Augusto Boal at Riverside Church, NY City, in 2008
All of last week I was at a Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) training. I was drawn to the intensely evocative and provocative forms first created by Augusto Boal in the 1960s, designed to support marginalized groups in creating social change. Intuitively, I sensed these practices could support the rudimentary role play forms that are part and parcel of learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and dramatically (pun almost not intended) enhance NVC’s social justice applications.
This week became a thick, rich, powerful, challenging entanglement of the personal, the symbolic, and the political as a group of 36 of us from across many social divides and several countries grappled together with our experiences and all else that unfolded that week. By necessity of care for our agreement to protect the specifics of what happened in the room, most of the below is only about my own experiences and lens.
On July 9, at the DoubleTree Hotel in Orlando, Florida, the 187-member Democratic Party Platform Committee considered an amendment to the draft platform’s Middle East plank. Submitted by Maya Berry of the Arab American Institute and championed by Cornel West, the amendment sought for the Democratic Party to acknowledge ― finally ― Palestinian suffering and territorial concerns alongside lengthy mention of Israel’s security concerns and traumas. It sought for Democrats to recognize, officially, what every U.S. administration has in recent memory: that a military occupation exists in the West Bank, and that settlements are an impediment to Palestinian sovereignty.
It read (in part):
Palestinians deserve “an end to occupation and illegal settlements so that they may live in independence, sovereignty and dignity.”
As Berry noted during her explanation of the amendment, passing it should neither have been controversial nor contested. For not only has President Obama recognized Israel’s military occupation and Palestinian suffering, so too has Hillary Clinton. Indeed, she wrote this in 2014:
Despite Clinton’s past words and beliefs, Berry knew better than to think consideration of the amendment would be anything but contested. After all, AIPAC had already enlisted black leaders to help Clinton defeat a similar motion when the draft platform was being created. It did so via a letter written by Bakari Sellers and signed by over 60 black leaders – a letter intended to counter West’s support. (See my recent investigative essay exploring this in depth.) It was a letter which also mirrored testimony given on Clinton’s behalf by Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, who argued Democrats should not include mention of the occupation or settlements in the party’s platform.
Indeed, before debate on the amendment even commenced, Governor Dannel Malloy – for the first time while chairing proceedings – acknowledged that things might get heated, and reminded everyone that, should there be a close vote, delegates from U.S. territories would have their votes count proportionally rather than fully.
He knew what he was talking about. After passionate words from West, Clinton delegate Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, who has long been associated with AIPAC, rose to oppose. He argued that adopting the amendment would overturn the hard work of the Drafting Committee, upon which West sits, despite the fact that such is the nature and purpose of amendments.
Although he said little substantively, it didn’t matter. Clinton and AIPAC had won before the debate began, and the amendment failed 95-73. The Democratic Party would deny the occupation through omission, refusing to recognize its existence and the horrific abuses it levies against Palestinians. It would also explicitly oppose Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent movement, Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS), denying a recognition of Palestinian suffering while also denying them nonviolent recourse.Protests and cries immediately erupted. The anger among party progressives was clear as security stepped in.
Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric has given energy – and publicity – to many white supremacist groups in the United States whose membership has been in decline in recent years.
Emboldened by a mainstream candidate flirting with aspects of their ideology, members of hate groups such as the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker’s Party and the Ku Klux Klan have helped stage demonstrations inSacramentoandAnaheim, California, that have ended in violent confrontations. In Sacramento, white nationalist organizers wanted “to make a statement about the precarious situation [of the white] race” in response to protesters attacking Donald Trump supporters at campaign events, according to a statement on their website.
A tweet from presidential candidate Donald Trump. Source: http://www.attn.com/stories/9658/donald-trump-star-of-david-tweet-with-hillary-clinton
The most recent connection between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups is a tweet from Trump featuring an image of Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of hundred-dollar bills and a six-pointed star with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” emblazoned on it. The image was first posted on a virulently anti-Semitic white nationalist internet message board. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Trump for being “absolutely right” on the topic.
Mother Jones and theWashington Post, among others, have begun revealing the extent to which white nationalist groups have penetrated Donald Trump’s base of support. In May Mother Jonesrevealedthat one of Trump’s delegates for the California Republican primary,William Johnson, is the president of a prominent white nationalist group. In February, theWashington Postreportedthat some white supremacist groups have started to use Trump to recruit new members to their organizations.
By using voters’ fear and mistrust of others to incite hatred, Trump joins an unfortunately long list of politicians throughout American history who have made prejudice the cornerstone of their campaigns.
Phliando Castile was an African-American Nutrition Services Department supervisor at a Montessori School in suburban Minnesota. He was shot dead by police on July 6 after being stopped for a broken tail light. His girlfriend, Diamond Lavish Reynolds, immediately began narrating his murder on her phone (sent out via Facebook) as she sat beside him while he was dying in the car. Her four year old daughter, also in the car, witnessed everything.
