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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.)

1. Sitting Snob

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.

Buddhists represent!

Comments (42)

  • Sophie in Montreal

    6. Don’t use double spaces after a period.
    http://www.penmachine.com/2011/01/stop-typing-2-spaces-after-period

  • Craig Paup

    I’m very fond of old protest songs like We Shall Overcome. But don’t worry. When I’m at a demo, no one knows that I am a Buddhist.

  • josh

    hmmm…. i actually did some research on “we shall overcome” awhile back and would note that it was arranged and made popular by the white folk singers Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton, performed and copyrighted (in 1950) well before it was adopted by the civil rights movement; it was first used as a song for the labor rights movement. while its based somewhat on a hymn by Louise Shropshire (which was about asking Jesus to lead one to heaven) the new lyrics and melody, by Seeger, Carawan et al were developed for all engagements with power and repression, not just the civil rights movement. so, in short, the writer is making an incorrect assertion here.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi josh, I’m not sure what assertion you think I’m making about the song? That it was copyrighted by Black people? My point, which I think is clear in context, is that it is awkward and disrespectful to the serious origins of that song, and the life-and-death risks that made it an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement (and historical struggles against slavery and the legacy of slavery) to invoke it in a “civil disobedience” situation which has purposely been shielded from all danger, for the participation of people who generally do not face direct endangerment from police, anyway. In that context, I felt it became an appropriative feel-good moment rather than a genuine expression of spiritual determination in the face of repression. I’m sure this was not the intention of those participating, but I hope we can bring more awareness and common sense to our actions at mass protests.

    Craig, the song is indeed gorgeous and moving. And I would actually love it if people at protests could see us as Buddhists: just the helpful, on-point kind. :) I made some suggestions earlier this week, drawing on histories of Buddhist political engagement.

    http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/5-fresh-ways-to-sit-politically/

    Sophie: Noted. :) Any thoughts about the content?

  • Stephen Malagodi

    “Everyone says what they do is right.” ~ John Giorno, Buddhist.

  • Shannon Holman

    It’s hard to respond earnestly to a jk-nr post. But to try to privilege open-heartedness over coolness, let me see if we agree on the assertions in this post and its comments.

    1. Buddhist-identified activities at mass political actions could use some enlivening.
    2. Sometimes well-meaning people can alienate the very people they’d like to ally with, whether through a lack of sensitivity, or through our various cultural conditionings. What one person views as an act of solidarity can feel like “fronting” or co-opting to someone else.
    3. At the same time, it can feel hurtful to be rebuffed or critiqued when one is trying to be an ally.
    4. Knowing what the Three Poisons are doesn’t make us immune to them.

    Personally, I’d love to see sanghas offering training in things like facilitated listening and non-violent communication.
    Then we could be deployed to actually practice compassion where it is sorely needed; namely, on both sides of the barricade.

  • nathan

    It’s funny. I was “peace policed” at an anti-XLpipeline rally outside of MN Senator Klobuchar’s office early this spring. Her Minneapolis office is located in a privately owned building (so much for public access!) and on a freezing cold day, we were told by the building manager to get out. Most of the group was already outside, and the handful of us that were inside were at the bottom of the stairs in a hallway away from the other building tenants. We weren’t even blocking the door, or making much noise, but they wanted us out anyway. I and a few of the others got into a heated conversation with the building manager. At one point, I called him a fascist and then walked outside to let the anger that had built up inside of me to cool off (in the 20 degree F air, lol!) Anyway, another protester came up to me and I was still agitated and told her what was going on inside and my role in it, and she told me that “anger’s not the answer” and “we need to respect their wishes.” Which felt like a total shut down to me at that moment. I didn’t feel heard or respected at all.

    The organizers that day were from different groups with different approaches, but what ended up happening was that the group with the largest contingent, 350.org, got to control the message and action. And the woman who attempted to police me was from that group.

    To add to the song discussion, there were several songs attempted during that same rally. Songs sung by about 30 people in a parking lot on a freezing day with virtually no one in earshot. Given that I was still upset, I opted out.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love singing! But when I think about it in the context of this post, it seems to me that protest songs brought in at the wrong place and time can feel highly contrived and even manipulative. That day, it felt like there was an attempt being made to “unify” a crowd that wasn’t at all unified. I also wondered if some of the organizers actually thought that singing in that parking lot was somehow a show of strength or something. Maybe it was about a media photo op, but as an experience, it was all very odd.

    Also, just to note. Those of us in the minority of the crowd that day were a racially diverse group of folks from OccupyMN, Idle No More, and a few other groups. The vast majority of the 350.org folks were white, and middle class.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi Shannon, thanks for taking the time to engage despite the tone being a bit off-putting for you. On my end, I’m not trying to pull a speaking-out-both-sides-of-my-mouth jk/nr, because even though I’m using a little bit of absurdity and a lemur to illustrate my points, they are still points I actually, seriously believe in. I’m not just kidding. So I hope we can go for open-hearted earnestness, even as we make room to laugh at hyperbole.

    I especially appreciate you commenting because I think your observations highlight a lot of rich complexities about just what we mean when we talk about Buddhists going to protests.

    On point number one, Buddhist protest participation could use some enlivening, I’m with you 100%, as per my other post this week. Buddhists have used various kinds of marvelous protest tactics, and I’d love to see us bring some of them back.

    Point number two, that well-meaning allies can alienate people, I think there’s something very important here, in the words you used. “Ally.” And “solidarity.” I’d love to unpack this a bit. Because in my experience, you’re right — it is generally the correct and appropriate word in protests I’ve attended where Buddhists are doing our thing. Folks protesting “as” Buddhists, like in a group way tend to be middle-class, and/or educated, and/or racially privileged in respects germane to the protest: police brutality, extreme poverty, systemic environmental racism, etc.

