When walk-outs won't work
During Chanukah 2014, I was part of a group of Jewish and Black people in Durham, NC who organized a demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter. Several similar demonstrations took place over Chanukah that year. Like most of them our action was intended both to draw a broader swath of the Jewish community into the Movement for Black Lives, and to publicly support that movement at a moment when its frame and narrative were being challenged by the media and the political right.
Thanks to the talent and experience of the other organizers, several aspects of the action went very well. The materials and messaging were focused and centered the work and language of local, Black-led community organizations. The readings, songs, and soapboxes were emotional and real. The turnout and visuals–dozens of chanukiot lighting up Durham’s central downtown plaza, more than a hundred people–were powerful, and drew in local media.
Yet I was nervous, because just before we began, we had been unable to decide whether to move the group from the plaza into the street, where we could stop traffic. The Black organizers left this decision to the Jewish (and White) organizers, and by the end of the evening, still unable to make a decision, we disbanded without escalating.
That night and the following morning, local TV stations and newspapers carried prominent coverage of our action–and nearly all of them framed it as a more responsible, more peaceful “alternative” protest, led by the Jewish community not with but instead of Black leaders–whose own prior protests, it was implied, lacked legitimacy because they were disruptive.
I was furious at the press for misusing a solidarity action to further divide Black and Jewish communities. But I probably would have been less angry if I wasn’t also so ashamed of myself. At the key moment of decision, I had opted to preserve my personal safety, and my reputation as a respectable White man, rather than throw in with the people I claimed to support. Because of my fear, I helped propel, rather than undercut, the age-old American libel of Black inferiority and threat.
A year and a half later, a racist misogynist who openly incites mass violence against people of color is on his way to the Republican nomination. Upon hearing of the reckless decision to invite him to preach hatred from a Jewish stage, many of us promised ourselves that the moment would not pass without massive protest. And now the moment has come and gone, marked by several standing ovations and no visible protest inside at all. Through the small, distant window of media narrative, the largest annual gathering of Jews in America has proudly and unequivocally stamped its hechsher on Donald Trump.
Friends and colleagues are feeling bewildered and betrayed by this, but the seeds of our failure were sown from the beginning. We admonished each other to “respect” a man, and a force, that has no respect for anyone. We made fine and subtle distinctions and crafted statements that were unimpeachable instead of simply true. We did everything except ask ourselves what we were really prepared to risk, and how, specifically, we would escalate to take that risk. And now Donald Trump has marched into the heart of our community, lied his lies, and marched back out without encountering any opposition. (Except, apparently, from this man, whose congregation I would join instantly if I lived in his city.)
Why did Black people and their allies in Durham block traffic, shut down businesses, and generally raise hell? Why does the Movement for Black Lives across the country at times demand escalation and disruption? Because Black people are living a bloody emergency that no one else acknowledges, and the threat to their safety must be addressed by any means necessary. Black people in Durham disrupted daily commercial life because the beating, imprisonment, plunder, and killing of Black people was not enough, even in sum, even over decades, to hold the White public’s attention.
Why did Black, Latino, and Muslim people, mostly students, confront and successfully shut down the Trump campaign in Chicago? Because Trump is a bigger, angrier, rolling emergency, a man who has no qualms at all about demonizing them and encouraging angry White people to abuse and attack them. In Chicago, Black and Brown people didn’t “walk out,” because outside the arena were the streets where their lives would be endangered by the Trump campaign event. There was no place for them to “walk out” to, in the same way that, for the undocumented folks who Trump particularly likes to incite against, there’s no future vote to cast to absolve them of inaction today. So instead they acted, and escalated; their lives depended on it. And, that night, they won.
What is escalation, if not the recognition of life-threatening crisis and the seeking of means to confront it? When we don’t escalate, we recognize the inverse: our White, Jewish lives don’t depend on confronting Trump’s murderous racism. Our resources and social status protect us from Trump and his goons, allowing us the luxury of providing him an enormous platform from which to spread hatred. And when some small number of us do decide to confront Trump, we resolve only to physically remove ourselves from his presence, as if depriving him of our company were a revolutionary act instead of capitulation.
Where do we go from here? Despite my frustration, I don’t think that shame is the right response. Shame keeps us from trying and teaches us to avoid future risks. But to the extent that the shame I felt at our Chanukah action was helpful, it was in teaching me that I needed to think more deeply about my contributions and limitations. So here are some suggestions for how all of us who are interested in fighting back against the mainstreaming of violent racism, in the Jewish community and in America, can learn from failure and become more effective.
- Jews who are White and/or have class privilege must acknowledge that a racist demagogue like Trump implicates our safety differently than that of the groups he attacks openly. It’s on us to listen to and amplify the voices, tactics, and strategies of Black, Brown, Muslim, and undocumented people who are Trump’s preferred targets, while simultaneously making loud and clear connections between their safety and ours.
- We can loosen our grip on being or seeming “respectable.” If we are in fact confronting a crucial moment in the evolution of American politics, we may be called upon to say or do things that take us out of our comfort zones and make us feel unsure, judged, or fearful. We can support each other at those times, and compassionately but forcefully confront those who seize on our fears to keep us from taking risks.
- We can organize our actions and movements to minimize the extent to which “respectability” controls us. One starting point is to bring forward new leadership, and to ask rabbis and elders who feel they have more to lose in terms of reputation to play supporting roles instead of leadership roles.
- We can recognize that when we do give in to respectability, for example, by choosing to quietly walk out of a fascist event rather than seeking to upend it, we are relaxing into a privilege that our non-White allies do not have. We unintentionally but concretely raise the level of difficulty for non-White allies when we do this; unlike us, they have no choice but to more directly engage.
- While we wrestle with our fear of seeming to be less than respectable, we can stop contributing to public discourse that erases the courage and dignity of those who are fighting back. We can stop admonishing Black and Brown people for daring to shut down the public events of an open racist, events that put their safety at risk whether or not they choose to respond. We can stop abstracting the Trump phenomenon into an essay question on free speech. We can stop pretending that a voting booth is the only appropriate venue for active opposition to white supremacy.
- We can embrace the struggle to see what is in front of our noses. The overwhelming majority of AIPAC attendees not only sat and listened to Trump, they applauded him enthusiastically, over and over again. The conciliatory instinct to segment off critiques of Trump from critiques of AIPAC is understandable, but the evidence that this division is spurious is overwhelming. Outside the convention center, IfNotNow protesters called on attendees to dump both Trump and AIPAC. They argued that Trump’s values are AIPAC’s values. After this spectacle, how can anyone rationally disagree?
American Jews, with some notable exceptions, didn’t acquit ourselves especially well this time around. But we can learn and do better. Our Jewish heroes, from Moses onward, didn’t try to shame or punish power by leaving the room; they confronted power directly and courageously, with a sense of purpose. Jewish community leaders, regardless of their age or stature, should feel welcome to try and to fail–but to be effective together, we need a more open-eyed exploration of our privilege, and a greater willingness to risk our safety and reputations. Let’s work together to figure out how that happens. It’s time to escalate.
The views expressed in this article are my own, and do not represent those of any organization or group.