I’m not going to get this story exactly right, but I’m going to tell it anyway.
It begins with Vincent Harding, my friend and mentor whose memory I’ve been frequently and unabashedly invoking in the last few months since his passing. On several different occasions when I was around Dr. Harding, somebody used the phrase “kumbaya” in the derisive way it tends to get used. You know, like “I’m not suggesting everything is all fine and dandy and kumbaya”.
I quickly learned that Dr. Harding would not let such moments pass. Instead, he would inform us that Kumbaya is a song from the Gullah tradition, and that Kumbaya comes from the words “come by here”.
I’m pretty sure, though not positive, that he also said that the song was often sung in the African-American community after someone had been lynched. I think he also said that the lyrics themselves- “Come by here my lord”, “someone’s crying lord”, etc.- referred to such a moment. (A quick attempt to confirm this though google has yielded no results).
The song also reminded Dr. Harding of a story, which he would always tell. It is this story that I may get not quite right.
In 1964 Dr. Harding was at a meeting of black and white students volunteers who were preparing to travel to Mississippi to register black voters, when they learned that three of their peers had gone missing. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andy Goodman had disappeared after being arrested and then released. It would be many weeks before it was confirmed that their friends were dead, and yet in that meeting it was already clear to the students that this was the reality looming.
So, after grappling with the fact that their friends had, very likely, been killed, Dr. Harding and the other adults asked the students to take some time and the consider two options. They could continue with their mission and place themselves in danger, or they could turn back and go home to safety.
The danger was utterly real and wanting to avoid it was fully understandable. It was made clear that not a single person would think any less of anyone who decided to leave.
All of the students chose to stay. All of them.
It was after making this decision that they joined hands and sang Kumbaya.
That’s how I remember the story, at least.
I’ve been thinking of this story this week, because I am currently in Nashville, Tennessee, participating in something called the James Lawson Institute. Its namesake, the Rev. James Lawson, is widely recognized as one of the primary tacticians of the Southern Freedom movement. He is the architect of the Nashville Sit-ins and many/most other campaigns during the civil rights movement. He has lived a life dedicated to the study and practice of the art of nonviolent civil disobedience as a tool with which to build a better world, and encourages us all to do the same. He was a friend of Dr. Harding, and a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But that’s not why I’m thinking of the story.
I’m thinking of the story because of Ferguson, Missouri.
I’m thinking of the story because of my friend, Gwen.
Gwen is here with me at the James Lawson Institute. Yesterday she noted how much she wants to believe that if she had been alive in the 60’s, she would have looked at videos of black students at lunch counters and seen the clear injustice. She wants to believe that she would have been one of the brave students involved in the movement. She wants to believe that she would have been on the right side of history.
But then she saw another video of a young black man killed by police in Missouri. And it left her deeply disturbed. It was not Michael Brown. (There has indeed been another young man killed since then). His name is Kajieme Powell. You can click here and watch him die.
You can click here and witness an extrajudicial killing, in which police officers serve as judge, jury, and executioner.
You can click here and see a situation of stark injustice.
Can you see something else? Is it far more complex for you? Is the injustice unclear? If so, why?
Is it because you cannot yet envision a world without police violence? Does that vision seem unrealistic, even impossible?
Rev. Lawson reminds us that people said the same thing about Jim Crow, the systemized discrimination and segregation enforced by violence. While it was here, it seemed to be as permanent and immovable as concrete. But then something, a force more powerful, swept through the country and transformed the reality.
And now that Jim Crow is gone, it is obvious to us that it was temporary.
But police violence is still here. Extrajudicial killings of young men of color by police are a regular occurrence. The deaths of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell are currently part of our reality. The story seems bound to repeat itself.
Can we imagine that it won’t?
Can we envision a future in which the videos of police violence are not reminders of our present reality, but footage from a bygone era? Can we consider what it would be like if Ferguson became not just a flashpoint, but a turning point in our nation’s story?
If so, what will we do to change the story?
How can we react to these killings in a way that does not accept them as a recurring phenomenon?
What force will sweep through our country to transform this reality?
