This is an admittedly sobering and macabre piece for which I am providing a trigger warning of sorts given the discussion of violence and death herein. Though it’s personal on some level, I don’t really see this as something I am writing about me but rather something I am writing about my hopes for our society and how it can come to cope and respond in the face of so many horrific realities we’re facing. Happy reading.
I work in human rights and while my organization is non-partisan, there have nevertheless been death threats in the past against staff because we are living in such a divisive time where non-partisan issues like, well, basic human dignity, have become politicized. For major events we’ve held in the past, we’ve had to hire security guards to ensure the safety of ourselves and our guests. The cyber security measures we follow protect ourselves not just from some random, crazy hacker but from foreign governments, as well, and they’re time-consuming, annoying, and important. The fire drills, the active shooter drills, the double-locking entrances, the webcam covers–it’s a lot to take in mentally, emotionally.
I suppose the only thing worse would be having to go through high school in America again and endure, well, pretty much the same constant fears. That is to say, I’m not special, and I’m not penning this as a cry for help or as some kind of ‘woe is me’ sad sap story, because the reality is that, as a white male, my life is a lot safer right now than, say, undocumented immigrants or black mothers shot in their own homes while playing video games with their nephews or women who might wish to come forward with a true, painful story about a high-powered celebrity or politician or my trans brothers and sisters whose every day for being nothing more than themselves makes them a threat to, mostly, small-minded white men. The sad reality is: Americans, generally, are facing a tough time right now with scary forces pervading our everyday, and not all of us have security guards at the events we go to for work.
Still, it’s such an odd thing to be placed in a situation where you must consider the possibility of your violent death, or the violent death of your coworkers, and what it could mean for your loved ones or your friends.
On some level, this isn’t some new thought I’m having. When I worked at a camp, I had to create and implement a safety action plan for the camp in case of an active shooter. I had to create a “safe sanctuary policy” when I was working for the church. When I lived in the Middle East and North Africa, I certainly spent plenty of time considering the possibility of a kidnapping or a car bomb, and in fact, a bomb did go off near a favorite cafe my friends frequented in Marrakesh. Hell, three years after Columbine, I was a high school freshman, and I remember myself and my fellow students dropping to the ground because someone let go of their thick, science book and the clap against the floor sounded like a gun had gone off. More recently, I volunteered to join a NYC “Community Emergency Response Team,” after a friend who is a part of CERT pointed out that New York City’s trash cans are designed so that if you throw a bomb into them you can save lives since they contain the explosion as one that will blow up instead of out.
So no, by no means is this a new thought of mine, and yet despite the fear or pre-traumatic stress we’ve surrounded ourselves with, we for some reason throw our hands up every time with those little catch phrases about how it’s just the way of life in America, and we give our ‘thoughts and prayers,’ and we move on–most of us–surviving on the good thought that, “Yeah, but hopefully it doesn’t happen to me.”
This time it feels different somehow. I don’t know how to describe that or why it feels that way to me. It’s easy to see how it’s different from the Middle East: this threat is homegrown and comes from my fellow citizens. It’s an increasingly more dangerous threat because of the state of political rhetoric, our president’s in particular as he makes references that read like veiled threats of civil war. Or the armed militias that are gearing up for just that. Maybe that makes it feel more like a paradigmatic moment, as though there is a clear before and after the time that came where this constant threat surrounded us.
Whatever it is, I’m writing this today, because I want to tell you, my friends if I have any still, what I’d like you to do in the event of my violent death.
It’s not a will-and-testament. I’d gift you all free tacos and wings at my favorite restaurant next door if I could. Or kitty-kisses from my awesome cat, Freya, who coincidentally is sitting on my neck as I write this looking on, which sounds way more Dr. Evil-ish than it should.
And I don’t mean in writing this to presume that my life is worth a call-to-action anymore than anyone else’s which is why on some level, this isn’t about me, because my wish is that you’d take action for any friend of yours who meets an awful end at the hands of another whose platform is hate. Putting our own lives at risk for those who lose theirs is as clear-cut as love can be for our friends.
All that said, if I have your attention–and I hope it’s not ’cause I’m dead–let me take a moment to tell you exactly what you should do in the event of my death, provided you’re my friend and love me:
Yes, I want you to fight. I want you anger and your aggression channeled toward the perpetrators, channeled toward those who support the perpetrators. I want you to target them with everything you’ve got, every fiber of your being met in the face not just of those who have been supporters of hate but especially those who have been silent, and even worse, those who have cried “both sides” when hate of intolerance will never be the same thing as hate-filled intolerance.
