AFSC (American Friends Service Committee)

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Drawing for justice: Mohammad Sabaaneh on Palestine, art, and hope

Thu, 2017-05-25 16:24
Building peace Ending discrimination

Mohammad Sabaaneh is a Palestinian cartoonist, whose book “White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine” was recently published by Just World Books. Mohammad was born in Kuwait in 1979 and has been working as a cartoonist since 2002. His work has been published in many Arabic-language newspapers. He has had solo and group exhibitions in Washington, D.C., Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Norway, Holland, Switzerland, Qatar, and Syria. He stopped by our office in Philadelphia on the last leg of his US tour to promote his book. His images are timely as the Palestinian prisoners' who are on hunger strike enter their 40th day on strike. You can purchase Mohammad's book here. - Lucy

Lucy Duncan (Lucy): Tell me about your time in solitary confinement, the impact of that experience and the idea for this book?

Mohammad Sabaaneh (Mohammad): When I was arrested by the Israeli soldiers in 2013, they locked me in a small cell in one of the detention centers in Israel, they locked me in for 3 weeks alone in a cell with rough walls, dim light, the door was so heavy you couldn’t hear what’s happening outside. They wanted to isolate me, it was a kind of torture. They did that so that I as a Palestinian prisoner would confess to anything they asked of me.

That’s why I feel that I should keep my mind working to think about anything besides the prison, because if you keep thinking about the prison and the jail and what’s happening to you, it will be very hard for the prisoner, and the time will pass slowly. I think I am a journalist and an artist and that I will talk about all these details when I am released from the prison. I would talk about the interrogations, the solitary confinement, the family visit and all the things the Palestinian prisoner faces inside the prison. I started to think I would do an exhibition outside when I finished my time inside to talk about the Palestinian prisoner.

It worked. I spent a lot of time just thinking about the art and used the pen and paper I brought with me.  The time passed relatively well with me in isolation. When they moved me to the regular prison that’s where you can find more materials, I did more sketches about the political situation outside as well. If I spent two or three months without work, it would be hard to work afterwards.

When I was released, I did my exhibition. I moved my exhibition to Spain, to Jordan, to other cities. Then, because I traveled around the world, I thought I should do something else with my art work. I thought people liked my art work because I am Palestinian and was talking about Palestine and not because the art was so strong.  I thought I should care more about the art value. I wanted to improve my sketches and create a new style for my cartoons. I decided to use traditional tools with a new style.

In 2015 I met one of my friends who is a cartoonist for Politico, Kevin Kallaugher, and I showed him my work and he advised me to print them in a book and to do it internationally, not just in Palestine and the Arab world, because the people around the world should know what’s happening in Palestine.  We should convey our suffering to people around the world. That’s why I started doing my art work about everything, not just the prison: about the wall, about what’s happening in Gaza, about checkpoints, the discrimination and racism, I included all of it in my book.

Lucy: I looked through all of the drawings. They are so evocative of the feeling of being in Palestine, obviously I’m not living under occupation, but even visiting you get a sense of this atmosphere. The cartoons are all very powerful.

Last night you talked about Guernica, will you talk about that a bit?

Mohammad: I visited Spain and went to see the Guernica, I felt there is a great value to this art work, how this artist did the abstraction of the figures, how he used color and the environment. I thought my first art work was influenced by Guernica, when my friends saw this art work they told me that it looked like The Guernica, I felt so too. I did Guernica with Palestinian features, details. It was a cartoon, an idea for the cartoon. Then I think I found something very important. One of my friends Joe Sacco and some of the artists from the States said this was the first time they saw a comic artist influenced so much by a traditional artist, most cartoonists are influenced by other cartoonists. To use another kind of art and drop it in your art work as a cartoon it’s something new, I hope it’s something new.

Lucy: Talk about the prisoner hunger strike and how you see its power, its impact, its promise.

