Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
The Facebook Group, Sangha in the Streets (SITS) posted the following article. By posting this here, I’m not saying that I agree with it’s position. I’m posting it because it offers a different way of conceptualizing the racist tactics of the Trump campaign and how they are used to exploit white voters as well as terrorize Black voters and people of colour. I want to open up the discussion of movement tactics. How can we employ more skillful tactics within our movements for social justice without compromising our principles of non-violence?
My take on the position in this article is that while it’s true that Trump is exploiting the impoverishment of the white working class in America, he is also directing that rage toward Black and Brown people, immigrants and religious minorities who have suffered more and are even worse off than working class whites. Trump is instigating violence that provokes more white rage and police brutality towards protesters of colour. Furthermore, there is evidence from the press coverage that protests against Trump’s rallies have tarnished his image in the press, possibly slowing down the success of his campaign and the spread of his fascist hate-mongering.
On the other hand, I agree that in the face of extreme hate and threats of violence, non-violent tactics can seem weak. So I offer the wisdom of Grace Lee Boggs and her estimation of militant v. non-violent tactics during the Black Civil Rights movement, and how they could be combined:
Grace Lee Boggs also spoke of the transformative power of love in her retrospective on the Black Civil Rights movement:
In the 1960s I didn’t pay much attention to Martin Luther King, Jr. My own social change activities unfolded in the inner city of Detroit. So I identified more with Malcolm X than with Martin. Like most Black Power activists, I viewed King’s notions of nonviolence and beloved community as somewhat naive and sentimental. Thinking back over those years, I can’t help wondering: Might events have taken a different path if we had found a way to infuse our struggle for Black Power with King’s philosophy of nonviolence? Is it possible that our relationships with one another today, not only inter- but intra-racially, would be more harmonious if we had discovered how to blend Malcolm’s militancy with King’s vision of the beloved community? Could such a synthesis have a revolutionary power beyond our wildest dreams? Is such a revolutionary power available to use today? King constantly pointed out to those in the violence and terrorism of their opponents was increasing their own strength and dignity. He reminded them and the world that their goal was not only the right to sit at the front of the bus or to vote, but to give birth to a new society based on more humane values. . . This is what true revolutions are about. They are about redefining our relationships with one another, to the Earth and to the world; about creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old; about hope, not despair; about saying yes to life and no to war; about finding the courage to love and care for the peoples of the world as we love and care for our own families. (Lee Boggs, 2004, in Sitrin, p. 100).
In Orson Scott Card’s great 1985 strategy novel “Ender’s Game,” a boy named Ender enters a training school where students learn skills for outwitting an opponent. They play computer games that become ever more challenging. The stakes in the training are high because their world is threatened by an alien force, and the aliens are winning. Among the trainees young Ender stands out, so his computer is patched into the actual global security system in real time to lead the defense. Spoiler alert: Ender’s world defeats the would-be conquerer.
Why Ender? Some other youngsters are as able as he to choose brilliant tactics and to see vulnerabilities in the aliens’ attack. Ender’s advantage is that he uses his empathy to intuit how the opponent perceives the unfolding struggle in light of its own worldview.
When considering how to undermine Donald Trump and militia groups, we need to use Ender’s advantage. It is not sufficient to be the legendary hammer that, wherever it looks, sees only nails. “Protest” is not the only tool we have. If we take a minute to understand what’s actually going on in the heads of our opponents, and how they understand the unfolding of America’s polarization, we may be glad that we have more options.
Donald Trump’s March 13 rally in Boca Raton, Florida, was revealing. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank left the press corps and inserted himself into the core of the giant crowd. In that rally protesters had been screened out. Trump brought forth his usual inflammatory rhetoric, saying he might pay the legal fees of someone who sucker-punched a protester. Milbank reports, however, that the rally remained fairly tame. When Trump eventually asked, “Do we have a protester anywhere?” no one responded. Where was the drama?
Milbank noted, “Trump and his advisers seem to delight in the confrontations, which fuel the crowd’s energy.”
We activists might want to ask, “If Trump wants us to provide drama, why would we want to play his game?”
Fear could be making us reflexive here. It helps to remember that Trump has been winning about 40 percent of the voters in the Republican primaries, and Republicans are about 20 percent of the American electorate. That amounts to Trump gaining the vote of about 8 percent of the entire primary electorate. It’s a bit early to panic.
