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No Revolution Without Dancing and Compassion

[Editor's note:]

Ever feel a pressure in sangha, or other spiritual community, to harmoniously agree with whatever is said, and not rock the boat?

Or, in social justice community, do you lament that “dialogue” across “difference” always seems to devolve into shouting matches, denunciations, and email flame-wars?

At BPF we believe that respectful disagreement, deep listening, and non-toxic debate are possible — and helpful!

That’s why I’m honored and delighted that Max Zahn from Buddha On Strike is here to advance the dialogue on the effectiveness of his community’s protest-meditations outside Goldman Sachs. I commented on their tactic last month, and Nathan followed up with a full post. Max’s response — opinionated yet warm, nuanced, open, and non-dualistic — exemplifies the engaged wisdom that he and his crew are trying to bring to the streets of NYC.

Thank you Max for sharing your thoughtful brilliance, and pushing for a revolution complete with dancing and compassion (my favorite kind!).

–Katie Loncke, BPF Co-Director

No Revolution Without Dancing and Compassion

By Max Zahn of Buddha On Strike

The initial day of our meditation protest was not my first visit to the sparkling courtyard at the feet of Goldman Sachs headquarters. I had marched down that sliver of lower Manhattan six months before, on a bitingly cold and windy December afternoon. At the time, I was a neighborhood organizer with New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit seeking to replace the fallen giant, ACORN. There were about one hundred of us outside of Goldman that day. Some young organizers and activists like myself, but mostly elderly women of color, who wanted to reframe the fiscal cliff debate around corporate taxation. The message was simple: why should we face cuts to essential services like Social Security and Medicare, while the wealthiest banks and their employees refuse to pay their fair share?

Fittingly, fifteen policemen lined the building’s entrance as a woman, her home in foreclosure, spoke of our political system’s double standard defending corporate interests to the hilt, while leaving millions of people—quite literally—on the streets. After her remarks, we chanted the usual chants: “No justice, no peace,” and “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.” We hollered and howled, as the physical exertion and huddled mass helped warm our shivering bones.

In the course of the protest, I spent a few minutes watching the Goldman employees as they entered and exited the nearby double-doors. Dapper young traders toted Whole Foods carryout bags. Men wore svelte black overcoats and tidy slacks. Women donned grey blazers and not-too-high heels. They walked with poise and control, unruffled by our rowdy display. To passersby, those bankers must have appeared civilized and trustworthy, as opposed to the protesters wiping snot-drips onto our coat sleeves. And it made me seethe with anger to think that these greedy and—at the very least—ethically negligent people should accrue the ingrained cultural respect that monetary success affords. Something flipped in me.

I began screaming at the police officers. “Police only protect capital! Police only protect capital!” It wasn’t the fault of those policemen, of course. They’d probably shown up to work that morning, received the assignment for crowd control, and here they were. But, in that moment, they felt like the legitimizing presence for the bank. After all, why weren’t the police protecting us from those clever thieves inside? The protest ended shortly thereafter, but that sense of loathing stuck.

And it was such loathing that propelled me toward the eventual 42-day meditation protest at the very same location outside Goldman Sachs. The meditation protest’s initial objectives were solely personal and spiritual. In my Zen Buddhist practice, I had learned about the ways that aggressive emotional states like hatred can obscure one’s perception and understanding. Consumed by an ego-fight with the Goldman bankers, I had fixated on their morally bankrupt exploitation of a flawed economic and political system. I condemned them as filthy people, willfully ignoring the insidious results of their work. Conversely, this characterization cast me as the righteous critic, willing to endure cold weather for a just cause. In truth, they were almost certainly less demonic than I supposed, and I less angelic.

So the meditation protest began as a spiritual experiment—just sitting outside those double-doors and observing what came up. That is not to say that it was entirely innocent of political bent, considering I had couched my biases in crass power-relation terms: awful greedy bankers vs. downtrodden neighborhood activists. However, the primary aim was to parse out the interdependence between my personal grievances and the structural, societal forces that served as their backdrop.