    Although these social ills affect all of us to some degree, and that’s why it’s great that we’re all out there together, since such a small percentage (less than 1%) of the country is Buddhist, it’s unlikely that a protest would be unifying masses of Buddhist people, right? I mean, unless we’re talking about a specific form of oppression that tends to affect primarily Buddhists. The only ones I’ve seen that could maybe, *maybe* qualify are, like, housing and labor fights involving the Chinese Progressive Association in SF, or perhaps certain elements of the BP oil spill aftermath on the Gulf Coast, affecting Vietnamese fisherfolk, but even then I’d be making a guess based on immigrant (multi)nationality, which can be quite faulty and dangerous. Perhaps other folks can chime in about Buddhist social movements they’ve seen or been a part of, recently. But what I’m getting at is, unlike the overwhelmingly Christian and largely Black leadership of something like the Civil Rights Movement, Buddhists “as Buddhists” are unlikely to be at the center of a liberation struggle in the U.S. any time soon, as far as I can see. Individuals Buddhists, of course, may be transforming injustices directly affecting us, but usually not as a group. And again, I’m talking about my experience, what I’ve seen, in different U.S. contexts — but there are certainly Buddhist-led peace movements in other parts of the world where Buddhists are the majority or a sizable minority among the most affected — Dalit Buddhists in India, or the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka. There, they can have a very different influence.

    I’m sorry to belabor this but I’m trying to identify a theme that was running through my mind while writing this post, and which you are bringing out more strongly, I think. Which is that it can be difficult and awkward for *the contribution* of Buddhists to social movements and political struggles to be a *moral* contribution. If we are not already seen and known as moral leaders in the community, why should we assume this position during a protest? I’m really not trying to pooh-pooh this impulse: I think many of us studying and practicing dhamma have experienced immense psychic relief; we truly believe in principles that are good for us and, we think, for others. We want to share those principles: compassion, patience, nonreactivity, etc., especially in political climates that are known for getting heated and divisive. It’s a beautiful wish in many ways. However, I think each one of us needs to be extremely honest with ourselves about (1) whether our role in a demo or movement is one of ally, in solidarity, and (2) whether our Buddhists superpowers of organized compassion, lovingkindness, etc. are genuinely aligning with the demo, or whether we are contributing or imposing them because *we* feel that they are right, that they are correct. Do you see what I mean?

    Which leads to number three, that it can be hurtful to be critiqued or rebuffed when one is trying to be an ally, and I agree. It is ouchy. But it is also something that we need to be brave enough to take seriously as allies, no? There’s a lot of literature about the 10,000 forms of defensiveness that can arise when our attempts at allyship are critiqued… Here is one super-comprehensive list of common forms of denial among white people, when challenged on white supremacy and racism.

    http://www.stcloudstate.edu/affirmativeaction/resources/insights/pdf/28ToolsChange.pdf

    I’m confident that we can make it through defensiveness, with compassion, firmness, and kindness for ourselves and others.

    Finally, point four (sorry this is so long!), yes, I definitely agree. And there are a million more, much more subtle ways that I would love for myself as a Buddhist, and my fellow Buddhist friends, to contribute ever more beautifully and effectively to the movements for dismantling oppression, while also deeply knowing, for ourselves, the Three Poisons, the Three Marks of Existence, and the Eightfold Path for liberation from craving and suffering. Tall order!!!! hehe. But we can only do our best, together.

    NVC training sound good — have you found that these skills have helped you in protest situations? Personally, I wonder whether some of the conflicts we might perceive as problems of communication are equally, if not more, the result of conflicting political stances, or clashing strategies. Like in your example, nathan, it sounds like the political position or strategy of the leadership of the action was to avoid any unplanned confrontations with law enforcement, and basically to execute a “safer” type of protest. Whereas other people, perhaps, wanted to disrupt “business as usual” in order to apply pressure, and felt stifled. I feel like this is quite common. NVC might be helpful in clarifying some of our political disagreements, getting some of the defensiveness and ego out of the way, but it won’t necessarily erase the differences themselves. And that’s okay! In my view, it would be great to actually educate ourselves about different forms of direct action that we can choose to take, if and when we want to do things outside of pre-planned political pageantry. (Which, btw, doesn’t mean we have to risk arrest — there are plenty of other roles we can take.) My dream is to have a BPF training with The Ruckus Society (which teaches skills like banner drops and lockdowns, and works with some dope community groups on environmental justice, immigration, etc), so that Buddhist organizers can keep increasing the concrete tools, knowledge, and skills that we have to offer in social movements local to us. MMM, this would be so great! Maybe NVC could be part of the training, too. :)

    If you made it this far, thank you for humoring me. Would love to hear more thoughts and experiences about what we as Buddhists can do (and avoid doing) to contribute to anti-oppression movements! I feel like there’s so much more I want to ask, but I’ll leave it here for now. :)

    Many thanks,

    Katie

  • James

    Regarding #3 from the list, about the Chevron protest:
    See this Counterpunch article for an even harsher critique of these “demo” methods:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/07/chevron-and-controlled-opposition/

    Disclaimer: I wrote the article.

    Anyway, as the Malcolm X quote goes: “This is part of what’s wrong with you – you do too much singing! Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging!”

    He said this responding to the overuse of the song “We Shall Overcome”; indeed, it was among the same-ol’ songs during the Chevron protest.

  • Katie Loncke

    Just to make one more small clarification: when I say that most of the Buddhists I see participating in protests “as Buddhists” have been coming from an allyship position to that protest, I’m also not talking about the great community service type work done on an ongoing basis by Buddhist temples, churches, etc. for and in their communities. Sometimes that work may be a lot less visible than a protest! Though also quite important.

    Oh and one last thing: a big exception to the Buddhist-protesters-as-allies idea, and a major inspiration for my dreams about direct-action training for Buddhists, is the group Students for a Free Tibet, which has had a longstanding training partnership with The Ruckus Society! Rad! We have talked with SFT leader Tendor and Buddhist trainers from Ruckus on a couple of the BPF member phone calls, which have been super inspiring and exciting (to me).

    http://ruckus.org/article.php?id=431

  • Katie Loncke

    James, dope article! Thanks for sharing! Hopefully we can keep escalating the local (Richmond, Bay Area) actions against Chevron, til they really start feeling a pinch.

