Monday, April 27, 2015

Celebrating Bricks and Rocks

There is SO MUCH going on lately.

Actually, there is always so much going on. But in the past week or so, events and issues that I care about are swirling around me at rapid pace.

First there was a week of Take Back the Night events at the university campus here. I can't even begin to describe the profundity, liberation, outrage, and solidarity I feel after discussing sexual assault and how to challenge it with dozens--even hundreds, during the march Thursday night--of allies.

Now, my Facebook feed is filled with videos of protesters throwing rocks at cops in Baltimore. And me, someone who blogs about Nonviolent Communication--I'm thrilled! (Not so surprising, given that I was an anarchist long before I heard of Marshall Rosenberg.)

I don't want anyone to get hurt. I wish we could solve our problems without violence. But it is inevitable that when the oppressed are ignored and increasingly abused, they will fight back, if nonviolent reforms are unsuccessful.

And I am glad. Because I am sick of and sickened by not only the incomprehensible, gory acts of violence that men in police uniforms are committing across the US of A, but the acceptance, even endorsement, that other police officers, departments, and average citizens are giving to this brutality.

I have been sharing so many articles on social media lately, about so many things that I have not had or taken the time to digest, that my comments on them project the violence outward, not knowing how to take it all in. Does this sharing of information without any synthesis help? I think it does a little bit. It meets needs for awareness, for responsibility, for transparency even.

Amidst all this violence in the world, all this suffering, how do we maintain connection to our own humanity, and our ability to see others' humanity, so that we don't lose all hope of the just world that activists are out there throwing bricks for lack of? (I refuse to call them "rioters," as this term makes these people seem random and takes them out of the extremely political context this behavior is taking place in.)

Here is me teaching a workshop last month:

I was sharing my understanding of Nonviolent Communication with folks in Arcata, CA. Part of why I love doing workshops in Arcata is that so many folks there have their hands and minds and hearts in some form of social justice work or another.

I realized a few years ago that is valuable as NVC may be to communicate across political divides, it may be even more useful within already allied networks. There is no network too small to have disagreements. That is such a fundamental aspect of reality that it almost seems ridiculous to have to write it out, but for some reason we humans seem to have a hard time dealing with it. We freak out when someone disagrees with us. I do it too.

Sometimes that is because I associate that person's statement with something horrible. When I hear someone say they are not a feminist, I basically hear, "I condone rape," because to me one of the fundamental principles of feminism is bodily autonomy, and rape in its broadest sense is anything that takes that autonomy away--for example, forcing a woman's body to bear a child she does not want. I don't think all of the people who would say they are not feminists would consciously condone rape. So if I have a little space inside me, I can take that moment to ask, "Are you against rape?" Most people will answer yes. That is reassuring.

I look at that picture above, with universal human needs listed on it. I wonder, What needs of mine are met by people throwing rocks at cops after another man was brutally killed by the police force in question?

I feel relieved that people are taking some action, any action. This gives me hope for healing. As long as the status quo is maintained, healing cannot happen. The burning of cop cars changes the status quo.

My need for community is met by these people's actions. Freddie Gray is not disappearing into obscurity, another invisible casualty of white supremacist policing. People care. This matters to me. I want us to care about each other. I want it to matter when someone is killed by police. These actions show that it does matter.

I want people to be free of harm. I want communities to find ways to defend themselves when they are being harmed. I would be relieved if that defense was not necessary, because we didn't try to hurt each other in the first place. But if the offense is coming, I want people to find a way to free themselves from harm. I am not very hopeful that throwing bricks and rocks is a long-term solution, but in the moment, I am MUCH happier to see that than yet another defenseless crowd being flashbang-grenaded or pepper sprayed or pelleted with rubber bullets.

I want healing, I value community, I care (though probably not enough), I believe that those who suffer and die at the hands of officers matter, and I want all people to be free from harm. Right now the images of cops retreating as bricks and rocks come flying through the air towards them gives me a sense of relief. Thank god they are backing off. The people they are trying to attack have some space, some safety. I'm not advocating vengeance here, although I know how seductively sweet it can sound.

If those initiating the original acts of violence--the police--would listen to the people they are hurting and killing on a weekly basis, it wouldn't have come to this. If we as a society didn't condone outrageous police violence, I don't think it would have come to this.

So what can we do, if we say we want the violence to stop now? Listen to the folks who the violence was started for long ago. Hear the needs they are SCREAMING to be heard for, burning to be heard for...and care. Care as much as we do now that these so-called riots have broken out.

