Oscar Grant, Audre Lorde, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the question of loving our enemies.
Cross-posted at Feministe. As the verdict approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about the relationships between state violence and intimate violence. In what ways our focus on state violence, and mechanisms for resisting it, jive and don’t jive with methods for dealing with intimate violence. Aaron Tanaka made a wonderful comment on the original post — as always, Aaron, I’m truly grateful for your insights and questions, and their organic connection to the great work you do.
Just yesterday, only 20 minutes after a conversation about police alternatives, as my friend Noa was dropping me off at home, we found ourselves in an impromptu cop watch. Four officers were arresting three men on my block — two of whom I recognized as regulars on the corner, and one with whom I’ve tossed a football across Hyde Street traffic. When I saw the cops lining the men up against the fence, I just stepped out of Noa’s car onto the sidewalk and inserted myself. After one of the officers attempted to intimidate Noa by calling in her plate number (we’d been stopped and talking in the car inside a red parking zone), she drove around the block, parked, came back and joined me for the next half hour as we watched these three men get yelled at, cuffed, and loaded into a police van.
I’ll maybe write up a full summary tomorrow, because the effect of our intervention on the cops’ behavior was pretty interesting, as well as the conversation we struck up with two male officers. For now, here’s my Feministe piece from Sunday.
[Trigger Warning: discussions of sexual assault and deadly State force.]
Love your enemies.
For feminists, is there any phrase more terrifyingly reactionary?
Love your enemies. Even the one who assaults you in private and reaps accolades as a brilliant community organizer in public. (One of my mom’s former boyfriends.)
Love your enemies. Even the ones who throw cherry bombs at you in the school bathrooms. (My dad’s fellow students at Yale, in the 1950s.)
Love your enemies. Even the one who tells you women should be seamstresses, not lawyers. (Opa — my mom’s dad.)
Love your enemies. Even the one who tells you, as a child, to bit down on your lower lip so it won’t grow too big. (Grandma — my dad’s mom.)
Love your enemies. Even the white police officer who shot and killed you while you were lying helpless, face-down on the ground with another officer’s knee on your neck. (Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man killed Jan 1, 2009 in an Oakland subway station.)
Jury deliberations began yesterday for Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer who fatally shot Oscar Grant. All of Oakland awaits the verdict. Both police and non-profits are making preparations to quell the “violence” anticipated after this “deadly lightning rod” of a trial.
Deadly? Violence? According to CNN’s coverage, not one single person was seriously injured in the 2009 protests following Grant’s death. Nobody injured, let alone killed. Windows were broken; dumpsters set afire. Is this violence? Sounds more like property destruction to me.
Whatever happens, whether riots flare up or not, things will once again settle, and the ordinary state violence will resume as usual. After all, there’s only one individual on trial — not an entire racist police force armed with deadly weapons. Not an entire patriarchal, militaristic, anti-immigrant, plutocratic (ruled by wealth) law enforcement system. Not California, the US state running “the largest prison system in the Western world.” That won’t be standing trial anytime soon. So what are we supposed to do?
Love your enemies.
What an injunction, huh? Just how are we supposed to achieve this? And why?
The “how” I’ll leave aside for now. Let’s focus on the why.
Why should we love our enemies? Why not hate them? Or at least get angry?
Audre Lorde, one of my all-time favorite feminists, has one answer. With hatred we harm ourselves, and anger only takes us halfway to where we need to go. From “Eye To Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”:
And true, sometimes it seems that anger alone keeps me alive; it burns with a bright and undiminished flame. Yet anger, like guilt, is an incomplete form of human knowledge. More useful than hatred, but still limited. Anger is useful to help clarify our differences, but in the long run, strength that is bred by anger alone is a blind force which cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past. Such strength does not focus on what lies ahead, but upon what lies behind, upon what created it – hatred. And hatred is a deathwish for the hated, not a lifewish for anything else.
Thirty years after “The Uses Of Anger: Women Responding To Racism,” her keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Lorde’s questions about anger are just as relevant now as then. When and how is our anger useful? When and how is it harmful?
One of my best clues at the moment comes from the dhamma — the teachings of the historical Buddha. Dhamma does not condemn anger as wrong or sinful. Instead, it shows us how to look at our own anger objectively, and start breaking it down. See its useful, neutral, and harmful qualities.
