Friday, February 5, 2010

Help -- We Are the Target!


[The situation described below is real and recent. The name of the meeting has been changed out of cautiousness. ]

Dear George Lakey,
Please advise us! Friends at Rivertown Meeting have scheduled a 10-week course on Islam, to be taught by an Islamic scholar. We advertised it to the public, hoping it would create openings for better understanding in our community. About 70 have people signed up. But now we are targeted by a “tea party” group that is recruiting to get a large group of demonstrators outside our meeting house as well as people to come inside and confront the teacher.

We asked the yearly meeting to help organize a “Friendly presence” group of trained peacekeepers to help us manage the situation, but we found out they don’t do that anymore.

What do you suggest?

Clerk of peace and concerns committee, Rivertown Meeting


Dear Friend,

One way to look at disruption is to see it as an opportunity. That was pretty much the attitude of early Friends, who seemed to think that if there wasn't turbulence around what they were doing, they must not be doing something of consequence. It was also the attitude of Martin Luther King and his colleagues. So congratulations!

If you and other Rivertown Friends do manage to view this as an opportunity, you'll see a lot of positive possibilities. One that see even from this distance is to shift the dialogue about Islam from a small bubble of the already-convinced ("the choir," as we used to say in church when the preacher was "preaching to the choir"), to a dialogue that influences far more citizens of the area including those who initially wouldn't choose to be in the choir.

One way that the disrupters may be doing you a favor is that they are a fringe who are acting out what is really the mainstream feeling: "We don't really want to learn more about Islam."

This is similar to the favor the KKK did in the deep South by acting out the mainstream white attitudes toward black people, and thereby raising the question for those mainstream white people: are we really as unwilling to re-consider our racism as the KKK folks are?

The politics of our country can't really shift regarding Islamophobia until there is much, much more attention paid to it, and the Tea Party people are apparently willing to give that gift to the body politic. Just as the nonviolent civil rights movement turned the KKK's acting out to their advantage, by responding nonviolently and assertively, so also Friends can thank the Tea Party folks for opening up attention to these issues in a vital and exciting way that can move the Rivertown-area people who have been avoiding the set of issues involved.

The important thing is not to imagine that this is all about you, or all about the Tea Party people, or the combination of you two parties.

Naturally it is partly about you (the opportunity you get to strengthen yourselves spiritually and build your capacity for courage, for example), and it is partly about the Tea Party people (the opportunity for them to express themselves as fairly marginalized people in the broader society). But sometimes the biggest opportunity is for the Rivertown-area people more in the middle of the spectrum, the people who perhaps would rather not confront the realities either of what Friends assert or what the right wing asserts, but just duck the whole thing if they can.

In other words, as you map out your strategy it pays to bear in mind a picture of the Rivertown-area population as a spectrum. You are on one extreme of the spectrum. On the other extreme are the Tea Party folks. 90% or more of the people of the area are ranged in a spectrum between the extremes, but to differing degrees leaning toward you or leaning toward the right, with some folks (maybe most) in the middle, on the fence.

Our job strategically in working for change and transformation is always to influence, if we can, the various parts of this spectrum. Usually the challenge is to get various parts of the spectrum enaged in our issue.

Thanks to the Tea Party folks, this should be much easier this time.

A nice thing about the Friendly Presence as I experienced it was that it didn't intimidate the extremists, so they could still act out enough to generate drama and stimulate forces for change. The Friendly Presence built a supportive container, but didn't shut down the extremists.

It was in the best tradition of early Friends, who often called themselves "Friends of Truth." (It's the truth about our society that will set us free, not pretending that our society is about politeness and civility.)

So -- well done in becoming a target, and good luck in making the most of it!

George Lakey


  1. One important step is to coordinate with your speaker so that there are strategies in place for disruption.

  2. Please post the date and time and I will hold you all in the Light and I'll pass along to other praying Friends....

  3. This is from a training I attended in St Pete Meeting, taught by the late Christine O'Brien: It's important to have a plan of action if things get nasty. Bring Friends together ahead of time to worship together so everyone will be grounded and strong. If anyone gets violent or tries to provoke violence, have 3 Friends together engage them in quiet dialog and 'listen them to wholeness'. Make sure that people coming to listen to your speaker are not threatened and that they are not put in a position where they might respond to provocation. You can't control everything that happens but you can demonstrate what peaceful response looks like.

  4. Friend speaks my mind. If you can post a date, time, and time zone, I will be very glad to hold you all in the Light. I also forwarded this query to others in my Meeting who probably have fresher perspective and experience with this sort of thing and I hope they will post with more thoughts and tips.

  5. I always think of that wonderful myth (I call it that since I don't know how truthful it was) in the Ghandi movie, where the people were lined up in fours, and as the British beat them down, they peacefully lined up the next four. Sooner or later, the violent ones got to looking and feeling pretty foolish, beating on these quiet folks...what a Presence that was!

  6. RantWoman decided to write up some nuts and bolts in her own blog where she could edit a bit before posting:

  7. Do you have any other faith groups which you have relations with? You may be pleasantly surprised when you reach out to the leaders of some of the main-stream or even "fringe" religious groups.
    Gathering local allies can help in not feeling alone with this. The "Tea-Party" group, or whomever it is, will have to bring in outsiders to really make a ruckus. Your extended faith community will come to aid you.