Dr. Harding was a beloved professor at Denver’s Illiff School of Theology. He was a renowned author and historian, and a major force behind the PBS Eyes on the Prize series. He was a veteran of the Southern Freedom Movement (which, he reminded us, was the true name for the “Civil Rights movement”) and a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, he was the author of Dr. King’s April 4th, 1967 speech “A Time to Break the Silence”, in which King first took a bold, costly public stance against the war in Vietnam. He was a powerful voice for peace and democracy.
He was also my friend.
He was more than a friend, of course. He was a mentor, a teacher, and an elder. He was the sort of person who became an orienting force in the lives of those he met. Through his words and actions, he gave us plenty of material to think about- a lifetime’s worth, I suspect
Right now, for example, I am thinking of two of those things.
The first is the fact that, in 2012, Dr. Harding went on a trip to Israel and Palestine.
The second is the fact that there is not a single picture of Dr. Harding from the last ten years in which he is not wearing a button that says “War IS Terrorism”
I never got the chance to talk to him about either of these things. I missed the public talks he gave after his trip. And, even though he wore that button constantly for at least ten years, I never asked what it meant to him.
I wish I had, because I believe his responses would have provided some much needed vocabulary about what is happening in Gaza this month. The more I think about it, the more I realize that “War is Terrorism” is a profound description of what is unfolding there daily.
Let me explain.
WAR , TERRORISM?
Let’s start with terms. I bet you have a picture in your head for both “war” and ‘terrorism”. And I bet it looks something like this.
War is when two armies of combatants line up and face off in an attempt to capture territory from the other side. I suspect that most of us imagine the US Civil War and World War I to be examples of this sort of war. In this imagining, these battles occur at a safe distance from civilians. Civilian casualties are an anomaly.
Terrorism is when a group seeks to achieve its goals by directly attacking civilians, Most of us probably think of the September 11th attacks, Boko Haram, or maybe the Oklahoma City bombing, if we’re old enough. When Dr. Harding heard the word terrorism he often mentioned the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan.
When painted with these broad strokes (which is how I believe we paint the picture in our head), there is a stark contrast between the ethics of utilizing war and terrorism. During Wars, the targets are the opposing combatants, adults who (we assume) consented on some level to risk their lives. In acts of terrorism, the targets are civilians, innocent people who clearly did not consent to be targeted.
When juxtaposed with terrorism, war seems to occupy the clear moral high ground. But what is that high ground based on?
Nowhere is this questions more relevant than in the conversation about what is happening right now in Gaza and Israel.
TERRORISM IS WAR
It’s worth noting that there is a fairly common pattern to war and terrorism.
Wars (the proper wars we subconsciously envision) are generally waged by nation states using a state-funded army. Terrorism is generally committed (note the word we use- we don’t “commit” war) by non-state entities, groups of people without a well-funded army. Independence movements, stateless by definition, often turn to terrorism to wage conflict.
Israel’s own history provides an example. Before they had a state, the Zionist movement had a variety of underground militant organizations. One of them, the Irgun, used terrorism to seek to expel the British and establish a state. With this goal, the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel, killing 91 people. The man who ordered this bombing, Menachem Begin, went on to command a formal military when he was elected prime minister of Israel.
This history underscores an utterly predictable tendency. Military entities tend to fight with the most sophisticated level of weaponry they have. So, the haves use their armies, while the have-nots resort to other means.
I realize that it may sound like I am descending into moral relativism, or worse, refusing to take any moral stance whatsoever. But that’s not my intention at all. I am certain Dr. Harding did not wear his “War IS Terrorism” button in order to excuse or justify terrorism. He did not wish to elevate terrorism onto the same moral plane as war. I believe, instead, he wore it to demote war to the same immoral plane as terrorism.
There is no better illustration than Gaza.
WAR VS TERRORISM
The media framing is as expected: Israel is fighting a war of self-defense, against Hamas, who is committing terrorism. Let’s leave this narrative unchallenged and just imagine it to be the full truth. The confrontation between Israel and Hamas, is, therefore, a showdown between war and terrorism.
Now, since September 11th there’s been a dominant public framework for how War and Terrorism interact. It is called the “War on Terror”. In this framework, the ethical steps are clear.
