Turning Crisis into Opportunity
In recent weeks, DxE has been bullied, bludgeoned, and even betrayed. But the Chinese word for crisis shares a common character -- ji or 机 -- with the Chinese word for opportunity. Following that ancient parallel, here’s how we can transform crisis into opportunity.
by Wayne Hsiung
Nearly one year ago to the day, I was slugged in the face by an angry man at a Chipotle protest in San Francisco.
The man was not initially violent, laughing and yelling “Meat! Meat! Meat!’ as he passed our #ItsNotFoodItsViolence protest. But when one of my co-organizers, Priya, began to film him, he became irate.
“Turn that camera off!” he screamed. Priya ignored him.
The man then proceeded to shout at virtually everyone around him that he wanted the camera off. He yelled at passers-by, who scurried away from him. He yelled at the building security guard, who had until that point been quite hostile toward the protest. He even went inside the Chipotle and yelled at store employees, apparently failing to realize that Chipotle management would have no control over…. protesters.
And so he came back outside and proceeded to scream his head off at Priya. But Priya continued to quietly record the man. And before we knew it, he charged her head first, tackling her and throwing her against the plate glass wall of the Chipotle as he fought to get his hands on her iPhone.
I had been talking to a group of 3 passers-by about Chipotle’s humanewashing when it happened. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the incident was about to escalate. And when things went bad, I was immediately ready to rush forward, as one of the individuals at our protest who was designated to nonviolently defend our protesters. I pulled the man off of Priya, and did my best to secure her iPhone, which the man had seized from her hand.
“You can’t do this, friend,” I repeatedly said.
But he was in no mood to listen, so after a brief tussle, he threw the phone at me, shattering it when it hit the ground. As I reached down to pick the phone up, he slugged me in the face. He then ran off down the street.
Astonishingly, the first person to run up to me was the Chipotle security guard.
“You want me to go after the guy?” he asked.
“No, no. It’s all right,” I replied.
For the rest of the protest, the security guard, who had been aggressively harassing us and demanding that we leave, became our defender, patrolling back and forth along the protest line with a watchful eye on any potentially violent passers-by. “Is everyone ok?” he asked.
Our adversary became our protector.
Priya, who was unscathed from the incident other than a shattered phone, went right back to protesting. As for me, other than a fat lip and a little blood, I was good to go. I walked back to the three people I had been talking to before the incident and said, “Where were we again?” Mouths agape, they listened even more intently than they had before.
There have recently been far more serious incidents of violence, misconduct, and even betrayal in the DxE network. Activists have been attacked, deceived, and harassed by employees or the police (and, more distressingly, by one another). At moments like these, it’s important to step back and ask, as we asked after the Chipotle incident last May, “How do we handle a crisis?” While crisis poses three serious challenges to our network, it also offers 3 important opportunities. Let’s break things down.
Challenge #1: Keeping activists safe.
Whether violence at a protest, or misconduct by a member of the community, crisis threatens to cause immediate harm. The first challenge we face, therefore, is to protect those who have been, or will be, victimized. At DxE, we recommend that all chapters have activists trained to be legal observers/representatives, lawyers in place in case something goes wrong, and nonviolence-trained “defenders” in the unlikely event that a protest becomes dangerous. (It's important to point out that, out of hundreds of protests across the world, only a tiny handful, significantly less than 1%, have resulted in violence.) We also have a conflict resolution team, including two members designated to receive misconduct concerns, to immediately intervene in the event a conflict between community members takes a downturn.
The truth is that no matter how good your culture and policies are, crisis will still erupt. When our activists in Southern California were attacked (twice in the past two months), all of them were following standard protocol that we at DxE have been using for over two years without incident. When one of our organizers admitted to a serious breach of trust, even those closest to him were stunned by the confession. In such cases, all we can do is move quickly to ensure that those who are harmed are immediately given support and defense.
Challenge #2: Maintaining confidence in the network.
Crisis also threatens a network’s culture and integrity. As grassroots activists, we rely entirely on the faith that activists hold in the network, and one another, to sustain our commitments. When activists feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or distrustful, we lose our movement’s most important asset: confidence. The key to maintaining this confidence, in turn, is integrity and transparency.
At DxE, we focus on integrity by asking all of our organizers to sign a strong statement of values. These values, along with a clear conflict resolution process, help us ensure that our public faces and voices maintain the honesty, responsibility, empathy, and humility -- the integrity -- that are so key to maintaining confidence within a network.
