Calls for “unity,” forgiveness and “let’s all get along” may seem compassionate and wise, but are they? … with reflections on MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
This summer, my new young girlfriend was nearly killed by a Trump supporter in a white pickup truck. He careened around police barricades, his license plates duct taped so they could not be read. And he headed straight for her. A black activist, at a legal and peaceful protest — seventeen years old, still in high school, her hair usually bound up in pigtails at the top of her head. A gentle and sweet young woman, sometimes gripped with self-doubt, and yet, courageous, driven to heroic acts by her need to feel free, to feel safe, to be recognized, valued, and seen as simply, equal … as a human being.
I wake up in the morning these days and try not to get on Facebook. Sometimes, I succeed. Often, I fail. There is too much going — events that affect me, and my family, my girlfriend, my other black friends … where we might live in the near future, what my husband and I might pursue as our next lines of work or service, how we can support our kids to have hope for their futures in the midst of worsening climate and extinction crises.
So much depended (and still depends) on this presidency and its aftermath, this transition and what happens next — whether I will feel the need to continue to be a nonviolent activist (and whether that will even feel safe), whether the climate and ecological crises will be handled at all in this country, whether white supremacists and racists and homophobes across the nation get yet another green light to “lock and load” their verbal and physical assaults on BIPOC, gays, the transgendered and non-binary; another shot to dismiss and deny and rewrite the history and reality of huge portions of the US population — people who built this very nation.
And so, I go scrolling along … Of course, there is so much news and emotion in the midst of an election, especially one with the salient elements of: rising neo-fascism, white supremacy and a fossil fuel oligarchy on the one hand; then, establishment, neoliberal capitalists with a (totally essential) push from progressives and Democratic Socialists for universal health care, a living wage, a Green New Deal, and possibly a Universal Basic Income during this pandemic and possibly beyond.
And a black and Indian, female Vice President!
I have wonderful friends on the ground and on social media. They get it. We must defeat fascism. Obviously. Not only is this important for the United States, but for the entire world — that means women in the entire world, BIPOC and minorities in the entire world, and LGBTQ+ around the world, all of the vulnerable, all of the “others,” even the disabled.
We have now spent four years doing nearly everything we can to educate, inform, protest and protect and support others. Everything we could do to swing this election: calling, writing, texting, donating, marching, preparing to fight off a coup if need be. Everything we could do to counteract the onslaught of misinformation from Russia, the GOP, Fox, Limbaugh and Jones, as well as a virtual octopus of increasingly insane conspiracies online.
Watching the rise of Donald Trump, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, included him in a chapter of her book, “Fascism: A Warning.”
Watching the rise of Donald Trump, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, included him in a chapter of Fascism: A Warning. One of its central messages was about how fascists offer succor to one another, like a group of men about to rape a woman, egging each other on. The rise of Donald Trump gave hope, succor and validation to the misogynist Saudi Prince, to Kim Jong Un, to Bolsanaro, Duterte, Erdogan — all men who glory in their power over others, their ability to inspire fear and terror, in their unrelenting macho egos.
The terror that targeted people experienced under Trump first became clear to me when I joined the private Facebook group “Pantsuit Nation,” just before Trump’s win in 2016. I expected to find Clinton-related, celebratory pre-election chatter, but instead was reading reports from around the country of people suddenly feeling threatened and intimidated by their neighbors, even strangers, who were erupting in hateful outbursts and violence … as if some dark force had been unleashed across the land.
Now, I understand this has always been here. But it needed the inspiration of Donald Trump as front runner for the GOP to emerge in full regalia.
And then my own friends and family were threatened: My half-black cousin, called a “N***er” at her Michigan polling place by Trump supporters harassing voters on Election Day. She later lost her job because her racist employer felt suddenly empowered to share his thoughts and feelings with her.
My Indian friend’s family was verbally assaulted by a Trump supporter on an airplane. The entire group of them was afraid to respond because of newly inflamed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. (They are not actually Muslim, but Hindu … But, to a racist, who cares?)
My Indian friend also shared with me that her brown mother and a group of friends were screamed at on the sidewalk in downtown Palo Alto by white women after Trump’s election. Palo Alto is in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the heart of Silicon Valley, friends. Not the deep South, not even close.