    I especially loved your closing paragraphs. We’re nothing without a sense of humor about ourselves, right? And we can’t stay away. But let’s dream bigger and organize what we want to see! I’m transcribing an interview right now with the folks at Peaceful Uprising in Utah, whose nonviolent day-long shut down of tar sands construction operations caused stock prices for those projects to tank. Now that’s what I’m saying!!! So let’s not lose hope. :)

  • Bob

    I think we should strive to make protests inviting and if people want to sit down and get arrested then it feels super lame to criticize them. I also think its weird to judge who gets to feel close to MLK and who doesn’t. At this point King has achieved sainthood, and if a bunch of white people want to get themselves arrested singing “We shall overcome”, then why is that a problem? because they didn’t take enough risks? We need a revolution in this country. But chastising people who are already politically active and getting themselves arrested hardly feels like the way forward to me.

  • nathan

    ” Like in your example, nathan, it sounds like the political position or strategy of the leadership of the action was to avoid any unplanned confrontations with law enforcement, and basically to execute a “safer” type of protest. Whereas other people, perhaps, wanted to disrupt “business as usual” in order to apply pressure, and felt stifled. I feel like this is quite common. NVC might be helpful in clarifying some of our political disagreements, getting some of the defensiveness and ego out of the way, but it won’t necessarily erase the differences themselves. And that’s okay!”

    Yes, you’re right about unplanned confrontations with law enforcement. I also think that they wanted zero confrontation at all. Their ended up being a tiny “delegation” sent up to talk with Klobuchar’s aide about the pipeline. It was, no doubt, filled with pleasantries and the like. Odds are that most of the folks sent had voted for her, and supported her work overall. Which doesn’t mean I think we should have gone in yelling and seeking arrest per se. But the phrase “political pageantry” feels totally accurate for that action.

    I’ve seen this stuff before, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. The difference with this event is that is was supposed to be the work of a coalition of groups, but in the end, it was mostly controlled by the group with the largest presence. It brought up a lot of questions for me about how to build and sustain coalitions around environmental issues, ones that actually function on respect for the different needs and agendas of the groups involved.

    About NVC. I have taken multiple trainings from teachers that studied with Marshall Rosenberg. It’s really good for cutting through the edge in situations where blaming, personal attacking, and the like are occurring. In that way, I can definitely see it as a tool for use in social action groups, and/or at protests. However, one of the limitations – in my view – is that it’s a language for and/about individuals. It’s structured to deal well with interpersonal conflicts where specific people can claim how they experienced something, and ask for/make specific amends for any harms done.

    I don’t find it particularly helpful in addressing outrage, distress, etc. coming from impersonal, systemic oppressions. Nor do I think it would be very useful in untangling political/ tactical differences within activist circles. Although it might be employed as a way to deescalate folks to the point where they can share/explore those differences.

  • Bryan Wagner

    If this is suppose to be funny.
    It’s not.
    If it’s suppose to be serious.
    Then I am cracking up.

    Racist and narrow minded at best.
    I am sorry if the person who wrote this is seriously thinking that this is helping heal us all.
    Bryan

  • nathan

    Bob, I think the issues Katie brought up are about timing, consideration of history, and understanding how social position impacts choices made. It’s really about cultivating clear awareness.

    There were issues with “arrest cred” during the early days of Occupy Minneapolis that really drove that point home for me. We had a group of late teen and 20-something, single, mostly white males leading and running around ramping people up about getting arrested during anti-home foreclosure demonstrations. This happened several times over a six-eight month period. The creation of an atmosphere where getting arrested was essentially equated with “solidarity.” And where some folks who didn’t “step up” were marginalized in the movement. There was a deep lack of insight on the part of these guys in terms of how arrests play out very differently depending on a number of factors. Race. Class. Family status. Sexuality. Citizenship status. Etc.

    To me, it’s not about shaming folks who want to get arrested. Or see that as a good strategy towards advancing a cause. I’m cool with that. Where the problems arise is when the atmosphere created is one that elevates arrest above all else, and marginalizes folks who don’t participate – especially given that many of the people who don’t participate are already marginalized. We basically recreate the same patterns of oppression, where the privileged get to be “heroic,” while those facing the brunt of the conditions being protested against are left on the sidelines again.

    The singing issue is less clear cut for me. But again, it’s about atmosphere. About gut level feelings. About whether what you’re doing is building group strength and/or unity, or whether it’s a subtle attempt to manipulate or coerce folks into coming together, or be “peaceful” or whatever.

    I often stay silent during chants or songs that I feel are in someway “off.” Sometimes I have even deliberately sat down or made some other gesture that I’m not on board with the particular message being sent. It’s definitely not always easy to discern whether your discomfort is personal, or if it’s reflecting a larger, systemic problem with the action. But I think it’s really important to deliberately cultivate paying attention to dynamics of groups, and being willing to question approaches that may be reinforcing oppressions.

  • Murray Reiss

    “We want to share those principles: compassion, patience, nonreactivity, etc., especially in political climates that are known for getting heated and divisive.” Is the underlying assumption that “as Buddhists” these principles are ours to share? It might be better to go in looking to recognize and gratefully acknowledge compassion, patience and nonreactivity where and when they manifest in all our allies (and adversaries), Buddhist or not. Maybe a little off to the side, but there’s a fabulous article on empathy/compassion in action as practiced during what could have been a lethal school shooting situation at http://www.salon.com/2013/08/22/the_story_the_right_hates_antoinette_tuffs_courage/

  • Bryan Wagner

    Bob
    Thank you.
    I am unsure of the agenda here.
    It feels so odd for Buddhists to be so judgmental of other. I agree why criticize anyone of any race who is trying to make a difference? Unless it massages your ego to do so?
    In Loving Kindness
    Bryan

  • Shannon Holman

    @Murray, another fabulous video slightly off to the side is this piece on using white privilege as an anti-racism tool: http://www.upworthy.com/one-easy-thing-all-white-people-could-do-that-would-make-the-world-a-better-place-5

    @Katie, thanks so much for your thoughtful response.