Having provided this context, I would like to address the critique that appeared in this publication on October 16, 2013. The article opens with lament for the “highly unjust, top down forms of power” that our “societies are built upon.” It then identifies the resulting cultural pols of elitism and deference, which permit our collective belief in a “small, select group of people” who “hold the lions share of power.” The article’s author, Nathan Thompson, then criticizes the Goldman Sachs meditation protest for “play[ing] right into this. Appealing to what they hope will become a benevolent leadership who changes their ways, and offers the world a good corporate example to emulate.”

In effect, this dismissal recapitulates an age-old radical leftist critique of naïve or misguided reformers working within the bounds of an inherently unjust status quo. Here, the radical left brands itself as truly realpolitik. While the reformers fight for breadcrumbs on Capitol Hill and fashion themselves pragmatists, radicals know better. They know the centerist performs an exercise in futility. In accordance with this view, the Goldman Sachs meditation protest was little more than a free tutorial in self-improvement for the ruling class.

I’m torn in response to this critique because, on the one hand, I largely sympathize with its political analysis, especially when applied to the neoliberal hegemony that dominates American and global power. In fact, this sort of political analysis colored my thinking as the meditation protest transitioned from personal inquiry to political statement. I said as much in an interview with Waging Nonviolence on June 27th—only a few days after the protest began—in response to a question about what motivated the action:

The large scale human suffering that is taking place, and the sense that our global trajectory is moving toward even greater amounts of suffering. That, coupled with the realization that our global and national systems of governance are simply not up to the task of preventing such harm. I’ve come to believe that a dramatic shift on inequity issues—like regulating Wall Street—will only result from a mass nonviolent social movement. I see myself as a small, sustained part of that effort.

I do not cite this quote in order to settle the matter—far from it. I understand the potential for dissonance between what one says and what one does, and anticipate a rebuttal from Mr. Thompson that would go something like this: “It’s great that you espouse those beliefs, but your passive protest and pleading signs did not reflect radical political analysis at all.” This leads to the part of Thompson’s critique that I found troublesome. As I mentioned, Thompson characterizes the act of extending compassion to the bankers as an inconsequential attempt to wake them up. If we can enlighten the bankers, then we can enlighten the banks. The problem, as Thompson points out, is that “even if the head of Goldman Sachs is suddenly struck by one of [the protester’s] signs, and thinks ‘I’m going to do things differently,’ he’s got a whole corporation, plus shareholders, plus a worldwide network of financial concerns tied in with governments to face.” Forget about the bankers, he seems to say, there are larger structures of power that keep this thing going.

Rather than ignore those structures, however, the meditation protest highlighted them. By abandoning the usual lefty narrative of banker-demonization, exposed the larger context enabling such disparity. The signs “Begin Anew with Compassion” and “Let’s Alleviate Suffering Together” were an invitation for bankers to join a movement to re-form (not reform) our society. The more I meditated at Goldman Sachs, the more I felt that my animosity toward those bankers contained an all-too-comfortable self-gratifying function. My balking at their ethical transgressions was—at it had been in that fiscal cliff protest months beforehand—a way to compensate for my own complex feelings of guilt and responsibility. That is not to deemphasize the importance of genuine ethical repugnance, but to question the ad hominem attacks in which that repugnance often takes shape.

In my view, those personal attacks reinforce the dehumanizing social structures that we strive desperately to unseat. They ignore the Buddhist-inspired notion that, as our protest leaflets said, “all people are the beautifully complicated products of a personal and social history.” To prevent the arising of greedy bankers, let’s destroy the space in our society for political and economic oppression. The goal of the protest was to have five, then 10, then 100, then 500 people meditating outside of Goldman Sachs. For a variety of reasons, it did not escalate to that level. But it sets us on a dangerous, and potentially harmful course when Thompson cites that failure to debase the power of passive nonviolent resistance. Thompson is right in pointing out this resistance could have taken more confrontational form. We could have meditated in the bank’s lobby, after all. Or, as Thompson proposes, we could have organized Goldman employees.

