A Letter to The Left:   Resist the Violent Impulse

“Indulging the violent impulse is satisfying. It can even be fun. But the moment we indulge that impulse we have set down the fundamental work of a movement for justice”.

Almost ten years ago now, I was told by a new CEO to fire an employee immediately, without process, whose performance was in question. To my way of thinking, this employee deserved an opportunity to address the issue.  Besides, we were operating under a bargaining agreement, and there were rules for dealing with performance concerns.  What was being required of me wasn’t fair, right, or legal. I refused.

Thus began several months of increasingly unreasonable and untenable demands.  I consulted a friend and mentor, a philosopher.  She was supportive and affirming, but what I remember most is that she said, “Your most important moral responsibility is to resist the violent impulse.”

Violent?  I asked, no one had been violent toward me, nor had I to others.   But I was wrong.  That CEO had no desire to understand my perspective, see me whole, or even attempt to work things out.   She wanted me gone. And to be honest, I wanted her gone too.

The violent impulse is to make something go away. Taken to its extreme, it manifests in murder. Murder is a reaction to emotions and discomfort felt so deeply as to want to remove the apparent source.  That’s wrong-headed, of course; the essential sources of such discomfort are things like fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding, none of which are resolved by violence.

What I didn’t understand then, but do now, is that the violent impulse most often manifests much more subtly than physical force.  It shows up in use of institutional power to take away employment, change an assignment or cut off conversation, rather than genuinely attempt to resolve a difference. It manifests in reducing another person, or others, to a pejorative, and in dismissing another’s emotion or experience.

Many have observed over the past year a rise in permission to exercise the violent impulse. If you’re reading this, you may be nodding, thinking of the spike in racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist, trans and homo-phobic violence in the wake of the 2016 US elections.

And yes, of course, I’m thinking of that too. But this is a letter to the Left, to liberal and progressive hearts and minds. To people who want justice and liberation.

This is important:  if you have referred to someone with whom you deeply disagree, or even fear, with a scornful name; if you have carried a sign or chanted a chant that denigrated people rather than ideas or policies; if you have posted on social media that so-and-so is a d—k, an a-hole, a monster or even a loser.  If you have referred to a whole group in this way –people who voted for Trump, perhaps? — then you have indulged the violent impulse.

I’m not looking down my nose here.  The violent impulse is tough to resist. I am definitely not always successful.  But resist it we must.  Really.  Violence begets violence. Every. Single. Time.

I didn’t make that up.  Arguably, from my white, American, middle-class, able-bodied (for now) perspective, I don’t get to wax self-righteous against violence.  But Congressperson John Lewis, who sat at Woolworth’s counters, marched at Selma, and endured many beatings in the process – there’s a man who I think gets to say it.   “We were convinced,” Lewis said in 2013, “that peace could not be achieved through violence.  Violence begets violence . . . We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith [in non-violence] as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.”[i]

I understand that compassion is hard to come by, especially in the face of naked injustice.  It’s not so hard if we remember that anger and compassion are not incompatible, and if we stop to think about the history of non-violent resistance that has driven most if not all liberatory change in the past century and more.

The questions to ask ourselves are these:  Do we want to be right more than we want liberation and justice?    Will we lean into name-calling at the expense of building a peaceful world?

Indulging the violent impulse is satisfying. It can even be fun. But the moment we indulge that impulse we have set down the fundamental work of a movement for justice.

Congressman Lewis wrote, “the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means.”  Peaceful, in this context does not mean passive, or even quiet. Rage can be peaceful if it does not surrender to violence.

Believe me, I am furious.  If I’m not careful I live every day at a slow, sometimes roiling boil. And I am desperate to make common cause with as many people as I can in the service of – among other things — fewer prisons, safer homes and streets, health care for all, education that engenders access and discourse-not separation, respect for indigenous land and culture, and refuge from poverty and war.

Surrendering to our violent impulses will not get us there, and there is too much at stake not to rein it in.