Mohammad: The hunger strike is something very hard. When I was in the prison, a prisoner told me they would announce for one day a hunger strike, I thought it is something hard, not easy. When they started, I remembered this prisoner who wanted to do it for just one day and I was scared, because it’s something not easy. This is the same message I conveyed in my book. We should deal with this hunger strike by addressing human needs, the prisoners are facing death to enhance their conditions inside the prison, I think no one cares what is happening inside the prison except for the family of the prisoners and some activists around the world. That’s why on all my tours I ask the people to raise their solidarity with the Palestinian prisoner. The hunger strike is something hard, it’s not new in Palestinian resistance. This hunger strike is the longest hunger strike in the Israeli prison, 37 days (40 days as of today). They moved 600 Palestinian prisoners to what looks like a prison hospital, but it’s not a hospital, just another part of the prison. This is why we should support the striking prisoners. Now Trump is in our region, I think he should do something to support the prisoners, to end the hunger strike. But I don’t think he will.

Lucy: You talk about “showing Palestinians in a realistic light, not quite as ordinary people, but not as legendary heroes either.” How does  this show up in your work?

Mohammad: I used to draw Palestinian prisoner as a hero, as superman before I was in the prison. When I was in the prison, I missed my family, I missed my work, I wanted to go back to my normal life, I don’t need anyone to deal with me as a hero. I am a human being, I want to go back to my work and my family, my life. That’s why when I started to draw cartoons of the prisoner I drew the human aspect of the prisoner more than to talk about them like heroes. When I started my art work, I wanted to convey the human life in Palestine and what’s happening for the Palestinian.

I would see posters about Palestinians when I was in Kuwait and Jordan, so I heard songs about the Palestinian fighters portraying them as heroes. But we as a people, if we want to support them, we should look at them as human beings that have needs. Even the Palestinian prisoner that are fighters, resisters are simple human beings. These people, they are human beings. They miss their family; they want to fill human needs. They are on the hunger strike to enhance their human conditions. They want to see their family, they want to enhance the healthcare inside the prison.

These things confirm my perspective that we should talk about Palestinian prisoners as human beings. Our society in Palestine, they want to keep the image of us as heroes, as a superman, because heroes don’t need any help, any support. The human being needs our help. When you talk about the prisoners, they are human beings and need others to resist. If they are heroes and super human, then we drop our responsibility to resist, to support. I don’t just want to enhance their conditions inside the prison for the prisoners, they deserve their freedom.

Lucy: You say in the introduction, “I tried to expand my lens to spot the humanity of the occupier, but this effort proved difficult to sustain when an Israeli soldier placed handcuffs around my wrists, or dragged me to an interrogation room, or prevented me from moving from one part of my homeland to the other. With each violation, the occupier denied my humanity to justify his violence to me. Consequently, I could not make the image of the occupier esthetically pleasing, even when I acknowledge that in the process of exerting his political will, the occupier is also occupied.” Can you speak more about this?

Mohammad: When I was in prison, sometime I used to ask the interrogators some personal questions: Are you married, where do you live? Sometimes he would answer general answers and sometimes he would forget that he was an interrogator and start to talk about himself. I asked him these questions, because I wanted to take that risk and we spent lots of hours talking to each other. He did not know that I feel that he is a human being. But he is the oppressor, he does all this oppression to me and I’m here the prisoner.

I used to cross the check point in the winter during the rain and the Israeli soldiers would stop all the Palestinians for two or three hours just to cross one checkpoint and when I went to cross I looked to him and he’s tired also, he wants to go home. The weather is so cold. I think it is difficult to just talk about him as a human being. He is a human being, but he is lifting his oppression against me, not changing the situation. As a Palestinian, as any oppressed people, they fight to change this situation and to be equal with the oppressor, they want to be like a human being. I think they don’t deal with the Palestinian as a human being, they don’t look at us as human beings.

Now with the wall, the next generation of Israeli people will not recognize who is the Palestinian. They will draw a new image of us for their new generation with no direct connection, they will have lost a lot because they will build this image that on the other side of this wall, you will not find human beings. They will raise scared generations, scared of Palestinians. They surrounded themselves with the wall, not just the Palestinians. Always his oppression surrounds my idea of the Israeli because he wants to keep this situation.