    Audre Lorde says, “There is no hierarchy of oppression,” and the Heart Sutra says, “Form is emptiness,” but my favorite formulation is found on tourist t-shirts all over Southeast Asia: “Same same but different.” To me your point was really not about who gets to sing “We Shall Overcome,” though some seem to view it that way. Rather, I read it as something like this: Standing in solidarity, recognizing that oppression causes suffering to all of us, is same-same. But arrest is different for white people in this country than for people of color. It’s a different level of risk. To sing an anthem like that at a low-risk, photo-op style event, and to brandish arrest records like ski lift tickets, can be alienating to the very people we want to stand with, whether we intend it that way or not.

    So although I felt a sting in your words, and in that super on-point St. Cloud PDF you posted, to me it was the bracing kind of sting. As people interested in the cessation of suffering, we have an opportunity to extend our compassion out past the boundaries of our defensiveness, past what you call the “ouchy.” If I unintentionally step on someone’s toes, I want to say I’m sorry, not retrench into “But I didn’t mean it that way.” As a white female southerner, I have struggled with my own sense of defensiveness, and of wanting to be accepted by people of color or praised for not being a bigot instead of being “chastised” to keep peeling the onion of the structural inequalities in our culture and how they have seeped into me personally. I can bristle at criticism and shut down. That is my default behavior.

    I have another possible way of responding, and it can be as simple as replacing “but” with “and,” just making a space for both my perspective and another’s. “I want to be an ally, and I am open to hearing about how my actions may be perceived.” I don’t have to justify myself based on my intentions or my credibility or anything else. I can feel defensive or angry or hurt and still keep opening, like how in metta meditation we don’t stop with the cute pandas (and lemurs!) but keep right on extending out to the rats and mosquitos.

    To me your post raised all sorts of interesting questions about how loosely we can wear the garments of our various shifting and intersecting identities, and how difficult it can be to keep on moving through our sticking points into empathy, and what a gap there can be between our intentions and the effect we have on others.

    On the NVC training thing, let me be more clear about where I’m coming from. I think Nathan is onto something when he says that NVC is framed more about individual than group interactions and that tools like it could be helpful in things like pre-protest discussions between and across the lines. Also, I speak just as someone in need myself of a better toolkit to deal with my own defensiveness, anger, despair, and numbness, not as someone who speaks from any elevated position. And, frankly, as someone who really doesn’t participate much in mass political actions, maybe due to my own limitations as catalogued in the St. Cloud thing, maybe because I attended a few too many photo-op protests with that white rasta above. Or maybe I just can’t bear to listen to We Shall Overcome over and over and over again ;)

  • Jeff

    For me the problem isn’t a bunch of flaky Buddhists showing up at demonstrations, embarrassing the rest of us by staging random meditation vigils, bragging on their arrest records, singing the wrong songs, or shushing the shouters. The problem is not enough of us showing up at all: flaky or cool, naïve newbies or doctrinaire veterans, peace-and-harmony lovers or fire-breathing radicals.

    With a few exceptions, most folks on BPF seem to agree that injustice causing physical and emotional suffering should be challenged, and many point to its roots in our global capitalist system. Making changes like we’re talking about has to happen by stepping out of the comfort zone (which is defined not only by personal preference but by pervasive cultural ideology).

    All of us can come up with a million reasons why visible, vocal protest is a plain nuisance. It’s noisy, upsetting, risky, takes way too much time, attracts people we don’t agree with (not to mention police), and worst, it doesn’t change things right away – you have to keep doing it even bigger and noisier, fachrissakes! ‘Fraid that’s the way it is, hasn’t been an easy indoor revolution yet.

    I’ll welcome pretty much anybody to the next march or sit-in or panel discussion if it builds some momentum, because having the correct strategy and style is not a prerequisite for active struggle, it is its product. So let’s all get out there and teach each other how to do engagement right!

    Thanks for kicking off a spicy discussion, Katie.

  • Shannon

    Jeff,
    I accept the challenge to step out of my comfort zone. In fact that is what I am attempting to do right now.
    And I feel demeaned by a binary that characterizes everything that isn’t “bigger and noisier” as “easy armchair revolution.”
    It is important to me to feel respected, as I’m sure it is for you.
    So while I know that the focus of this post was on mass actions, I request that you make mental space for valuing other forms of engagement that, as Katie said, “engender compassionate confrontation and build inspiring alternatives.”

    For instance, one of the ways I confront food inequality and racism is through urban gardening and seed distribution, and I feel so inspired by what Ron Finley says:

    “Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant thing you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus you get strawberries.”

    See his awesome TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_finley_a_guerilla_gardener_in_south_central_la.html

  • Jeff

    Truly sorry you feel demeaned, Shannon. I think you misread the intent of my post, which wasn’t directed at you (and was written before I had read yours).

    My point was simply that engagement means going beyond reading and discussion to actually hooking up with other people, resisting oppression collectively, and building a healthier society. And that can be at any level, from cultivating urban strawberries to blocking bulldozers.

    Historically, political movements that lead to better living conditions are big and noisy – they have to be to get the attention of those that control our resources. Some Buddhists will jump right in to the direct action and others will contribute in a quiet, organic way. But the fact remains that, whether we Buddhists are comfortable with it or not, challenging the powers that be is a risky business that to be successful requires lots of people to stand up to the escalating repression which it will provoke.

    Every one of us can be part of revolutionary change; it is likely to be a more compassionate process if we are deeply involved from the beginning.

