By Tommy Airey
For the duration of the Derek Chauvin trial, Lindsay and I posted up just north of Panhe, an Acjachemen burial and ceremonial site in modern-day Southern California at the coastal border of Orange and San Diego counties. The Acjachemen people are not recognized by the federal government—despite archaeological proof that they lived sustainably on that land for more than 9,000 years before European Christians, with their flags and guns, invaded it and stole it and forcibly converted them to the cult of Jesus, the white conquistador.
To add insult to injury, the white Christians raped their women and infected them with their diseases. Panhe was the epicenter of a genocidal cocktail of disease centuries before the novel coronavirus came for a country trying to make itself great again in every colonial way possible. The people of Panhe were victims of a COVID-19 on steroids. As more than 90% of the Indigenous population of Turtle Island were killed off, white Christians spurned social distancing for profit-making.
Panhe is the crucified wound of a people still surviving, but totally unrecognized. In fact, its sacred quality is soaked in the surreal statistic that .0001% of those who call California home drive by Panhe thousands of times and never even know it exists. Some of the ancient Oak and Sycamore trees of Panhe remember a time when white people were not around. They are still standing despite the encroachment of a military base, nuclear power plant, state campground and Trestles, one of the most legendary surf beaches in the world.
To get to Panhe, just take the 5 freeway and get off at Cristianitos. Spanish for “little Christs.” The site of the first baptism in California. The start of something awful for the Acjachemen people. When white Christian soldiers first marched through “California” in the 18th century, there were a few hundred Acjachemen living on the land. Today, the region is populated by millions of mostly white settlers, a miracle performed by policies, perspectives and postures that resemble Derek Chauvin’s prone restraint and positional asphyxia. In other words, white folks—so many acting in the name of Christ—consistently cut off the breathing of Black and Brown people.
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Twenty years ago, Dr. James Perkinson, a cherished mentor, wrote rather bluntly that white Christians cannot possibly be faithful if they are living “peacefully” in suburbia. If, however, we constantly call out economic appropriation and social exclusion, then that, J-Perk says, is a serious form of witness. Suburban and gentrified spaces “develop” by extracting resources from somewhere else and by excluding and exploiting people who, on the basis of race and class, are deemed “suspect.” Most of us have been quietly rolling with this reality for quite a long time. White people and middle-class people haven’t been scripted to swim upstream. However, Christian theological concepts like repentance, discipleship and conversion go against the flow. These are synonyms for a conspiracy, from Latin words meaning “breathing with.” Our souls strengthen by “breathing with” poor folk, people of color and the Indigenous of the land.
Many of the cities south of Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles were once “sundown towns,” exploiting dark-skinned folk during daylight hours and then excluding them from dusk ‘til dawn. Sundown towns in SoCal are proof of the painful truth of what Malcolm X often told audiences. Stop talking about “the South.” As long as you south of the Canadian border, you South. Written and oral sundown town policies no longer exist, but sundown town mentalities still fuel the souls of white folk. The great force of history, James Baldwin lamented, is that we carry it within us. One thing is certain in Southern California: white supremacy and settler colonialism—like wildfires—will not go away on their own.
One former sundown town—Huntington Beach—was the site of a “white lives matter” rally ten days into the Derek Chauvin trial. I showed up on that blue-skied Sunday afternoon one block from the Pacific and I am happy to report that the rally, with its flags and guns, was overwhelmed by a large, loud crowd of counter-protestors with their signs and chants and dark skin. One of the unmasked white men who mattered was toting a two-story pole with three flags: the stars-and-stripes, the 18th century “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake and an expired “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit” banner. He wore a shirt that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.”
In the bible, the only passage that even resembles kneeling for the cross is the text in Philippians that says that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, a bold subversion of “at the name of Caesar every knee shall bow.” In other words, a kneeling practice that has nothing whatsoever to do with law and order. It comes at the end of a hymn that exhorts anti-imperial co-conspirators to have the same mind as Christ, who emptied himself of his supremacist god-complex and humbled himself in devotion to sacrificial service to others. The fact is that Jesus never told his disciples to kneel for the cross, but to deny themselves and carry the cross. It’s a rather heavy ask—and why many of his disciples ran for the hills.
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On the day Derek Chauvin was pronounced guilty, guilty, guilty, I was driving back from from a hike with my nephews, through my old neighborhood in Mission Viejo, when I saw a gigantic confederate flag hitched on a home at the bottom of the hill. There are quite a few Trump flags in this town. They are still selling them in front of the gas station right off the 5 freeway at Oso Parkway. I’d never seen the stars-and-bars though. But alas, blue state California is the South too. I do not believe it was a coincidence that this old white dude in overalls (true story) decided to up his supremacy game on this particular day.
My dear friend Kim Redigan, a veteran high school teacher in Detroit, says that she doesn’t worry about the white men carrying flags and guns as much as she does about the white men carrying briefcases. The white men who set the economic policies, who make the lending rules, who control the tax codes, who fix the way schools are funded, who promote police and prisons, who determine what “democracy” looks like, who profit off their social connections, who stay silent on “social justice” issues, who wear a white collar and quote the bible, whose successes are sealed by the exploitation, exclusion and extraction of a split screen society. Briefcases are the ultimate weapons of white supremacy and settler colonialism.
The day before Derek Chauvin was convicted of manslaughter and murder, I was sitting on the beach in San Clemente, a mile north of the “Western White House,” perched on the bluff above Panhe, where Richard Nixon lugged his briefcase 2,686 miles home after he resigned in disgrace. At a recent football game here, parents and students from San Clemente High School shouted the n-word at opposing cheerleaders. On the beach that day, electric bikes outnumbered Black people 75 to 1. It was a clear day. I could see Catalina Island. Two dozen surfers in full wetsuits were in the lineup. Until they weren’t. The lifeguard shut down the beach because a ten-foot shark was spotted swimming close to the pier. The predator showed up to remind me that multitudes of vulnerable people are suffering from what is rarely seen just below the surface. Or hiding in briefcases.
But get this: the pelicans were sending signs too. They beckoned me back to the second verse of the Hebrew Bible: a wind of God hovering over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word for hovering (rachaph), in Deuteronomy, describes an eagle over her nest. I like to think of divine Spirit as a mother bird in motion, methodically sustaining Her young—those carrying crosses instead of briefcases. Whether they choose to, or whether empire forces them to. My hope for redemption rides on a kind of pelican Power, a feral God that does not calculate and control from a throne, but glides over and dives into the deep and dark places that we call home. A Force that hovers over us, empowering resistance and renewal in the face of flags, guns and briefcases. It’s a conspiracy I’m betting my life on.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and coach who grew up on Acjachemen land. He is a post-Evangelical pastor and the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).