This past weekend, activists streamed into Ferguson, Missouri, for Ferguson October, a “weekend of resistance” comprising actions and events organized by Hands Up United, Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, and other partners “to build momentum for a nationwide movement against police violence.” Protestors marched and staged civil disobedience, shut down commerce, and draped banners from freeway overpasses. Activists posted an open letter that began this way:
Here in Ferguson, our community has come to know terror on American soil. A public slaying so gruesome it harkened images of the lynchings from the most heinous moments in history, for young and old to see.
This is a moment of great beauty and meaning, in which those who desire a nation of justice and love are rising to summon it forth. Some carried a mirrored coffin in a ceremonial procession to the police department, calling to mind the Shinto version of The Golden Rule: “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”
What will come of this? I wonder if the answer depends on a type of generosity and collaboration that is possible, if difficult, to embody. I’ve been thinking about something I read in The Guardian’s coverage of a talk by Cornel West on Sunday at St. Louis University, an event that began with comments and invocations by spiritual leaders of many faiths.
Some in the audience grew restless and then angered at the series of reverends, imams and rabbis until a small group of activists demanded to speak. They were supported by chants of “let them be heard” and “this is what democracy looks like”, a rallying cry at protests over Brown’s shooting.
Tef Poe, a St Louis rapper and activist for Hands Up United, a campaign group seeking racial justice in Ferguson, took the microphone and noted that the Christian, Jewish and Muslim preachers on the stage were not the people on the street trying to protect people from the police.
“The people who want to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all didn’t show up,” he said to loud cheers.
At that point, the planned programme fell apart and the focus shifted. Some younger black speakers demanded to know whether the people on the stage had a plan of action.
“All those speeches before, you’ve heard them all before. That’s not going to change, right?” said one. “I was hoping for a plan from our elders and I was disappointed,” said another.
A long time ago, Jerry Rubin (who cofounded the Youth International Party—the Yippies—in 1967) became famous for saying “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Rubin’s issue at the time was another type of publicly funded violence and racism, the Vietnam War, which impressed itself on young Americans’ lives in very different ways than Iraq or Afghanistan. Every 18 year-old male, until the lottery was instituted in 1969, had to face induction into the Army or go through elaborate procedures to apply for an exemption or deferment or permission to do alternative service as a conscientious objector. As with all such systems, those with economic and social privilege found the requirements easy to evade, so the combat ranks were filled disproportionately with young men of color. Muhammed Ali was convicted in 1967 for refusing induction. His reasons were both political and religious, but the explanation that rang out loudest was this: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger.”
Rubin died 20 years ago at 56, hit by a car while jaywalking in Los Angeles. By then he had become a businessman, marketing a nutritional drink (and employing Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale as a salesman). Rubin’s father was a union organizer, so you could say his progressive politics had a lineage. Today we would say he was a creative activist or a practitioner of performative politics: some of his most famous actions included showing up in response to a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in Revolutionary War uniform, as a Viet Cong guerrilla, and as Santa Claus; tossing money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and watching the stockbrokers scramble; and nominating a pig for president in 1968.
Rubin’s warning about the older generation was grounded in two widely shared sentiments: young people’s contempt for dominant institutions as so richly expressed in his ridicule-infused, defiant refusals to honor constituted authority; and the resentment so many of us felt in the Sixties at the hypocrisy of those elders who proclaimed equality and freedom, but invested much more in pursuing personal comfort.
On Sunday, Cornel West called this out as well: “The older generation has been too well adjusted to injustice to listen to the younger generation. The older generation has been too obsessed with being successful rather than being faithful to a cause that was zeroing in on the plight of the poor and working people. Thank God the awakening is setting in. And any time the awakening sets in it gets a little messy.”
No one was quoted expressing the hard truth that despite growing activism, numbers of young people have also chosen to attempt a separate peace with the existing social order rather than stand against injustice. Although it was implicit in the presence of West and so many other senior activists, no one was quoted as recognizing that just so, the older generation is no more unitary than the younger.