How we can unwittingly empower our opponents
A couple of weeks ago I joined a group of mostly white people concerned for racial justice that gathered because a reportedly militia-affiliated group was demonstrating at the Federal Building in Philadelphia. The demonstration supported Ammon Bundy’s January armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon and called attention to the killing of one of the group members by federal officials.
Before I joined the progressive group as it gathered around the corner from the Federal Building, I checked out the group we aimed to confront. I found about a dozen people carrying signs, clustering and chatting together, offering handouts to the few pedestrians who passed them. They were from out of town, and looked disoriented and very low-energy.
I rejoined my group and grabbed a sign as we went around the corner to face our opponents from across the street. As we marched toward our spot the other side straightened up, forming a line holding their signs so the passing drivers could actually see them. Their leader with a bullhorn began to speak. It began to look like a real demonstration.
A delegation from our side went across the street to dialogue. Then a few people not of our group came along our sidewalk, one carrying a bullhorn, and began to hurl accusations and insults at the group across the street. I saw body language on the other side go into heightened alert; people placed their feet farther apart and glared. Another set of activists came to our spot and then advanced across the street, blocking traffic in the lane closest to the opposing sidewalk while shouting at the demonstrators, who shouted back with spirit. Police stepped closer to remind all that they were being watched.
I imagined the out-of-town demonstrators’ reports at the dinner table and the bar when they got back home: “Well not much happened at first, but then the crazy political correctness people came and it got really interesting. We really showed them we’re not going to put up with the tyranny of the federal government.”
I joined our side in giving the militia-defenders a gift that day, supporting their empowerment in standing up for their cause.
Of course I believe in the value of polarization in the living revolution — as prescribed by Alice Paul, Gandhi and King — and described by Mark and Paul Engler’s “This is an Uprising.” But there seems to be an art to polarization: We surely don’t want to spend our time empowering our opponents by giving them energy they need to build their movements. Artful polarization uses tactics that reduce the power of the opponent, undermining their commitment and reducing support from their allies. It also brings more light to the situation, as well as the inevitable heat.
Empathy as a national deficit
As Ender discovered, a resource for practicing the art of polarization is empathy, but where is that honored in our culture? When our nation’s leadership asks why terrorism continues to grow despite massive firepower, it rarely tries to get inside the worldviews of either leaders or recruits of terrorist groups. Institutionalized racism, classism and other oppressions flourish with the scarcity of empathy. To my regret I didn’t ask, back in the 1960s, “Where does the violence of the members of the Ku Klux Klan come from?” I would have felt I was somehow letting down my cause if I turned to my empathy. That’s a pity, because I might have discovered how much the experience of capitalism was (and still is) a driver of the Klan.
For decades America’s white working class has been sliding downhill, accelerated by the Great Recession — schools failing, jobs departing, houses foreclosing, insecurity growing. There are even formerly middle-class people now identifying as working class. These increasingly marginalized people have for years felt themselves to be voiceless on the national political stage. Donald Trump offers a voice. When interviewed, his supporters forgive his contradictions because he speaks so loudly and vividly, outside the restrained stylistic norms of the elite.
“The protesters,” I can hear Trump’s supporters thinking to themselves, “want to silence our voice.”
Then the Trump campaign arranges a rally in a spot in Chicago likely to provoke more protesters. The rally is duly cancelled. I can hear the Trump supporters growling: “The protesters are succeeding in silencing our voice!”
Do we want to be seen as trying to silence someone perceived as an advocate by some of the more oppressed people in our country?
In a culture tilted toward violence, scary scenarios are easy to imagine. Trump has found that his provocations succeed in manipulating leftists into protesting at his events. He has prepped many of his fans by talking violence, enacting bullying tactics and threatening to escalate by sending his people to disrupt Sanders rallies. One scenario is that his own supporters will, in groups or freelance, attack the demonstrations mounted by “elite leftists.”
Just as polarization can be either artful or destructive, escalatory tactics can be thoughtful or mindless. Alice Paul, King and others escalated thoughtfully. Californians watched middle-class environmentalists do the mindless version of escalation at the Children’s Pool beach in San Diego in the decade after 2005. Judging from the recent story on “This American Life,” environmentalists stepped up their angry and aggressive moves against the public when they faced resistance to their demand to reserve the beach for the harbor seals. Both sides went well beyond their better judgment.