  • Katie Loncke

    Shannon, yes, thank you for so beautifully characterizing what I am trying to say! Stepping on toes, not stopping at cute pandas, all of it yes. :)

    And in the recent exchange between you and Jeff, my personal sense is that yes, compassionate confrontation and building alternatives come in many forms; and that the ‘noise’ is maybe correlated with the strength of an action, but that tons of actions can be big and noisy without being effective. The rise of Anonymous-style direct actions on the Internet (taking down a website of a company, for instance) is super interesting to me because it’s not the classic out-in-the-streets affair, but it can be very effective. I’m involved in some organizing with undocumented workers who get fired en masse through federal I-9 audits, and I’ve sometimes thought, Gee, wouldn’t it be great if Anonymous could somehow wipe out all the I-9 data in the employers’ systems of California? Something like burning draft cards, perhaps. A half-baked idea, but my point is, there are plenty of ways to think about gumming up the works without having to go Big and Loud, at least not all the time.

    Another example I love is from the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, a strike of immigrant (white) workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

    “I.W.W. leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to run the strike. Together they masterminded its signature move, sending hundreds of the strikers’ hungry children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The move drew widespread sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, leading to violence at the Lawrence train station.”

    The strikers were so committed, in it for so long (in a Big and Loud Crowd type of way), that they had no money to feed or clothe their kids. So orchestrating this plan to send children to live with supporters in other states was such an incredible and moving act of solidarity. (The police recognized this, too, which is why they eventually cracked down on the children and their chaperones at the train station.)

    So that seems also in line with growing food, caring for people, and building up our own community fortitude, not only to connect each of us with our own personal sense of resistance, but to begin to build that kind of trust that can support a mass confrontation with exploiters and oppressors, when necessary. (And Jeff, I’m with you, I believe that it is probably ultimately necessary. Though wouldn’t it be something to see silent takeovers of the means of production! ;) )

  • Bob

    I’m enjoying this dialogue.
    1. Sitting Snob. I have done publicly visible sitting meditation exactly one time at a protest, an Occupy event. Awkward.
    2. Arrest Cred. Never been arrested – No cred. I reacted to the picture in Katies post. A real (anonymous) person reduced to a crude stereotype to create a meme for attacking the left. Unless Katie actually knows them?
    3. Freedom song gone wrong. I would NOT feel comfortable singing “We shall overcome” with a group of rich white people at an orchestrated arrest event. But Its how they wanted to express themselves at that time and place. Better than a day at the golf course.

    4. Peace police. I think that if an organization is driving a particular action they should be able to Marshall the activity of others protesters. Maybe.

    5. Zabuton / Gomden MLK. ‘The struggle for social justice is primarily an inner experience.’ Contemporary American Buddhism, Convert Buddhism, Cracker Buddhism, Western Buddhism, Rich White Person Buddhism, whatever you want to call it is deffo a religion of the ruling class. The teachings have been streamlined to fit corporate agendas, academic research, and humiliatingly, the Department of Defense. This ascendance of Buddhism is not an accident, but results from the dedicated efforts of people like John Kabbat-Zinn. In 2017 we will quite possibly be treated to Americas first Buddhist president. Hillary Clinton. Someone who can name drop MLK and bathe the feet of the Buddha all in one mindful breath. Heaven help us. I genuinely like JKZ, But I feel like we should honestly examine the nature of the beast which has been unleashed. Holier than thou secular mindfulness, brought to us by neoliberal elitist sociopaths and politicians (same difference).

  • Shannon

    @Jeff, I understand your point much better now; thanks for clarifying it for me.
    @Katie, that 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike story is amazing, such a great example of how the loud and the quiet can produce exponential effects.

    As a lesbian, I’d wager that a similar synergy has helped to bring about the huge strides we’ve made toward equality for LGBTQ folks in my lifetime. Silence=Death folks and the March on Washington and policy wonks and Ellen and It Gets Better and thousands of people feeling emboldened by the big and loud to come out, and then thousands more saying, “You know what? My brother-in-law is gay, and I’m starting to be able to see this group of people as people deserving of equal protection under the law.”

    Meanwhile, down the block from me a bunch of white folks are picketing our local deli, ostensibly on behalf of the workers, though the workers are not part of the picket line, and some have told me they don’t support the boycott. I think today I’ll go down and actually try to engage in a dialogue with the protesters, instead of just muttering under my breath as I walk on past.

  • Jeff

    Shannon, you’re absolutely right, Ron Finley’s TED talk does show that greening ghetto food deserts is defiant and therapeutic. How predictable that LA’s first response was to cite him for gardening without a permit – he had to organize a petition to get city officials to back off. Imagine the uproar if gardens sprouted up in vacant lots all over South Central as a sustainable community-based alternative to toxic fast food: cease and desist orders, leveling by bulldozer, razor wire fences, police helicopter flyovers?

    Katie, I have to admit I share a vicarious thrill when cyber attacks bring some corporate Goliath to its knees, even if only for a couple hours. Transforming these pranks into effective political actions that can advance the goals of a movement or educate and inspire the public will most definitely require the quiet but hard work you and Shannon speak of: building relationships of trust and commitment among thousands and millions of people who need healthy food and decent jobs.

    A silent takeover of the means of production? Hasn’t happened so far, but perhaps if non-confrontational Buddhists reach out more earnestly, capitalists will shed their ignorant clinging, and who knows…

  • Lois Hoeffler

    As someone who participated in the march on Chevron I was inspired to see the diversity of the groups there. I was inspired by the arrests, and although I experienced a twinge of embarrassment at “We Shall Overcome” — I sang. I went to an Occupy Oakland with BPF and sat there. I decided that it wasn’t for me, but if people got and gave some comfort by doing it good for them. As someone who has watched and participated in movements and protests practically from birth (an artifact of this reincarnation) I observe that movements grow through mutual respect and the understanding that people come to them for different reasons and that they bring their own concepts in conjunction with those reasons. It is up to me to be aware of my own concepts and my own intentions.

  • TK

    I remove my Buddhist forehead sticker when I attend protests, so I don’t have to follow the rules.