“I was hoping for a plan from our elders….” Me too. The thing is, youngers become elders without necessarily attaining either access to power or awareness of themselves as power-bearers. More than 25 years ago, I facilitated a retreat for a national organization of committed activists that began in the 1930s, weathered the Witchhunts of the McCarthy era, and continues today. Most of the leadership then were veterans of sixties activism. Two decades earlier, older leaders had clashed with—and to some degree been supplanted by—sixties activists who demanded to share power. In one of the retreat sessions I facilitated, a student protested that the group’s leadership behaved as if it were impossible to lead unless one had come up through the ranks as a sixties activist. He accused the sixties veterans of hoarding power. Here’s how I described the moment when I wrote about it back in 2006:
A woman of the sixties generation, an officer of the board whose reputation for toughness was unchallenged, tried to reply, but before she could utter, she was overcome by tears. “Last week,” she sobbed, “we buried M____,” naming a man who’d started out in the thirties and persisted through the earlier generational combat. “He was a leader. It seems like yesterday I was saying the same things to him. And now you think I’m a leader? You think I have power? We’re practically broke, Ronald Reagan is president and I haven’t got a clue.”
Tears ran down every cheek in the packed room, the seamed faces of hard-bitten vets and the smooth cheeks of students alike. The barriers to empathy burst, letting in the deep truth of shared isolation. No power-hungry oldsters and excluded youngsters, just people struggling for justice against the grain of their society, people who’d fallen into the trap of objectifying each other. Tears released understanding and from that, change began.
I subscribe to a discussion list for creative activists, and recently, one list member asked others to share their “theories of change.” If you’ve heard me talk on this subject, you know that I am highly suspicious of anything having to do with human beings that can be called either a “plan” or a “theory.” My suspicion is grounded in science—specifically, the principles of prediction and falsifiability. We can propound all sorts of social change theories and offer endless citations that show in hindsight how history conformed to them; but so far, not a single one has revealed simple predictive power: if we do X and Y, the result will be Z. In truth, different groups of activists in different locations and circumstances try much the same thing, and as in all human events, some succeed and some don’t. The law of unintended consequences is almost never broken.
Just so, unless a theory can be falsified—unless proof can be marshaled that it won’t work—it can never be proved. Co-creating social change is much more like making a giant collaborative work of art than like building a house from a blueprint. Yet a tremendous amount of energy is invested in crafting blueprints for change.
So I don’t think we can honestly indict any generation for hypocrisy without noting that in every generation, there are both hypocrites and avatars of moral grandeur; and I don’t think we can indict any generation for failure to produce a master-plan without acknowledging that things as multifarious and shapeshifting as human events don’t obligingly yield to plans.
For me, what some members of any generation may be able to offer is not a plan but guiding principles. I’ll mention just a few that seem to me to derive from lived experience and make sufficient room for human diversity:
- The solutions to social problems must arise from and be rooted in the communities experiencing those problems. Listening and learning are just as important as teaching.
- Social change requires multiple gifts, capacities, and approaches, and a spirit of generosity that welcomes whatever people bring in the service of freedom, equity, and justice.
- Creativity—especially the capacity to craft something of beauty and meaning from the broken pieces of an old order—is our greatest asset. It isn’t about replicating “best practices,” but bringing forth our best.
I’ve been on the road a lot. The last time I blogged was a while ago. I wrote about the USDAC Call: Creativity for Equity and Justice, a project in which I have the pleasure of serving as Chief Policy Wonk. It “calls on all artists and creative activists to join in the movement to demilitarize the police and bring justice to victims of publicly funded racism.”
The video I want to offer today is a little different than usual, embodying that impulse. Earlier this month, arts activists in St. Louis rose from their seats around the auditorium just before the music resumed at a concert of the St. Louis Symphony to sing a version of the civil rights anthem “Which Side Are You On?” in honor of Michael Brown, murdered by the police in Ferguson.
It’s a question that bears repeating.