Lucy: And the first wall is the one we build around our hearts, positioned as oppressors, that’s the first one, and so there’s this rejection of one’s own humanity. I think you always have a choice about colluding with oppression. There is a cost to being an oppressor, the occupation of one’s heart that makes it possible to enact such violence.

What possibilities do you see for Palestinian freedom?

Mohammad: That’s why I’m doing my cartoons, because I believe an end to the occupation will come. My friend wrote messages from Palestinian refugees to Syrian refugees. He advised the Syrian refugees not to enhance their conditions in the camps, don’t build up, don’t go to school. It is temporary. I believe the occupation is temporary.  As I’m sure that the prisoners will get what they are asking for,  I believe that all the Palestinians will travel back to their homeland. You will find it in my art work, this hope.

Lucy: To me there is no alternative, there must be an inevitable justice. What are the things that are signs for you living in Palestine of the cracks in the separation wall, of emerging shifting to end the occupation?

Mohammad: You can feel it when you see any uprising, demonstrations or any struggles. Always the Israelis say that the next generation of Palestine will not be involved or won’t care. They want to disconnect our next generation with our national thoughts and principles. In this hunger strike, the young generation are participating, they are facing the Israeli soldier with all the soldiers’ weapons and equipment and the young people stand in front of the soldier and make this confrontation. This is the role to keep our narrative strong and to give it to the next generation, then to convey to people around the world.

Many people are doing a lot in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoner. It’s not enough, but you can find it now. Many people are standing with Palestine, this is not just the result of my work, the work of all the Palestinians, the activists here in the states, the people who believe in our dignity, in our human rights. People in Palestine keep our issues and our dignity to remind the rest of the world of our struggle. Without hope, we will stop. We have hope and will keep working in all fields of resistance, this is our way to get our freedom.

Lucy: After the election of the new President of the United States, I had this kind of clarity: there is no time to not stand in the way, there is no time to postpone joy or sorrow, and there’s no time to waste in building the alternative world we hope to see.

Mohammad: We are not just going to ask for what we can get, but for what we really want. That’s real justice. This is the main idea, not just what we can get, but let’s fight for what we really want, what we really need. We can get our hopes and our dreams.  You should believe you are strong to be strong, that’s what I think. 

Love in action: A brief history of AFSC’s work in the past 100 years

Thu, 2017-05-18 10:22

This piece was written collaboratively by Willie Colon, Tony Heriza, Tonya Histand, and me with many other contributors. Nathaniel Doubleday curated the images shared here. This piece was shared on the opening day of the Centennial summit on April 20th, 2017. Take a look at the Centennial video “Love in Action” as well.  – Lucy

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, a military draft was immediately introduced. Prison would be the new home for those who refused to fight. Young pacifists -- Quakers and others -- needed a way to serve their country nonviolently. Out of this need, the American Friends Service Committee was born. 

During WWI, Service Committee volunteers drove ambulances in combat zones and rebuilt homes and roads. After the war, as hunger and malnutrition swept through Europe, AFSC began feeding millions of children-- in Austria, Germany and Poland -- with U.S. government funds arranged by Herbert Hoover. By the 1920s, a temporary Quaker “response” had become an enduring and highly regarded relief organization.

Back home, one of the earliest domestic issues AFSC addressed was racism. The “Interracial Section” was created in 1925 to challenge racial prejudice and violence in the United States. African American staffer Crystal Bird travelled across the country and spoke with thousands of white Americans about race and racism. Her efforts were followed by decades of work to combat lynching, expand employment and housing opportunities, and integrate public schools.

AFSC looked at its own practices, too, integrating work camps and Peace Caravans in the 1930s to help young people overcome the rigid segregation of the wider society.