We further insist on transparency in all our decisions. Every week, we check in with our community members and ask them for critical feedback at our DxE Meetup. We do the same on an international basis on monthly strategy calls. We open ourselves up to private feedback. And when we become aware of conflict, we do our best to directly and openly address it (while respecting privacy concerns), rather than let it fester in rumor and innuendo.
Challenge #3: Mitigating conflict.
Crisis, because it involves pain and emotional intensity, often leads to conflict even among once close allies. Because we are vulnerable in a moment of crisis, we look for support from our community and friends. And if they do not respond as we would like them to respond, the hurt caused can be both significant and difficult to overcome. Disagreement quickly becomes perceived betrayal.
Did my friends respond swiftly enough? Did they respond strongly enough? Could they have done something to prevent the crisis from happening? These questions naturally go through our heads. And the discord sown by such thoughts can be fatal to a movement.
Worse yet, crisis is a moment of opportunism for those who seek to bring a network or movement down. The classic example is infiltrators. Whether on the payroll of a corporation or the government, a few rumors by a well-positioned activist can send a conflict spiraling out of control. (One of Cointelpro’s specialties in the 1960s was sexual innuendo, e.g. claiming that various activists were gay, which was seen as a mark of shame in that time period.) Others may use crisis to defend or deflect from their own behavior. It’s notable that, in recent controversies involving sexual misconduct, many of the loudest voices condemning other activists have been those who have something to hide, e.g. prior histories of misconduct. (We know this because community members have privately raised concerns about some of the most ostentatious critics.) Finally, even the most well-intentioned activists can sometimes devolve into hatefulness when caught up in a fit of righteous indignation. The New York Times wrote a wonderful piece on this phenomenon just a few days ago, When the Cyber Bully is You.
Some of the greatest activists in history have noted that their movements rose or fell largely on the basis of their ability, not to confront the oppressor, but to productively resolve conflict. (King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a response to an attack, not by opponents of civil rights, but allies in the anti-racist struggle!) The beauty of grassroots movements -- their ability to scale up by attracting ordinary people from all walks of life-- becomes their curse when the lack of centralized authority allows conflict to rage throughout the network. Instead of focusing on collective action against systems of oppression, activists devote their time and energy to trying to destroy one another, whether due to real or perceived slights. A large nonprofit, of course, can simply fire discontented employees and force everyone else to get back to work. Grassroots movements have no such power.
So how do we prevent in-fighting from destroying us? There are at least three important mechanisms we use at DxE. First, we focus on creating a culture of nonviolent communication and restorative (rather than retributive) justice. Instead of assigning blame and “calling out,” we focus on restoring harm and “calling in.” No matter how terrible the transgression, we always offer to sit down and talk. Second, we ask our organizers to use private dispute resolution, pursuant to pre-agreed polices, as a first step in managing any conflict. When they deviate from this, we ask them to look to the values they’ve agreed to, and ask them whether they’ve lived up to those values. Third and finally, we always emphasize our shared purpose. The truth is that some conflict cannot be resolved. Whenever you bring together a large group of people, many will have tactical, strategic, or even ethical disagreements that endure despite our best efforts. Learning to live with conflict, by emphasizing shared purpose and opportunities for collaboration despite conflict, is key to effective organizing in the grassroots. (Sometimes, this means stepping apart from one another and working in parallel, rather than as part of the same network or team.)
Rising up to these three challenges -- keeping activists safe, maintaining confidence, and mitigating conflict -- is absolutely crucial to a movement’s vitality. But while the work we do to overcome these challenges can often seem frustrating, depressing, or pointless, it’s important to also see that crisis can also provide opportunities that, in the long term, benefit a movement’s strength and growth.
Opportunity #1: Crisis teaches us.
One of the most famous mantras of the startup world is that you have to fail to succeed. The idea is quite simple -- that the only way to avoid mistakes is to avoid doing anything at all. The key, then, is whether you learn from a mistake. Indeed, some of the greatest success stories in history, e.g. Steve Jobs and Apple Computer (which was brought to its knees in the 1990s by Microsoft before being revitalized in the 2000s with the iPod and iPhone) were grounded in terrible mistakes.
