Cathy Barlow, a former federal civil rights and disability rights attorney, was stunned by how many white people marched in the streets to protest systemic racism after the death of George Floyd.
“In my entire lifetime, I have had other allies, other civil rights attorneys, advocates, etc., who’ve been out there doing the good work. But there has never been anything like a lot of people who thought that they ought to stand up and yell about what was happening to me,” the African American social justice activist said.
She and her Jewish partner, Susan Martel, have protested police brutality for more than 20 years.
When they heard a Black man died after being pinned beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, their impulse was to tear pieces of cloth and attach them to their clothes as a sign of mourning in keeping with the Jewish tradition of kriah.
Instead, they created We Mourn Too, a project that distributes black ribbons reading “We Mourn Too” and “Black Lives Matter.” The ribbons can be displayed on clothing, bags and other items as a way for white allies, Jewish or not, to express their solidarity with Black and Brown communities, especially now that many cannot show their support at rallies and group meetings due to COVID-19.
Barlow has been an activist from a young age. She planned a campuswide sit-in as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War in 1968 and was a founder of the school’s W.E.B. Du Bois College House, which provides resources to help Black students navigate life at Penn. As a young child, she was instructed by relatives in segregated Virginia to cross the street and look down when passing a white person.
Martel, who is white, works as a psychotherapist, writer and activist. She was raised in a Conservative Jewish household and now identifies as a humanist. Her activism is informed by a commitment to Jewish rituals, tikkun olam and tzedakah.
They met at a social justice cocktail hour at the White Dog Cafe in University City and have been together for 22 years. They created For Our Common Good, LLC, an organization that led various projects addressing housing, health care and racial profiling issues.
The couple created their first allyship ribbon in 1999 after Amadou Diallo was shot by New York City police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. They presented a ribbon to his mother, Kadiatou Diallo. In 2012, Martel spoke at a rally in Love Park protesting the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman.
We Mourn Too began as a response to Floyd’s death on May 25, but Martel said the ribbons are a sign of protest against police brutality in general. A 2020 study by The Washington Post found that although Black people make up less than 13% of the U.S. population, they are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by police as white people.
Some activist movements rely on language that conveys a sense of anger. While Barlow and Martel feel plenty of outrage, their ribbon project primarily focuses on a sense of collective mourning and grief.
“It’s important that we recognize that we’re all in this together and that everyone is part of one family. And I don’t think that has been recognized enough,” Martel said.
She and Barlow said displays of allyship, however small, can be extraordinarily meaningful during times of hardship.
“I guess it was two weeks ago, and I was talking to this African American woman and she saw my ribbon. And I swear, if it weren’t for COVID, she would have kissed me. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She thanked me and said ‘God bless you,’” Martel said.
She said much of the appreciation was grounded in a sense of disbelief that a white person would care about the problems facing Black communities, similar to Barlow’s disbelief at the number of white people marching after Floyd’s death.
Barlow said real police reform will take more organizing.
“Anyone who is committed to the idea that one day there could be even-handed law enforcement needs to pull on their big girl or big boy pants and be ready for decades of work,” she said.