[i] http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/01/18/civil-rights-leader-rep-john-lewis-responds-to/192333





On Solidarity

I marched last weekend despite my ambivalence. I was ambivalent because I wasn’t sure if marching is an effective strategy for the situation we’re in. I was pretty sure no one in power would pay much attention (I was among the 250,000 marchers in NYC before the Iraq war who then-president Bush dismissed as a “focus group.”) I was concerned that it would be merely a feel-good exercise.  I wondered if many, post-march, would think they had done enough.  Even as I appreciated the work of organizers to create a deeply inclusive agenda, I wondered if that would carry over to the hearts and minds of the marchers.

I decided to march anyway, because it was happening and it felt important to show up. Because it felt good to be doing something.  Because as one of my heroes, Audre Lorde, is famous for saying, “our silence will not protect us.”

I marched in Montpelier, Vermont, the smallest state capitol in the United States, with a population of a bit over 7,000 people.  20,000 people showed up, far surpassing organizers’ expectations, even creating Vermont’s first ever highway traffic jam.

There’s a tangible energy when that many people are together in even the loosest of accord. Huge puppets, week-old babies, veteran activists and veterans of war in wheelchairs, banners and signs as colorful and certain as any we saw later on the national news.  A phalanx of state legislators marched at the end of the line with a banner that read, “we have your back.”  The crowd roared when hometown hero Bernie Sanders showed up, a surprise, firing up the crowd with his raspy Brooklyn holler.

The organizers brought together a powerful line up of speakers, beginning with Vermont’s only-ever woman governor, and leaders in women’s health and anti-violence work.  Among other Vermont leaders, we heard from a water protector, a farm worker without US documentation, a black lives matter organizer, a queer activist, and a nationally recognized spoken word performance group made up of Muslim  high school students from Burlington.

The mood was up, determined, even relieved.  I felt good when I got home, hopeful at the numbers that came out across the world, grateful that I didn’t read or hear about any violence associated with the march, glad to have heard from so many voices.

So, about that ambivalence.

I don’t imagine the march made a dent on the intentions of the new administration.  I hope it supported people in government who are working on behalf of justice and democracy. I think it stirred up precious hope. I think it brought people into action who had never acted before.  At the same time, as the typically very white Vermont crowd chanted “Black Lives Matter!” on Saturday, even as I teared up at that much noise for Black lives, I was very aware that my partner’s t-shirt, my sign and the signs of the organized Black Lives Matter contingent were all I’d seen of that sentiment before we were invited to chant.

I felt the same about the cheers in response to Sanders and others including gay, lesbian and trans rights in their speeches.  Where had all of these people been after the homophobic murders in Orlando, when a scant 40 showed up on the statehouse lawn for a vigil?   Would all of those white folks keep showing up for the Black Lives Matter movement when the chanting was over?

So I’m still concerned about the feel-good aspect of the march.  I’m not alone in saying these times call for deep introspection among people whose day-to-day lives seem to be untouched by the stuff we were rallying about on Saturday.

I’m thinking maybe that introspection will lead to less defensiveness and more listening, to stepping around the temptation of relative safety, into the risky world of genuine solidarity.

I’m daring to hope that many who never marched before, have “caught the bug,” and will now show up in solidarity, in huge numbers for people of color, queers, immigrants, people with disabilities, native people, Muslims, Jews, and for the earth itself.

Solidarity begins with understanding why we haven’t shown up so far, with honesty and humility about that, taking up the anger of our new colleagues and friends as they say, essentially, “Where have you been?”   Not making excuses, never expecting gratitude, just speaking the truth: I didn’t know, I was afraid, I was sheltered. I see now, and I am sorry I didn’t see before.

Then we just get busy. Find ways to embody solidarity in every way we can. Soon enough our actions may be the balm that creates connection, sometimes even forgiveness.