  • Brooke Neal

    It seems to me that we should each do our best, protesting or not. But for Buddhists to go to a protest and follow Buddhist rules so that they appear to be enlightened strikes a sour note with me. The truly enlightened no doubt would not interrupt their meditation to protest a moment in the turning of the great wheel, understanding that it is all delusion anyway. Buddhist protesters aren’t just Buddhists protesting, they are each on their own Dharma path. Each will learn from their practice and their experience. Maybe we should let them make “mistakes” and not over identify with others’ behavior to the point that we feel we have to correct it.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi Lois, TK, and Brooke, thank you for coming, and for sharing your thoughts. Lois, I definitely agree that building trust and mutual respect is key to organizing and building movements for the long haul. I hope that also leaves room for us to air frustrations and concerns, especially when they are not ad hominem attacks against any particular person, but observations of patterns that we (I) perceive as alienating and damaging.

    But I agree that there were many positive aspects of that sunflower-studded protest. Can you say more about what kind of diversity you found encouraging and inspiring? I was heartened to see the partnerships between groups like Urban Tilth, Ohlone and other indigenous communities, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and others. And yet, the overall composition of the crowd was much more white (and probably middle-class) than the Richmond area where it was taking place. I was also up at the stage and witnessed a local Black woman who desperately wanted to speak about the health disasters she’s experienced as a result of the refinery explosion (the anniversary of which the protest was marking), turned away because there was not enough time for her to get on the mic. Again, I don’t mean to entirely trash the event, and like I say in the post, I believe there is a place for civil disobedience, even when planned. And I also think that part of caring about our political organizing involves critically examining how we can be doing it better. There is a vast difference between superficial diversity and the ongoing work of building movements that center poor people, people of color, and those most impacted by environmental racism, as well as leveraging middle-class influence in strategic, accountable ways. I would love to hear more about your experiences, though. What conditions have been present that have allowed for a prioritizing of the needs, leadership and (my ideal, anyway) revolutionary, anti-imperialist development of marginalized communities? I think there are no easy answers, but I’m excited to dig into the questions.

    TK and Brooke, I certainly don’t have the power to “enforce” these “rules,” which are more like observations of mine, so if you disagree with them and find them incorrect or unhelpful, of course you are free to discard them! It would be helpful to me, though, if you engaged with the content of the observations. Personally I don’t believe in a relativism that says every individual’s actions are beyond scrutiny. Especially in social justice / revolutionary organizing for collective liberation, sounds like an individualist recipe for disaster! But that means we have to learn to talk with one another through disagreement. (The tone of this piece is not exactly velvet-voiced, I realize, but neither is it disingenuous.) So if you have particular disagreements with the observations I’ve shared, please let me know!

    Thanks all!

    Katie

  • Joshua Stephens

    I’m heartened that people are being so earnest and gentle (as comment threads go, anyway), here. When I read this piece originally, and debated with folks about it after putting on FB, I found myself going back to an interview I read with musician Jeremy Enigk, years ago. He’d made himself quasi-famous fronting an indie band in the 90′s, and then underwent some sort of personal conversion to Christianity that threw a lot of people off. Initially, like most folks newly-inhabiting such a transformation, he attempted to express it in everything he did — shout it from the rooftops, as it were. When he began his solo career, it was kinda hampered by people’s apprehensions about that.

    In this interview, he talked about coming to recognize that when people sing or write devotional songs, it’s not about Christ, or humanity’s well-being/salvation; it’s about the person singing. It’s about advertising to the world what a good Christian one is, rather than embodying whatever example one draws from the life of Christ. There was, in his estimation, a sort of oblivious narcissism (of which he counted himself guilty). There’s an essay somewhere (I think by Borges…?) that makes a case for understanding Judas as the Messiah, for having actually tendered the real sacrifice — namely infinite revilement. It makes an interesting point about what in that narrative *actually* embodies Christian principles, and how challenging, contingent, and non-aggrandizing they really are.

    This is what I read in this piece. And it’s what I took away from watching Buddhists show up to protests asking exactly ZERO questions about what was needed, and deciding that the most important expression of their practice was a silent spectacle practically tailor-made to draw attention. That such ethical questions — both in terms of struggle and our practice — seem to go over so many heads (still!) kinda blows my mind.

  • Jack Downey

    I’m not sure why people feel compelled to defend their rights to sing a historically-charged and emotive freedom anthem, in the face of the knowledge that it bothers [at least] some of our fellow extended community members. I get that it can be a kind of transcendent experience for some, but still… it doesn’t seem like a legitimate trade-off (or rather, maybe there shouldn’t be a trade-off at all, once it’s been established that some find it deeply objectionable).

    The idea that our presence alone as allies is sufficient to give us carte blanche in terms of how we comport ourselves in protest scenarios — and the related belief that if our intentions seem benign the unintended discomfort/pain that causes others shouldn’t be addressed or called out — seems like a fairly privileged position to take, and one that maybe should be looked at in terms of solidarity within a protest community.

    And what’s so bad about getting called out for things anyway?

    In the process of getting called out once by a friend for unintentionally flexing various forms of privilege that I enjoy in our society, I was encouraged to think of it as a kind of angelic intervention (Dharmafy that however you will), where someone I was in the process of hurting was giving me the opportunity to become a better person by recognizing that I was, indeed, hurting them. And trying to change my behavior. Sadly, at the time I was feeling too defensive/self-righteous/etc. to digest that advice, but it’s stuck with me. For those of us who participate in this movement, hearing others’ criticism and taking them in seriously, seems — you know — not a bad idea.

    Whether they do direct harm, or just are obstacles to more integrated solidarity with other members of our activist community, this list of suggestions — really, calling them “rules” is silly — aren’t just frivolous… these are all real things that I’d wager most of us are instinctively familiar with/have participated in (me, all of them). But also, outside of the meditation-demo one (although I guess I’ve encountered allegories with other religious communities), they really aren’t Buddhist-specific issues… which doesn’t mean that they don’t relate to us as Buddhists.