This is for you, Diamond Lavish Reynolds,
before your name disappears among so many
others, before your voice
is forgotten, before you wake up
one morning, still just 24, your child
beside you, and find only the goneness
on the other side of the bed.This is for you
on the morning you wake and wonder
what you are going to do now
with your life, how you are going to talk
to the four-year-old child who saw the cop
fire the gun at Philando, the child you called
your “angel,” your first consolation.
This is for you when the news has stopped talking
about what happened, when the news has passed on
to other deaths.This is for you
in this country of guns, of cruelty, of dismissal;
for you, Diamond
Lavish Reynolds, on some humid morning
in August, as you push the blankets
away, your child
curled in sleep, so small,
and walk into the bathroom and look for the first
time in weeks carefully
at your face in the mirror, ask yourself how
you are going to live
now with only this absence,
one of your eyes consumed with grief, the other
with outrage.How can we hold this
with you, how can we make your tears not
another deleted narrative?
Anita Barrows is a poet, translator, and psychologist in Berkeley, California. She is a professor at The Wright Institute and maintains a private practice.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Irwin Keller’s blogand is reprinted here with permission of the author.
On Saturday morning, December 13, 2014, racism saved my life. It was maybe 3 am, pitch dark, and I was in Winthrop, WA – a tiny town in the Methow Valley, east of the Snoqualmie National Forest. We had performed there that night – theKinsey Sicks, that is, America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet, including me. This was one of my last performances with the group. I was to have an official swansong at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre the next night, and then the denouement of a couple shows in the Midwest over the next week.
We loaded out of the the theater – a large converted barn, actually – around midnight. We rested for a few hours in hotel rooms that were barely worth having paid for. Then it was time to start the long, snowy drive to Seattle to catch our early-morning San Francisco flight.
With a population of around 400, Winthrop was deserted at this hour. We pulled out of the hotel toward Main Street and paused at the stop sign to get our bearings. We were bone-tired and punchy. Jeff, who plays Trixie, was pulling up the navigation on his phone, but paused first to turn on an interior light and take a group selfie, to show the world how hideously unslept we were.
I noticed a vehicle coming toward us. It had also reached Main Street and was at the stop sign directly across from us. It seemed to be waiting for us to go, so I turned right onto Main Street. The other car turned to follow us. The navigation hadn’t quite kicked in and within a minute or so we missed the on-ramp to the freeway we needed. We saw our error instantly. I stopped just beyond the ramp, hoping the car behind us would pass, so I could just back up and grab the ramp. There were no other cars for miles.
But the other car stopped too. I stuck my hand out the window, waving for it to pass. It didn’t.
Donald Trump is revealing inconvenient truths about bullying and American culture.
Adult bullies shape bullying by kids. Political leaders and major national institutions encourage bullying values. Despite the anti-bullying programs in schools, and the controversy about his own bullying, Trump’s success shows how deeply bullying influences kids and resonates among major sectors of the general adult public.
According to a major 2016 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), teachers across the U.S. are reporting an alarming rise in bullying by school children against Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and other groups targeted by Donald Trump. Teachers say the bullies “seem emboldened” by Trump to taunt and insult while the bullied kids are terrified that they will be walled off, deported, or even killed.
The SPLC study did interviews with 2000 teachers. They received 1000 comments reporting heightened incidents of bullying explicitly in response to Trump’s rhetoric.
In New Hampshire, one high school teacher wrote that “A lot of students think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with. They also think that all Muslims … want to kill us.”
A Wisconsin middle school teacher wrote that “At the all-white school where I teach, ‘dirty Mexican’ has become a common insult … Before election season it was never heard.”
A Michigan junior high teacher reported at a school assembly on bullying: “I had students tell me it [insults, name-calling, trash talk] isn’t bullying, they’re just ‘telling it like it is.’”
My thought experiment turned on abolishing the police as they now exist and replacing them with something that would not have the mission James Baldwin characterized thusly in 1966: “to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests.” I excerpted arguments that have come from key figures such as Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, then asked this: “Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting – even abolishing – policing as it now exists?Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system.”
The person who has this specific thought is on the other side of the line from the person who fears the police. Do I see myself as someone whose interests the police are here to protect, or someone who is in danger from the police? That seems like a pivotal and illuminating question in this moment, a powerful shot of self-knowledge and social knowledge. The balance of the essay advocated separating “from a system of white supremacy through word and deed.”