The Great Depression brought a new focus on economic justice. A slump in the demand for coal left thousands of Appalachian miners unemployed, hungry and desperate. AFSC provided relief and supported economic alternatives, such as training in local crafts like furniture making – and the development of a model community where residents participated in a shared economy.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, AFSC joined British Quakers in feeding displaced women and children on both sides of the conflict. After Franco’s victory, the relief moved to the south of France, where Spanish refugees were soon joined by many others fleeing the Nazis. AFSC staff worked to assist people in these refugee camps and to secretly transport children to safety. Numerous “hostels” were created -- across Europe, in the U.S., and in Cuba -- to provide safe haven for tens of thousands of Jews.

In 1947, AFSC and the British Friends Service Council accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Quakers everywhere for their work worldwide to heal rifts and oppose war. According to the Nobel committee, “The end of World War II brought a burst of AFSC effort, with Quakers engaged in relief and reconstruction in many of the countries of Europe, as well as in India, China, and Japan.”

Henry Cadbury, who accepted the prize on behalf of AFSC, didn’t have a long-tailed coat. Luckily, AFSC was collecting used formal wear for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra at the time and a suitable coat was found among the donations. Henry borrowed it and wore it to the ceremonies in Oslo.

Following the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools, AFSCs Southern Program helped Black families enroll their children in formerly white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, where the school board closed their schools rather than integrate, we helped dozens of Black high school students find placement in northern homes and schools so they could continue their education.

From 1965-70, AFSC helped build the antiwar coalitions that challenged U.S policy in Vietnam. Bridging the divide between liberal faith groups and more radical antiwar resisters, we argued for a broad peace movement that included a wide range of groups. At the same time, we offered draft counseling to thousands of young men in the U.S. and provided medical aid and assistance to civilians on all sides of the conflict in Vietnam.

But opposing and developing strategies to address conventional war was only one strand of the search of peace. Since Hiroshima, AFSC has been engaged in efforts to halt nuclear weapons testing, the acceleration of the arms race, and the spread of nuclear technology.

We co-founded SANE (the Committee for SANE Nuclear Policy) and during the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 80s, AFSC played a key role in teaching nonviolent resistance to the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire and to the Abalone Alliance in California. These movements brought the nuclear power industry to a near standstill.

The issues AFSC addressed continued to expand, and in 1975 the Service Committee’s institutional response to Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual concerns began when four staff and committee people sent out an open letter in which they acknowledged their homosexuality or bisexuality. They invited others to join them and over 200 people signed a “statement of support and solidarity.” 

Later Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans initiatives in Philadelphia, Seattle and Hawai’i paved the way for AFSC’s Bridges Project, the first national information clearinghouse for and about LGBTQ youth. From the beginning, AFSC brought a unique intersectional approach to queer issues, highlighting how expressions of discrimination and oppression overlap in our society and amplifying the least heard LGBTQ voices: those of youth, people of color, the poor, the incarcerated, and the disabled.

AFSC also was an early leader in the long struggle to end apartheid. Our work included sending staffer Bill Sutherland to Africa to connect with liberation movements to help inform U.S. work on Southern Africa. Through Bill’s work, AFSC focused on how the U.S. government and businesses were supporting South Africa, and called for sanctions and divestment to force an end to apartheid. As the anti-apartheid movement grew, our Atlanta office led a successful nationwide boycott of the Coca-Cola Company. Ultimately, public opinion shifted and the divestment campaign contributed significantly to the fall of apartheid.

In the same period, AFSC staff member Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga used quiet diplomacy and all his program funds to build the religious coalition, COEIPA, into a powerful force that helped end the Angolan Civil War.

While most of our work is unheralded and behind-the-scenes, we have had moments in the limelight. In 1986, we walked the red carpet in Los Angeles. The Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject that year was awarded to “Witness to War,” a film produced by AFSC. The film told the story of Dr. Charlie Clements, who, after being discharged from the U.S. Air Force for reasons of conscience, went on to work as a physician amid El Salvador’s civil war.