I am mourning that it has come to this, and hasn't been changed another way, but I am celebrating that something is happening, anything--because as the status quo is unsettled, maybe there is an opportunity to find a leverage point to keep it from settling in to the same old patterns yet again.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Back to Basics: I-Messages for Activists

So, there is a lot I want to say on this topic. Someone recently told me she was very interested in reading about using Nonviolent Communication as applied to activism. I consider this post a "pre-NVC" skill building invitation. I hope to go more in depth in coming weeks.

Last week I went to a meeting of an organization a friend has been trying to get me involved in. I went as a witness to observe and learn how the group functions and what it focuses on, not to participate directly yet. The meeting progressed in a somewhat typical fashion, with many of the communication challenges faced by groups of people attempting to work together cropping up.

At one point though, I started to feel quite uncomfortable. A very new idea came up, a way of doing things that would be a big change from how this group has historically functioned. But some people in the group seemed to think that it was both completely reasonable, and perhaps even urgent to implement this idea. One person in particular kept saying, "They should...[do this]. We should [do this]."

I felt worried. I was introduced to the problematic aspects of the word "should" about 10 years ago. I actually feel scared of the implications of the word should. I think it is a word that underwrites violence, whether that be micro-aggressions or all-out crusading war. The very idea of the word should is a rejection of reality as it is, an unwillingness to be present with our emotional response to something surprising or uncomfortable, and act from there. Instead, when people want to avoid feeling the discomfort of something unfamiliar, they act from a place of should, which means trying to force or coerce someone into their comfort zone. Here are some examples of how "shoulding" leads to violence.

1. A straight, cis man sees an apparently male-bodied person on the street wearing what to this man seem like women's clothes. The guy thinks, "He shouldn't be wearing those clothes. That's gross/ a sin/unnatural." He starts to harass the person. The man might have felt attracted to the person he saw at first, and then when he noticed cues that he was taught to associate with "male," he thought, "I shouldn't be attracted to a man! He shouldn't trick me!" This might escalate to physical assault if the man in question is so unwilling or unable to be with his discomfort with this unfamiliar experience.

2. A parent tells a child not to do something. The child questions why this is, or says that they really want to do the action, such as drawing on a wall with crayon. The adult in question has a belief that "children shouldn't talk back/should respect their elders," so they either slap the child across the mouth, or hold them down and "wash their mouth out with soap."

3. A teenage boy who is passionate about sustainable living sees his neighbor throwing recyclable items in the trash. He thinks, "That guy should know how to separate out his trash and recycling!" He starts to yell at the neighbor, "What the f*** are you doing? Don't you know how to f***ing recycle? Are you trying to destroy the Earth?" The neighbor, a college student hungover from partying the night before, gets defensive and punches the boy in the face in retaliation for this confrontation.

This last example might be hard for some of my readers who have great care for our planet and great mourning for the way we are harming our home seemingly beyond repair. This is the essence of the word should though: it comes from a place of unwillingness to be with that grief, or whatever other uncomfortable feelings we have about something--and results in attempted coercion of other people. (For ideas on how to be present with grief, see the two posts previous to this one.) It also escalates violence instead of de-escalating by speaking from our hearts.

In our collaboration efforts, I think we as activists will better embody a more respectful culture now if we speak for ourselves, rather than trying to speak for the whole group, to make it conform to our whims. This is another problem with the word should: it pretends to speak for objective reality (should as a universal truth), rather than the speaker taking responsibility for their own preferences and vision.

The most simple translation from the word should, I think, is "What I'd like to see happen is...." Here are a few examples.

"We should start raising the admission fees to events and make them mandatory instead of donation,"
"I'd like to see us raise the admission fees to events and make them mandatory instead of donation."

"You should recycle your bottles and cans! You're destroying the planet!"
"I'd really like to see us recycling in our neighborhood. I don't want the planet to be destroyed."

"You should treat your elders with respect,"
"I'd like to be treated with respect." [Could continue, "What that looks like to me is...."]

"We should include the police in our efforts at community building,"
 "I'd like to see us include the police in our attempts at community building [because they are a part of the local community too and have an effect on us]."

"We shouldn't include the police in our efforts at community building. They shouldn't go around shooting people if they want to be included in the community,"
"I'd like to see us exclude the police from our community building efforts, because I want to build an infrastructure with people I trust and feel safe from violence around."

This last piece starts to bring in more detail about why we'd like to see this thing that we may have been thinking everyone "should" do. And maybe we even discover that we don't have a why, and that we don't even like our own idea anymore! Or maybe we are able to better articulate our reasoning in a way that our collaborators can understand. Either way, the movement will move forward from a place of personal responsibility.

For now, I invite you to share an example of something that you think a fellow activist, or group of activists should do (be honest with yourself) and then translate this into a simple I message of "What I'd like to see happen is...." Does this feel more vulnerable? More powerful? For me, it is both.