  • Andrew Bein

    Katie, I deeply appreciate how your wit, analysis, and “hard” and “soft” touch gave birth to this dialogue. There are many paradoxes and unknowns about what makes this world a better place. I embrace “the system stinks” as a call to wake up and to stop sugar coating the realities of just how heartless, oppressive, institutionally pervasive, and culturally embedded corporate ideology and action is. On the other hand, we have to admit, we are unclear about our responses to make a difference. Are we to weigh the merits of various contributions toward the kind of change we want? Do I get more credit if I show up more at rallys than interacting with people who are homeless and struggling with mental illness, mutually discovering ways in which we can send compassion to and with ourselves. This much maligned “secular, psychological Buddhism” creates access points for poor people’s liberation – the same kind of liberation that many of us have gained access to on the foundation of our cultural capital.
    Again, I love the creativity and the freshness. Katie is shaking us up to look beyond the ways of the 60′s for showing up for social change and for creating meaningful dialog. Her approach reminds me of a Zen quote: “What we are doing is far too important to take seriously.”
    Much love, Andy Bein (A prius-driving, crypto-fascist mindfulness oriented social worker)

  • Jonathan

    Nice follow up to the previous article.

  • Melissa Fan

    “The truly enlightened no doubt would not interrupt their meditation to protest a moment in the turning of the great wheel, understanding that it is all delusion anyway.”

    What?

    First of all, I would like to know which one of us here is “truly enlightened” so I can knock that person upside the head.

    Second of all, that is just simply not true. Monks in SE and E Asia have been politically active since the Buddha was around. Ananda reasoned with Shakyamuni himself so that women would be allowed to ordain. And Shakyamuni Buddha intervened in politics to prevent a war. Also, Tibetan monks have certainly not been self-immolating for no reason. Thich Nhat Hanh, who is widely revered in the US as enlightened, is credited as the creator of Engaged Buddhism which stems from Humanistic Buddhist practices and philosophies in East Asia, specifically Taiwan. Both are rooted in social change and activism.

    And lastly, what use is meditation if it only serves ourselves? And what kind of meditation encourages sitting idly as others suffer? If you do nothing but meditate as the ‘great wheel turns’, I guarantee that you will be turning right along with that wheel until the end of time.

  • Maia Duerr/Liberated Life Project

    Love this, Katie. As someone who has been part of a lot of actions with Buddhist groups, I recognize a lot of my own pet peeves in this list. (I do have to admit I was part of a mostly white group getting arrested in Chicopee, MA, that did revert to “We Shall Overcome” at one point. Guilty as charged.)

    I think you nailed it with this line: “our aversion … deprives us of opportunities to learn.”

    That’s the heart of it, to me — every action is an opportunity for us to learn. All of us. Those of us who are white folks with a lot of privilege in relationship to the consequences of arrest can use that position to understand more deeply the issues that face our comrades of color. But we won’t get there with an attitude of superiority or ignorance. The practice of the dharma is about continually checking our own ego.

    Resistance in the face of militarism, sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression is a golden opportunity for all of us to look at how each of those dynamics plays out within our own psyches, and within our communities. If we’re not open to that, we’ll be obnoxious Buddhists. Heck, we’ll be obnoxious human beings.

  • Katie Loncke

    Joshua, Judas, my mind = blown. Dang. Thank you for sharing that story!

    Jack, calling someone out as angelic intervention… (“and Dharmafy that how you will”)… also genius. The art and balance of this calling out phenomenon can be delicate, it seems to me, in our organizing spaces… in certain contexts, I have seen “calling out” become the *main* political intervention that a large majority of a political (sub)community does. On the other hand, I have seen organizing groups where objections are voiced and silenced, voiced and ignored… until years later, conflict volcanoes up in everyone’s faces, and trust is seriously broken. As individuals, I think it’s important to try to take it as a gift when people call us out (reflecting on the power imbalance implied), and as communities and organizations, I guess just try to build healthy cultures of open, respectful disagreement (when appropriate?), and make sure we have many tools for asserting ourselves collectively for liberation, so that pointing out privilege doesn’t become the entire game? I’m feeling super inarticulate about this right now; I’m sure you could agree or disagree (or partially dis/agree) much more eloquently.

    Andy, you are hilarious, and thank you for being here! I’m so heartened to hear that you’re feeling the politics. Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences in the Buddhism / social justice intersections.

    Jonathan, thanks!

    Melissa, dropping knowledge; go ‘head. :)

    Maia, “every action is an opportunity for us to learn.”

    Yes! Funny, it sounds so Buddhist when you put it that way. :) At least, the way I think of practice, not just taking the 8-Fold Path for granted, but examining and trying to learn from the consequences of wholesome and unwholesome actions. Not just accepting all actions as equally valid. (Though not getting caught up in being judgmental, either.)

    Sometimes this examination and exploration and learning feels like a huge challenge, to me, when it comes to anti-oppression work. The timeline is just so LONG… we can try to continuously improve our actions and campaigns, but it’s also easy to get stuck at the level of interpersonal behavior, rather than trying to see whether our actions are having an effect on shifting the course of history, on dismantling institutions of oppression and, in the words of Harsha Walia, “outgrowing the logic of the state.” I think I can get caught up in that desire to *seem* like a revolutionary, to do something bold and brave and courageous, and lose sight of the impact of my actions on the people around me, or on the bigger picture arena in which we’re working. I’m reading some fascinating essays right now from the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, that look at how “radical” nonprofits can dip into an imperative to keep *seeming* radical, whether or not that actually gets reflected in the work that they’re doing. (Have you ever read The Rev Will Not Be Funded? I think you would dig a lot of it.)

    So even though this post is a little cheeky, it’s also an important and sincere reminder to myself: we are the sum total of our actions. So we should try to examine the impact of our actions — learn from their outcomes — to better understand what and how we are becoming.

  • nathan

    Someone also took issue with the “calling out” I did on my post yesterday. I find it very interesting, this upset being displayed by some. Our teachings are filled with “calling outs.” Teachers flipping student misuderstandings on their head and students returning the favor. The feelings of discomfort, guilt and shame that seem to be what some folks are seeking to avoid are merely pointers themselves. Fleeting reminders to pay closer attention to something in our lives we hadn’t been before. Liberation calls us to keep unpeeling the layers, to witness and let go of any patterns that stand in our way. I see that as a personal and collective statement. Calling out that which hinders us is a gift, even if it takes months or years for any of us or any particular group of us to hear it and take action.

