride has spent about half of his time in Ferguson since Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 9.

MSNBC viewers may have caught a fleeting image of McBride in Ferguson on Nov. 24 as Chris Hayes prepared to interview him. That was before what was assumed to be gunshots were heard and Hayes and the pastor were instructed by producers to leave the scene. (See the dramatic video, below)

While in Missouri, McBride and his colleagues led trainings in political organizing, voter engagement, and healing, and demonstrated alongside the locals.

In a sit-down interview with Berkeleyside conducted last week, before protests and riots erupted in Berkeley, McBride said he was surprised to see the severity of what he described as the “police state” in Missouri.

“I was tear-gassed several times, I was arrested, I was pushed and brutalized by the police,” he said. “They put guns in my back, calling me the n-word. It was all very harrowing.”

McBride said he’d hesitate to compare the violence he witnessed in Ferguson and St. Louis to the atmosphere or police-community relations in the Bay Area. But he views Brown’s death as the final straw that galvanized communities across the nation that have been affected by decades of brutality and structural discrimination.

“It’s falling within a now very long line of public acquittals or non-indictments of law enforcement officers, vigilantes, and others who are not being held accountable for the ways they are treating black bodies, and I think it’s a very problematic moment in our country’s most recent history,” said McBride, a San Francisco native. “The magnitude and palpability of police shootings is not happening here in the Bay Area. Now, having said that, I think that it is still important for Bay Area law enforcement officers and agencies to own that this is a problem that’s a reality here.”

Upon his most recent return from Ferguson, McBride supported the protesters arrested after the #blacklivesmatter demonstration at the West Oakland BART station, where they chained themselves to a train on “Black Friday,” halting transbay services.

McBride said he tells his congregants to take action with “the body, the ballot, and the buck.” The “body” refers to the power an institutional body like a church may possess where individuals don’t, and to “putting our bodies in harm’s way, making ourselves vulnerable and connected to people who are most at risk,” he said. “The ballot” refers to civic engagement, and making demands of leaders — particularly liberal white politicians who McBride said let grave injustices happen on their watch, despite their rhetoric. Lastly, the “buck” refers to boycotting racist businesses and withdrawing black economic support until black people are more economically empowered, he said.

People with more privilege and power have a responsibility as well, McBride said.

“I think everyone has to own that these problems are not only for the oppressed to solve themselves,” he said. “I believe we need white people to show up to the places of pain, to be willing to follow leadership of color and not always be wanting to take the reins. I think we need white folks to convert their friends and family members about the value of black bodies.”

For McBride, who is raising two young daughters in Berkeley, the death of a person as young as Brown was particularly disturbing. The Live Free campaign — part of the PICO National Network — has brought young organizers from Ferguson back to the East Bay, where they’ve spoken at charter schools and the UC Berkeley School of Law.

“I think this is a resonant reality for a lot of young people,” McBride said. “They need to have the space to grow up. None of us grew up perfect. All of us had moments of rebellion and moments of maturation. How do we create space for young people of color to have that?”

The action prompted by the Ferguson verdict — and by the verdict the following week against the indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner in New York City — suggest that things may be changing, however slowly, McBride said.

“I don’t think the system can survive in its present context,” he said. “We’re going to have to remake it, redeem it, so it can serve everybody. I don’t believe that evil and unrighteousness and injustice will win. That’s not the frame of ethics and theology that I subscribe to.”

But he commented on how difficult it is for some to take action right now.

“We’re living in a very intense place of trauma right now as a community,” he said. “I think people underestimate the mental anguish that our communities face with the ongoing killings that are happening. We feel pain, we cry, we weep.”

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...