5 Buddhist No-No’s At Political Protests
I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. But sometimes, I admit, I feel a little ashamed to be Buddhist. Some of those times involve mass political actions where Buddhists are present, visibly involved. (The above photo, despite Buddhist-seeming “WAKE UP” signs, is not actually Buddhist, but a BlackberryLtd-funded “protest” outside an Apple store in Australia. Again, not Buddhist, but an aptly awkward illustration.)
Here are 5 specific moves that I would LOVE for us as Buddhists to avoid like the plague. (And by “avoid” I mean accept, understand, and sagaciously transform into never ever doing it anymore ever again.)
Sitting meditation is great. Quarter-lotus at a demo can be movingly beautiful, even edgy and unexpected. Many times, however, it is entirely expected. Rote. Like the protest knew the Buddhists were coming, rolled their eyes, and laid out our cushions for us.
Guys! Sitting meditation is not the only thing we can do together as Buddhists at an action. And it is certainly not inherently superior, morally, to other types of actions. So rather than being all high-and-mighty about it, let’s use this form creatively, appropriately, vibrantly. There are so many possibilities for meditation at mass actions that they require their own separate list-post!
2. Arrest Cred
One morning, upon arriving at the mandatory training for a nonviolent direct action organized by a well-funded national organization, the very first exchange I overheard, among the other protesters about to get trained up, was a middle-aged white man cooing to a very old white woman about how he aspired to match her arrest record.
“Eighteen times!” he crowed, laughing. ”I’m only at twelve! I’ve got some catching up to do!”
I have no idea whether this man was Buddhist, but I have seen the same impulse toward pseudo-martyrdom in Buddhist circles — even, I admit, in myself. I understand wanting to sacrifice proudly for what we believe. But chortling about arrest-record competitions just REEKS of white-privilege cluelessness around policing and imprisonment.
Note that I’m not saying people of color never risk arrest for political causes they believe in. (See: The Dream 9.) But deliberately risking arrest means something completely different if you are undocumented, Black (especially working-class), transgender or gender-ambiguous, a sex worker, or otherwise have a hard enough time finding an ever-loving job or place to live without drawing EXTRA scrutiny on your record.
This is not to dismiss the tactical usefulness of civil disobedience. Mass arrests often make the news, which can pressure a company or politician; we all know this. Still, they should be used as tactics, not prized as merit badges of moral fortitude.
Buddhists: don’t partake in the nonviolence pissing contests. Reserve your energy for actually tackling systemic injustice.
3. Freedom Song Gone Wrong
The crowd went quiet as we assumed our positions to risk arrest, sitting in a tight clump of 200 people on the asphalt outside the Chevron oil refinery gate, waiting for the cops to start zip-tie cuffing people. (What’s the holdup? We need the photo ops! Made me wonder if the most brilliant plan by the fuzz wouldn’t've been to stall and refuse to arrest people, until everyone just gave up and went home.) Eventually, trying to lift the deadening silence, people began to sing.
Buddhists, I’m begging you: if you find yourself amidst a sea of 95% white people waiting for 100% orchestrated and safe cite-and-release arrests (the mayor, standing nearby, even gave a cheerful speech at the rally), and the group starts singing We Shall Overcome???
Please, do not participate.
Walk away, voice an objection, steer the crowd to a different song … Just don’t be that Buddhist.
4. Peace Police
If there’s one thing that pisses off a Buddhist at a protest, it’s seeing somebody else get angry.
If WE, as individual Buddhists, are part of the committee and coalition that put in the work to organize the action, and we see people breaking the rules agreed upon for the action, we can by all means correct them. But if we’re just attending a rally or march, especially for a reason like, say, a dark-skinned person just got murdered by cops, we should avoid making it our personal mission to soothe or contain people’s rage. Apart from making us look like douchebags, our aversion also deprives us of opportunities to learn.
Describing her anger at racism, Audre Lorde once advised:
My fear of that anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.
If the anger of others at a protest bothers you so much, rather than knee-jerk rejecting their rage, try listening to it. No one’s forcing you to get sucked in. Then, let’s move and grow toward developing actions that let us use anger strategically, to dismantle oppression.
5. Armchair MLK
By no means does every Buddhist have to go to every protest, action, meeting, and demonstration. (Personally, I was so overwhelmed by the Zimmerman decision, prisoner hunger strike, and Fruitvale Station opening in theaters that I just couldn’t bring myself to go to any of the Trayvon marches.) But the worst error of all is to talk a gargantuan game about nonviolence… and not do a blessed thing about state violence. The violence surrounding us every day; the violence in which I, you, we, are complicit. Personal choices for ethical alignment are one thing, but trying to fair-trade-purchase our way out of systemic oppression? Not gonna work.
Whether we’re leading chants on a bullhorn, scaling lampposts for a banner drop, painting signs, passing out flyers, or coordinating accessibility and legal support, there are so many great ways to participate in collective, public actions. Of course, the movement doesn’t start and end with demos: there are all kinds of ways to engender compassionate confrontation and build inspiring alternatives, toward a just and peaceful world. And for the times when we’re out in the streets together, let’s help each other recover from a dubious dharma-head reputation.