Creating a Culture of Peace

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Consider a situation where the mayor orders local police to stop and question your family and friends on a regular basis. In addition, you learn that white supremacists and others are scheduling a huge rally to support the new policy. Through web sites and emails, they are inviting others across the region to join them. The mayor is scheduled to speak at their rally. At similar past rallies there has been no visible opposition. You are frustrated and angry. How would you respond?

Wind of the Spirit decided to seek immediate direct action nonviolence training. They are an immigrants' resource center in Morristown, New Jersey, supported by faith-based groups. Twenty-five legal immigrants and allies were committed to taking the training and to holding signs in a silent vigil of opposition to the mayor's policy.

Wind of the Spirit had serious concerns about the rally. How could their small group take a stand for justice and human rights and remain peaceful? They anticipated a large and aggressive crowd at the anti-immigrant rally and the possibility of verbal, even physical, assaults against their group. They knew, too, that anarchists were planning to protest the mayor's policy, and the anarchists were not committed to peaceful protest.

The day of the training, I found the atmosphere charged with high energy and tension. We began with spiritual reflection, discussed the likely scenario, explored the nature and dynamics of nonviolent action in the face of domination, and role-played situations to build effective teamwork and communication. Most importantly, we practiced remaining true to our selves under attack; we practiced and practiced, using the Hassle Line exercise.

The Hassle Line classic exercise helped prepare civil rights and peace activists, farm workers, women, lesbians and gays, environmentalists and many others committed to nonviolent struggles for justice. It remains a standard component of nonviolence training today. During the exercise, colleagues hassle other colleagues to help them learn to center into their personal power and to practice a variety of non-threatening ways of being firmly present in the midst of conflict. Through this kind of experimentation, it has been possible for individuals and groups to learn how to avoid resorting to violence, hard-heartedness, or hatred toward their opponents.

What happened on the day of the anti-immigrant rally in Morristown? The group trained in active nonviolence showed their signs and stood silently without responding to nasty speeches and chants, just as they had planned. They did not answer the mayor's loud charges that they were all Communists and Marxists bent on taking over the country. When the leader from Wind in the Spirit ventured alone into the anti-immigrant rally across the street and silently held up her sign, twenty police surrounded her, dragged her far away, and shoved her to the ground. She proudly stated that she had kept to her promise to say nothing. "For some people, this was their first time," she said. "It was an opportunity for all of us to see what happens and how to take peaceful action. Now we are ready for the three-day nonviolence training."

We all can find opportunities to experiment with constructive ways of remaining our best and truest selves in the midst of conflict. We can learn to engage with openness, listening, mutual respect, and peaceful dialogue while standing firm on our issues and holding to our values and beliefs. We all can practice, practice, practice.

8/07, Kirkridge Ridgeleaf


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Creating a Culture of Peace