I attended a meeting of a local pacifist organization with the understanding that the meeting was called to discuss the current political crisis and our response to it. Others showed up for other reasons, and the meeting was quite large. There were a number of great women activists there and a leader of a local Latino organization who always hits it just right and a number of people active with Salem's Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC). Many of us came with a common or shared ask: turn out for an anti-racist and anti-sexist protest at Salem City Council tomorrow and participate in a meeting to found a progressive network in Salem on Tuesday.
I looked at the meeting agenda, saw that we were going to sing "We Shall Not Be Moved" and do small group work and knew that I was in the wrong meeting. And when a white activist introduced himself by saying, "I'm (name), and I just learned at the peace lecture that I'm a racist" with what I heard as smugness and no one called him on it I knew that this would not go well. The meeting was structured to avoid confrontation, but confrontation happened anyway.
At one point we broke up into groups to discuss moments in our lives when we engaged in collective action and felt support from others and learned from one another. I lucked out and was in the group with the Latino activist, and he spoke quite well about his struggles. Others in the group wanted to talk about themselves, not about action or collective struggle. I was shut out of participating and one of the people left for another group when it was my turn to speak.
Back in the larger circle our Latino friend stated a need very clearly in order to help define the meeting: his community is in panic mode, a sanctuary movement is needed, he needs to know who will support him and faith communities should be on this. A reactionary pastor active in the local African-American community, disagreed, said there is no need to "build sanctuaries" and that our mission should be about squaring our relationship with Jesus Christ. He added on much that we might agree with in countering racism, but the argument against sanctuary just hurts. The Jewish people and secularists in the room were offended. An LGBTQIA activist and a Jewish woman took the floor to speak from their experiences and give support to our Latino comrade. A guy in the group who has a court hearing coming up---the guy who pointedly left our small group when it had been my turn to talk---changed subjects and asked for support at his hearing and the facilitator tried to get us back in our groups, saying that the guy could talk about his issues later. The guy then went off on the facilitator. A strong RJOC activist intervened and got us back in our groups. My group was now somewhat smaller, the guy with the upcoming hearing having gone to another group and the Latino activist trying to help another group and a woman who made an issue of not having washed her hair in two weeks stepping in and out of the conversation. A Jewish woman kept talking to me about some "Islamic holiday" cards she had and didn't know what to do with; it turned out that they were for Kwanzaa, not a Muslim holy day.
Back in the group, I over-reacted and came off as more angry or militant than I should have. And when we reassembled I reported for our little group without checking in and out of order besides. I was wrong in my approach and work.
The RJOC activists and the women activists and out Latino friend stayed on point. I left when it was time to sing or do a non-violent communication exercise just before the close of the meeting.
I was part of a great work circle at Mano a Mano on Friday, learning from the women and men there, the Salem Social Justice Collective (SSJC) did an energy-filled meeting with folks yesterday that people should feel good about and our socialist group met today and had a strong discussion which lasted two hours. So this meeting with pacifists was a downer. A rewrite of the Stones' "Street Fightin' Man" came to mind: "Well now, what can a poor man do/'cept to wish for a rock and roll band/'cause in sleepy Salem town/there's just no place for a radical man, no." Really, there aren't that many places for a radical blue-collar white person to go in this town. I appreciated hearing our Latino friend say that he lives in 5 separate communities which intersect in him but not with one another because I get that.
How do we get lots of smart and active people in one room and have so many misunderstandings and find such a need for awareness and, worse, how is it that it is so clear that racist, me-first-and-only, no-struggle and parochial views are the strongest in the room?
I'm struggling to understand why this afternoon's meeting was so bad and the other meetings were so good. I can say that it was partly about class, since so few of the people this afternoon were working-class, and partly about national composition, since so few of those present this afternoon were people of color, and about gender, since men did much of the damage today (and I am including myself here). But I don't think that this quite hits it. I am struggling with the possibility that people who come to pacifist groups can be somewhat more self-obsessed than people who come to other groups, more willing to focus on themselves and not on mass collective action. This is not a good explanation either, though, since some great RJOC activists are pacifists who do not fill that bill. Is it that people are tense and stressing in searching for something at this moment and that they will take thios out on one another? Is it the religious nature of this particular group? Some negative intersection of class, race, gender and politics? Is there something built in to this formation which prevents people from being able to visualize organizing and mass collective action?
Mano a Mano, SSJC, RJOC and our small group gets it. Why don't others who we share the demonstrations with get it as well?
A RESPONSE FROM A VALUED LOCAL ACTIVIST
This was a mean-spirited post. Maybe (this organization) is not the most effective organization, but they are people of good will who are trying to find their way through the terrible aftermath of the election like we all are. I know and like several people who were at the meeting, don't like a few, and don't know others at all. But they don't deserve such a public expression of disdain. Constructive criticism, sure, but disdain no. I hope they never see this blog post.
My main objections were to (the pastor's) comments and the guy with the upcoming hearing, who I think was totally out of line. I liked my small group, even if I didn't necessarily agree with all that was said. And I like the format of having small groups discuss issues before sharing with the larger group. I also like that the host had us discuss actions that can be taken.
I do sense a peace-justice/chicken-egg divide, if you will. You say that you think justice brings peace and not the other way around. I'm inclined to agree, but I get the impression quite a few others would disagree. Well-meaning people (often coming from a religious perspective, which doesn't jibe with me personally) who are more interested in trying to change individual attitudes than systems.
Lastly, I think some just like to hear themselves speak.