Buddhists and the Bloc: An Open Thread On Antifa
In the wake of this weekend’s abortive alt-right Bay Area gatherings (and the counter-demonstrations that dwarfed them), there has been a pronounced division of views among Buddhists and BPFers in attendance (and from afar). Specifically, people have some really strong opinions on the black bloc tactic, and the antifa movement more broadly.
- A progressive lawyer with a decades-long meditation practice offers legal guidance on how to defend yourself from Nazis.
- A Zen practitioner lauds the festive mass turnout but decries “ugliness” from blocked-up antifascists “radiating hatred and violence.”
- A disabled organizer and dharma head celebrates groundbreaking coalitions among black bloc, antifa, and mainstream progressives, with palpable love, gratitude, and excitement for solidarity and self defense.
- A Kingian nonviolence adherent (of the buddhist persuasion) warns that militant antifa tactics might be giving the alt-right exactly the victimhood narrative they seek.
Me, I have my own thoughts — which I’ll share below. I hope you’ll join me in comments! Even as Buddhist Peace Fellowship adopts formal stances and clear priorities (like using nonviolent direct action to counter systemic racism, ecocide, and state violence; and turning to Buddhist wisdom to better learn how to deal with our rage), I also want to make room for the totality of us, you, we — a multivocal community. Now is the time to speak up.
Are you feeling inspired? Bewildered? Exhausted? Emboldened?
Is there a book, article, film, or other resource that has touched you on this issue?
Did you learn something new or surprising from your own experience?
Please be willing to listen (as much as the cybermedium allows for listening). Please be willing to be patient. Please speak from your own experience — don’t get overly theoretical with it. At the same time, let’s push ourselves. Find the way of pushing that feels right.
- Before We Begin: Refuge in Dharma
- Race, Gender, Spiritual Materialism, and How You Look In Masks
- So What Does Antifa Actually Do?
- Hating Neither Nazis Nor Their Enemies
Before We Begin: Refuge in Dharma
If you’re more in need of nourishment than debate right now, I feel you. There are a lot of gems out there right now attending to spirit and inner alignment — the “Be” part of Block, Build, Be. Here are a few that might hold you.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel — Prolonged Audaciousness
“While we are in this mythic battle against supremacy it is difficult to experience the freedom that is simultaneously rising up to the surface. … Can we settle the rumbles of our ancestors in our own bones?”
Buddhist Peace Fellowship — U Mad? Wisdom for Rageful Times
Over 600 spiritual-social-justice seekers have already embarked on this online course, featuring 7 esteemed Buddhist teachers. Back by popular demand in a special Fall redux, all 7 weeks will be released at once, so you can go at your own pace. Limited-time enrollment ends September 12th; Sign up here.
Mushim Ikeda — A Meditation for Working with Post-Charlottesville Stress
“We might visualize ourselves, if we like, as a kind of lighthouse, or the center of radiance, which is coming from our hearts or from our bodies, in every direction.”
angel Kyodo williams — Where Will You Stand?
“With the clarity of a steady mind and courage of a true heart, what has always been there begins to reveal itself, emerging from behind the fog of the ego-mind of whiteness.”
Thanissara — Don’t Worry, Be Angry
“[The portrayal of Vajrayogini in Buddhist iconography] signifies the gift of the protector feminine. If we are to undertake the blessed and grueling journey of the luminous, fierce, yet tender heart needed for our times, then anger is an asset.”
(This isn’t Buddhist, but it’s wise, and full of love and hard honesty. Read it; you’ll thank me.)
Race, Gender, Spiritual Materialism, People’s Security, and How You Look In Masks
On Sunday in Berkeley, three aesthetic qualities blended me, superficially, with the black bloc contingent.
- I was wearing lots of black.
- For the first time in my life, I put on a mask at a protest.
- Like many of the black bloc and antifa folks I saw, I’m a femme-presenting person of color.
Let’s talk about the mask first. I’m hoping it will help us consider safety, mindfulness, image, and ego in a tense situation.
The mask was a breathing aid, designed for painting or construction — one of those bulky, awkward, robotic-mosquito-from-space-looking deals, made slightly less grim by twin fuchsia filters. The day before the Berkeley counter-demo, a comrade who’d worked in steel mills kindly showed me the right way to strap it on. In my innocence and inexperience (and maybe the enthusiasm of a kid with a new toy), I proceeded to pack the mask very-first out of all my demo gear… which of course landed it all the way at the bottom of my bag — hiding under extra clothing layers, a small amateur medic kit, and spare water bottles. Thus, I gently doomed myself to a fumbling ruffle at the moment of truth.
Well, near the moment of truth. The first and most frightening threat of chemical weapons, the impetus to rifle (no pun intended) through my backpack came from — you guessed it! — the police. You know, the group that typically brings the most weapons to a free speech event.
By the time I reached the public park (located on occupied and stolen Ohlone indigenous land, as one speaker used mindfulness-by-another-name to remind us), a line of cops in riot gear and full-face gas masks blocked the grass, trying to institute a checkpoint. Scanning the crowd, owl-eyed, I saw a sea of dilated pupils. Everybody on edge.