Shortly before my black activist friend was nearly rammed by a pickup (and also in my hometown), a “Boogaloo Boi” shot two Homeland Security officers in Oakland, then returned to his home here in the hills to shoot and kill a county Sheriff. This was somehow later twisted and framed as a Black Lives Matter incident, including a doctored photograph.
And this nightmare list goes on and on and on. Four years of rising terror, attacks on democracy and good people, the ascendancy of horrible lies, and watching people I know, even friends, become entranced by absurd conspiracy theories, starting with legitimate gripes and real concerns, I think … but then ending, after many sordid twists and turns, with one conclusion: Donald Trump, even Vladimir Putin will save us!
The Democrats, they began to say, are pedophiles, Satanic ritual child abusers. This horrific lie was lifted from “Elders of Zion” anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda of Hitler and the Third Reich, in turn borrowed from Russian anti-semitic propaganda of the early 1900s.
Blind calls for “unity” from across social media and in conversations, are not compassionate. Indeed, they feel quite the opposite.
Now that this election has been won, friends and colleagues in my spiritual community and others are calling for love and unity, for us to put down the judgment and rancor of the past four years and “get along.”
A few examples from my social media feed (edited for anonymity, and from various posts):
“We need to find love and understanding with those on the other side … Let’s get back into our good feelings for one another … Let’s love those who disagree with us … Let’s promote tolerance, especially for those who see life differently than we do … Let’s be friends, and love each other, even if we voted for different people! … How can we let an election divide us?”
All this, along with multiple calls for us to “rise above” “politics,” to not — I assume — re-hash the evils and harm of the last four years. To stop feeling hurt, in pain, in fear, or angry, or gaslit (even now) by the Mad King and his minions.
What is politics? spiritual people ask. Awful, “of-the-world” stuff! Let’s ignore it! Politicians and elections can’t affect our well-being! Only our thoughts can!
Now, I do understand the basic impuse toward rapport and “unity” these statements are reaching for. I appreciate that impulse. There is truth in the fact that we cannot have the necessary deeper conversations about what has happened here in the US without some kind of true, human connection … and it is true that a true human connection is healing in and of itself, too.
Biden himself is calling for unity. And while I love his statements and feel they are actually very necessary from our new President; for me, as a spiritual teacher and spiritual student, a person of color, journalist, and finally, a woman, blind calls for “unity” across social media and in conversations, are not compassionate. Indeed, they feel the opposite. They feel like more gaslighting. As if what we have been experiencing is not, nor was ever, real.
Is tolerance, love, protection and equity trying to “unify” with racism and fear and hate? What is this call for, exactly? Who steps up first? Who has the obligation to unite?
I want to ask: What is unifying with what?
Is tolerance, love, protection and equity trying to “unify” with racism and fear and hate? What is this call for, exactly? Who steps up first? Who has the obligation to unite?
Are we saying that “both sides” have been “wrong” here?
Because: No. Both sides have not been wrong. One side has been; and very, very wrong. There have certainly been some transgressions on the “Left”(whatever that means), but nothing like the avalanche of lies and accusations against everyone from Democrats, “liberals,” and the “Radical Left,” to Mexicans, Muslims, “antifa,” the entire state of California, New York, journalists, immigrants, BLM, the media and women we have seen in the last four years, with increasing intimations of violence, from the President of the United States.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia are wrong, because seeing human beings as less than, as deserving to be hurt, denied rights, even killed … because of their skin color, their origin, their migrant status, their religion, their gender, or sexual orientation is wrong.
Very, very wrong.
All these forms of “othering” are a violation of our spiritual oneness. They are the result of an insecure and self-centered thought system and resulting actions so mired in pain and ego that hurting innocent humans, and destroying the planet we depend upon for life becomes somehow OK. They are innocent — yes, in a way, a result of conditioning — but they must go.
Now, perhaps, all this can be forgiven. I know there is ignorance, lack of education, lack of real contact with BIPOC and others. I know that racist and intolerant people are suffering inside. We need education. And we do need reconciliation, peace and even love between us, but this cannot happen when the hurt is still happening, or may likely happen again.
This cannot happen when so many people have not even acknowledged what has been happening for so many others of us over these last four years. Even when we called for you, and you did not show up to denounce this POTUS.
