“An Obnoxious Peace”

Image from Urban Cusp, taken in Baltimore on April 23, 2015

Image from Urban Cusp, taken in Baltimore on April 23, 2015

Preached April 26, 2015 at Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago IL, dedicated to the people of Baltimore.

In the days following the Michael Brown verdict, that cold Thanksgiving week, there emerged a debate among my friends regarding the uprisings happening in my hometown and around the country. I called it the debate of the Kings. That is, my friends would quote these two Kings in defense of their positions.

On the one hand was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, I am still convinced that nonviolence is both the most practically sound and morally excellent way to grapple with the age-old problem of racial injustice.”

On the other hand was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who said in 1966: “I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for Black people. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

The reason this debate between the two Kings sticks out in my head is that the people I heard quoting the first statement on the night of the verdict were by and large White people not living in communities watching their neighbors’ businesses burn. And the people I heard quoting the second statement were by and large people of color engaged ardently in nonviolent forms of resistance.

It wasn’t naiveté on the part of people of color about the negative impact of property destruction in our community. In fact, I remember a radical Black clergy friend of mine sharing her experience of walking into our neighborhood paint store on the day after many windows on Telegraph Avenue had been smashed during the previous night’s protests. She walked in to find a young Black man on his hands and knees scrubbing away the spilled paint on the floor, and she asked herself (and all of us) how yet another low-paid Black man on his hands and knees cleaning up a mess he did not make contributed in any way to ending systemic racism.

What the people quoting the second King were saying was, “why are you voicing your concern about rage now that people of color are expressing it, when you didn’t voice concern about the generations of economic and cultural violence that led to this moment?”

 

I’ll be honest: I’m not too interested in conversations about violence versus nonviolence. I’m the director of the Oakland Peace Center, which brings together 40 nonprofits in the Bay Area of California around our shared commitment to creating peace there. I believe in nonviolence because it’s statistically, demonstrably a more effective strategy. I believe in nonviolence because violence by poor communities and communities of color usually results in disproportionate use of violence by people with power and legal authority to act violently. I believe in nonviolence most of all because violence misshapes our souls, and there are enough forces at work trying to misshape our souls already.

What I am interested in is how we define violence, and where we recognize and respond to it, and what that says about us as a society. Actually, though, that question is a result of a much deeper question.

What I am actually interested in is how we define peace, and where we believe its locus to be.

In my book, Pre-Post-Racial America, I remember the night that the George Zimmerman verdict came down. One of my closest friends, a young Black man who is also a devout Quaker, said, “I have never wanted to cause damage so much in my whole life.” Some friends’ knee-jerk reaction was, “Don’t do that!” or, “That won’t solve anything.” And I started to get what is broken in our paradigm that night. Many people’s first reaction to my friend’s statement wasn’t, “This must feel awful. I’m outraged, too.” It was more worried about his anger than about what provoked his anger. It wasn’t seeking to understand why he felt that way. It was not concerned with creating just peace. It was concerned with eliminating disruption.

 

So how do we each define peace, and why? This is obviously not a new question. The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel lifted up a concern 2,500 years ago that his people were out of alignment with their God’s will, pawning people off with false comfort: Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.

 

Prophets smearing whitewash on walls is not something of a byegone era, either. Having already mentioned Martin Luther King, I want to acknowledge a moment in the civil rights movement where he felt caught between two different definitions of peace. In 1956, Autherine Lucy was accepted as the first African American student to attend the University of Alabama. As soon as she set foot on campus, people attacked her with eggs and bricks, and crosses were burned. A mob jumped on top of the car in which she rode, and eventually, the president and trustees of the University of Alabama asked Autherine to leave for her own safety and the safety of the University. The next day after Autherine was dismissed, the paper came out with this headline: “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”

 

  • For the White people of Tuscaloosa, peace meant a return to segregation and a suppression of the white rage that was always just under the surface in the Jim Crow south, always a potential risk to Black people.
  • For my Quaker friend’s pacifist friends, also White, peace meant him swallowing his grief and rage over the unjust George Zimmerman verdict, swallowing the fact that Trayvon Martin, who didn’t look so different from my friend, had died solely for being Black, so that they did not have to contend with their sweet and gentle friend feeling outrage that they did not feel.
  • For Ezekiel, peace meant pretending that his people were in line with God’s will when he could see that they were not, and that they were about to suffer dire consequences as a result.

 

Nonviolence in my community has come to be used as a strange weapon by people who are not suffering from the way things are in our society against people who are. And unconsciously, they are asking the people who are suffering to accept what Dr. King called “obnoxious peace,” a lack of physical conflict that is marked by real and tangible harm to people.

 

And so we can’t talk about peace without talking about Power: as we heard earlier, the poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, simply tell their story, make it the definitive story, and start with secondly. If you start with the story of the Native Americans’ arrows and not the arrival of the British, you get a very different story.

In my community, the story begins with the smashed windows and spilled paint but not with the decades of police misconduct that led first to the creation of the Black Panthers and now to the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. The story starts with people caught in the crossfire. It does not start with decades of treating poor people as commodities, devaluing, dehumanizing, incarcerating and abandoning them for financial gain for a small minority. It starts with the mess that homeless encampments create and not with the intentional elimination of mental health services and support for veterans and fair wage jobs that have led to homelessness. And as a result, we end up at best with obnoxious peace.

The thing is, though, I don’t think that the only reason all of us here today are called to create positive peace is simply because it is the right thing to do. The fact is that obnoxious peace robs us of meaningful and true relationships with one another. It robs us of the opportunity to build a community where all of our gifts are honored as well as all of our needs being met. And it robs us of the opportunity to be all of who we were meant to be. Those are costs that haunt our history but do not need to define our future.

I know this to be true because at the Oakland Peace Center, my life and work have been powerfully and sometimes painfully shaped by homeless senior citizens who are community activists and by people who founded nonprofits in the names of their children who died in the crossfire and by the community organizer from the Oakland Police Department and by leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. And there are tensions as much as there is contentment under our roof. But my relationships are richer for it, and our community is richer for it, and I am my better self as a result. I believe that is the payoff of resisting the seduction of a comfortable but oppressive peace and instead creating a sometimes uncomfortable but much more powerful positive peace.

So how do we create true, positive peace in our communities rather than the obnoxious peace that relies on people in power telling stories that begin with secondly?

On a personal level, we can engage with curiosity instead of fear: when people are angry, we have the opportunity to seek out the story that begins with “first,” rather than “secondly.”

On a community level, we can begin to do the same thing: for example, in the communities whose lives are not on the line as a result of police shootings, we can allow policy to be shaped by the realities of those whose lives are on the line, as if all lives really do matter, including Black lives.

In 1956, Martin Luther King said Yes, it is true that if the Black man accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

Almost 60 years later, may we have the courage likewise to revolt against obnoxious peace for the sake of real peace. Amen.

Comment (1)

  1. Karen McMahon

    Thank you so much for this article. I appreciate this article, particularly because many of the posts I see, and some of them from my friends, seem so hollow and superficial and without understanding. I lived in Oakland for a year when the Panthers were starting up, and I have a friend who still lives in Berkeley. The Berkeley she knows now is much different from the Berkeley we knew then, but it is so inspiring to hear from someone like you now…in this decade…in 2015…who reminds me of what I knew then.

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