Honoring Direct Action, Reframing Compassion
Direct Action Gets the Goods
And Compassion Leads the Way
When you saw images of these Black protesters interrupting Bernie Sanders in Seattle (or maybe you were there in person), did you cheer? Did you cringe? Did you shrink? Did you shout?
You won’t be judged for your response. Just notice. There’s a wide range of possible reactions.
The majority response from the Seattle crowd was anger. Frustration. This is not what they came to see. This is not what they signed up for.
But for many Black women like me, upon hearing the news, there arose a certain joy and reverence. Yes. Although the action involved shouting and disruption, I saw it as a form of compassionate action. Young Black women valuing themselves — ourselves — enough to command center stage at the rally of a Democratic Presidential candidate who has remained, until now, conspicuously mum on the topic of Black liberation and white supremacy. (And for those keeping score, BlackLivesMatter is expanding their focus to the rallies of other Democratic and Republican candidates, too.)
Mere hours after young Black organizers interrupted his rally in Seattle, Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released a brand-new platform addressing racism in the U.S.
There’s an old phrase from the Industrial Workers of the World:
“Direct action gets the goods.”
Young Black people (especially women and queers) are living all the life into this phrase right now, and if you ask me, it is an excellent thing.
There’s also an old, misguided phrase from the U.S. labor movement:
“Black and White Unite and Fight.”
This one was historically used to gloss over racist white union behavior, exhorting Black workers to set aside their “special demands” or complaints in service of the “unified” class struggle.
I hear resonances, at times, in white progressive circles.
“The style is too aggressive. It’s disrespectful. Very violent.”
“Bernie is working for the same goals as they are. Couldn’t they just reach out to him?”
We’ve already covered some of the perils of compassion-baiting, so without rehashing too much, I just want to inquire about the kind of “goods” and awakening that can come when we — especially in our dimensions of privilege — allow ourselves to be pushed.
What happens when we let go of fixed views long enough to feel groundless?
“Fear is a natural reaction
to moving closer to the truth.”
If we are feeling fear or discomfort, that’s okay. It is possible to investigate and honor that discomfort while still centering the importance of Black people fighting for freedom on our own terms.
Let us remember: the truth of Black liberation (multiple truths, really) can only be defined by Black people.
On this, it’s hard to find better wisdom than the classic statement from the self-identifying Black Lesbian socialist group, the Combahee River Collective.
Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. …We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation. We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.
As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.”
—Combahee River Collective, April 1977
As engaged Buddhists, are we ready for the ferocious compassion of nonviolent direct action within racial justice movements? Are we openhearted enough to hold the searing truths that such actions might reveal?
I hope so. I think so. Let’s find out, together.