||Posted: Oct. 22 2003,06:50
This was one of the talks on Francis Day at Agape on October 4. Thought you would enjoy it. Blessings, Suzanne
When Suzanne contacted me this summer about participating in today's event she asked me to speak for about 10 - 15 minutes on how I came to Non-violent Resistance and what plans I have for it in the future. My introduction to Non-violence came by way of anti-racism work. Five years ago I began going to a historically black church which had recently become a multicultural community and was struggling with everything involved in that transition. As part of that struggle, I was asked by one of the African American leaders, a woman named Rhonda Gordon, to take a look at the ways the color of my skin tended to make my experiences different than hers and other congregation members of color.
Commencing that investigation marked the beginning of my political education. Like many, if not most Americans, I was, up to this point, under the impression that the Civil Rights Movement put an end to institutional racism. Countenancing the present-day reality of white skin privilege destroyed this notion and caused me to wonder what exactly the Civil Rights Movement did. It was in the process of searching for an answer to this question that I discovered the power of Nonviolence. Inextricably linked with what Civil Rights activists did was the way they did things. Whether nonviolence was, for them, a product of pragmatism, philosophical considerations or religious conviction, African Americans and their allies who put their bodies on the line and refused to resist evil by force drew national and international attention to the inherent violence of the South's racial caste system. Reading this recent history that was not a part of my formal education, I found myself underlining large passages in books, highlighting words which seemed to jump off the page: "Because the human rights of the adversary are respected," wrote Barbara Deming, "though his actions, his official policies are not, the focus of attention becomes those actions, those policies, and their true nature. The issue cannot be avoided. The antagonist cannot take the interference with his actions personally, because his person is not threatened, and he is forced to begin to acknowledge the reality of the grievance against him."
"One day," wrote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal. . [I]n the final analysis, means and end must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends." Particularly interesting to me were the traditions and histories of nonviolence these 20th Century activists drew upon. Reading King led me Ghandi who sent me to Tolstoy who turned me onto Thoreau who caused me to read up on the Quakers.
One Quaker in particular, the abolitionist, John Woolman, feels especially relevant today. It was Woolman who recognized the danger of abundance and "once urged Friends to look to their possessions to see if they contained the seeds of war."
As I think about my future plans for nonviolence, intensifying this examination seems unavoidable. The automobile I arrived in, dependent as it is on fossil fuel, is a possession which contains the seeds of war. If I am serious about nonviolence I cannot minimize or ignore this fact and must seek ways to become less complicit in the ongoing bloodshed to acquire oil. If I am serious about nonviolence, I must also return to my roots. I said at the outset that my introduction to nonviolence came through anti-racism work-specifically through a systematic exploration of the innumerable unearned privileges I get simply by being white. "Whiteness," writes the Critical Race Theorist, Cheryl Harris, "is property." Whiteness becomes a possession which contains the seeds of war whenever I use it to get something to which I would not otherwise be entitled.
Sometimes these things I get are given to me. This summer when I went on trial for my part in the Westover Civil Disobedience, I stood before the court looking every bit like the second year law student I am. When it came time for the judge to decide how I should pay my debt to society, he took into consideration the previously unblemished record of a seemingly model citizen. Because I had never been convicted of anything like possession of marijuana, underage drinking, operating under the influence, or possession of a false identification, the court had no reason to suspect that I had ever engaged in such behavior. Of course, the truth was I had engaged in such behavior. Not once or twice, but week in, week out for the better part of a decade. Why, then, was my record clean? My record was clean because our legal system allows certain "boys to be boys." Thus, my illicit drug use, for example, was really less a crime than a rite of passage. For the powers that be, "sewing my wild oats" was a perfectly natural and acceptable way for me to spend my late teens to mid-twenties. Like the Leader of the Free World, I was free to be "young and irresponsible when I was young and irresponsible." This free pass I got is not something I can give back. I can, however, acknowledge that I got it and that it influences the kind of influence I have.
After I was convicted and the Commonwealth recommended a $200 fine, I indicated my intention to serve off any monetary sentence and the judge blanched. The idea of incarcerating someone with a spotless past, someone engaged in the study of law, someone who looked and talked and carried himself so much like.well.he did, appeared repugnant to him. Watching my judge wrestle with the prospects of sending me to prison for a week, I was reminded of the movie, "Gandhi," and the trembling hand of the God-fearing magistrate forced to sentence the Mahatma to five years in an Indian jail. Of course, it almost goes without saying that I am not Gandhi. I say "almost" because unless I say it-unless I note the innumerable ways I have fallen, and continue to fall, short of his example-then the Gandhi-like treatment I get can lead to an inflated sense of self-importance.
Finally, the things the color of my skin get me are not always given. Sometimes I take them. During my trial, the prosecutor subjected Massachusetts case law to what might charitably be called a "creative" interpretation and the police officer who testified failed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This experience of being treated unlike an able-bodied, American-born, upper-middle class, heterosexual, Christian, white man was quite new to me. So when the judge, in his attempt to keep me out of jail, floated the idea of community service, my knee-jerk reaction was to make it clear that I had no desire to pick up roadside trash. Rather than hold me in contempt, the court proved willing to accommodate my request that I do my community service on behalf of a social justice organization of my choosing. While this might not seem like such a bad thing, I'd like to close by telling you about the realization I had one month later while driving to school when I noticed ten young men of color in bright orange vests picking up litter in the breakdown lane. The week before, I had begun serving the community by helping some low-income women move into a new apartment. Washing their windows, sweeping their floors and transporting their possessions was hardly glamorous, but at the end of the day I had the gratitude of a half dozen human beings. I had made their lives a little easier and they were thankful. This feeling of appreciation is something I suspect was absent from the experience of tending to roadside trash. Indeed, I would be willing to bet that what these ten men of color felt more than anything else was punished. Frustrated by the actions of the prosecutor and police officer, I opted out of that punishment by relying on the spoils of the system I set out to resist. If "ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends," then the exercise of unearned privileges cannot aid the cause of equality. Whiteness is a possession that contains the seeds of war. Only by resisting the perks of it can those of us with less melanin foster unity and water the seeds of peace.