Still, when I talk about “fighting,” I recognize that different people will need to fight in different ways. I’m not calling for you to become violent in the wake of my death, but I won’t dismiss that possibility either. You do you, recognizing the consequences for your actions–whatever they may be. My preference for this world and the way to respond to its ills is non-violent revolution in the spirit of MLK, of Ghandi, of Jesus: voice your anger, show your disloyalty in the streets, break unjust laws without ever raising a fist. If that doesn’t work, amass general boycotts that cripple Wall Street and Main Street. Be clear about your demands. Keep them realistic, simple, pointed. Find a leader to be the voice of your movement and not this silly “we’re all the voice together” mumbo-jumbo. You need someone (preferably not another white dude and preferably someone who will know how and when to step aside so other voices can be heard but still calls the shots at the end of the day) to make strategic plans and to voice them to the crowd, and if that person takes up too much space, just know you’ll not get it done by committee. You don’t have time to. Argue with one another but don’t splinter. Write and demand legislation or political action. Look for opportunities the media will pay attention to and strike at those for effective communication. Never give up, no matter how many more of your friends they take.
Now there might be a handful of you out there, let’s admit, who have been gifted with the amazing ability to walk into a Klan meeting and befriend everyone there and change their hearts and minds one-by-one, or to at least report them all to the FBI. There’s probably salvation in that approach. If that’s your gift, go for it. Most of us aren’t like that, and we don’t have time to befriend the people who are killing us.
And, while I won’t recommend violence directly, know this and carry it into everything you do: there comes a time, as MLK pointed out, that “violence is the language of the unheard,” and if marches fail, and your message falls on deaf ears, you get to consider another language, as a more drastic measure can look necessary. Indeed, MLK was nothing without Malcolm: the two simultaneously played on opposite ends of a spectrum by complementing one another in the drama of their day, and by the end, both came to see the value of the other. Fragile, fearing whites were made to move and work with Martin because their alternative was Malcolm. Fear was their motivator. MLK would’ve been laughed off otherwise.
Even Ghandi understood this well: though he called for non-violent action, he wanted nothing less than “soldiers” for the cause–people who were courageous enough to die for their convictions not by being mowed down by the powerful but by being unafraid in their face, taunting them with what they cannot control–hope. And those who are Christians know this story well: Even Jesus arms his followers with swords he tells them not to use. The threat of violence is the key to the non-violent agenda. A mass of people who for the moment seem calm but there’s uncertainty that gives the movement its power.
That’s a fight.
Or, to put another way, pacifism is not passive-ism, as Walter Wink liked to point out. Non-violent action is aggressive, in-your-face, and do not be afraid of using the tools of shame, of snark and sarcasm in the face of power, to achieve your end. Expose why the powers and principalities should be ashamed of themselves, and harp on that. Again and again. Non-violence doesn’t mean laying down and taking it. It isn’t nice. Non-violence is, simply, violence without violence.
And while I hope you choose non-violence in your approach to avenging my death, do not, do not be one of those people who points at the violent ones who share your hopes of a just world and say, “They’re just making it worse for everyone.” Belittling those with the same goals but different means doesn’t help anyone. Recognize that, instead, they who resorted to violence against the powerful did so solely because they lost all the other languages they had left to deal with it. That’s the point the powerful drove them to in their desperation; don’t judge that. Do, however, remind the powers and the principalities that you, too, could turn to violence, but for now, you’re just tryin’ to get on with them as peaceably as you can, as long as you can.
Do not pretend like you’re not an American, not born of a country that was literally borne in blood. Do not pretend like the values of freedom and democracy were won over with non-violence alone. Our forefathers, as awful as they were in other ways, are often celebrated because they decided they wanted to kill their oppressors over taxes. Keep in mind the British weren’t caging our children or using private prisons to enslave entire races or selling our country to the highest bidder. Our oppressors, arguably, do much worse today, so don’t get lost in moralistic arguments over violence always being wrong unless you’re willing to toss out the American identity with the bathwater. Even if you hold that violence is wrong, don’t get cocky and go all holier-than-thou. This is what our culture delivered us; it is who we are. Work with it and through it even if you disagree with it.
All that said, I don’t intend to die anytime particularly soon, or in any sort of violent way, and if I go out in a car wreck, there ain’t no need in picketing down at the local Honda dealership. I don’t have a death wish, I don’t think. And I will join those marches, fight that fight while I can for those of you facing the same ends, should it come to that.
But if my day comes, and even only one of you decides to take to the metaphorical and actual battlefield, I’ll at least go to my grave a little glad that I laid out what my hopes were for the next steps.
Keep your heads high, your eyes low, saunter in your walk, and don’t look back. We’ll get to the Kingdom, and justice will be ours.