Eventually, the police were ordered to stand down. Their tear gas would come later, on a side street. By that time, my mask was ready.
My role on Sunday was to act as a point in a People’s Security team. Training for this team included hours of drills and group exercises led by experienced martial artists. The emphasis: unarmed de-escalation. Keeping people safe. Or safer. We practiced setting verbal boundaries; creating space from potential threats; and escaping aggression. (Think: how to get away if someone grabs your wrist.) These trainings are not perfect — they are premised on a lot of able-bodied assumptions. But they are practical for some of us who might find ourselves in the fray. Incidentally, they also include certain techniques akin to mindfulness: grounding in vigilance, steady awareness, and sharpening memory while constantly scanning the landscape for “pre-assault indicators.”
When these People’s Security experts advise me to take precautions, it comes from their experience of moving toward conflict, in order to defuse it. The purpose of wearing a construction mask is not to look scary or tough, but to breathe better. We prevent harm to ourselves, and increase our ability ability to help others. (And by the way, those surgical masks? Might actually do more harm than good in a chemical agent situation, I’m told.)
For me, the sheer relief of putting on the mask at the periphery of a big cloud of pepper spray was abrupt and profound — night-and-day, instantly calming my cough and dissipating my panic. In the space of one breath I re-attuned to the needs of my neighbors. It’s the most visceral experience I’ve ever had of the old airplane safety wisdom: secure your oxygen mask before helping others. Now I get it.
And yet, I can’t deny that when I put on the mask, the mood I project automatically changes. At a basic level, it’s hard to talk to anyone. My mouth is covered so it’s hard to see if I’m smiling. Maybe I look meaner. Maybe I already begin to look less “Buddhist.” (Let’s talk more about that in a minute.)
Similarly, when I’m properly playing a People’s Security role, scanning the crowd for pre-assault indicators, I’m surprised at how hard it is to act warm, friendly, and present — even when dear friends from the crowd come greet me. My heart might be pirouetting, but I’m not jovial. Instead, my eyes are constantly moving. I might seem disinterested or restless. I might appear like I’m not paying attention to you. But extended eye contact is just less possible (or responsible) in a chaotic and rapidly unfolding scene, where your stomach plummets every time you see a car down the street, a maybe-Charlottesville-copycat.
I want to think about this around race, gender, and ableism. Who is expected to exude “peacefulness” versus “hatred” or “militancy” when showing up to oppose white supremacists? Reminder: we are talking about people who specialize in constant rape threats and death threats; who revel in cyberstalking; and who dip bullets in bacon fat, bragging that it’s the best way to kill Muslims. We are talking about people who wear helicopter shirts celebrating Pinochet’s death squads. We are talking about a legacy of unabashedly fascist, misogynistic, transphobic, racist, and genocidal views.
As a femme-presenting, cis-passing-privileged, light-skinned person of color marshaling inner and outer resources to confront this bullshit, I’m often implicitly asked to show up soft. To help others feel at ease. My race, gender, and physical abilities in an ableist world (in which nimble = admirable and “independent” = competent) all add to the package of nonthreatening diversity that many progressives experience as reassuring. (think: Magical Negro.) I know this. But what if my focus — a serious, unsmiling, or masked-up, anonymous focus — actually helps me more in my People’s Security role? What if internal communication with my team becomes more important than socializing with friends, acquaintances, and strangers at the march? Is there a way I can release or rebalance the burdens of stereotypical softness while still doing my job of de-escalation? (My answer: yes.)
I also want to think about this on a “Buddhist” level. What do we expect Buddhists to look like at these demonstrations? Based on mainstream images, we might expect thin, glowy, non-disabled, ‘wise-seeming’ adherents, typically white, occasionally Black. (Thanks, racist erasure.) We might expect them to be sitting in meditation, legs crossed, face uncovered and untroubled. There is nothing wrong with any of these forms, but it’s a problem when our expectations calcify around them. This problem is not new. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche identified it in his classic book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. If we’re not careful, we can slide into stereotypes and assumptions about how awakening behaves. What it wears. How it sounds. And that’s where ego creeps in, just when we think we’re being all awakened and marvelous.
“The attitude of ‘heroism’ is based upon the assumption that we are bad, impure, that we are not worthy, are not ready for spiritual understanding. We must reform ourselves, be different from what we are. For instance, if we are middle class Americans, we must give up our jobs or drop out of college, move out of our suburban homes, let our hair grow, perhaps try drugs. If we are hippies, we must give up drugs, cut our hair short, throw away our torn jeans. We think that we are special, heroic, that we are turning away from temptation. We become vegetarians and we become this and that. There are so many things to become. We think our path is spiritual because it is literally against the flow of what we used to be, but it is merely the way of false heroism, and the only one who is heroic in this way is ego.”
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, emphasis mine.
At a rally against hate, can we acknowledge that Buddhists or BPFers might appear in many forms? Although I realize that the moral and political disagreements go deeper than mere appearances (we’ll get into actions in a second, I promise), it seems important to first ground ourselves in this humble truth of not-knowing. Can I really tell who’s more enlightened in a situation? Is it heralded Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield dressing up in Gandhi costume for the San Francisco counter-demo? Is it a young radical using black bloc tactics, wielding a shield, and masking up for their own protection and belonging?