Trump has already accused Sanders of directing protesters to disrupt his rallies, seeking to brand the left as the enemy. If anti-Trump protesters choose not to weigh the consequences, they will continue to protest — swallowing his bait — and we’re likely to see escalation at Trump rallies.
Such escalation has at least two consequences: It confirms the perception of the left as the enemy of beleaguered working-class people, whose voice “protesters are trying to silence.” It also invites escalation of the policing power of the state. Police violence has drawn criticism lately, but police will gain in legitimacy when the vast majority approves of police intervention to control the escalating tactics on both sides.
Trump has already threatened “riots” if the Republican establishment manages to avoid nominating him at the Cleveland convention. Where do his working-class supporters go if they find that the electoral arena did not work for them and believe that elitist leftists scorn them? The militias await.
The good news is that nonviolent struggle offers an abundant toolbox plus the invitation to creative thinking. Activists do not need to imitate the hammer that can see only nails. Protest is a tactic. This is a time for strategy.
George Lakey’s recent article rejecting the usefulness of protests at Donald Trump rallies begins with a reference to the sci-fi novel “Ender’s Game.” In the book, children are recruited to learn skills for outwitting an opponent, and are invited to play complex video games in which they command galactic armies against an alien force threatening their planet. Of the trainees, one boy, Ender, proves himself especially adept at defeating the aliens using his particular gift of empathy to intuit how the alien opponents perceive outside attacks, by understanding their worldview. Lakey uses this literary reference to help argue his point that Trump protests are self-defeating, because they lack empathy.
His perspective is important, but incomplete. As it happens, there is another take on “Ender’s Game” — it’s a parallel novel by the same author, Orson Scott Card, called “Ender’s Shadow.” It takes place at the same time as the original book and depicts some of the same events from the point of view of a supporting character named Bean.
One of the significant differences between the two characters is that Ender isn’t aware he is actually leading a human army to victory against their alien opponents; he thinks he’s just playing a computer game. But in “Ender’s Shadow,” Bean — also a commander in the galactic army — figures it out, and proceeds with the attack anyway. We learn that Bean is similarly empathic, but comes to a different conclusion than Ender, who is wracked with grief upon learning of his participation in the attack. Bean empathizes with the Formic alien army, and still feels that they must be vanquished. Sound strategy, he reasons, sometimes means recognizing the importance of confronting your opponent head-on, despite the mixed feelings that might generate.
My point is not that Trump opponents should mercilessly attack Trump supporters, a la “Ender’s Shadow.” But having empathy doesn’t mean backing away from confrontation. It’s possible to extend love and compassion for our opponents while throwing ourselves in the gears of hate. And the empowerment and skill we gain in those confrontational moments often sets us up for more powerful victories down the road.
Trump’s WWE circus
Lakey is right that many of our disruptions have emboldened Trump and his most ardent supporters. His rallies often take on the tone of a WWE wrestling match, and he is most effective as both ringleader and unlikely underdog — constantly harassed by those unreasonable, know-it-all protesters; a clear giveaway that many or most of us are middle class. He almost certainly wouldn’t have his current level of support without being shunned by so many mainstream institutions, or drawing so much fire from the left. And many of our disruptions are noteworthy for their apparent ineffectiveness. Some rallies have featured more than 35 disruptions in less than an hour, with the interrupters hurried out of the venue and Trump free to continue agitating: “See? They don’t want you to hear the truth.” We absolutely need more approaches to demonstrating opposition to Trump that speak to working-class white people, and don’t play to his strengths.
Lakey correctly points out that we have more tools in our toolbox than one-off disruption. Few groups, for instance, have tried using humor and ridicule to polarize the choice between Trump and acting against hatred, to say nothing of powerful symbolic protests demonstrating our resolve. Imagine a few dozen activists, zip-tied together inside of the venue with a banner that says “White People: When Are We Going to Speak Up?” and mouths covered in tape reading “White Silence.” If such a protest could evoke the silence that led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II or the rise of fascist dictatorships in the years prior that would be powerful.
While none of the protests thus far have been quite so creative, they have still managed to embolden thousands of people — just by giving them the opportunity to show up publicly against hate.
