The essay--love letter, really--below is written by Nichola Torbett in March 2012 to
comrades in Occupy Oakland regarding a very serious conflict that has erupted in the midst of the movement.
“Rebuke the devil!” It’s an old-fashioned, churchy phrase—not one I’m prone
to using, but it's the phrase that has been running through my mind these past couple of weeks as I have watched the fires
of conflict lick at the Occupy Oakland community.
Now, before you start thinking I mean, by “the
devil,” any of individuals involved in this conflict—the Targeted Person, or the Media Four, or the Proposal Six,
or any other identifiable individual or group—let me explain. My interest is not in castigating or defending anyone’s
behavior. Most of us have made mistakes, spoken or acted or voted without adequate information, acted recklessly, or behaved
badly at this point, and little wonder; studies on soldiers in active duty show that combat experience drastically compromises
decision-making ability within two months of exposure, and we've been at this for nearly six months now. I am also not
interested in taking sides. The truth is, I’m crazy in love with all of you and want the flourishing and wholeness of
each one of you (and my own) as well as our collective flourishing as a force for justice in Oakland and beyond.
When I use the word devil, I’m not talking about a person
at all. I am speaking mythologically and intend the word in the original sense of the Greek word diabolos, which means "the slanderer,” and which comes from the verb diaballo, which means "to throw in", "to generate confusion", "to divide",
or "to make someone fall." The devil is, in this sense, an impersonal mythological force that intervenes to disrupt
love, solidarity, and the movement toward justice. This devil will prey on any of us in a weak moment and draft us for his
Christian scripture claims that Jesus was tested by the devil, and when Jesus
evaded him, the devil “withdrew until an opportune time” (Luke 4: 13). It would be hard to deny that the devil—the
great divider—has found an opportune time and is now tearing away at one of the most promising movements of solidarity
to emerge in many years.
What do we do in response? How do we rid ourselves of these demons and
reclaim our solidarity?
I don’t claim to have the full answer, but here’s my intuitive
response: We admit and make amends for our own part in what has happened. We do this even if other people will not admit what
they have done. Doing this is an antidote to the defensiveness, denial, and projection that the “devil” is exploiting
in our midst.
Psychology 101 teaches us that people tend to disown and deny parts of themselves
that are socially unacceptable or shameful and then project those parts of ourselves onto other people. Our day-to-day experience
shows us that most people don’t like to admit mistakes.
My first inkling that projection
was at work in this most recent conflict was when I saw people—most of them smart, white radicals—loudly identifying
as “racist” a group of individuals, three of whom are people of color. Now, don’t get me wrong; I believe
that people of color can be as prejudiced as white people, individually, but there was something very strange about seeing
white people (who benefit most systemically from racism) pointing their fingers at those who are targeted by racism and accusing
them of being its originators. Racism does not originate in individuals; it is a systemic sickness that shapes all our lives
in significant ways—differently, of course, depending on our social location—and distorts all of our social relations.
Seeking to identify “racist individuals” is like trying to treat the measles by obsessing over individual sores.
At best, it’s a distraction; at worst, it allows the infection to kill the host. Scapegoating will kill this movement.
We must move past it, and soon.
Any number of people and groups of people have pointed out the
racism that plagues Occupy Oakland. That has been painful to hear. At a conscious level, all of us, I am quite sure, reject
racism and white supremacy. At the same time, we have all—all of us, white people and people of color—ingested
racist/white supremacist ideology since the moment we were born, so it should not be surprising that it continues to shape
our behavior. The very things we fight against out in the world—racism, patriarchy, domination, greed, status-seeking,
shame, violence—have come to live inside us through years of exposure and coercion. The only way to deal with this state
of affairs is to retain our humility, remaining open to feedback about behavior that might be hurtful to others and damaging
to our movement. We must acknowledge that we have been colonized by capitalism and its handmaidens, that this is not our fault,
that we will consequently misstep, and that misstepping does not make us irredeemable. We must get over our fear of making
mistakes and learn to recover from them with grace.
I'll go first. Racism and white supremacy—and
my fear of being accused of it—have definitely shaped my behavior in this most recent conflict. I was quick to get on
the mic at the first opportunity and denounce the racism of the criminal justice system, wondering aloud how members of our
media committee could risk turning someone over to it. While my analysis was fine that day, I believe I was motivated in part
by a desire to be seen to be on the right side of things. From the vantage point of the present, I can see how my statement
further played into the narrative about four “racist individuals” (who thank God are separate and distinct from
me!) committing a racist act. I was trying to get the racist label off of me, when really it belongs on me as much as anyone,
permeating the air we breathe as it does.
Furthermore, I acknowledge that it is often harder for
me to hold men of color accountable when they are saying and doing things that are hurtful or offensive to me than it is for
me to confront white men who do similar things. The combination of sexism and racism feels very hard to navigate, and I am
afraid that if I speak up, I will be unwittingly acting on racism. (One of the effects of racism is that it makes it hard
for anyone to trust what they see as the truth, rather than as a distortion caused by the lie that is racism.) I know that
when I remain silent, as a white woman, in the face of sexism and abuse, I allow oppression to continue. I also may be leaving
women (and sometimes men) of color to do the dirty work of taking on the hurtful or abusive behavior. I don’t know if
this dynamic was at work in the media committee’s inability to come to terms with the Targeted Person, but I can easily
imagine it might have been.
In 12-step recovery, we talk a lot about “staying on our own
side of the street.” Those of us who have fallen prey to the illness of addiction have learned the hard way that we
can’t focus too much on what other people have done wrong; it only leads us back into bitterness, resentment, and eventually,
addictive behavior. On a broader scale, playing the blame game destroys movements.
And yet owning
our own part when others won’t own theirs feels like annihilation sometimes. At those moments, I remember a particular
story from the gospels. Jesus has just told his disciples that he must now turn toward Jerusalem—the center of political
and religious power—where he will face unjust accusations without defense and finally be tortured and killed. His closest
disciple and best friend, Peter, essentially replies: “Don’t say that! You don’t have to take that stuff!
You’re the messiah. You are in the right!” To this, Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking
human thoughts, not God’s thoughts!”
In Peter’s words, Jesus recognizes the
devil’s exploitation of human defensiveness and rebukes it. He knows that he will not be able to fulfill his mission—to
show that love triumphs over death—if he listens to Peter’s counsel. Likewise, if we give in to our defensiveness,
human as it is, we will always—when the going gets tough—sell each other out. We will always choose to defend
ourselves and our good opinion of ourselves at other people’s expense. We cannot build solidarity if that is the case.
We must learn a different way. We must cultivate the courage to be humble and to confess our missteps.
we create safe spaces for people to do this kind of soul-searching and confession? Can we hold each other in love through
that process? Can we rebuke the devil?