1. Those who target civilians are identified as terrorists.
2. Targetting terrorists is ethically justified, and even obligated.
3.Civilian deaths that happen in the process constitute a necessary evil that is to be avoided as much as possible, noted as tragic when it happens, and ultimately blamed on the terrorists who made it necessary in the first place.
So long as the basic outlines of our definitions of “war” and “terrorism” keep their form, this logic seems to ring true. But in the course of Operation Protective Edge, the name given for Israel’s most recent actions in Gaza, what has happened has made a complete caricature in this logic.
What has happened is simple. Hamas, the group who, we are told, makes every effort to cause civilian casualties, has managed to kill only 3 people.
Israel, the nation who, we are told, makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties, has caused more than an estimated thousand civilian deaths, more than 300 of them children.
War at it’s most precise is taking exponentially more lives than terrorism at it’s most indiscriminate. This discrepancy is revealing a fundamental flaw in the logic of the war on terror, a detail that until now, perhaps, felt inconsequential.
There is a difference between targetting civilians and killing civilians.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
What happens, if one group declares that it targets civilians but kills very few, while another group declares that it does not target civilians but kills many?
The ineffectiveness of the Rockets fired from Gaza, while it does little to mitigate the immorality firing them indiscriminately, is certainly a welcome development.
But what about the effectiveness of Israel’s weaponry? The IDF, we are told, is the most moral army in the world. They declare repeatedly that they do not target civilians. And yet they do kill civilians. This begs the question- is a simple declaration of intent the only thing necessary to secure the moral high ground? Does saying “we don’t target civilians” excuse the actual killing of civilians?
That is the logic that we are being asked to accept in the world of missile defense systems, security barriers, drones, and targeted assassinations.
That is the logic that we are being asked to accept when the IDF strikes and kills civilians in UN shelters because there were militants nearby.
That is the logic that we are being asked to accept when 4 Palestinian children playing on the beach are killed in front of reporters and the response to the outcry is to deflect attention by quoting the Hamas charter.
That is the logic that we are being asked to accept when the IDF drops bombs in one of the most densely populated areas in the world and then refers to civilian they have killed as “Human Shields”.
If Hamas were to declare that all of the rockets currently being fired into Israel were NOT TARGETTING CIVILIANS but explicitly targeting IDF weaponry, would we accept that as valid?
Of course not.
We would not accept it. We should not accept it. The families and loved ones of all those who have been killed most certainly do not accept it. This most obvious point sounds utterly trite, but is, of course, the one most profoundly fundamental and deserving of deep reflection. The overwhelming loss of life is tragic and unacceptable.
A NEW FRAMEWORK
Fortunately, the world does not seem to be accepting it either. In fact, the repeated strikes on hospitals and UN shelters seem to have been something of a turning point.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called it “totally indefensible”. Here on the internet, we might even say it was the moment when Israel jumped the shark. Because when you instruct civilians to vacate their homes and move to shelters, and then you strike and kill them in those very shelters, it becomes hard to take you seriously.
What Operation Protective Edge has proven, ultimately, is that anything terrorism aims to do, war now does better. War causes massive civilian casualties. War produces trauma, suffering, and needless destruction. War kills the sick and elderly. War makes normal life impossible for innocent victims. War spreads terror throughout the population, a threat of imminent attack backed up by an all too real track record of follow-through.
So, if it has not already been said, let me declare it here. The War on Terror is bunk. We need a new framework.
What is that framework? Well, to be clear, it is most certainly NOT one in which terrorism is validated as a means of war. I’m sure the families and loved ones of the 3 civilian casualties killed by rockets in Israel could underscore this for us.
The new framework we need is one which does not ask us to set aside our most human of responses- to bemoan, condemn, and seek to prevent the killing of innocent people. The new framework declares that, regardless of the perceived evil of one’s enemy or the perceived justness of one’s cause, taking actions which one knows are virtually guaranteed to create widespread civilian casualties is NOT ACCEPTABLE.
In other words, war IS terrorism.
Sometimes I rap about really unimportant things…please tell eveybody!