Using Trump to unleash courage
Saturday’s blockade of a Trump rally in Phoenix by Puente Arizona, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix, offers a clear example. Immigrant communities in Arizona are currently under severe threat from legislative proposals that would further criminalize undocumented people and their families. When Trump announced he would hold a rally in the very backyard of the most notorious anti-immigrant in the country, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, many expected immigrant organizers to steer clear. Instead, they used the opportunity to channel anger against both politicians and demonstrate courage and tactical discipline to a national audience, blockading the road leading to the rally by disabling multiple vehicles, with several people locking themselves to the cars in the road while dozens of Puente members cheered them on. The blockade received national TV and print coverage. Given the recent history of immigrant-led civil disobedience, this action will most likely further embolden other immigrant communities to rise against Trump’s racism.
I have a particular window seat on this political moment, being in touch with dozens of white people organizing with Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, who are using Trump rallies as recruitment and skill-building opportunities. SURJ chapters have been involved in Trump disruptions in more than 15 cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, Tucson and Fayetteville, North Carolina. In cities like St. Louis, white organizers identified dozens of new recruits for their ongoing racial justice work; in almost every city, SURJ chapters reported building many new connections with organizers of color.
For some of our members, these actions were their first experiences openly confronting racism, or the first actions in which they put themselves physically at risk. After somewhat anxiously attending a Trump rally in Fayetteville, Desaray Smith, a SURJ member from Asheville, North Carolina said the protest helped her come to grips with uncertainty, practice improvisation and flexibility in tough moments, and feel more resilient and mentally “tough” than she expected. Overall, the experience showed her that “the right people arrive at the right time” and “do the right things together.” This kind of transformational work — moving beyond fear, and towards a greater connection to collective power — is needed in movements today, let alone in stopping Trump.
Working-class and raised-poor white organizers in North Carolina, among others, have also been using Trump rallies to “call-in” their neighbors. One group of SURJ leaders — accompanied by members of Southerners on New Ground, a Southern regional queer liberation organization — showed up in Fayetteville with a banner reading “Poor Whites: Our Mamas Taught Us Better.” Lakey’s point that we need to infuse our anti-Trump efforts with approaches that reach working-class people is well taken: While SURJ, for one, has significant working-class leadership, middle-class white organizers like me have more work to do to support their leadership in our organizations. We have a lot to learn in this moment about how to accurately express empathy toward white people who are angry, how to listen deeply to people in our communities for whom Trump’s message resonates, and how to articulate a compelling message to rival his hate-and-blame narrative. That’s why it’s even more important for us to invest in listening skills and slow base-building learning from the experiments of working-class white organizers in our networks who are having success building with the communities Trump most wants to recruit.
The gathering storm of white supremacy
Our empathy for white working-class people who are taken with Trump shouldn’t keep us from intervening in the gathering storm of white supremacy that his rise represents. If for no other reason than because we know the number of people who are repulsed and angry about what he represents — but have remained inactive — is far greater than the total filling the seats of his hate-filled celebrations of patriarchal masculinity. However imperfect our protests have been — and they should incorporate more dramatic and bold experiments along the lines of the Phoenix blockade — they are offering an alternative to the story of white silence, and are galvanizing many to act.
Let’s not forget, in the event Trump should win the nomination and become president, we’ll almost certainly need to respond with massive noncompliance to prevent his hateful policies from being implemented. And if he doesn’t, there remains the critical importance of white people experimenting with higher-risk action as we defend our mutual self-interest in showing up for the movement for black lives — experiments that can happen as we show up in bolder ways against Trump.
By emphasizing the need to experiment with higher-risk action, I’m not advocating we throw strategy out the window, as Lakey implies at the end of his article, or to discard compassion. We need more of both, and it is totally within our capability to put in motion a confrontational approach to shutting down Trump and an outreach strategy that centers deep listening across class. By doing so, we might find — like Bean in “Ender’s Shadow” — that confrontation and compassion can go hand in hand.
Southerners On New Ground (SONG) is a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South. We believe that we are bound together by a shared desire for ourselves, each other, and our communities to survive and thrive. We believe that Community Organizing is the best way for us to build collective power and transform the South. Out of this belief we are committed to building freedom movements rooted in southern traditions like community organizing, political education, storytelling, music, breaking bread, resistance, humor, performance, critical thinking, and celebration.
SONG builds a beloved community of LGBTQ people in the South who are ready and willing to do our part to challenge oppression in order to bring about liberation for ALL people. We develop leadership, build our membership base, and identify and carry out community organizing projects and campaigns. All of our work strives to bring together marginalized communities to work towards justice and liberation for all people.