Sure, but one could level the same critique against those who marched across the bridge in Selma. Or, for that matter, those 700 Occupy protesters arrested on a bridge in Brooklyn. They were just walking on a bridge…but there were 700 of them. To me, then, the larger question is: how do we build a mass social movement that radically transforms our political and economic system? I don’t think a transformative flavor of revolution—the “power-with” rather than “power-over” model, as Thompson puts it—will ever form from divisive emotions like anger and moral superiority. Rather, we must seek a foundation of ethically charged yet unifying emotions, like compassion and love.

Comments (1)

  • nathan

    Well, I wondered if that post would receive a response. First off, thank you Max for offering all of us more insight into both the meditation protest, and also your views on what I wrote. I appreciate that you’ve written this in a spirit of dialogue, as opposed to reactive rejection of my original piece. Especially given that I intended my article to be a useful critique that hopefully would benefit future efforts by Buddha on Strike or whomever.

    I’d like to address some specific points you made now, beginning near the end.

    “Sure, but one could level the same critique against those who marched across the bridge in Selma. Or, for that matter, those 700 Occupy protesters arrested on a bridge in Brooklyn. They were just walking on a bridge…but there were 700 of them.” There’s a distinct difference between sitting peacefully in front of a corporate building with no clear threat of arrest or police violence, and walking or sitting peacefully knowing that you’re going to be confronted by police force and probable arrest. Perhaps had your meditation protests swelled in numbers, the law enforcement and corporate response may have been different. But I don’t get the sense that you or others at the protest you mention, or in the days you sat in front of Goldman were under immediate threat by law the police, security agents, or the like.

    Speaking of police, I’d like to address this issue of anger. Last month, I was part of an Idle No More protest at the Canadian Consulate here in Minneapolis, in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq resisting fracking in New Brunswick. The bulk of our protest was outside the building, very similar to the demonstration you cite in front of Goldman Sachs. The doors were guarded by the same set of police officers we’ve seen since the first days of Occupy Minneapolis. They seem to thrive on busting up our events. Anyway, we had a petition that we wanted to deliver to the Consulate office, so our group broke up and filtered slowly into the building through side doors and the skyway system. About 8-10 of us made it to the 9th floor, where the Consulate offices are held, including myself.

    Here’s the scene as I stepped off the elevator: members of our group standing in the middle of the hallway, with 8-10 police officers guarding both doorways out. We were surrounded, and even simply handing over our petition to give to the Consulate was out of the question. A few members of our group started making snarky comments about the cops, and I noticed the tension rise in the room. You have to remember many of us had histories with these guys – they were not abstract police officers, but very real folks who had roughed some of us up, called us names, tried to pick fights with us, etc.

    As the tension rose, and the lead officer began threatening arrest, I started offering metta to us all. I bowed my head and quietly chanted. I doubt anyone heard me or knew what I was doing. But I felt like the only thing I could do to support a safe and non-violent atmosphere was to chant.

    After a few more minutes, our group agreed to leave once we got a picture in front of the Consulate office door. To show we’d made it up there, if nothing else.

    Following this, we headed for one of the elevators, only to have half the officers crowd in with us, to the point where there was almost no room to move. Heading down, I stood less than three feet from the head guy – someone I had personally stared down at other protests. I tried to take him in as a person, not as an abstraction. Again, I felt myself returning to chanting, but also feeling like we were being provoked – and I was struggling to not get angry about this.

    Out of the elevator, the rest of our group, along with a whole pile more of officers, is waiting for us all. We’re all in the skyway hallway, filled with folks coming and going from work as well. The officers wanted us out pronto. But the larger group started cheering and chanting as soon as they saw us.

    This went on about five minutes. I stood over to the side, against the wall, out of the way of anyone just passing by. Finally, the head officer – the same guy from above – announces that the “show is over” and he heads directly behind me and one other person, grabs my arm and her arm, and shoves us towards the crowd. Now, this kind of shit happens all the time at protests that make any attempt to disrupt business as usual, and while I didn’t forget the chanting I had done above, you better believe it I was pissed. Partly, it was a passing flash of anger mixed with surprise, but as that passed, all I could think of was how often I’d witnessed this kind of thing. This deliberate attempt to provoke violence on the part of police officers.