But connection, and certainly forgiveness, cannot be the reason for solidarity.  Solidarity is for one thing only, making a solid cloth. Solidarity is the weft that moves under, over and through the warp of myriad experiences, histories, and cultures to make a whole, unassailable thing.    Solidarity breeds trust, the fertile ground for relationship. Relationship makes sharp empathy possible.  Such empathy makes it tough to retreat into safety; the only way then is into the wind with the other.

Oppression is hard put to prevail against lives thusly, finally, honestly linked.

If we don’t feel anxious, a little afraid, we have probably not yet stepped into solidarity.  We start slowly, notes and flowers and food to mosques and synagogues with hate scrawled on their walls.   For sure, we get beyond social media. We get next to people whose lives are unlike ours, whose forbearers suffered at the hands of our forbearers, whose people still suffer at the hands of our people.  When we hear of injustice, we go to where it is, ready to listen more than speak, and to put something real – our bodies, our reputations, our comforts, our safety —  on the line.


In 1961, on the evening before their first freedom ride, a group of students gathered to get ready.  Among their preparations was that each freedom rider wrote their last will and testament. Such was the extent of their risk[i].

If our marching takes us even close to solidarity that deep, then I say let’s march some more.


[i] For a quick article about this story, see Mikulich, A. (2014) “A Last Will and Testament for Freedom.  The National Catholic Reporter.

Inauguration Eve: What Will We Build?

In the New Yorker last week, the writer and journalist Jelani Cobb offered a thoughtful and compelling essay on Dr. King’s legacy on the cusp of our next presidential inauguration. I recommend the essay; it’s a concise lesson in history and a stark reminder of what’s at stake.[i]

I have only one concern about the piece. In it, Mr. Cobb twice called Dr. King a pacifist, referring at one point to “King’s ideals of pacifism.”   Martin Luther King was not a pacifist; he was a non-violent activist.

This is a terribly important distinction.  Dr. King was a radical activist. He was insistent, un-relenting, deeply critical of white supremacy and the racist status quo.  He was also a passionate advocate for loving kindness and compassion.

While Dr. King is remembered for his advocacy for racial justice, I’m not alone in my concern that he is celebrated, especially by white folks, primarily for his peacefulness. The lovingkindness and compassion part if his message sits well, but it is misunderstood by many as non-threatening.[ii] This dilution of King’s fierceness has been called “white washing.”  It’s a subtle violence we do when we reduce a person to a part.[iii]

My concern today is the distinction between non-violence and passivism.  Passivism is essentially a belief that all violence is unjustifiable, and that conflicts ought to be resolved peacefully.  A passivist acting out of that belief refuses to engage in violence, and may choose to work toward peace.

A fundamental assumption of non-violence is that violence begets violence every time.  So non-violent practice begins, as does passivism, with refusing to engage in violence.[iv]

But nonviolence doesn’t stop there. Nonviolence actively obstructs violence. It also actively constructs peace.  In his short and wonderful book, The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action, Michael A. Nagler writes,  “Oppressive regimes can usually wait for a march or demonstration to go away, but they cannot survive a cottage industry when they are trying to exploit [workers], or a free school when they are trying to indoctrinate a citizenry.”

The non-violent activism most of us are familiar with is the obstructive kind – marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, communication with elected officials.  I think many are despairing tonight because we see that while these actions are crucial — for keeping energy going, for showing the world that we do not accept the policies, practices and behaviors of current leadership, for eschewing silence — they also see that such actions are often summarily dismissed by those in power.  Calls for fairness, decency, critical thought, and attention to fact are dismissed as the inconsequential whining of losers.

“In such a world,” Nagler continues, “The ideal formula for liberation is to reduce as much inherent conflict as possible through constructive programs, and to isolate and confront the rest through non-violent struggle.”

Dr. King and his colleagues in the movement designed brilliant obstructive strategies, “confronting and isolating through non-violent struggle.”  They also constructed programs for families and children, and for communities, and hard-won relationships between blacks and whites, Christians and Jews.

Mahatma Gandhi didn’t know or use the word “nonviolence.” That came after as a way to describe the tactics in which he engaged.  He called the work satyagraha.  Nonviolence, satyagraha, is at its core a disciplined practice of attention to and respect for others’ humanity.

