No Revolution Without Dancing and Compassion
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.