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.