Many are wringing their hands tonight, despairing that the power that seems to be ascending is impervious to activism, to fundamental assertions of decency.  I think our hands are wringing in part because we haven’t understood that we can put them to work – building things, reducing as much violence as we can, in whatever small and large ways we can.  That’s a critical part of the work ahead.

What relationships, what communities, what organizations, what art, what businesses, what inner strength, what bridges can we build that are wholly constructed of satyagraha, the one thing that oppression cannot survive?















[i] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/16/martin-luther-king-day-with-trump

[ii] [ii] Now, at least – then, not so much, as evidenced by rigorous efforts by many, including government agencies, to undermine Dr. King and his work.

[iii] For more on this dynamic, google “whitewash” and “Martin Luther King,” then read critically.

[iv] I’ve written before that this includes reducing anyone to a derogatory term. Even supporters of the man who will be inaugurated tomorrow as president of the United States. Even the man himself.

The Boy Who Danced Away

Years ago in the small city where I lived, a woman out walking with her dog in the bright sunlight of mid-morning was brutally attacked, her neck slashed with a broken bottle, and she left bleeding while her attacker ran up a little hill, did what appeared to be a jumping kind of dance, and disappeared.  It all happened in moments, witnessed only by an office worker who happened to glance out the window and called for help.

When we gathered for a vigil the night of the attack and began to talk with each other, it became clear to me that although I didn’t know the woman, she was very dear to people I did know.  They described her as a powerhouse worker for justice, a beacon of kindness and good humor, generous in friendship, not only well-loved but also deeply treasured.   Like me, her friends were frightened and freshly aware of our collective vulnerability to random violence at the hands of men.  And they were raw with rage.

In the next several days, we learned that this woman would survive, and her friends shifted their attention to supporting her recovery.  We also learned that her attacker was a sixteen-year-old boy who was born in our town, had grown up there. When I learned that, I thought, what happened to him that brought him to that day?  Where was I, where were we­ he was right there in our community becoming someone who could do this thing?

When I voiced these questions aloud, my friends who loved the woman who had been attacked shook their heads against my questions. They said, essentially, who cares?   His attack on their dear friend had violated them too. When he broke that bottle, slashed her neck and danced away, he stepped into a place their compassion would not go.

I learned something then; there are concentric circles around violence.  Those who find themselves in the most inner circle, the one in which the violence is most deeply felt, cannot be expected to offer compassion or empathy, not soon, sometimes not ever.  Sometimes, miraculously, they do.  But those of us in the circles beyond have no right to demand it.

Several people wrote to me after the first blog posting here, saying, essentially, really? Make peace with Trump supporters?  I just can’t.  They cited, among other things, the violence in Trump’s rhetoric, the permission to hate and act on hate that seemed to have come out of his candidacy and then his apparent victory.   They reacted angrily to the idea that some Trump supporters were motivated by wholly other things —  fear for their ability to make a living, long term frustration with systems seemingly unable to change things for the better, honest conservative views about how to create more equitable society.

I have not pushed that perspective on my friends and colleagues who feel the violence most deeply. They are survivors of sexual assault and abuse, painfully reminded of that ordeal. They are people of color tired to sickness of asserting the plain truth of their humanity in the face of bigotry. They’re trans people fighting for the astonishingly contested right to use a restroom. They are long-time social justice activists, already exhausted.

I used to hold out both hands to my stepdaughter, when life got confusing, and say, two hands, two truths. Life is generous this way, I’d tell her, it can hold two truths at once.

Here is one truth: Violence has been done. Someone’s dear friend is lying in the dirt, bleeding.  Here is the other truth.  There is a boy dancing away from the scene.

Some of us by dint of faith or privilege stand in a circle once removed.  We can keep one hand on the shoulder of our friends in the center, honoring their rage, and still turn our attention the story of that dancing boy.  In fact, I think, we must.