So What Does Antifa Actually Do?
Ok, now that we’ve covered appearances, let’s talk actions.
Don’t know about you, but whirling around my life have been a ton of interesting summaries (public and private) explaining what antifa is; the role it has played in protecting nonviolent protesters; and explaining its connection to the black bloc tactic. I’ll list a few below; feel free to add your faves in the comments.
Radical Discipleship — My “Nonviolent” Stance Was Met With Heavily Armed Men
The Atlantic — The Rise of the Violent Left (let’s throw in an alternate take, lest anyone accuse me of censorship. ;)
One of my personal favorites actually came in the form of an email from a friend.
- A tactic, not an organization
- The whole tactic is: wear all black and cover your face so you can completely blend into a crowd of people. What happens after that is up to the individuals who happen to be in the costumes.
- Has caused a TON of tension and division on the Left and in the Bay Area specifically for decades. Due to it being highly associated with property damage committed out of a sense of petty bourgeoisie rage by young white people.*
- The upside of Black Bloc as a tactic is that it protects people from state repression and vigilante retaliation, doxxing, etc.
- The downside of Black Bloc as a tactic is it’s anti-accountability.
*Editor’s Note: like all phenomena subject to impermanence, the demographic of black bloc may be changing; and it might be one way in some places and other ways elsewhere. Personally I saw a lot of darker-skinned community members wearing all-black and/or masked up on Sunday. There has also been a sizable trans femme / trans dyke presence (with awesome shields) at some of the recent confrontations with the alt-right.
- A political orientation, not an organization
- The political orientation is: Fascism is a really bad, really dangerous, inherently extremist ideology/religion, and when it pops up, we have to nip it in the bud – oppose it by any means necessary, before millions of people get killed, quickly.
- Antifa is the label the media has given to what I would call the “anti-Nazi” movement, but the media is also conflating all of us with the Black Bloc, and conflating Sunday’s Black Bloc with violence and property destruction.
- There is SIGNIFICANT crossover between those who identify as Antifa and those who engage in Black Bloc as a tactic, and then a third circle in the Venn diagram is those who engage in property destruction/”light” violence (what is the right way to say, “not the walking into a bible study to kill Black people kind of violence”??)
The challenges of accountability in the Black Bloc’s anonymous tactic (or anti-accountability, as my friend put it in strong terms), underscore the significance of Sunday’s coordinated defensive role. The Bloc showed up in large numbers, agreeing to play a defensive position and avoid destroying property — in order to keep the focus off of broken glass and dumpster fires, and on the reclaiming of public space by a wide range of people. Lots of us may disagree about whether the force used by the Bloc was purely defensive, but the absence of property destruction — Black Bloc sticking to their word — helpfully streamlines the conversation, while testifying to the possibility of accountability and coordination.
Hating Neither Nazis Nor Their Enemies
I am human: nothing human is alien to me.
“The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement. But that superficial tension is resolved by the long-standing distinction that was vividly evoked by movement stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s approach to segregationists who dominated Mississippi politics was, ‘Baby you just got to love ’em. Hating just makes you sick and weak.’ But, asked how she survived the threats from midnight terrorists, Hamer responded, ‘I’ll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.'”
As I’ve said elsewhere, suffering is universal, but oppression is patterned and specific. Born into the realm of samsara, fascists, Nazis, and antifa alike are subject to suffering. But they have very different relationships to oppression. So while my compassion for all beings might ideally extend even to modern-day versions of Angulimala (serial-killer-turned-saint in the Buddha’s time), my commitments to transforming oppression lead me to seek relationship and solidarity with those actively opposing white supremacy.
That means I’m going to encounter plenty of people I disagree with. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that some people in Antifa, and some who use black bloc tactics, aren’t animated by rage and a desire for destruction. Even vengeance. But this scares me less, even on a moral level, than those who would pretend that the world’s seemingly endless stream of searing injustice doesn’t warrant our rage.
I am unarmed. I will remain unarmed. Buddhist Peace Fellowship will never promote attacking an enemy. But in my mind, this is a profoundly privileged position, almost an accident of luck, and a calling for which I am grateful — not a trophy of righteousness with which to bludgeon others who choose to engage in self defense.
I am far less interested in movements that require nonviolence, and far more interested in movements that aspire to nonviolence. Pure nonviolence is asymptotic; an ever-receding horizon whose unreachability in no way diminishes the value of the journey toward it. This is where we are needed. This is where it’s up to us.
Taking heed from spiritual-political revolutionary and writer adrienne maree brown, let’s be honest about whose bodies are at stake, and act accordingly. Violence surrounds us every day, all the time, inescapable. How do we bring about radical transformation (which necessitates destroying many current systems of greed, hatred, and delusion), while remaining as true as possible to a life of awakening and compassion? His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself says:
“Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having.”
Are we angry?
Are we ready?
Tell me what you think. I’m listening.
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