The road to revolution via…Julia Davis?

standing_rock_3The TV cameras are gone now. So are most of the veterans I was tracking and wrote about for Guernica, upon the request of the Standing Rock elders. Everyone knows that last week’s decision was only a battle won, and that the struggle continues: the drilling below Sioux land isn’t even completely stopped, the company having decided that it’s easier to pay fines to the Army Corps of Engineers even at $50,000 a day. But there seems to be a pause in the satyagraha at that location, as everyone regroups.

Me?  I’m still in Philadelphia, musing about the big picture. I told my wife as she left for work, “I’m going to show that the Oceti Sakowin protests all began in Philadelphia.” By Philadelphia I mostly meant Chester native Bayard Rustin, who said long ago:  ““Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.” And I meant Quakers, who’ve been making trouble since before Philly was founded in 1682.

The thread I’m noticing now traces at least back to Thoreau, who told peers he was “more of a Quaker than anything else, and anti-slavery iconWilliam Lloyd Garrison, a non-Quaker but a fellow traveler like me (I call myself an “aspiring Quaker.”) Garrison, who got his start editing a Quaker anti-slavery newspaper, urged and practiced “nonresistance,” a kind of proactive pacifism based in part on Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.”

I knew “nonresistance” from how it was used by World War I conscientious objectors like Evan Thomas, but if I’d been an actual historian I’d have known how ubiquitous a term it was among progressive types in the 19th century. It was even global, a favorite word of War of 1812 veteran Leo Tolstoy, who  wrote a letter to America, praising Thoreau and Garrison as pioneering visionaries:

I’d like to ask the American people why they do not “>pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.

 

Tolstoy went on to become a leading exponent of radical Christianity, and a pen pal of a young South African named Mohandas Gandhi.

From Gandhi we can go back to talking about Bayard Rustin, Quaker thanks to his eminent and charismatic grandmother, Julia Davis Rustin.  Julia mentored Rustin as he went to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had been practicing the Quaker “peace witness” since 1915 and sent Rustin, the FOR’s “youth secretary,” across the country as a “Peace Ambassador.” She visited Rustin in prison when he went there instead of serving in World  War II, and cheered him on when he went in 1948 to India, newly freed by Gandhi’s movement.

 

Rustin arrived in India right after Gandhi died, but he met with many of those who’d helped him perfect the technique they had named satyagraha. The Indian activists admired Rustin’s own nonresistance, including the very first Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. And he came back bursting with ideas about using satyagraha on behalf of African-Americans. Soon, he was crossing the country to talk about how to use nonviolence to fight both militarism and racism.

His workshops were electric, one of its participants said years later. They had “actually talked about the history of nonviolence, the history of Gandhi…Thd whole philosophy of the use of nonviolent direct action to accomplish your goals and your purposes: That really appealed to me.” Once trained, many put it to use trying to integrate lunch counters, restaurants, pools.  From that phase of the civil rights movement to now is too much for one essay, and includes both Philip Berrigan and ACT-UP, which was founded in 1987, a few years before Rustin died. 

I haven’t included anything here about Native American practice of nonresistance, or wondered if any contemporary Native activists have any use for Rustin or the Quakers.  However,  I suspect that this peace might be incomplete without it.

(Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr.)

The soldier-dissenters at Oceti Sakowin.

https://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2016/12/5/as_thousands_of_vets_descend_on

How could I not be paying attention when #VetStand was happening?

It broke my heart not to trek to Cannonball, North Dakota, as did Col. Ann Wright, Vince Emanuele and so many others. But I did manage to report long-distance for Guernica Magazine: “We Are the Cavalry!” has many voices familiar to this page as well as many more.

That piece doesn’t include my first thoughts as the protests at Standing Rock evolved: that Bayard Rustin would be proud.

Luckily, I’m about to write for Philly’s NPR outlet about that.  A few opening quotes for me, if not the article:

We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

The second quote is not from Rustin but from Daniel Berrigan, who with his brother Philip took those principles to heart.  NYTimes columnist Eric Martin cited these words in connection to Standing Rock:

Someone, as a strict requirement of sanity and logic, must be willing to say a simple thing: ‘The machine is working badly.’ And if the law of the machine, a law of military and economic profit, enacted by generals and tycoons, must be broken in favor of the needs of man, let the law be broken. Let the machine be turned around, taken apart, built over again.”

By the time this piece is done, Tolstoy. . Berriganand Silas Soule will be side by side.

Bayard Rustin had class: a story from Todd Gitlin

bayardrustin_drtrmhoward_civil_rights_rally_may241956Which disguised his radicalism only occasionally.

A story the invaluable Todd Gitlin told me a few years back, which I likely can’t include in the book, but don’t want lost:

In the beginning of March 1965, Rustin met with former SDS president Todd Gitlin, who was considering a protest at Chase Manhattan Bank to explore potential for multi-racial, innovative organizing. Dressed to the nines and in his trademark stentorian voice, the civil-rights leader and executive secretary of the War Resisters League had an unusual message for the earnest young students. Despite his suspicion of SDS’ hard-left allies such as the the US Communist Party’s student “W.E.B. du Bois Clubs,””1 the elder organizer also told Gitlin that SDS needed to be more radical in what they sought. “He said we weren’t being militant enough,” Gitlin remembered. “We saw him representing the seamlessness of Gandhianism — and he was saying that with a week of sit-ins at Wall Street and the banks, we weren’t risking enough.”

I can almost hear the man singing.

 

 

A day for angelic troublemakers

2027777It’s kind of stereotypical, but every year I watch this film as part of the observance of Martin Luther King Day. It feels the least I can do, given what Bayard Rustin did for all of us.

This year, of course, I thought also of Rustin during President Obama’s Second Inaugural address, when the President said “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” I can’t think that Obama didn’t know that 60+ years before his election, the country was being rocked by a different hyper-articulate young African American trained in community organizing.

He’s also in Ain’t Marching: I count him as a dissenting soldier because as student at the historically black Wilberforce University, he  trained in the school’s mandatory ROTC program for close to two years. (Same with Phil Ochs and his stint in the military academy). Of course, he didn’t last long: repulsed deeply enough by hundreds of hours of drill and command, rifle marksmanship and “combat principles,”  he stopped attending drill and lost his scholarship. Later he was also a fervent organizer for the rights of black soldiers, submitting constant testimony at the Committee Against Jim Crow in the Armed Forces and turning to an Air Force veteran named Norman Hill to help run the 1963 March on Washington. All of it a sidebar to the major, world-changing difference he made, but enough connections to enough of “my” characters that his presence is almost required.

That’s not why you should see the movie below, though. That you do for the joy of it, to pretend you have his essential presence with you this holiday weekend. Share it with someone who’s never heard of him — multiple someones, if you work with groups.

Besides, if anyone insisted that the revolution include dancing, it was this guy.