In the last few weeks, I have observed and participated in a number of conversations related to the election, all of which seem to boil down to two questions.
1.To vote or not to vote?
2.To vote for Obama or not to vote for Obama?
I think these discussions themselves are incredibly valuable, because they are rooted in vital critiques of both the Obama administration and the limits of electoral-based change. I have found it incredibly useful to flesh out my rationale on these questions, and thought I might as well take the time to do so in writing.
Where does change come from?
My core assumption and belief is that it is social movements, not political candidates, who bring about political change. Movements- through organizing, outreach, direct actions, and smaller victories- change the conventional wisdom about an issue, which means the political reality for whomever in power is that they must address it.
The most effective movements are able to steer the conversation.
Recent examples include Occupy Wall Street, LGBT equality, and DREAMers. Terms like “the 1%”, “marriage equality” and “undocumented American” represent a successful reframing of the issue that reflects a new conventional wisdom which requires politicians to respect the new reality.Thanks to these movements, political candidates have to speak to these issues.
Where social movements have had less momentum, candidates are more free to ignore the issues. Drone attacks, indefinite detention, targeted assassination, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, the death penalty, NDAA, Bradley Manning, Palestine. Why aren’t these issues in the public conversation? Is it because they require more courage to speak about? Perhaps. Is it because they require a deeper critique of the system? Perhaps. But I would argue that we, the community of people who care about these issues, simply haven’t yet manifested the movement(s) necessary to put and keep them on the front burner.
What is an election?
So, if movements are what really lead to change, why bother with elections? There are several reasons, each of them related to the question- what is an election?
Many point out that elections have become a public spectacle, all media pageantry and no substance.This is certainly true in large part of the Presidential race. But to simply say this and conclude that all voting is pointless is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Elections are a certainly a public spectacle. But is that all they are?
Sometimes, elections are, quite simply, a straightforward means of making a collective decision. In Colorado, for example, we will decide whether or not to legalize marijuana for recreational use.In Washington, voters will be asked to affirm (or reject) a bill guaranteeing marriage equality. After decades of struggle around drug policy and LGBT rights, the people of these two states now have the opportunity to make the conventional wisdom a reality. Does anyone argue against voting in these cases?
If I were merely trying to demonstrate that voting has value, I would stop right here, because I believe that local/state issues are actually the most important. Not only do our votes and our organizing efforts have a much larger impact, but the campaigns themselves are more likely to work in sync with movement-building. For example, when voters reject an anti-immigrant car impound initiative, or vote to raise their own sales taxes to pay for education, the election results reflect a newfound consensus about our values. These are victories we can build upon!
But what about candidates? Why vote for them?
I see two reasons. Again, each reason relates to the question of what exactly an election is.
Choosing your Negotiating Partner
From the perspective of a social movement, an election is a practical chance to choose the person with whom you will be negotiating.
Consider the Keystone XL Pipeline. If Bill McKibbon and 2,000 others had not participated in a direct action encircling the White House, would Obama have delayed the construction of this pipeline? No. It was direct action that brought about the change in political reality. But I also think Obama is in fact pre-disposed to support environmentalist causes, both because of his personal values and because he sees environmentalists as his constituency. As Presidents go, he has been a decent negotiating partner.
Consider how much more difficult this struggle might be under a President Romney, who has pledged that the pipelinewill be built “on day one… if I have to build it myself”. What took 2,000 arrests under Obama might take 20,000 arrests under Romney.
Does this mean we can sit back and let Obama steer the ship? NO. Stopping Keystone is going to require th continued activism already underway (in Texas right now!) And this should be the core lesson for progressives from the last 4 years.Obama’s personal beliefs are not going to translate into policy. He is going to act on his political realities. It is our job to create those realities. We have to “ go out there and make [him] do it” to quote FDR (and Obama himself, I believe). We have to keep steering the ship.
But still, why pass up a chance to affect the terrain? Why pass up a chance to determine who is on the inside the halls of power as we demonstrate outside? (Remember- this applies not only to the people we elect, but the people they appoint once they are elected. And once again, I think this logic holds up even better locally, where it’s easier to get allies and movement candidates into office). I see no reason not to stack the deck in our favor.