Meditation, not cogitation (thinking) is really the key there. But on the intellectual tip, a very useful explanation for me came from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book The Myth of Freedom: a chapter called “Working With Negativity.” I don’t have the book on me, but this online excerpt gets at the essence:
“We all experience negativity–the basic aggression of wanting things to be different than they are. We cling, we defend, we attack, and throughout there is a sense of one’s own wretchedness, and so we blame the world for our pain. This is negativity. We experience it as terribly unpleasant, foul smelling, something we want to get rid of. But if we look into it more deeply, it has a very juicy smell and is very alive. Negativity is not bad per se, but something living and precise, connected with reality.
Negativity breeds tension, friction, gossip, discontentment, but it is also very accurate, deliberate and profound. Unfortunately, the heavy handed interpretations and judgments we lay on these experiences obscure this fact. These interpretations are negative negativity, watching ourselves being negative and then deciding that the negativity is justified in being there. This negativity seems good-natured, with all sorts of good qualities in it, so we pat its back, guard it and justify it. Or, if we are blamed or attacked by others, we interpret their negativity as being good for us. In either case, the watcher, by commenting, interpreting and judging, is camouflaging and hardening the basic negativity.
. . . . . The basic honesty and simplicity of negativity can be creative in community as well as in personal relationships. Basic negativity is very revealing sharp and accurate. If we leave it as basic negativity rather than overlaying it with conceptualizations, then we see the nature of its intelligence. Negativity breeds a great deal of energy, which clearly seen becomes intelligence. When we leave the energies as they are with their natural qualities, they are living rather than conceptualized. They strengthen our daily lives….”
You’d think Lorde had been reading up on this guy. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” she says. “Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” Negativity clearly seen.
So here we have an alternative. Rather than making anger comprise our actions toward an enemy, we let it inform and energize our actions.
Instead of directing venom toward “the pigs,” we might use this precise negative mind to observe, The forces that are supposed to be keeping our communities safe — serving us — are making us less safe. Killing us. These forces control the people, but they’re not of the people. They have little to no accountability to the majority of the human beings whose lives are in their hands.
I don’t want a racist patriarch “protecting” me. This serves neither of us.
Safety and community rule enforcement groups need to protect the welfare of ordinary, working-class people, not just wealthy people. The welfare of people of all genders, not just men; of all races, not just white; of all birthplaces, not just US; of all religions, not just Christian or secular; of all mental and physical conditions, not just the ones considered “normal.”
“Community policing” — collaboration between existing law enforcement agencies and the groups they serve — doesn’t go far enough. I want people from my own community protecting me — people I know and trust. People I’ve elected to a community safety body; reflecting the genders, races, class, and national and ethnic origins of the community; not sadistic or prone to power-trips; militant but not militaristic; who can perform equally well the work of confrontation and of de-escalation, healing, and peacebuilding — who won’t just selectively enforce the laws and rules that favor the powerful. Who won’t use handcuffs and
tasers loaded guns to break up young Black men’s non-fights on New Year’s Eve.
This is what my anger over Oscar Grant’s death tells me. That we’re fit to govern and protect ourselves. In fact, we’re better at it.
If Mehserle and the cops are my enemies, I know this: they and I equally deserve real safety. We all deserve to provide it and receive it, to the best of our abilities and to the extent of our needs, in the context of our own communities. We’re all worthy of that.
And if I need to disobey some existing laws in order to build toward that real, true safety, then I’m breaking those laws with love for my enemies as well as for myself.
Because, as we know, our enemies are often our very closest neighbors. And there’s that other famous phrase:
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
We love ourselves – protect ourselves – and protect our neighbors and enemies, too – as we question and challenge the state’s idea of what ‘safety,’ ‘order,’ and ‘protection’ really are.
Oakland itself, hardly a stranger to up-ending conventional ideas of protection, has one of the strongest recent histories of community self-defense in the US. Imperfect and unromantic, yes, but game-changing nonetheless.
And feminists, womanists, and gender-oppressed people are among the most inspiring leaders in this kind of loving action. We create our own protective forces based on analysis of intimate violence, community violence, and state violence — preventing, healing from, and transforming all three.
We also employ whatever tools best suit us — therapy, prayer, meditation — to heal our internal selves from cancerous hatred; to patiently harvest the honey of insight from the beehive of anger; and to cultivate the quality — socially awkward and spiritually indispensable — that Che Guevara so aptly described:
Let me say at the risk of sounding ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.
Please keep in mind the comment guidelines as we come to the end of our experiment!