Only Jesus on the cross was able to do the kind of in-the-moment forgiveness, folks are calling for now (God bless his holy heart) … and frankly, if white people or white, male people, as “spiritual” as they may be are not the ones being hurt, nor who lived in fear for four years, and even centuries before that, their job now is not to “call for” victims of abuse to stop being judgmental, nor to stop feeling any way at all — to stop feeling hurt, nor angry, nor scared …
Their job is to work to ensure the abuse stops, by whatever means makes sense to them. Because white racism or male misogyny, or passivity in the face of all this, is not a problem of women or BIPOC or LGBTQ+. It is a white and/or male problem. That is where it originates. So, you could instead step up and point this out when white colleagues and friends are rushing their calls for “unity” and “good feelings” now.
Because, we are tired. We are all so tired. And we need your help.
In a way, only you can truly end this.
Both sides have not been wrong. One side has been; and very, very wrong.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, he had time to think. He ended up writing his long “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to pastors of white moderate churches in the South, who were calling on him to “cease and desist” his nonviolent marches and protests.
It was all too much chaos, and — as they still say today — too much “violence,” (all the violence was police against protestors), too much “change,” too soon, too fast! … Why couldn’t he be quieter, more “peaceful,” more calm and less judgmental?
These were the “spiritual” calls of a group of people not themselves living in terror of lynchings and beatings and rapes, of frivolous incarceration, of the KKK, of police and of the fundamental inequity and insult to the human spirit of segregation. I see this across the board in spiritual groups now too.
Why couldn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. be quieter, more “peaceful,” more calm and less judgmental?
Now, as in King’s day: How are the sensibilities of “calm” or even “spiritual” white people more important than a black person’s, an Asian person’s, a migrant’s, or a Muslim person’s life? And how is their opinion, untouched by a lived experience of racism, worth more?
King addressed this ongoing trauma in his letter. First, he described the situation in Birmingham at the time. While there were serious attempts to negotiate, dialogue and solutions were not to be found.
Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of them, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.
Unacceptable circumstances. Just as we have had under this Administration, and, of course, before that. But now thrust into the spotlight and encouraged from the very top in the last four years. Unacceptable.
I share these thoughts on Facebook, even research on the horrors of this administration. I do this so people who may have not have been paying attention (even just to the ex-President’s Tweets or speeches, which seem more than enough), so that even white people, even conservatives, might understand …
… and I am met with silence.
And, more calls for unity and to cease “judgment.” Who is this for? For those still reeling from four years of abuse, gaslighting, lying, bullying, insulting and violence, while conspiracy theories demonized all enemies of “Dear Leader,” and we watched naked grabs by this white supremacist for complete power — with all the ensuing implications for global neo-fascism.
I have a teenage daughter afraid to reveal her ethnicity (she is part Chinese) in school due, in part, to the current administration’s racist use of terms like the “Chinese flu” and “Kung flu,” even. As a former journalist, I have been horrified by the hatred incited and building against the news media, fueled by an ongoing mill of conspiracies based on half-truths and outright lies, and intended toward this result: the shut down of a free and independent press, violence, even possible death by Trumpist Brownshirts.
I scroll along … I notice someone sharing about getting back to love and a good feeling. I think: do we do this with our spouse if they are sexually abusing our child? Do we do this when someone is attacking someone on the street in front of us? Do we “get back to love and a good feeling?” Or does Love rush in to understand and stop the harm?
So, I interject. This is, I guess, a micro form of “nonviolent direct action.” Someone feels comfortable. There is a sense of, if we just can reach out and hold hands, all will be well. To me, this begs for disruption. Because that comfort feels based on their status in our society, not on the actual level of comfort for all of us.
As Dr. King wrote: Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.
A black woman and activist, Verta Maloney (please follow on Facebook), described her situation in this election’s aftermath, when she learned a white friend of hers had voted for Trump.
i told her i wouldn’t be speaking to her in the future or waving and smiling at her as we drop our children off at school because i am done doing that. politics matter AND they are personal; my very existence as a black woman/mother is political.
white ladies who voted for 45 and the lot of you “liberal” white ladies who know and love white ladies who did and don’t challenge them or call them on their shit …
i am not here to convince you of my humanity.
i am not here to play nice when you are playing with lives and legacies.
