On the Sunday following the 2016 election, I had been invited to preach at a United Church of Christ congregation north of San Francisco. The original assignment had to do with the “Good News” about prison-related issues, Good News being a reflection on the Bible passages for that day. I had to scrap most of the draft I had been working on. After all, the Good News has never been about triumphalism—certainly not about winning elections; it is about liberation.
For too long we have put our faith in political leaders, and this was never more strongly embodied than in this particular national election cycle. Every mainstream media outlet seemed all-consumed with candidate politics, and largely ignored issues. The United States’ obsession with personalities catapulted the most unlikely candidates to the forefront. A Quaker understanding of leadership and a refusal to embrace hierarchy left many of us out in the cold. How can the country’s hopes and dreams be wrapped up in a single person, whether he is the first African American president, the first woman president, or a billionaire TV reality show star? Yet this constant diet of electoral junk food left us intellectually depleted, and hyper on hatred and demonization.
So when the post-election reality hit, people were grieving, listless, disoriented, and largely immobilized. Neither party garnered the public’s trust. Although the term “populism” was bandied about, neither candidate recognized the dominant theme for most voters: the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Voter turnout was the lowest in 20 years at around 55 percent of eligible voters. We know that in many states formerly incarcerated people are kept from the polls, and that in many states concerted efforts were made to drop people of color from the rolls. The number of polling stations was drastically reduced in some locations. The sheer complexity of ballots in many states overwhelmed many potential new voters, and, in the end, the popular vote was discarded in favor of the antiquated electoral college. Democracy, if it has ever truly been in play, is hanging by a thread.
Dustin Washington, an AFSC staff person in the Seattle, Washington, office blogged about the situation:
No matter who has been president, from George Washington to Barack Obama, the material conditions and racialized oppression of people of color and the poor has not changed. The U.S. presidency is not a position to create liberation for the oppressed but a position to maintain the current economic rule of the one percent. History and this election proves that the ruling class will always use racism to ensure that the rule of the elite stays in place.
It is hard to tell whether what we are seeing in the unfolding new administration is some kind of caricature with person after person nominated to fill positions for which they have no qualifications (for instance, placing a respected surgeon in charge of housing rather than in a health position or as surgeon general) or whether what is unfolding is actually apocalyptic.
It is fair to say that many people voted for the “end times”: the end of government, the end of joblessness, or the end of congressional deadlock. But to see this as caricature is to trivialize it in ways that will not serve us. Given the desperate problems facing the planet and the desperate problems of vulnerable communities and all people of color, we must confront this new reality with utmost seriousness. Are we looking at a very frightening new world order or at the last gasp of white supremacy?
There’s little doubt that the mainstay of the junk food diet of this election—the sweetened beverage, if you will—was racism. It was served up on a daily basis whether in the form of Islamophobia, immigrant bashing, bringing back the discredited stop-and-frisk policies of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the nostalgia for “law and order,” or the drumbeat for building a wall along the southern border with Mexico. This is only a partial list, and much of it is coded language for more Jim Crow policies and permission to express violence, hatred, and overt racism.
Of equal concern is extreme right wing movements being voted in by countries all over the world. Whether in Syria, the Philippines, the Brexit vote in Britain, Greece, Turkey, Venezuela and other Latin American countries, or many parts of Africa, the trend repeats itself. And it is consistently accompanied by fear of refugees who are flooding Europe in search of hope and safety. Some people have responded with radical hospitality and generosity; other have heaped hatred onto the strangers seeking shelter. The United States hasn’t even considered opening its doors or its budgets to assist.
It is both the times we are in and the times we have been in throughout the history of the United States, a country founded on genocide of indigenous peoples and cultures, powered up by relocated enslaved labor, and enriched by stolen land from Mexico and First Nations; it is a daunting legacy to overcome. Adding the impact of jobs lost or downgraded, a shrinking middle class, and housing disappearing to all but the wealthiest, the race to find people to blame kicks into high gear. We know all too well from the punishment culture that easy blame takes over and turns toward people of color, poor people, and anyone afraid of being at the bottom. Why is it that people always want to identify with the very wealthy rather than to think about the kind of world that could make them safe and healthy?
Signs and Wonders
In spite of these dire circumstances, there are places where creative acts are having powerful impact. They draw leaders from those directly affected by oppressive conditions; demonstrate exciting, new forms of unity decision making; and show ways to build the beloved community.
From September 23 to September 27, 2016, American Friends Service Committee sent a delegation to visit the prayer camps that had been constructed along the Cannonball River adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation and within unceded treaty territory. On each of the four days, they visited the camps and met with people who provided both leadership and service to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). They found the camps to be places of resilience and healing, dedicated to building and maintaining a decolonized society grounded in Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota culture and ceremony.
The actions at Standing Rock to stop the pipeline have much to teach about what is possible in building a better world, guided by Spirit; following leadership from people directly affected by a situation; and practicing decolonized methods of analyzing problems and finding solutions. Their report and findings can be found at afsc.org, where the complete report is available (search for the report title, “We Are Our Own Medicine”).
Another delegation to Standing Rock numbered 4,000 veterans who arrived in early December, as law enforcement threatened to shut down the camps. They came from all over the country and had many different political perspectives; they intended to protect (not protest) the “water protectors.” In the end, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to withdraw the permit for the company to drill in that sacred area and endanger the water and the earth. It was extraordinary that veterans were seen in a different light: trying to be of service in a desperate situation, experimenting with nonviolence, and following indigenous leadership. Could there be a new relationship between peace movements and soldiers, who have been demonized as war makers, and a new way of building community across differences?
