Behind the peaceful vigil
On August 12, like friends all over the country, I was glued to news and social media to try to understand what had just happened in Charlottesville, Va., and what to do about it. My partner and I asked ourselves, “Should we organize something? What would we achieve by holding a rally or vigil in Terre Haute?”
The online tool box and book Beautiful Trouble shares the theory that when you are planning actions, you consider both the expressive and instrumental impacts of that action. The expressive impacts are the personal reasons someone participates – the ways in which the action communicates your feelings, identity and values. These are important, but organizers aim to balance these with instrumental impacts, which are the ways in which the action helps you achieve what you are aiming for with your cause.
The expressive potential of a rally was clear: So many people in our community were showing that they wanted to express their feelings about what happened in Charlottesville. The instrumental possibilities were less clear on the surface. In this case, we weren’t asking for a specific decision from government, like “Vote no on SB 309” or “Remove X statue.” But, we saw that this could bring us closer to our goals of a peaceful and just community in several ways. Our expression could serve as a statement to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our area (and yes, they are here) that we would not hide nor allow them to take control. Our nonviolent example could help dispel the idea that people who oppose hate groups are responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. And by moving quickly and locally, we could provide an opportunity for people who were moved by what happened in Charlottesville to connect with ways to take action over the long term. After all, it would be the sustained work of many people over time, not one rally, which will bring us the society we want.
We also asked: Would it be worth the risk?
There is always a risk in taking a stand, from the small risks of potentially creating friction in relationships, to financial or legal risks, to actual bodily risk, like those in Charlottesville faced. When you’re organizing an action, the responsibility to consider the risks is even greater. This was clearly a potentially risky situation, so we had to be sure that the outcomes would be worth the risks – and worth the time!
So what did we do?
Ultimately, we decided that yes, we wanted to organize something. To meet our goals (both impact and safety), mobilizing a large number of people was key. We reached out to other people who organize people to see if they also agreed we should do something, to take our initial idea and turn it into a solid plan, then to make it happen. Six people (including two Providence Associates and two Sisters of Providence) were able to join a conference call within about 30 minutes. We soon had a plan and an event on Facebook. It was less than 24 hours until our planned event, so as we went forward with our roles, we also continued to connect and plan.
In order to meet our expressive goals, it was important that every person who attended feel that they belonged there and had a right to speak. We saw that some public statements by religious leaders around the country had included statements like “Only the light of Christ can quench the torches of hatred and violence.” We asked ourselves, “How would it feel to Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths to hear that only Jesus is the answer,” and “How can we be more inclusive in our event?” We made sure that our outreach included communities of color and multiple faith communities, and that the way we described the event included room for multiple faiths and non-religious people.
To keep the event safe, we did several things. When we contacted media about covering the event, we aimed for coverage only after the event, to minimize the chance that people would come to counter-protest. We found a handout about how to protest safely and nonviolently which we printed to distribute, along with the Litany of Non-violence.
To help with both the goals of safety and inclusive expression, we decided to start our event with a welcome that included both an inclusive welcome and a reminder to review and follow our handout about nonviolence. I volunteered to prepare and deliver this welcome. In my statement, I intentionally welcomed everyone in many different ways, for example “Whether you identify as an activist or don’t identify as an activist,” different racial descents, ages, sexual orientations, religions, etc. My goal was to not just make each person feel welcome, but to make each person feel welcomed over and over; to have each person feel that every aspect of themselves from their multiple identities to their bodies and emotions were welcomed.
So, how did it go? Did we meet our goals?
Within one hour of the event starting, 841 people had been directly invited to the event on Facebook and the event had been shared on Facebook about 200 times. At the event, we counted about 175 people, including those from Terre Haute, Sullivan, Brazil, and other surrounding communities. We had at least one guest who was traveling and found out about our event from a national listing of solidarity events. I think we succeeded in getting the word out!
The event was expressive indeed, as we passed around the bullhorn without pause for more than one hour. We heard from white people and people of color and Jewish people. We heard Christian prayers, Jewish prayers, and statements that were not religious.
Not only did people express themselves, but they made contributions to our instrumental goal for the event by sharing ways to take action in the long term, sharing groups to connect with and events to attend. This was especially helpful for the people who attended who were stepping up for the first time. In this way, our event helped build our power, too. Our ability to mobilize so many people in our city so quickly demonstrated that there are many like-minded people who will stand for justice and love in our community. The media coverage of our event helped amplify this message.
Thankfully, our event was safe. There were angry honks and gestures from some passersby, but we kept a tone of love and did not have any counter-protesters.
And, what about me in all this?
When I’m helping to organize, I often forget myself in the process. Sometimes, it’s only when things are rolling, that I remember myself and feel my own feelings. After a hectic 26 hours of preparation, I stood on a stone wall with about 175 faces turned to me; the faces of so many friends, including so many Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates and Candidate-Associates. As I spoke to the crowd, I really felt the love. I felt connection. I felt lifted.
They say courage is not an absence of fear, but acting in spite of your fear. In this moment, I can’t say my fear was gone. I can say my courage was buoyed. I knew without a doubt in that moment that I will continue to act in solidarity with my beloved community.
Below, please take a look at “Staying Safe at Protests: How to respond Non-Violently.”