Two more black men shot dead by police, blood flowing from their bodies. As I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the blood flowing from their dying and dead bodies, I wonder if their souls are free from the societal stories about who black men are and the internalization of some of those stories. I think about the impact these stories have on the psychological, spiritual, physical, and social presence and existence of Black people in our society and how police and others react to them as a result of these stories.
Our society treats African Americans as though black bodies are less worthy or less valuable than white bodies; that black human beings are dangerous and threatening. I want to paint their bodies full of life, full of blood, but with different letters and societal stories inscribed on them. I want our societal stories to be ones of love, of acceptance, of worthiness, of value, of safety, of nonviolence, of beauty, of strength, of grace. Stories that in fact are the truth of who all of us are but on black bodies all we see are the negative images. I want these positive stories to shine brightly.
How might we get there? Spiritually, we need a mikvah – a bath of flowing, fresh water washing over each and every one of us that brings down the loving grace of the transformative energy of the universe to cleanse us. So each and every one of us can compassionately and gently, with love and strength, disrobe ourselves from these places of constriction, these stories that have become so embedded in our beings and in our culture that they become us instead of just stories. So that black bodies are finally free from the stories that they are dangerous and to be feared, from the hatred and prejudice that our society has imprinted on them so we can see their humanity rather than be obscured by our projections. And so that those of us who fail to see through these inscribed stories can wash ourselves clean of the stories imprinted upon us that impede our capacity to see the humanity of others.
What would happen then? Might black lives be freed from the legacies of prejudice, fear, and hatred that our society places upon them? Might police officers be freed from seeing black men as dangerous and threatening? Might we all be able to see the humanity in each other?
As I enter Shabbat with a heavy heart, I hold in my heart the memories of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, their family members and all who loved them, the Black women and men who are reminded once again of their own fragility in a country that is supposedly free, and of all the lives throughout the world who are killed and whose true stories we are unable to see. May we one day find a path to our true freedom where we see through the stories to the souls that live within each of us. Until that time, may we continue to do the work needed to fundamentally heal and transform our world.
Cat Zavis is the Executive Director of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. She is also an attorney, mediator, and trainer in conflict resolution and empathic communication. She has co-led trainings with Rabbi Michael Lerner on integrating spirituality and activism and on communicating across differences on Israel and Palestine. You can reach Cat at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives, go to: www.spiritualprogressives.org.
This is the story of how a powerful lobbying organization enlists black Americans – victims of oppression and state violence for centuries – to mask the suffering of another oppressed people. It is the story of how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) strategically recruits and educates black leaders to defend Israel from critique. And it is the story of how Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation suffer in ways that reverberate upon America’s streets – where black bodies are bruised, bloodied and destroyed under the weight of police violence, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement.
It is a story which begins – for our purposes – on June 9 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, where a public hearing on the Democratic Platform convened for two days of discussion and debate in advance of the Drafting Committee’s work in St. Louis at the end of June.
At this hearing, the DNC’s 15-member Platform Drafting Committee heard public testimony on and debated many aspects of the platform, working through domestic policy and foreign policy and finally arriving at Israel. When they did, Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, sat before the committee and presented Hillary Clinton’s version of what the DNC platform should look like, making sure to list Israel’s legitimate security concerns while neglecting to articulate the suffering Palestinians endure. Needless to say, absent from Wexler’s testimony were the words “occupation” and “settlements.” Though he did make sure to condemn Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, noting that Democrats must oppose outside forces pressuring Israel.
Sitting opposite Wexler was Cornel West, a prominent author, academic and BDS supporter, who resides on the Drafting Committee as one of five members appointed by Bernie Sanders. (Six were appointed by Clinton.) When Wexler finished his testimony, West had this to say:
“I think both of us can agree that a precious Palestinian baby in the West Bank has exactly the same value as a precious Jewish baby in Tel Aviv … A commitment to security for precious Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel can never be predicated on an occupation of precious Palestinians. If we’re concerned about security, it seems to me we’re going to have to talk seriously about occupation. I don’t know if you would allow the use of that word … but occupation is real. It’s concrete.”
“For too long, the Democratic Party has been beholden to an AIPAC that didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters. We’re at a turning point now, though of course it’s going to be a slow one in the Democratic Party … So my first question would be: one, would you argue for the use of the word occupation in the platform? And two, how would you respond to those who say for so long the United States has been so biased toward Israeli security and has not accented the humanity of Palestinians, such that to talk about evenhandedness is always a version of anti-Semitism as opposed to a struggle for justice?”
Wexler responded, saying “what you refer to as occupation” should be absent from the DNC platform. Why? To include mention of occupation and settlements would be to litigate sensitive issues which must be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians themselves, not the Democratic Party. An absurd answer made even more so given Wexler, on Clinton’s behalf, advocated minutes before for Jerusalem to be recognized by Democrats as Israel’s capital, one such ‘sensitive’ issue.