    As far as I’m concerned, if we don’t learn to honor both our goodwill intentions towards everyone, and also the anger and outrage that come with interactions with law enforcement or other leaders or actors in systems of oppression, we’re doomed to manifesting more violence. Too much leaning on the anger leads to violence and too much leaning on intentions of compassion leads to suppression and sideways forms of violence.

    “The problem, as Thompson points out, is that “even if the head of Goldman Sachs is suddenly struck by one of [the protester’s] signs, and thinks ‘I’m going to do things differently,’ he’s got a whole corporation, plus shareholders, plus a worldwide network of financial concerns tied in with governments to face.” Forget about the bankers, he seems to say, there are larger structures of power that keep this thing going.

    Rather than ignore those structures, however, the meditation protest highlighted them. By abandoning the usual lefty narrative of banker-demonization, exposed the larger context enabling such disparity. The signs “Begin Anew with Compassion” and “Let’s Alleviate Suffering Together” were an invitation for bankers to join a movement to re-form (not reform) our society.”

    I’m not really clear how your signs and presence highlighted the systemically unjust and oppressive structures. All of the signs in your photos are very general in nature. I completely support their pointing to our interdependence, and also their compassionate aims, but what are the odds the average passer by, or Sachs worker for that matter, made the connection between your presence as such, and the systemic destruction and hell wrought by our economic systems? How would anyone really know what suffering you’re referring to exactly? Even if they made the connection between Sachs and suffering, what then? Maybe some low level Sachs workers have some vague sense that they work for a beast of a company creating misery, but they’re kind of stuck in terms of doing anything about that unless there’s a massive organizing effort to help them deal with corporate backlash.

    As for the bankers, I appreciate your efforts to root out ill will. I’m right there with you. I regularly refrain from joining or supporting the shaming and personal attacks made at protests and else on individual leaders.

    At the same time, I think the odds are pretty damned low that someone like the CEO of Goldman Sachs, or anyone in the top ranks for that matter, is going to massively shift their actions without a hell of a lot of public pressure. Sustained public pressure coming from numerous angles. That’s one of the main reasons I suggested going after the general workforce at a place like Sachs. Because they aren’t insulated from the oppression of the system. It intimately impacts their daily lives, even if what Goldman Sachs is doing isn’t directly causing them suffering.

    The thing is confrontation and conflict too often are held in dualistic a framework by Buddhists and other spiritual folks. Especially those of us who are privileged enough to not need to really step into the difficult territory of resistance. The Mi’kmaq in New Brunswick, for example, either resist like mad or face the imminent takeover and destruction of their land. They’re blockade and other efforts have been sustained works of non-violence, even remaining mostly so under violent attacks from the RCMP. However, avoiding confrontation and conflict simply wasn’t a choice. And this is true for many communities under threat these days.

    In my view, it’s vital for Buddhist activists to figure out how to hang with the cognitive dissonance(s) that come with action. That holding and acting in the spirit of compassion might happen in the midst of anger and outrage arising. That aiming to eliminate ill will and personal attacks on bankers, politicians, and police officers might happen in the midst of upsetting their day to day activities, calling out their organizations collective abuses, as well as whatever they might be personally accountable for.

    In the end, as I wrote in my original piece, I think a diversity of approaches is needed, including seemingly quiet meditation demonstrations like the one you did. But without disruptions, escalations, and sustained pressure, I sincerely doubt major changes will come. We Buddhists can’t bypass the natural anger and outrage that comes living under unjust and destructive systems. We have to honor it, and face it head on, sometimes right in the middle of the work we’re doing together – in order to transform that energy without coercing or shaming folks.

    Thank you for revisiting my original post. I hope what I have offered here helps clarify where I was coming from.

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