Black Lives Matter
Although it has taken countless tragedies of African American men and women killed by police to galvanize people across the country to say “enough” and to declare that “black lives matter,” this national grassroots movement is now growing and deepening. AFSC has endorsed The Movement for Black Lives platform, which includes six demands: policy.m4bl.org/platform. AFSC is encouraging Friends meetings to consider endorsing this platform and formulating actions based on it.
As with the process unfolding at Standing Rock, this Movement for Black Lives is highly decentralized with leadership coming from the grassroots. As cofounder Patrisse Cullors describes it, “It is not leaderless but leader-full.” It has already changed the narrative around race in this country and, like the Black Panther movement of the 1960s, is pushing for serious systemic change that will change all our lives, focusing on underlying economic causes.
Undocumented and Unafraid
With youth at the helm, we have entered a new era for U.S. residents who are undocumented. Up until now, many assumed that fear would keep people in the shadows and leave the door open for unbridled exploitation. Yet in program after program, AFSC-connected youth with their spoken word messages and re-envisioned stories are teaching their elders how to come out of the closet, and are changing not only the narrative about immigration but policies as well. No human being is illegal, and each one has a dream.
Hunger Strikes and the Fight Against Solitary Confinement
AFSC has been working to shut down supermax prisons since they began in 1972. They are a special kind of prison used exclusively for long-term isolation and sensory deprivation. However not until prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., went on hunger strike—three times—to call attention to the conditions they faced did real change begin to occur around the country. As of this writing, 2,500 people in California have been transferred to general population and out of solitary confinement.
A Legacy to Lean On
We now face an historic time that requires all of us to step up; find our voices; and resist efforts to rape the earth, further desecrate sacred lands, demonize whole communities, and squander the public treasury. AFSC is uniquely situated to rise to the occasion in which we find ourselves. Indeed, we have been at the forefront of movements for 100 years, which has yielded important experience, as well as commitment and constituents to answer the call.
Human Migration and Mobility
Sanctuary Everywhere has become the clarion call of our immigration and refugee programs around the world. The lessons learned in our work with imprisoned Japanese citizens and noncitizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor can be applied to situations requiring Muslims to register or those from Muslim countries who are blocked from entering the United States. Quakers have dealt with religious discrimination and the incarceration of “the other” to create an illusion of safety. AFSC’s alternative actions are already underway:
- Through the “Local Peace Networks” methodology, community leaders use conflict analysis and participatory planning and dialogue to address the root causes of conflict, including economic exclusion, gender-based violence, bullying, street violence, and natural disasters.
- AFSC’s Newark, New Jersey, office provides legal services to undocumented peoples, and organizes communities to resist harmful policies. They ask, “Will New Jersey’s undocumented students be punished for following the rules?” (NJ Spotlight newsletter article, December 19, 2016).
- Along the same lines, an increasing number of Friends meetings are providing sanctuary to people in danger of deportation. Go to afsc.org/sanctuaryeverywhere.
After many decades of working against the penal system in the United States, in all its punitive and violent forms, AFSC has been experimenting boldly with restorative justice methods that can replace the existing carceral system. Examples include the following:
- a Truth and Reconciliation process with Wabanaki chiefs in Maine, to examine the atrocities committed in boarding schools
- an analysis by youth in AFSC-sponsored Freedom Schools around the country of systems that perpetuate violence and injustice, in which they learn about social change movements
- a development of leadership for change by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism
Transformation in history doesn’t come from comfort and contentment; it comes when all else has failed. This includes the signature revelation of Friends founder, George Fox, when recounted in his Journal:
And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. . . . and this I knew experimentally.
Whether or not these revelations come to us today in Christian terms or in other forms, the way forward will have to be bold, creative, and experimental, and the answers will not come from politicians or any of the usual sources. It is time to reach across many of the old barriers and make common cause with our fellow humans before the earth is destroyed, before more people are rounded up and deported, before even more are incarcerated.
The times we find ourselves in are extremely serious; they look like fascism, McCarthyism, capitalism on steroids, or even all of these. And we must not be mesmerized by the daily drama or the myth that it is mostly happening in Washington, D.C. The stakes are too high for tinkering or reform. Radical transformation from the ground up is required of us.
It will require working at every level, from the personal to the systemic, and asking the biggest possible questions about what kind of world we want. AFSC is stepping up to do its own soul searching of what it has meant to be a mostly white organization in “the nonprofit industrial complex,” and how our vision and structures need to change to remain on the cutting edge.
Bill Ayers, in his new book Demand the Impossible!, says:
It’s up to each and all of us to arise every day with our minds set on freedom, and to commit to movement building as a regular and required part of what we do.
This is a wake-up call for all of us, and it is truly an all-hands-on-deck time. It won’t be a peace movement, as we’ve known it, or the Civil Rights Movement either. It will be many new things, led from the bottom: experimental, dynamic, and energizing. Participatory democracy isn’t a one-time inoculation; it is work that must be done by each of us every day. And further, it is work that cannot flow simply from anger or reaction; it must reach to the deepest places of love and compassion. We can’t practice radical activism, without also tapping into our sense of joy and beauty.