In the late 1990s, AFSC began to support local peace-building efforts in Colombia. We worked with “peace communities” on the Pacific Coast, primarily Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in southwest Putumayo that were resisting coercion by both the guerillas and the paramilitaries. We offered training in peaceful resistance and community building and provided material aid and human rights assistance to those who were displaced.

An ocean away, AFSC fed thousands of children and rebuilt destroyed homes and hospitals during the Korean War. We returned to Korea in the early 1980s with people to people exchanges with the DPRK (or North Korea). Then, during a famine in the late 1990s, AFSC responded with emergency relief. By 1998, we had established an ongoing agricultural assistance program with cooperative farms. As one of the few American organizations working continuously in North Korea for more than three decades, AFSC has made significant contributions to the country’s food security while creating opportunities for meaningful exchange.

For Quakers – and AFSC - justice has always been a central concern and inextricably linked to the search for long-term, sustainable peace. We’ve challenged police brutality, rallied faith groups to resist the death penalty, and exposed the evils of solitary confinement. Recently when 30,000 prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement at Pelican Bay Prison, AFSC’s Laura Magnani represented the prisoners in negotiations that led to a landmark legal settlement limiting the use of solitary confinement in California. Today, ending mass incarceration and for-profit prisons are at the center of our peace with justice agenda.

We are also committed to supporting a new generation of activists. AFSC’s Tyree Scott Freedom School in Seattle, and the follow up program YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism), provide young people with an antiracist framework and prepare them to take action for social change in their schools and communities. 

In one recent victory, years of intense pressure by young anti-racist organizers in Seattle resulted in a dramatic downsizing of a proposed youth jail, a pledge of $600,000 by city council to develop alternatives to juvenile detention, and a city council resolution calling for an eventual end to the detention of youth. The AFSC Freedom School model has recently been expanded to St. Louis, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh.

Our decades of experience influence our work today, as we accompany migrant and immigrant movements and build alliances with others who share our vision.

Today, hundreds of congregations across the U.S. are part of a new sanctuary movement to protect immigrants and refugees in our communities. In Colorado, Jeannette Vizguerra, a longtime immigrant and labor leader, has been challenging her deportation for eight years with AFSC support. She recently entered sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver after being denied a stay of her deportation.

In the face of growing harassment and hostility toward many groups, AFSC is also promoting a broader concept of “Sanctuary Everywhere,” encouraging active engagement in creating safe spaces for each other and challenging hateful speech and actions, wherever they occur.

We know that peace and safety are built on foundations of love and inclusion, not oppression and discrimination. As we partner with people across the country who are challenging fear and hate, we offer hope—hope that compassion will win out over fear, and that together we can create the open, welcoming communities we all deserve.

We are unshakable in our commitment to peace, justice, and equality. 

We will resist any attempt to sacrifice the rights of the marginalized.

We will question any efforts to add comfort to the privileged.

We will speak truth to power – as often as it takes to be heard. 

We will build bridges for dialogue and reconciliation.

And we will stand with groups fearing violence and persecution and support their movements to overcome injustice.

Building Peace with Justice: AFSC celebrates its 100th year

Wed, 2017-05-17 16:06

“I think this is a time when we can be extremely optimistic precisely because of the political chaos of our time; that we can organize and create the communities we want right now. We just do it without asking permission. We just go ahead and do it.” --Erica Chenoweth

From April 20 - 23, approximately 600 Quakers, past and current staff, past and present program participants and many others came together to celebrate AFSC’s hundredth year at our Waging Peace summit. It was a chance for those gathered to consider and reflect on AFSC’s legacy of work for peace and social change and how we can continue to work together for justice and transformed communities in these times.

The summit opened on a Thursday night with storytelling and song. We shared milestones in our struggles for peace and justice, including Peace Works stories from past and present AFSC staff and supporters, and enjoyed some powerful songs of joy and struggle by Tribe One.

Friday featured a full day academic symposium that showcased AFSC’s history with presentations by researchers, archival materials, and panel discussions connecting struggles across time and place.