Crisis presents a powerful teaching moment for us, both individually and collectively. Our attention is paid to an issue. We can look back through time and ask if we could have done anything better. And we have the energy and willpower to change our practices and policies. The physical attacks on activists, for example, have induced us at DxE to make knowing your rights and security culture a more prominent and accessible part of our activist resource database. We’ve made concerted efforts to develop a network of volunteer lawyers across the country. Sexual harassment in the network, in turn, has caused us to put together a clear and visible process for handling sexual misconduct. We’re also offering training and resources for both women and men in handling such difficult situations. Perhaps most importantly, crisis offers a moment for all of us, individually and as communities, to reflect on our own behavior. In the long term, the learning from these moments will help us build a stronger movement.
Opportunity #2: Crisis tests us.
When I was a child, I played basketball on a five foot hoop across the street. While scoring was incredibly easy, it also provided no challenge -- and no proof that I was actually any good as a basketball player. (It turns out I wasn’t any good. I never made the basketball team.)
In times of difficulty, it’s important to remember this. If we don’t face challenges, then we won’t have any opportunity to prove that we can rise to the challenge. This is important not just for the learning function a challenge provides, but because it builds our internal confidence and our external credibility. After recent incidents with violence and police misconduct, for example, my hope is that our activists in Southern California and Tucson feel even more confidence in our ability to swiftly provide support in the event that something goes wrong. Similarly, Priya, who took the lead in handling recent sexual misconduct within the network, has heard countless encouraging stories from women who feel empowered by the fact that DxE took action when we learned of sexual misconduct. While crisis hurts in the short run, then, it also presents an opportunity to test our mettle, and bolster our confidence and credibility, if we can rise to the challenge.
Remember, if movement building were easy, it would have already been done!
Opportunity #3: Crisis ties us in bonds of solidarity.
Journalist Sebastian Junger, who has reported on war zones across the world, makes a startling observation that individuals who go through horrendous episodes of violence (leading to depression, anxiety and PTSD) often enthusiastically return to the war zone even in the face of debilitating fears. The reason? The shared experience of facing crisis together creates powerful bonds of solidarity. Individuals who have experienced war together feel compelled and even inspired to return, because they care so much for their team that they are prepared to risk their own lives to support their friends.
This is, in fact, one of the most powerful mechanisms of nonviolent direct action. Enduring a difficult situation with fellow activists ties us together in a way that less challenging activism simply does not accomplish. When we collectively speak in difficult social environments, we feel we’ve accomplished something that we would not have been able to do on our own. That empowers us, and our community. And, in a movement that suffers from astonishing rates of burnout, this is a powerful and important effect.
The support shown for Abraham (the gay person of color who was assaulted with homophobic slurs and targeted by the police) in the wake of the physical violence in Southern California has been absolutely inspiring. We’ve united against a common adversary -- animal abusers -- and offered our moral, physical, and economic support for activists who have been wrongly targeted in a time of crisis. These ties will hold us together as we face even more difficult challenges in the future. And while the road is bumpy -- and some may even drop out on the way there -- taking the difficult road together will ultimately make all of us stronger and more committed to the movement, to the animals, and, yes, to one another.
The first time I was attacked a protest about a decade ago (by a police officer, no less), I was shaken to the core. I was at a one-person demonstration on a cold Chicago street, outside of a fur store. And when my face was shoved down onto the cement, I could hardly even believe what had just happened. When I sat in an isolated jail cell afterwards, nursing my scratches and wounds, I could hardly hold myself back from breaking down into tears. I was uncertain about what I would be charged with, stunned by the seeming corruption in the police department, and hopeless about the prospect of continuing as an activist in the face of overwhelming odds.
When I was slugged in the face last year at Chipotle, however, things could not have been any more different. Both Priya and I received immense support and comfort, not just from fellow activists at the demonstration but from the entire DxE network. We talked openly within the community about what we could do to prevent such a future occurrence, or at least ensure that those attacked would be prepared in the face of violence. And instead of pointing fingers at one another -- “Why did you incite him?” or “Why didn’t you move to help more quickly?” -- we focused on our shared purpose, even as we discussed what steps each of us could have taken to ensure that such an incident would not repeat itself.
In the long run, getting slugged in the face in May 2014 became one of the most positive experiences of my activist history.
This is a more general principle. The Chinese word for crisis shares a common character -- ji or 机 -- with the Chinese word for opportunity. And there is truth to this ancient parallel. If we can rise up to the challenges of crisis, and see them as opportunities to teach us, to test us, and to create ties of solidarity, we can transform even the most painful moments into opportunities to learn, grow, and flourish.