What will it take to walk in peace?

I know in many ways its hypocritical for me to criticize what other people are doing, while I don’t take an active role in organizing like I have in the past. There’s a lot of reasons for this: in large part because I’m having difficulty reconciling my anger with the impotence of most activism, because most activism is feel-good and the whole world is shit, because I see so little redeemable in the world. Because I don’t see any possible action as being effective.

Very few people know this about me, but my “model” movement isn’t Indian Independence led by Gandhi, not the Civil Rights Movement, not Women’s Suffrage, not South African Apartheid, not the Global Justice/Antiglobalization Movement, not Occupy. What I’ve always been fascinated by, inspired by, is the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance. More than any other movement, in my opinion, it demarcates the difference between victimhood and resistance; it is the example of unequivocally understanding what needs to be done and then doing it, at great risk to many who had passing or dominant privilege. It is also a blatant example of how such movements are whitewashed after the fact to restore the narrative to what is most convenient for the hegemonic society. I don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t problems, that it couldn’t have been carried out more effectively.

Most of my opinions and ideas about nonviolence and violence in resistance are shaped by this singular case (though also influenced by many more). When I began training in Krav Maga, I did so for similar reasons. While, again, without its problems (such as the training method for occupation forces in Palestine), it is intricately tied to the history and legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto–I’m now reflecting on it in this way because it has a connection to George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin. Krav Maga (hebrew for ‘contact combat’) was created by Imi Lichtenfeld in the late 1930s, to help the Jewish population of Bratislava defend itself against racist and fascist attacks. Most training takes the question of nonviolence vs. violence as irrelevant, distraction from self-defense and survival. The major moral/ethical guideline in Krav is: end the attack with minimal effort and maximum effect.

When an attack is anticipated, the surest way to defend is to avoid the attack outright. If that’s not possible, one deflects or deter the attack. If an attack is imminent, you end the attack by ending the attacker. If your life is threatened, there is no such thing as ‘fighting dirty’–you attack whatever weakness you can: attack the beitsim (groin), attack the larynx, attack the kidneys, attack the eyes and nose, attack the solar plexus, attack the brain stem. It is understood that some of these attacks can kill or maim your attacker. But they are attacking you, your survival is in jeopardy, what happens to your attacker is of no concern to you so long as the attack is ended and you can continue living. Again, no moral quandary over violence and nonviolence, no judgment of right and wrong, just the simple mantra: ‘so that one may walk in peace.’

All of this is to say that even if Trayvon was highly trained in Krav, he still would have been seen as suspicious, he still would have been followed, he still would have been murdered, he still would have been found guilty prejudicially even as Zimmerman is set free. Trayvon was not allowed to walk in peace. So long as a black man is murdered by police or vigilantes every 28 hours, people of color–and black people especially–cannot walk in peace, for they are always guilty, always suspicious, always eligible to be lynched or murdered without warning or cause or opportunity to deter or defend against the attack.

But I think that the lessons of the Warsaw Ghetto and the philosophy of Imi and Krav Maga can offer something important as we all struggle to understand what happened in Sanford, Florida, and what is left for the rest of us to do now. The recurring debates about violence vs nonviolence, vandalism vs rallies, whether we should petition DOJ or boycott Florida or the Koch brothers, what hashtag we should all use, whether photos of Trayvon’s lifeless body are appropriate, whether we should repeal Stand Your Ground or arm the hood… these all come second to the basic question of how we are to survive another day. Because we are not surviving. We’re losing more black and brown bodies to racism and the police state every single day. We’re seeing the gains of anti-racist movements scaled back constantly, we’re seeing the anti-racist movement atrophy. We’re focusing on everything but basic survival, because we’d rather have martyrs and victims than survivors. We’d rather look like we’re doing something, feel good about doing something, than risk everything to actually do something that contributes to survival.

I don’t know what we should do. The attacks we are facing, that black people in particular are facing, are far beyond anything we train for in the gym. They’re far beyond my academic or experiential knowledge–maybe that’s a good thing; after all, it’s not my struggle to lead. But we need to talk about it and figure out what to do. For all the articles and photos about Zimmerman’s acquittal, about black rage, about if Trayvon was white and George black, about the other cases of SYG in Florida, at best 1% of the discussion and posting about the case has actually begun to address where we go from here.

If it’s black rage, we need to allow it to run its course. If it’s community organizing, we need to understand to what end, and fight the parasitism and opportunism and branding that often accompany organizing. If it’s burning down the banks, which ones, and then what? In short, the question really is: how do we prevent this from happening again? How do we make sure that people of color, everyone really, can walk in peace?


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