The day ended with Erica Chenoweth’s powerful keynote (watch it below), followed by an evening gathering where alumni – staff, volunteers, and program participants – could reconnect with one another and meet AFSC’s incoming General Secretary Joyce Ajlouny.

Saturday opened with programmed worship by Quaker Palestinian Sa’ed Atshan. Aura Kanegis, director of AFSC’s Office for Public Policy and Advocacy, offered powerful songs to support Sa’ed’s message, which focused on “Sanctuaries from violence.”

AFSC staff from around the world then presented 20 workshops to help participants build their skills on topics such as ending Islamophobia, Quaker social change ministry, conscientious objection, economic activism, shifting narratives for social change, dismantling the carceral state, and more. Each of the workshop presenters shared five ways to help further the work. Take a look.

We concluded the summit with some words from AFSC’s new General Secretary, Joyce Ajlouny, a keynote by Nobel laureate Oscar Arias, and a powerful Centennial video called Love in Action.

In addition, the AFSC Corporation met on Friday and Saturday mornings, appointed new Board and Corporation members, heard reports on the finances of the organization and the work of Friends Relations, and considered the relationship between AFSC’s work and the witness of the Religious Society of Friends.

From Erica Chenoweth’s keynote:

“Thomas Kuhn has this book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” where he talks about how paradigm shifts like from the Copernican universe to the Galilean universe happened not just because Copernicus “failed,” but because Galileo brought out a new alternative that worked. We are in a space now where these problems of economic injustice, racial injustice, patriarchy and the lack of fair and functional political systems, we need alternatives to these things. The stuff we have been doing hasn’t been working; that’s why we are where we are. And we can’t have the kind of sustained nonviolent future until we find and express alternatives that actually meet the critiques that have been put forward in a way that suits as many people as possible.”

AFSC’s work rises from the strategic use of nonviolence – whether by resisting deportations through congregational sanctuary in Denver, struggling against private prisons in Arizona, supporting trauma healing in Burundi, or engaging in economic activism for a just peace in Palestine.  The present time offers us plentiful opportunity for creating the nonviolent alternatives Erica Chenoweth was talking about. It’s up to each of us to bring our skills and energy to the next era of work and witness to create a transformed future.

Profiting from war: Israel’s arms sales to the Sudan and around the world

Thu, 2017-05-11 15:33
Building peace

Last week 53 Israeli Human Rights activists submitted a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court demanding a criminal investigation against Israeli arms dealers who sold arms to the Mathiang Anyoor militia in South Sudan. This sale, like all legal sales of arms from Israel, was authorized by the Israeli ministry of defense. The Israeli assault rifles sold to South Sudan were used by Mathiang Anyoor to kill dozens of people, mostly from the Nuer tribe, in December 2013 in what became the beginning of the bloody civil war in the country.

A few months earlier, in 2013, by-passing the governmental channels, the head of the South Sudanese national security service brokered an arms deal between Israeli manufacturers and the South Sudanese president, for Galil ACE assault rifles to be used by the Mathiang Anyoor militia – a governmental-run militia, that literally trained in the private farm of the president. This sale was done after the EU already declared an arms embargo on the country, and the US stopped selling arms there. It seemed that Israeli officials in the ministry of defense and foreign affairs didn’t agree with the clear statements of their European and American counter-parts and had no issue with authorizing this sale. More arms sales, more funds fueling Israel’s arms industry, more taxes for the government, and more political support from another young African country.

The guns are already there, have already taken lives, and will continue to do so – that is not something that 53 Israeli activists 2,600 miles away can change. But this is ongoing. Just two years ago a UN report revealed Israeli surveillance software was used by the South Sudanese government to fund, jail and at times kill local dissidents. And this is not just in South Sudan, but also true just across the border where Israeli surveillance equipment was reportedly used by the Ugandan government to spy on and arrest LGBTQ activists. It isn’t restricted to Africa either. Israeli arms can be seen used by oppressive regimes from Burma and the Philippines to Colombia. Israeli training of police forces is felt in St. Louis, as well as in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro.

