I recently wrote a review of Andreas Malm’s new book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which makes a compelling case that in light of the very limited success of nonviolence for the climate movement, we ought to branch out into more violent tactics. While I do believe in the sympathetic sentiments for his argument that I expressed in that review, I also hold those sentiments in paradox with these views expressed below. I invite others to read this reflection in the spirit of knowing that things are never just one way or the other, particularly in the complex work of social change.
Today is the anniversary of the first march from Selma to Montgomery, otherwise known as “Bloody Sunday.” Reflecting on this landmark moment in the civil rights struggle invites a mix of grief, solidarity, disgust at our violent legacy of white supremacy, and deep respect for the courage of those who resisted that violence. In addition, there is one particular detail of that historic day that calls me into humility and fidelity to the work of justice-making.
An oft-repeated sentiment among activists is that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Personally, I have definitely critiqued other activists for naively continuing to use strategies and tactics that have failed time and again. But for this aphorism to really make any sense, we have to think of ourselves as isolated, individual actors in a static world. When we look at our ever-changing selves in an interdependent relationship with an ever-changing world, it becomes clear that it’s actually not possible to do the same thing over and over.
We can try to repeat our actions, but there is only a certain degree to which we have control over what we are doing. At a superficial level, certainly we can walk down the same street and say the same words as we did last week or last year. But over that time we have grown and transformed, at both a physical and spiritual level. We are literally a collection of different cells, radiating out a different energy. That energy resonates out into a chaotically different world, in process in infinite ways far beyond our understanding or control.
That brings me back to Selma in 1965, which was far from the first time that black people in America had been subjected to violence for standing up for their basic human rights. There is a legacy of resistance as long as the legacy of injustice, and the vast majority of it went unrecorded by history and failed to catalyze systemic change. But this particular time that activists put their bodies on the line, it triggered a radical shift in public opinion, and two weeks later they completed the march with over 25,000 supporters marching along beside them. It was likely the key moment that led to the Voting Rights Act and all the subsequent changes made possible by enfranchising black voters.
It’s tempting to try to distill the perfect formula for transformative activism from moments like that, and one can make a decent living as a consultant or Harvard professor by selling those formulas. But here’s a key detail about why Bloody Sunday was so impactful: not only did the national media broadcast the gruesome violence by Alabama state troopers on millions of TVs, ABC News actually interrupted a documentary about Nazi war crimes to show the breaking news of how America at that very moment was violently oppressing a segment of its population based on race. The undeniable symmetry of those images created a perfect moment of awakening for America’s collective consciousness.
There is no way the activists involved could have planned for an audience so uniquely primed for receptivity and transformation. They were acting out of the call of their own consciences in response to the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson. They were faithful to their calling to keeping standing up and speaking their moral truth.
Certainly we need to keep learning and experimenting to try to become ever more strategic in our activism. But we need to do so with a great deal of humility, knowing that there are many factors in our success beyond our control. And we need to do so with the faith that just as we are learning and changing, so too are all the other beings with whom we share a planet. I can only imagine that most black Americans in 1965 would have thought it was hopelessly naive to think that white America would give a damn about a group of black people getting beaten up by the police.
Many of the leaders of that march were driven by their faith that God had infinite potential to open the hearts of anyone. While I share some degree of that faith, my own path of transformation anchors my belief in the possibility of revolutionary awakening. I expect that most people who knew me as a younger person assumed that it was hopeless to try to get me to open my heart and mind to see from their perspectives. But many people did try, with either patient compassion or frustrated anger, to get me to see beyond my own privilege and certainty. And quite frankly, most of those times I responded with defensiveness and stubbornness. But some of those times, for whatever reasons of grace, I was ready to have my heart and mind opened, and I experienced a transformative shift in my powers of compassion and understanding.
When I look back at the course of my activism, I see that the times when I was most faithfully doing the work to which I was called were the times when I most deeply believed that everyone else was held in the same chaotic web of grace and possibility that I was. Today is a moment to remember that when we keep doing the work, sometimes it works.