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Rebuke the Devil in Occupied Oakland
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On Restoring and Maintaining Solidarity in the Midst of Conflict

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 purposes.

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.

Can 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?

Copyright Seminary of the Street 2012