An Invitation: Showing Up for Racial Justice

I gave the following speech at Charlottesville Gather’s Rally to Support the Women’s March in DC. I spoke on behalf of Showing Up For Racial Justice Charlottesville.

Thank you, Jill and Gail and anyone else who organized for all the work you put into this event and for reaching out to SURJ.

We are many today. This is good! And I imagine our motivations if mapped would make a beautiful and complex Venn diagram of intersecting interests. I see us as a mass of potential energy, and I suggest that we measure the success of today not by our numbers but by the impact of our actions to come.

I speak to you today from a position of great privilege, as male, white, cis, straight, able-bodied … in a society where these unearned assets are of immense value. The ease with which I move through this city… the safety that I experience and feel entitled to … when placed beside the experience of people of color, of women, immigrants, Native Americans, LGBTQ, and so many others — is a clear indication that something in America is broken. It was broken in 2008. It was broken last year. It is broken today. And if history is any indication, it will remain broken long after Trump leaves office.

I come — today as a member of an organization called Showing Up for Racial Justice. In town, we go by SURJ Cville. We are a local chapter of a national organization that was founded after the increasing backlash and scapegoating of people of color after Obama’s election. Our work is grounded in the call to white people that came out of the Black Power Movement: which asked: “Can white people move into the white community and undo racism where it exists?”

Thus — our approach to this foundation of America’s brokenness — is to undermine support in the white community for racist policies, practices and culture through collective action — and to prepare white people to meaningfully join people of color-led movements. We do this work in white communities, but we are accountable to POC-led organizations and movements. If you want to learn more about SURJ, our mission, values, and theory of change, search S — U — R — J, and you should find the national website.

I want to ask you to leave this march with a question in your heart and on your mind. And while I ask this on behalf of SURJ, I chose this question because it is one I need as well. I want you to ask: What do I do in the name of equality?

What do I do in the name of equality? Let’s start by acknowledging that equality is a radical notion. And that it is especially radical amid such obvious brokenness, such obvious privilege experienced by some and oppression by others. The Woman’s March on Washington’s website offers us some guidance on how we ought to be able to answer the question of what we’re doing to achieve equality. The organizers call us to act in the name of equality using non-violent methods. This is, of course, worthwhile guidance, but I would guess — that like me — most of you gathered here today — under these principles of non-violence ascribed to Dr. Martin Luther King — ARE NOT grappling with a serious decision about whether to take violent political action. The problem that I grapple when thinking about working for equality is not an urge to violence. The problem I grapple with is my urge for peace. I dislike conflict. I avoid tension. But in doing so, I break from Dr. King’s advice.

So, if you’re like me, and you have a deep desire for peace, listen to what this, the third principle of non-violence from the site, tells us to DO rather than just what it tells us not to do. We’re called to:

Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil. [The principle emphasizes that] The nonviolent approach helps [us] analyze the fundamental conditions, policies and practices of [a] conflict rather than reacting to one’s opponents or their personalities.”

Another time we might reflect on the strategic advantage this approach affords us. But right now I want to acknowledge your role and my role as individuals who are interested in participating in a movement for civil and human rights. Forget what the principle tells us not to do. This, a nonviolent principle tells we must attack the forces of evil. But it also acknowledges that we have opponents. And that in the effort to seek justice — we will be opposed by people. It is this fundamental tension — between a desire for peace between people and a desire for justice — that I’d like to talk about. I think it has been the most significant barrier for me and for many others who say we value equality but do little to bring it about. It has stopped me from speaking when I should have. It has stopped me from acting when I should have. It has made me a contradiction. Even in the final line of the mission of the woman’s march on DC we hear this tension:

“We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”

Many of you will be familiar with Dr. King’s tragically relevant criticism of the white moderate who he says is

“More devoted to order than to justice. Who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

I have said this. I have said that I entirely agree with outcomes but disagree with methods. I have critiqued Black Lives Matter for not having clear enough objectives, and I have sat on the sidelines for years, working hard at my job, and only shaking my head at the oppression I saw. I have too long preferred order to justice. I have too long preferred the absence of tension to the presence of justice. And I am not alone.

The problem of our urge for peace, our desire to not agitate, our desire to not disrupt is not new. We are not the first to ask whether negotiation with our political rivals, for instance, is more fruitful than direct action. From a jail cell, half a decade ago, King wrote to us:

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue … The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

What we can learn from King is not to stop being violent. That’s not our problem. What we can learn is to start taking nonviolent direct action. And to do so, we need to reckon with the fact that nonviolent direct action, the kind that we so desperately need is necessarily confrontational, and that while our objectives must be about changing institutions and the ways in which they intertwine to systematically oppress people … we will inevitably be opposed by people within those institutions, many of whom will be people of good will. Many of whom will be people just doing their jobs. But our failure to act in solidarity with groups and movements led by people who suffer the oppression of our broken country is to say we value equality, but to live as a contradiction.

So what do you do in the name of equality? As members of SURJ, we enter this work with both deep love and an urgent desire address our own brokenness that we inherit from a broken culture. We acknowledge that our freedom is bound up in that of all people — and the radical objective of equality is one worth fighting for. We accept that there is no non-confrontational way to disrupt systems of oppression, and that we must distrust our discomfort when asked to show up for direct action. We must come to know ourselves well enough to understand when our discomfort is born of a desire for a negative peace that is the absence of tension rather than the positive peace, which is the presence of justice.

Search SURJ — S, U, R, J online. Go to our Facebook Page, Showing up for Racial Justice Charlottesville. And join us at our next chapter meeting Tuesday 7PM at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church. Thank you.