Disrupters, witnesses, and bridge-builders: three different tactics in the struggle for justice

Disrupters, witnesses, and bridge-builders: three different tactics in the struggle for justice August 18, 2015
Photo by Alex Garland
Black Lives Matter protesters disrupt Bernie Sanders’ speech in Seattle, Sat 8/8/15 (Photo by Alex Garland)

In case you missed it, there’s been a huge debate about the Black Lives Matter protest the other week that disrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ speech in Seattle. I’ve had a lot of push-back from Facebook friends for my support of the BLM protesters. So I thought I would share some of what I learned from a very helpful workshop at Gather By The River, the progressive, LGBT-affirming United Methodist gathering I attended in San Antonio a week ago. Our workshop was specific to the struggle for LGBT inclusion with the United Methodist Church, but its concepts can be appliedintersectionally to every struggle against oppression. In the workshop, we identified three very different but equally legitimate roles that people can play in the fight for justice: disrupters, witnesses, and bridge-builders. Each of these roles is essential, but too often we attack other people for having different roles than we do.

Being a witness is the most straightforward role because it means simply to tell your story. People who don’t have an ideological investment in opposing you can be persuaded to support you on the basis of hearing personal stories. Many times, I have shared the story of how I discovered the gospel I preach today at an LGBT United Methodist church I attended in Toledo, Ohio. I have also shared the story of how my  former rock band’s drummer was a black man who got arrested for walking on the sidewalk while black and I persuaded the magistrate to release him into my custody since I was a white man wearing a suit.

My story as an ally is much less powerful and useful to the movement than the stories of marginalized people themselves. So part of what I need to do is step back and make space for the stories of marginalized people instead of needing for my story to be the most important one. Sharing stories is powerful both for people who listen and for the people who are given a voice. But not everybody is willing to listen to stories that contradict ideologies they are invested in.

A disrupter‘s role is to create pressure when a group of people are dragging their heels in having uncomfortable conversations and taking a public stand for justice. Disrupters stop business as usual from occurring until their issue is addressed. They barricade doors shut. They block traffic. They shout down speakers. They do sit-ins. You can be disruptive and nonviolent at the same time, but some people think that any disruption at all is “violent.” Disrupters seem to give the dedicated opposition all sorts of ammunition for undermining the credibility of the movement, which makes moderates apoplectic.

The purpose of disruption is to make moderates uncomfortable enough that they seek to negotiate a solution. This is very important to understand. People who are being strategically disruptive are not trying to be rhetorically persuasive with their tactics! They are trying to make the status quo unacceptable to the moderates who wouldn’t mind having “friendly” discussions forever without changing anything. For example, no matter how empathetic white progressives want to be,  they simply aren’t going to have the same sense of urgency about ending police violence against black people as black people themselves. Disruption changes the cost/benefit analysis to instill more of a sense of urgency.

Bridge-builders are people who are socially positioned to have safe and loving conversations with people who are committed to the “other side” of whatever issue. They’re willing to be patient and gentle even when they encounter ideas that would be highly offensive to others within their social movement. They’re not going to cry out “Racist!” or “Homophobe!” even when the person they’re talking to says something that would be super-hurtful in a direct conversation with a marginalized person. Bridge-builders are the ones who reach the dedicated opposition directly. They have to be very cautious about how they position themselves publicly because their primary task is to build trust and good will. While the movement as a whole should not center itself around a concern with the feelings of privileged people, bridge-builders care and shouldn’t be judged for caring because bridge-builders are evangelists.

There may be other legitimate roles that fall outside of these three categories. The problems arise when people either misappropriate a role or misjudge other people for having a different role. For example, if a white suburban punk kid goes to a Black Lives Matter protest and endangers his fellow protesters by throwing rocks at police officers, he has betrayed the movement and needs to be disciplined. Marginalized people have the right to set the boundaries for acceptable tactics for any political action that is supposed to support them. Allies can decide what tactics we feel safe participating in, but we don’t get to tell marginalized people how they are allowed to stand up for themselves. So if it’s black youth who are throwing rocks at cops during a Black Lives Matter protest, that’s an issue for the black community to address internally and not for white progressives to bloviate about.

Bridge-builders need to respect disrupters and disrupters need to respect bridge-builders. It may be that we cannot support each other publicly, but we should avoid unnecessarily denigrating each other. Allies need to think very hard about how our privilege can be best deployed for the good of the movement in our particular contexts. Sometimes it’s appropriate for us to be confrontational and disruptive. Other times, we need to be pastoral and compassionate. One of the biggest problems I see with myself as an ally is the need to show off how radical I am instead of thinking strategically and pastorally about the people I know whose hearts could be changed if I were less of an asshole. It’s not about me. That’s the mantra that I have to tell myself every day.

Regardless of where we find ourselves in these different roles, we need to make sure that we do always comes from a place of love rather than contempt. The world that we live in has been constructed by contempt and cynicism. It’s delicious and highly addictive to ridicule the people who “don’t get it.” But it does nothing to build the movement. There’s certainly a role for satire and side-eye, but let’s not let our hearts be consumed by hatred and disdain for people who oppose us.

I saw a beautiful illustration of these three roles working together at the Gather At The River conference. The local United Methodist bishop came to address the gathering even though he had personally made some decisions that were very hurtful to the people there. He heard the testimony of a lesbian woman who had been betrayed by the church. Then when he got up to speak, a group of people knelt at the kneelers in front of him and heckled him with confrontational questions. The facilitators of the gathering were sensitive to the hurt of those who confronted the bishop, but they also commended the bishop for his courage and humility in addressing the gathering. There were people who applauded the bishop and thanked him warmly afterwards; there were others who shouted at him. It was very awkward and uncomfortable, and that awkwardness and discomfort was a necessary and holy thing.

If there’s one thing I hate more than anything, it’s confrontation. If you’ve only encountered me on the internet, you might not believe this, but I am a very polite, mild-mannered, excessively agreeable person in real life. I’ve met a lot of other internet “firebrands” who are the same way in person. Those of us who hate confrontation must not conflate our comfort with peace. Peace only happens when every evil has been named and made right. That’s what is recognized by the Hebrew word for peace, shalom. It’s not the absence of overt drama, but the perfect integratedness and belonging of all things. That’s the ultimate goal for those of us who are Christians, and we cannot settle for any farcical “peace” that falls short of it.

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