Military export and training has become one of Israel’s main incomes, as well as diplomatic tools, and it is that constantly growing interest and dependency Israel is developing on exporting systems of oppression that these activists are trying to change. And to make that change there is a need for accountability. Accountability for the people executing and partaking in atrocities around the world, but also accountability for those making a profit out of them, and even those pushing papers behind the scenes that make all of this possible.

On June 6th-8th, Israel will hold its biggest arms fair – ISDEF – and will host representatives from over 90 counties buying and selling arms that will fuel conflicts around the globe. AFSC together with our partners at the Coalition of Women for Peace are organizing a shadow conference to this, aiming to show Israeli society what these weapons sold in the exhibit actually do around the world, and at home when they are used on Palestinians.

White People aren't stupid: Note to my white self

Fri, 2017-05-05 13:52
Ending discrimination

White people are not stupid.

I know you’ve been frustrated lately. You’ve encountered white people who can’t seem to understand the difference between racial prejudice and racism. You’ve had several white people call you racist for challenging their racism, as if that were possible. You spent a whole day going back and forth with a white woman who insisted she had been the victim of racism from people of color. Don’t be confused. These people are not stupid.

Stupidity is a lack of intelligence. Systemic racism is not the product of stupid people. The white businessmen who created slavery in America were cunning, smart. The white politicians who justified slavery did so intentionally. Voter suppression, redlining, segregation, the war on drugs and anti-immigrant policies are all creations of intelligent white people. Most white people are not stupid. They are ignorant.

Ignorance is the decision to ignore certain facts and realities. Slave traders and slave owners had to ignore the humanity of people of color in order to justify slavery. White politicians had to ignore injustices and inequities in order to justify inhumane laws. Those who argue with you about systemic racism will not be swayed by your facts, statistics and studies. It is not that they are too stupid to understand them. They have intentionally chosen to ignore them.

For someone who explains systemic racism to others, you still don’t seem to fully appreciate its origins. Systemic racism is a cleverly constructed system to perpetuate and justify the mistreatment and abuse of people of color. It took hundreds of years to create. The arguments and rationalizations you’re encountering are not the utterances of stupid people. They are the carefully crafted, time tested and well-honed defenses of racism.

This is so important for you to understand. You have been under the false impression that you can quickly and easily persuade ignorant white people of the reality of systemic racism and white privilege. They aren’t stupid. They know what you’re trying to do. They aren’t impressed by your arguments. They couldn't care less about your facts. It is these arguments and facts they have chosen to ignore.

I know you don’t want to accept this, but education alone will not end systemic racism. If the defenders of systemic racism were stupid, it would have collapsed long ago. Thinking of and labeling racist white people as unintelligent is a big mistake. In so doing, you seriously underestimate their capability to sustain the system. When they confuse the meaning of racism, they aren’t being stupid. 

So you need to stop arguing with them. You know within a few minutes whether someone is stupid, ignorant or uninformed. If they are stupid, they can’t understand the complexities of systemic racism. If they are ignorant, they have decided to ignore them. The only conversations worth having are with those who express a lack of understanding and a real curiosity about racism. Since you were once such a person, be patient with those people.

The stupid and the ignorant require a different approach. As with any societal behavior, systemic racism will only end when the costs outweigh the benefits. One of those costs must be shame. The decrease in smoking in America involved changing laws and educating people about its dangers, but its decline was primarily driven by a shift in public opinion. When smoking began to be seen as a nasty habit, people began to abandon it.

This is equally true in confronting systemic racism. The facts about systemic racism are no more disputable than those around the ills of smoking. The problem is not with the facts, but with the unwillingness of many white people to abandon this nasty habit. Until white people become ashamed of systemic racism, societal change will not come.

So stop debating the reality of racism with the ignorant.