When the public hearing had concluded, the Clinton camp’s position was known: it opposed West’s proposal to acknowledge Palestinian suffering in the Democratic Party Platform, as well as the nonviolent movement he champions. What wasn’t known was just who would prevail on this issue. What also wasn’t known at the time was that in a matter of days, AIPAC would quietly aid Clinton by enlisting black politicians and church leaders to counter West’s efforts on the Drafting Committee, as though the only natural way to counter a black intellectual is with other black intellectuals.
I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens—if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand. [No one stands.]
You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand.
Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.
In less than a minute, Elliott demonstrates two profound and terrible truths. First, as she indicates, everyone knows that Black people as a group face far more hostility, danger, and discrimination than white people. And second, as a group, it is easy for those whose skins insulate them from this treatment to ignore the price others pay for their ability to move about safely and comfortably.
Elliott is best-known for a behavioral experiment called “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes.” In a classroom or other group setting, participants are divided by eye color. Those possessing blue eyes are treated as inferior—reprimanded, made to repeat tasks arbitrarily, made to sit in a corner for minuscule infractions, and so on. In a remarkably short time, the members of that group begin to doubt themselves, stumble over simple tasks, find themselves living into the experimenter’s diminished version of themselves.
This is the response of the defenseless. By and large, blue-eyed people haven’t had a lifetime of practice resisting oppression, ejecting the oppressor’s voice from their own hearts and minds. They just succumbed. But when this sort of treatment is meted out over time, the dignity, righteous anger, and resilience of the oppressed grow, and they fight back.
You and I aren’t in a room together, so we’ll have to settle for a thought experiment. To take part, read the next few paragraphs, then answer the questions I pose.
Right now, in the aftermath of a week of assassinations—first Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA; then Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, MN; then five police officers in Dallas—people are calling for drastic cuts or even dissolution of policing as it now exists. Mychal Denzel Smith’s eloquent April 2015 polemic in The Nation quotes James Baldwin fifty years ago expressing a so far enduring truth:
In 1966, James Baldwin wrote for The Nation: “…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” This remains as true today as it was in 1966, only now we have bought into the myth of police “serving and protecting” wholesale. What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?
You abolish it.
Smith points to the fact that the average police officer uses only about one-tenth of work time on the clearly criminal matters that fill the scripts of TV series, and the rest on enforcing elements of conduct that present no threat to public safety, but give police official reasons to detain anyone they wish. Eric Garner was killed for selling cigarettes, Sandra Bland for driving while Black, Oscar Grant for being in a BART station. Every day, people are detained, arrested, beaten, shot, or left for dead whose only crime is exercising the right to exist.
Real total government spending on the criminal justice system grew by 74 percent between 1993 and 2012, to $274 billion. Similarly, in 2012, real per capita criminal justice spending was $872 per year, up 43 percent over the same time period.
When it comes to policing, there’s a lot of talk about bad apples. But when the barrel gets this full of rot, you have to stop and ask whether it’s time to toss the whole thing out and switch to oranges.
In a July 8 interview with Essence, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza advocates cutting police budgets by half:
…[I]t’s important to note as well that we are so enraged, in particular at the lack of serious action to defund police departments that continue to wreak havoc in our communities. We are enraged at the lack of action towards demilitarizing the police to make sure they are not carrying weapons of mass destruction to test and experiment in our communities. And we are outraged that we are not having serious conversations at the legislative level about slashing police budgets.
And certainly, we have to make sure our police forces do not have weapons of mass destruction with which they can terrorize our communities. I think if we’re able to focus in some of those areas, we’ll be in a much different place than we are right now.
So here’s the thought-experiment: Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting—even abolishing—policing as it now exists? Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system Alicia Garza describes so clearly:
Why are we paying tax dollars to departments that continue to murder our people? I don’t want to pay for people to kill us, and I don’t think anybody in our communities want that. What’s also really important is what you just said, that’s so fantastic: there’s not enough people inside of these departments that are seeing what’s going on, speaking up and speaking out. And so, we’re at that point now, and we’ve been at that point for a while, where we have consistently said: ‘What side are you on?’ And if you’re quiet, knowing that there’s a culture of racism inside most police departments, and you’re not saying anything, you are on the wrong side of history.
Those who’ve historically benefited from this system at the expense of Black people and others targeted by the police have a simple choice right now. Separate yourself from a system of white supremacy through word and deed. Or maintain your loyalty to that system and the perks it provides, turning a blind eye to the costs it exacts. Then wait and see how well it protects you when the violence festering at every level of American society—from street-level policing to Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric—explodes.
Fania Davis, who knows what she is talking about, makes a powerful argument in Yes! Magazine for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an essential step, starting with Ferguson. We need all the truth we can get.