Love is Decidedly Not Enough

Each day brings the challenge of meeting despair with determined action. That challenge is compounded by the myriad fronts that call out for redress:  The uptick in hate-based violence. Voter suppression. Cabinet picks. Violent law enforcement. Climate change. Standing Rock.

I could work on that list for hours and I wouldn’t be satisfied. This list is long, immediate, and urgent.  Everything on it is weighted with the threat of lost freedoms, loves and lives.

And then there are other perspectives: That this is not a bad turn. That things needed to change. That this election will answer prayers. Or it will jolt the docile into action.  That love is all we need.

Underneath, humming rage.  Rage driven by hundreds of years of targeting black and brown people with violations to their humanity both insidious and outright. By impending loss of freedoms as basic as with whom we make family.  Rage at homelands destroyed by politics, greed and religion, by misguided colonialism and intervention, by non-intervention.

And the other rage driven by an existential fear, “I will lose my place in the world if you take your place in the world.” That fear drives what my friend, the philosopher Elizabeth Minnich, once named the violent impulse: Just make it go away.

The violent impulse is in all of us.  It’s not limited to grown men surrounding a brown child on a sidewalk and chanting, “Go home!”  It’s a whole gamut of ‘be-gones.’  Be-gone, black man. Be- gone, lesbian. Be-gone, immigrants.  Be-gone, whole religions. Be-gone, conservatives.  Be-gone, liberals.  Be-gone, you-who-disagree-with-me.

The only be-gone I accept is be-gone, violence. I am convinced that violence begins with the tiniest thought that a person or group is unworthy of being considered whole.  Violence seeps out of the mind into name-calling, stereotyping, then into action: harassment, repression, beatings and murder. I am also convinced that violence begets violence. Always. And I do not want to leave the young people in my life with a more violent world.

So, what to do?  What to do as violence rears up in all corners?

It seems to me that each of us must do two things:  First, resist.  Take your place in an unrelenting deluge of “no.” No is a fierce and nonviolent response to injustice.  Non-violent resistance manifests in phone calls, petitions, personal interactions and organized protests or protections. Each of us can find our place in resistance.

Second, look around at the opportunities in your life for non-violent insistence. Non-violent insistence is a deluge of “yes.”  It is the making of things that bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.[1],Sure, it’s in making love, in all the ways that means. But, with apologies to the 60s, love is not all we need. Loving one another is decidedly not enough.

Look around at the opportunities to create against un-creation. Make art if you can.  Make refuge, make solidarity, make organizations, or strengthen the ones you are already in. Make peace with people you can’t imagine making peace with.

While the arc of the moral universe may well bend toward justice, there are always forces that would bend it back, and  faltering vigilance has great cost.  For those who have long known this, the new work is very, very old, and the thought of doing it all again is exhausting.

Others are just learning now that progress is fragile, that injustice takes advantage of any weakness to rise.  It’s a painful lesson.

There are moments to rest, but this is not one of them. Especially not if you’re new to the work.  Welcome to the resistance. Find your place in the deluge of No.  Choose a few ways to insist. Accept discomfort, understand you will do this while still grieving.  Get going.

Here’s what I will do.  I will read and listen carefully, parsing bias, propaganda and untruth with the sharpest mind I can muster.  I’ll spend time every day in the mundane work of resistance:  phone calls and letters.  I will step into solidarity at every opportunity with those who stand to lose the most. I will speak up in the face of hate when I hear it in my day-to-day. I’ll make that a practice, and make a point to learn to do it well.  I will work to strengthen the organizations in which I work, where the mission is already pointed toward justice.  And I will write.

Writing is where I make myself accountable. At best, when I write I illuminate new ways of thinking that support or even inspire change.   I’ve set myself to do that here. If you join me, I’ll be honored.


[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King used this phrase and ones like it many times in his public life, borrowing from abolitionists preachers like Theodore Parker. For a quick discussion of this rhetorical lineage, see NPR’s Melissa Block’s interview with  History Professor and  Director of the Stanford Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute, Clayborne Carson.