Instead, challenge the cruelty behind their rhetoric. When white people justify police brutality, ask how they can be so heartless when fathers and sons are murdered. When they support anti-immigrant or refugee laws, ask how they can be so cruel when families are torn apart or left in squalor. When they defend laws and policies that discriminate, ask how they can be so unfair. When they express racist sentiments, ask how they can be so ugly.

When systemic racism is seen as heartless, cruel, unfair and ugly by our society, most white people will abandon its defense.

After all, they aren’t stupid.

This piece was oriignally published at James' blog, Note to my White Self.

Now is not the time to despair

Fri, 2017-04-14 16:07
Building peace

It would be easy to become skeptical about the viability and efficacy of nonviolent resistance in the age of Trump. But this would be to ignore a number of incredibly hopeful trends.

The fact is that armed insurrection is becoming less and less common—and less and less effective. The fact is that more people around the world are turning to nonviolent resistance than at any time in recorded human history. We are witness to ongoing people power movements in Hungary, Turkey, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and the United States. In the past year, people power has led to the peaceful impeachment of presidents in South Korea and Brazil. In the past two years, we’ve seen people power lead to the removal of corrupt governments in Haiti, Romania, and Guatemala. Whether we agree with their causes or not, ordinary civilians are increasingly turning to civil resistance—not armed struggle—as a way to pursue their demands.

The fact is that we are better equipped than in any time in recorded history to summon the wisdom and the tools of nonviolent resistance for the peaceful transformation of our society. At our fingertips, we have biographies and autobiographies, children’s books, novels, documentaries, films, how-to-guides, online courses, and in-person trainings. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Rev. James Lawson, one of my mentors and personal heroes. He explained to me that when he was involved in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s, the only available text from which to derive a strategy was Gandhi’s autobiography. Rev. Lawson said he was impressed with the wealth of materials and research now available to contemporary organizers and activists, since they had the benefit of learning from the documented histories of millions of people who have engaged in civil resistance over the past century.

Speaking of research, never before have academics and researchers been so committed to the systematic study of nonviolent resistance. At the last International Studies Association Annual Meeting, which was held in Baltimore in February, there were dozens of academic papers presented with the aim of better understanding how, why, and to what effect ordinary people can use civil resistance to effect change in their scenes. This is a significant departure from my first ISA in 2004, where research on the topics of terrorism, political violence, and counterinsurgency dominated the program. And since November, I have witnessed a truly inspiring upsurge in commitment and enthusiasm among my fellow academics and intellectuals to do work that matters in the real world and to engage with their communities with attitudes of humility and service.

It is no accident that the United States is experiencing an explosion in community groups and coalitions, who are coming together in an unprecedented level of civic engagement to resist abusive, indiscriminate, and hateful policies. People living in the United States are using nonviolent resistance at unprecedented rates. Some of the stories of the struggle are downright inspiring. On January 21st, over 4.1 million people actively participated in the Women’s March. This included people in every state in the U.S., about fifty women in a retirement community in Encinitas, California, and over four hundred women who were limited in their mobility and participated online. Since January 21st, people in the U.S. have participated in thousands of nonviolent protests, demonstrations, and strikes, which we’ve been tallying at the Crowd Counting Consortium. These include actions like a “kindness march” organized by children in Boulder, Colorado; the nationwide Day Without An Immigrant strikes; protests to support funding to Planned Parenthood; the nationwide Day Without a Woman strikes; and even a daily protest by a man who stands alone every day in Oak Creek, Michigan.

I’m sure this man protests every day because he knows very well that he is not alone. He stands with millions of people around the world who remain committed to creating a more empathetic, humane, and just humanity; who remain committed to addressing with courage and creativity the problems of economic, racial, gender, and ethnic inequality; who remain committed to halting the destruction of our planet; who understand that to be progressive means that, in fact, we can and must progress.

In spite of what seems to be happening within the halls of power, we live in a time where civil society is rising up to reclaim the power to determine a more compassionate, fair, and sustainable future. History shows us that these are the forces that set the course for true change in the world. Now is not the time to despair. It is the time to organize and prepare.