  8. UPDATE: Since there has been so much good, practical advice, I want to continue the story for people who are interested. I am not a member of Rivertown Meeting, but it is close to my home, and I enrolled in the class out of personal interest as well as to support the meeting. The course organizers and the meeting did many of the things advised in the comments. They planned how they would manage various difficulties, they worshipped in preparation, they begin every class with a period of silent worship ("or just silence if you prefer"), and review ground rules about questioning the instructor. The instructor is well experienced in unruly groups and handles challenging questions openly, with grace and good humor. There has been only one "incident," which was short and has not been repeated. So I have had much opportunity to observe and think about George Lakey's response to the initial question. About 60 people attend the classes, and perhaps a third have been regularly asking questions that I would consider "unfriendly," challenging the speaker on such things as interpretation of passages in the Koran, arguing against the truth of Islamic beliefs that contradict their understanding of the Bible, pushing for evidence that Muslims, historically and today, show evidence of greediness, cruelty, etc. It is a real eye-opener for me. I feel like I'm seeing a side of middle-of-the-road, Christian America that I am usually shielded from. In my patient moments, I think back to George Lakey's reasons why this is a "good thing," and will contribute to positive change. I think I'm seeing some of that in action. In my less patient moments, I wish all those people would shut up or go away, because they are interfering with the kinds of things *I* want to learn in the class. Pretty typical.

  9. Here is a reply with an excerpt from a newsletter about nonviolence.

    The topic is health care reform but the techniques and disarming effect are topical:

    -----Original Message-----
    From: Rose BZ
    Subject: Fwd: An example of local Nonviolent Peacemaking-can you forward to blog?

    Dear (rantWoman), Here is a story about deescalating a situation. I cannot figure out how to forward it to the blog you wrote me about.

    Can you please forward it to the blog?

    Date: Mon, 22 Feb 2010 11:30:51 -0800
    Subject: [wwnpeaceforce] An example of local Nonviolent Peacemaking
    An example of Nonviolent Peacemaking Training in Action:

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Healthcare Forum . . .
    As the tenor of healthcare townhalls has disintegrated into violence in some cases, disruptive heckling, hate mongering & threats in other cases, I have been wondering what an effective constructive response might be. In
    September, three people trained in dialogue and nonviolent intervention agreed to join me in a attending Senator Sherrod Brown’s Health Care Town Hall at UC (University of Cincinnati) and exploring what might be possible by using our skills. We spread out and positioned ourselves among the 1200 others in the Great Hall.
    A few minutes into the town hall the heckling began. Our experiences were interesting. Originally, there were six people in the row behind me shouting such things as “Obamacare is going to kill you” , “We have the best
    > healthcare in the world” , “Liars”, “Tort Reform” , “I won’t pay for your healthcare” and so on. When the shouting became louder, more
    > constant and distracting I made a decision that engaging them would probably be ess distracting for the majority of people in the audience. I began turning around, periodically paraphrasing and periodically asking them questions such as “You sound really frightened about this healthcare reform possibility. What scares you . . .” The woman immediately behind me said things like ”You are so naïve”, “you don’t have a brain cell in your head”, “We don’t even breathe the same air. I can’t talk to you.” Others said angrily and insistently, “The show is in front. Turn around”.
    I took a breath and kept at it. The mocking of me continued. Eventually, a man responded to my question about what he wanted to see in terms of our health care. When I paraphrased his answer, he said “Exactly.” His expression softened, he lowered his voice and stopped shouting. After a while similar conversations took place with three of the others. Finally, the only one shouting in the row behind me (but shouting remarkably loudly) was the woman directly behind me. I took to looking at her directly and lovingly. She really didn’t like this. She continued taunting me, making cracks about my intelligence, using patronizing voices with me, telling me in no uncertain terms that I should turn around, that she didn’t like it, that I was rude and stupid, etc. I kept repeating quietly that I’d be happy to turn around if she would promise to quit shouting. I kept telling her that I could hear the speakers better when I was looking at her. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, she said, “You won’t turn around? Fine. Are you happy now, I’m
    > leaving.” She shouted her way out of the forum as she left. At the end, one of the former loud and angry detractors behind me, smiled, shook my hand, and wished me luck with my daughter.
    The three others folks accompanying me reported similar experiences with hecklers in their vicinity. What then, might be possible with a much larger contingent of trained peace team members? Join us and lets find out!
    > By Kristen Barker
    > Nonviolent Conflict Intervention Trainer and
    > Staff at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center
    > Cincinnati, OH

    Rosy BZ
    "The only enemy is someone whose story you haven't heard."

    (RantWoman promises to talk to Rosy some more and see about her posting things for herself.

  10. Should we paint with such a broad brush?

    Putting all people into a group (Tea Party) then saying that all in that group share the same views as those at the meeting?

    How do you know a person who says he is a person in the Tea Party is truly a person that is in that party?

    Once we see people as a group and not as a friend, then we surely do need to be silent.

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