I didn’t really sleep the first few nights after my arrest. Exhausted as I was by a night spent in jail—coming on the heels of several nights where academic work and organizing meetings had kept me up late—I felt a profound sense of disquiet, and returned to that most familiar and comforting of behaiors for any graduate student: reading. Indeed, with so many extra hours spent not-sleeping, I was finally able to crack open that book of non-sociology on my bedstand, Cry, the Beloved Country. And what did I find, but this passage:
“I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie. I shall do this…because I cannot find it in me to do anything else. I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe, I am lost when I ask if men, white men or black men, Englishmen or Afrikaners, Gentiles or Jews, will approve. Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true.
I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die. They died rather than live, that was all.”
When I started writing this post, the ambivalent, resigned martyrdom of the above quote seemed to capture exactly how I felt about my own activism after watching two weeks of violent repression of the Occupy movement and contemplating my own part in it. But then, on further reflection, it doesn’t, and neither do any of the other boxes into which I have tried to fit my political life post-November 9th—a question which, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, is still weighing heavily on my mind. After all, can I really say that getting beat up makes me a hero—as many kind posters on this blog have suggeste? And can I even call myself a victim when an extraordinary trauma for me is no more than routine for many people of color?
My initial impulse after the 9th was to withdraw: to take some time to sit in my office, read sociology, clear my mind, and heal. Yet even when I stayed physically away from the ongoing protests on campus and across the country, I couldn’t avoid them, compulsively checking the news and twitter. Even when I shut myself off electronically, I couldn’t stop obsessing about the violence being visited on the occupy movement. So I came up with an alternative strategy: to “put all my chips on the table” in a single-minded pursuit of seeing the wrongs committed on the 9th righted. I was going to thrown down all the social and financial resources of a rich white kid who went to Princeton towards the all-consuming quest to see Chancellor Birgeneau resign and a few riot cops join the ranks of the unemployed. If a narrow focus on a single issue was what it took to achieve justice, so be it.
But justice for whom, exactly? I am a child of liberal universalism, and have always subscribed to the idea that an injustice to one is supposed to be an injustice to all. Indeed, before this month I would probably have noted with pride that every cause I have ever been involved with has been against injustice committed against others. I have mobilized for immigrants without fear of deportation, spoken for public education knowing I will not pay higher tuition, and protested for animal rights with certainty I will not be eaten. The result is a sort of detachment that has given me space to reflect on my activism, but also to distance myself from it, putting politics in a segmented space that I could leave behind when I left a protest and return to at my leisure.
Perhaps that is a good model for activism, but for me, it is no longer a tenable one. As I have discovered, the truth is that an injustice to me is a lot different than an injustice to you. Try as I might to put what has happened in context, trauma to my body and my soul has had a qualitatively different impact on me that no awareness of external suffering can quite equal. I have often lamented the inability of activists with whom I have worked to reach pragmatic compromises and frame their concerns about injustice in broadly appealing ways, yet now I fully understand. Rationality and detachment in a world full of wrongs—the ability to lead a balanced life while aware of how fucked-up things are—is its own form of privilege.
The other day, I saw the cop who on November 9th beat me and later told me I had no rights. She was standing outside Occupy Cal, casually chatting with a few other officers and keeping an eye on our newly reconstituted encampment. I walked up to her and asked her if she could look me in the eye and tell me that I deserved to have my ribs broken. She looked past me, not abashedly but indifferently, and told me that she had never broken anyone’s ribs. I don’t know what response I was expecting, but I had certainly hoped for a glimmer of empathy (if not contrition). I broke into tears as I walked away. Suddenly the most inflammatory rhetoric of our movement—that cops are inhuman pigs, that their violence against us justifies violence in response, and that those that do not join in our denuciations are complicit in their injustice—made sense to me.
And that is why I have to admit that, although my heart wanted to be with my brothers and sisters in Cal and Davis this last week, I am grateful for the enforced separation from the movement that 3,000 miles of distance has brought me. We activists must walk a delicate line, filling ourselves with rage at the system while not hating those within it, dedicating ourselves to justice while not being consumed by injustice, and believing in the inherent goodness of humanity in the face of at times overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We must, in the words of a wise comrade, be both gentle and strong.
I thought I had largely struck that balance, but now that this has become personal, I am no longer so sure. As Alan Paton writes of apartheid South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country:
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”
2 thoughts on “Gentle / Strong”
What a thoughtful piece, Alex. Thank you for sharing.
hey, chiquito, nice title. 🙂 boy after my own heart. let’s talk soon. xo