  • Lois Hoeffler

    Hi Katie,

    In response to your questions to me about what I found inspiring about the Chevron protest. I found the number and variety of groups involved inspiring. I didn’t find it superficially diverse. Idle No More led the protest, they did in February in SF too. They are First Nation Ohlone and local to Richmond. Sylvia is probably the woman you are mentioning who didn’t get the speak. Sylvia speaks quite often locally. My 2 cents is that I find this movement worth regarding as a growing coalition which is increasingly diverse but may be still at the core white and middle-class because that’s who did it in the 70s. Those are the 350 people for the most part, and they did a lot of the heavy-lifting in making this happen. I’m grateful to them. As to “We Shall Overcome” — we will have to agree to disagree. It’s originally a labor song. I originally thought, oooo, this isn’t appropriate for some people here but then . . I thought, since this protest is in fact about people who are being poisoned by working at Chevron and living in that surrounding environment, it’s okay. So . . . I sang the song. Now you know my intention and I did think it through. I did not happen to be around the BPF cred seekers or other embarrassing Buddhists; I floated around to see the whole thing. I talked with some Asian-American high school boys attending to learn about American politics and carrying a banner protesting corporate personhood (and they have a club!). I loved talking to them. And in front of me was the African-American high schooler and his buddy associated with Urban Tilth. Anyway, it’s late at night, and I wanted to respond about why I liked this protest so much. Peace out, Lois

  • nathan

    Lois “Those are the 350 people for the most part, and they did a lot of the heavy-lifting in making this happen. I’m grateful to them.” The thing I wonder about this is how much they also controlled the message and tactics. I honestly don’t know how coalition building is going out there, but here in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) it’s been a challenge, in part, because 350.org folks have dominated some of the larger actions. They’re able to do heavy lifting because they’ve got money, at least some staffing infrastructure, and cred in the public eye. I doubt they’re viewed by government officials, law enforcement, or even corporate leaders in the way that groups like Idle No More, Occupy, and the like are – which makes it easier to get some of that “work” done.

    I’d love to see a large, diverse coalition with 350 included because some of those strengths are vitally important, but there’s also a lot of unacknowledged privilege going on.

    It sounds like the Richmond protest had a lot of different groups involved. But how well are they working together? Will they be able to build upon the Chevron action, or did certain elements of it provoke enough discord that the groups involved might now be somewhat wary of each other?

    What I find challenging about these discussions is that raising questions and offering critique is sometimes taken as a full scale rejection. When the reality, as least where I’m coming from (and I think Katie is coming from as well), is more about not resting on good feelings or the positive. But recognizing that things like diverse coalitions are fragile, and subject to repeating the same patterns they say they’re fighting against.

  • Akasa Skye

    Hey there, everyone. Awesome dialogues on this topic. So you know where I’m coming from, I’m in my last year in pursuit of an M.Div. in Buddhist Chaplaincy from University of the West here in Los Angeles. My undergraduate degree is a BIS in Peaceful Activist Movements and I worked for 12 years as a lobbyist, activist, outreach worker & educator, and community mobilizer in the HIV/AIDS field. I felt something was missing and so I left my career to work at Buddhist retreat centres in the US and Canada for five years before beginning this degree. I’m really, really interested, therefore, in the intersection of Buddhism and social policy change. I wrote an article here</ for a blog created by the Buddhism in the U.S. class I was a part of last Fall on this topic. So, I really like Katie's #1 on this list, particularly "let’s use this form creatively, appropriately, vibrantly". If I understand this correctly, how can Buddhists use the protest form in a way that is creatively helpful, in line with the protest's spirit, and in a way that uplifts Buddhism rather than puts it into the category "Awkward Moments." I think people have been talking about that in these comments, yet I haven't heard any clear ideas about what we could do, though a lot about what we shouldn’t. What do people think about this? I’m looking to the Protest Chaplains during the Occupy movements for my inspiration (http://protestchaplains.blogspot.com/) although we haven’t heard too much about them in the last couple of years…which I think is a real shame! One suggestion is that Buddhists can get more involved in the creation of protests and volunteer to be organizers, etc. (which gets to an earlier comment about the need for us to just get involved) and introduce Buddhist concepts – which may also be share by non-Buddhists – into the culture of the movement or protest from its inception. So, we’d be working to help create a more Buddhist-minded protest culture at an individual action rather than coming in and trying to a) force-create one by plopping ourselves down on a meditation cushion in the midst of chanting, etc. What thoughts to you all have on this?

  • Jeff

    Hey, Akasa, welcome to the conversation! Thank you for your suggestion that we consider what we could do along with what we/they shouldn’t have done. This gets right to the essential point: while it is important that engaged Buddhists are constructively critical of political protests, our most persuasive effect on social justice movements will emerge out of our committed, long-term participation in them.

    For instance, Katie, Dawn, and aneeta put together a very creative, dynamic political theater vowing to fight against Big Oil as part of the Richmond, California climate change demonstration mentioned above (see pictures on the BPF Facebook page). Sure, there were things about the overall protest that seemed staged or awkward or coopted. Perhaps this was in keeping with its explicit goal of bringing families out as well as the limitations on content imposed by its organizers. If we want to see greater inclusivity or a more fundamental social critique at similar actions in the future, we will need to be more integrally involved in the day-to-day preparatory work of building relationships with diverse groups, mobilizing our own friends, planning, and simply leading by example.

    Love the 10 Lessons for Protest Chaplains on your link – very much in line with Katie’s 5 No-No’s. And your essay, “I’m Sorry, I’m a Buddhist, I Don’t Do Politics” is a must-read for BPFers: http://dharmadialogue.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/im-sorry-im-a-buddhist-i-dont-do-politics/

    Any Buddhist activism going on down there in Los Angeles?

  • Juniper

    As Buddhists, we don’t have a monopoly on unskillful protest behavior. But what Katie has written here has a ton of resonance for me. It is helpful and healing to read my own feelings reflected in what she has written.

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