Maloney concludes, asking white women (and I extrapolate to all white people) to just stop talking, really, for once. Stop making themselves the experts on how to heal from this, how to be “OK” with all this carnage, and with the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump. The truth is, they are not the experts here. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence, in my opinion, asserts that we should not, actually, be OK with any of this.
So why do why white people want to be OK so quickly? I have learned a new phrase recently: “white comfort.” Is it “white comfort” that wants to ignore the horrors we must now actually see clearly, address and root out?
Dr. King wrote this: I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
And this is how I feel. Do you love all of us, or not? Is love something that glosses over the roots and patterns of fear and hatred we see in this country and around the world? Because, when I do not see people taking even a small stand, a slight risk, to speak up against rising fascism, my trust in your love begins to wane. I think perhaps comfort is predominating, when actually, in my view, a likely long period of discomfort and reckoning is required.
Angela Weiss, in the amazing Facebook Group, “Christians Against Trump,” wrote after many recent calls for reaching out to “the other side”:
There are many calls for unity in our country which I do support. I want to make it very clear however, that unity requires love. Love requires care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, justice, and respect.
Much of what we have witnessed over the last four years has been divisiveness, a lack of accountability, sown seeds of distrust, hate, disinformation, carelessness, recklessness, injustice, and a commitment to white supremacy. None of which can we unite under. We have seen an abuse of powers, and love and abuse cannot coexist.
What we have to do now is tell the truth about what has happened in our country. Not just in the past four years, but from its beginning. Justice and love cannot exist without truth. Unity cannot exist without truth. — Angela Weiss
Calls to love your neighbor include ensuring people have housing, food, access to healthcare, childcare, education, that racism is acknowledged and stamped OUT, that families stay together.
Abuse shames people for who they are, love does not.
Do not call for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they can not afford boots. For those lucky enough to escape poverty, they do not come out unscathed. For those who have survived experiences of sexual abuse, sexism, ageism, racism, heterosexism, classism … they do not come out unscathed. We will not come out unscathed from the past four years. We will not forget.
What we have to do now is tell the truth about what has happened in our country. Not just in the past four years, but from its beginning. Justice and love cannot exist without truth. Unity cannot exist without truth. So this is my olive branch. If you can commit to love, to justice, to truth, we can unite. Here is my olive branch. I’ll wait for yours.
Resources and Suggestions:
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
— Be an ALLY, not just a “soother” now, depending. We need white people and men to take responsiblity for racism, sexism and often innocent ignorance about U.S. race relations and white colonialism. We need your help to educate yourself and then others. … Soothe people within the context of being willing to see all this. Because if we don’t eradicate this cancer, it will grow, as we just saw. Of course, use your wisdom. People will not hear you if you don’t hear them. So, listen and gain rapport if you need to. I am leaving this to you, because I am tired.
— Help people understand they are not their racist, sexist or homophobic thoughts, so that they can transcend such thoughts. Help them understand that unlearning racism and hatred in all forms is enriching, freeing, loving and deep — it is, in the end, an expansion of consciousness and true “unity.”
— My very wise 14-year-old daughter reminds me to prioritize “education over cancellation.” So, how do we educate, rather than “cancel” both white people’s or conservative’s thoughts and experiences and BIPOC and others’ lived experiences? Again, I leave this to your wisdom.
— Ask your white, Trump supporting (if you can!), or uneducated friends to learn about the real U.S. history of white and black relations, as detailed, for example, in the excellent book, White Rage, and the Netflix documentary “13th” … as a beginning.
— Share this essay or similar on your social media and platforms. Or, here is another essay about my black activist friend (pictured above), and Trump’s racist dog whistles and racist history. You could share this too.
— Overall the call for “unity” and community well-being must be contextualized within the pain and hurt of so many over the last four years and within the context of rising fascism. Before we can “move on,” people must deeply understand what happened here, and the forces leading to this. And, we must do everything we can, suiting our personalities and skills, at all levels, to ensure this does not happen again.
— Offer a platform for BIPOC and others to share their lived experiences in a space of deep listening, and share these stories. Support the rooting out of racism and neo-fascism from our national, state and local governments and police forces, starting today … until these are gone.