A quick sidenote. I often hear the argument that essentially “things have to get worse for them to get better” or that its easier to organize under a Republican because people are more willing to protest, while under Obama people become complacent. For this reason, Glenn Ford of the Black Agenda Report called Obama “The more Effective Evil.” I think this critique of liberal passivity holds great value (and leads back to the truth around movements as the impetus for change), and when it comes to foreign policy I see some truth to this argument.But ultimately, Romney is not the more effective evil, (unless you believe that Romney would actually order fewer drone strikes or be more respectful of the rights of Palestinians). The solution to complacency is not to allow conditions to worsen, but to address the complacency.
I’m also reminded of an epiphany I had during the Bush administration. I realized that more and more outrageous actions on Bush’s part did not necessarily lead to more and more outrage. Instead, those of us who were organizing simply got spread thinner and thinner, making all of the movements weaker.We found ourselves playing defense in more games with the same amount of players. With Obama it does at least feel like there are some opportunities to play offense.
Engaging the Spectacle
These first two reasons are my primary reasons for voting. But there is one more.
As I mentioned before, an election is indeed a spectacle. But what is a spectacle? Dictionary.com says it’s “apublicshowordisplay,especiallyonalarge scale”, “anything presentedto the sightor view, especially something ofastrikingorimpressivekind”.A national spectacle means something to which the entire country is paying attention. A centerpiece and reference point for public conversation. If our goal is to affect public opinion, why in the world would we ignore a spectacle?
My friend Eric Byler, of the Coffee Party, compares the state of media and politics to professional wrestling, where people root for winners and losers based on what they know about the fighters. Viewed through that lens, what is this election? Who are Romney and Obama IN THE PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS? How are they UNDERSTOOD? As it is currently framed, I would say that Romney is understood as an unapologetic advocate of the 1% and a cheerleader of American belligerence, while Obama is cast as a protector of the 47% (whom Romney vilifies) who wants millionaires to pay more taxes, a supporter of “gay marriage”, DREAMers and Muslims. This is the spectacle the public is watching. This is the fight as it is being presented to us. What would it mean if the public were rooting for Romney? What would it mean for Obama to lose this fight?
It would not mean a rejection of indefinite detention, drones, targeted assassinations, NDAA, etc, because those things are not what “Obama” means to most people. It would mean a rejection of Obama’s “weakness” overseas, a rejection of safety nets, a rejection of regulation and taxing the wealthy.A victory for Romney would mean a victory for the 1%. It would be interpreted as a vindication of right wing arguments, signaling a desire for Americans to return to trickle down policies. In the realm of spectacle, a Romney victory (just as statewide votes against gay marriage) would establish a damaging consensus around retrograde values.
The challenge for progressives is how to enter and expand the parameters of the spectacle so that it includes issues that have been left out. I think this is a great place to invest energy in the next few weeks. How do we introduce questions into the debates about the epidemic of police violence? How do we publically object to the celebration of targeted assassination by the Democratic Party? How can we leverage the campaign of Green party candidates to force such issues into the conversation? What questions do we ask Obama and Democratic staff people when they call our homes?I think this line of thinking is rich with possibility.The election season is a fertile time to plant new seeds and grow our movements.
To vote or not to vote?
Easy. I’m voting. For all three reasons.
In straightforward terms, I’m voting to decriminalize marijuana in the order to decriminalize marijuana.
In practical terms, I’m voting for Democratic candidates in Colorado because I want to see Civil Unions (among other things) pass next year. And I’m voting to make sure that Mitt Romney is not our next President
In terms of spectacle, I’m voting for to tell the best story about the election. Does that mean a vote for Obama? If Colorado looks decisive, then yes, probably, because I want to avoid all else the story of a Mitt Romney victory. But if Obama is already winning, I’ll probably vote Green party, to try to inject the story that Obama’s militarism is losing him voters, to reject the story of liberal complacency.
Most importantly, I’ll do my best to remind people that voting is but one tool of social movements, and that social movements are the real determinants of the direction of this country.And I’ll thank all those people who question voting for keeping this very conversation alive.