Eli McCarthy, Director of the Justice and Peace Office of CMSM, was putting together a “peace team” on short notice. He felt it was important to do this before the election, since we’d already seen violence at Trump rallies and if it continued to escalate before the election, there could be worse to come. He explained our non-partisan role and the nonviolent techniques to be used, such as presence, dialogue, active listening, and calmness grounded in spirituality, and said our role would be that of “ambassadors of reconciliation,” adding that our Lord went into Jerusalem despite knowing the resistance he faced and the forces allied against him. Given that the SCJ mission statement explicitly calls them to be “prophets of love and servants of reconciliation,” the JPR Commission and I could see that such a project was not only in keeping with that mission, but was in fact a prime example of it.
I was new to this, but most of the 13 who met in Cleveland on Sunday morning July 17 were experienced, some having even served in places like Ferguson and Palestine. I learned that no one does peacekeeping alone. We were assigned to four-person “affinity teams” and talked with each other about our comfort levels with things like breaking up physical fights or getting arrested. None of us had come with the intent of provoking arrest or doing civil disobedience, and in fact one was concerned about not being arrested because of being on probation for past CD. Still, we knew that being swept up in a mass arrest or getting caught in the middle of a bad situation could lead to being taken off in handcuffs. Each affinity team (AT) agreed to stay in each other’s sight at all times, or to notify at least one of the group if we needed to take a bathroom break, hang back to talk to someone, etc. Then each of us partnered with one other whom we would be especially yoked to, the less-experienced partnering with the more-experienced.
What ultimately happened seemed anti-climactic in some ways. We were present at three marches over two days, one organized by an ecumenical group of church people to “Circle the City with Love,” another by a Stop-Trump group and another by End Poverty Now demonstration. The crowds weren’t as large as the organizers might have hoped, though there were hundreds at each. (The first event was attended planned by people of faith, the other two by various activist groups. The municipal and police authorities seemed to have chosen smart strategies, and the officers on the street, who may or may not have been local as departments around the country had loaned personnel, seemed to have been prepared well and for the great part at least as far as I saw, were very professional.
In the more casual first crowd, the ones I saw interacting were reciprocally friendly, and showed real appreciation of anyone’s support. At the other two marches, they maintained a very tight perimeter while allowing the marchers freedom within those limits. They were on bikes, not horseback, which from experience I can say is much less intimidating, and although many wore the now-common “ninja” type riot gear, they were not overly aggressive.
Although there were no rocks hurled or even fingers pointed at the cops present at the anti-Trump events, there was much invective and chanting about “killer cops” and “racist cops” in general and calls for the arrest, conviction and punishment of all police who’ve shot unarmed civilians. This had to be hard for them to hear, but the cops seemed to be either tuning it out or not letting it show if it bothered them. To me the words seemed especially provocative in light of the fact of the Louisiana officers killed by yet another sniper that very morning. Yet I had to recognize that the deadly shootings they were protesting (and there have been dozens as we all know), had been going on for years without let-up, and this was a chance to draw the nation’s attention to it.
Although I’ve participated in such demonstrations myself, standing in relation to protests like the two anti-Trump rallies as an “outside observer” did cause me to ask whether the spiteful things that are sometime said or chanted during such events don’t in fact contribute to the overall sense of division and loathing that has escalated between opposing groups in this country. Even if one believes that someone like Donald Trump is not a good person and dangerous for the country, or that a political party is at the root of many of our problems as a nation, that doesn’t mean that their supporters are by definition equally despicable.
That, I think, is the first and foundational principle of this type of peacekeeping: everyone is human, all humans have dignity (a sacred, God-given dignity if you are a believer), and therefore we must always respect that dignity and search for human understanding and empathy. That’s why, as soon as we would arrive at a demonstration, we would immediately start walking the crowd, in order to establish relationships with people. Often, they came up to us, to ask about our “Peace Team” vests and T-shirts, curious what we were about. It was a great opening to explain that we were there in a non-partisan way to ensure a safe space for all, not only demonstrators but police, media, and citizens and even counter-protesters we might encounter along the way. We had small pieces of paper we’d hand out explaining our commitment to nonviolence and our aims of defusing hostility and de-escalating conflict, and ultimately of a world “where voluntary cooperation, egalitarian relationships, solidarity and mutual aid are the norm.”
As we moved around the crowds answering people’s questions about us and chatting folks up wherever we could so as to establish the beginnings of relationship and trust, we also made special efforts to strike up conversations with anyone who looked like they might be hostile or inclined to provoke violence. I suppose this is a type of “profiling,” so I have to ask myself wear we draw the line between common-sense “profiling” by law enforcement agencies and unjust profiling, such as targeting any person of color or anyone “out of place” in a certain neighborhood. But the few who fit my “profile,” such as the aforementioned black-masked students (who claimed to just be there on their own, not as any part of any larger group of anarchists or revolutionaries), or the lone biker-looking dude who was also trying to strike up conversations with strangers (just like me!) turned out to be friendly and non-threatening.
None of us could stay past Monday, although the convention was lasting through Thursday. I’ve read about a few incidents that between protesters and Trump supporters in more recent days, but most people are amazed that things went as peacefully as they did. It may have seemed we were not really needed, but who can say how much our presence, as well as the efforts of some similar groups, may have contributed to that result, in addition to the unquestioned impact of the professionalism of the police and the restraint of the demonstrators and RNC participants?
Is this a real ministry, and does it have a future? I certainly think and hope so, and I noted that the police themselves, who we always alerted to our presence and to our purpose, always seemed glad we were there, so it would be wonderful if authorities are coming to see the utility of allowing groups like ours to play a larger role in such situations. Perhaps eventually we might even find a PD that would participate with us in some type of conflict de-escalization training, or perhaps engage in a dialogue about how we can make each other’s jobs easier. The best outcome of all would be that we model a new way of managing conflict in a healthy and even transformative way that many other groups could emulate as well.