Not in Our World

The scripts run deep.

Faced with violence or injustice, we’ve often been trained by our families, our media, and our societies to react in one of three basic ways: avoidance, accommodation or violence. These well-grooved neural pathways are not only moral positions—they are often survival strategies. Not getting involved, going along or meeting violence with violence promises us survival and safety.

These scripts, though, often upend this promise by failing to engage deeply and effectively with the realities at hand. The conflicts in our lives or our world have a life of their own, feeding and stoking the embers of fear, powerlessness, despair and retaliation if they’re not dealt with. Often it’s only a matter of time before another fire gets rolling.

In spite of the tenacity of these scripts, a nonviolent shift is underway. This doesn’t mean a utopia free of violence and injustice is coming. Instead, it means we are steadily creating resources and practices that equip more and more people to deal effectively with the violence they face. This transition, in fact, also includes a shift of thinking for those of us who are peacemakers: from a vision of establishing an impossibly idealistic world to one where, while still facing violence and injustice, tools for nonviolent transformation are more plentiful, accessible, and increasingly the default.

We are living in a time when these resources for nonviolent change are proliferating, from restorative justice to trauma healing; from nonviolent communication to forgiveness research; from anti-racism training to third-party nonviolent intervention. Each of these “transformation technologies” offers options beyond the deeply ingrained scripts.

One such practice that has emerged over the past fifteen years is the Not In Our Town movement.

Unlike the exclusivism of its NIMBY cousin (working to keep everything from homeless shelters to toxic waste plants out of its “backyard”), the Not In Our Town movement is not about protecting its existing milieu as much as coming to grips with that milieu’s violence and doing something about it.

A hate crime occurs every hour in the US, and the Not In Our Town movement has produced a series of powerful documentaries since 1994 (many broadcast on public television) that highlight ways that cities, towns, and schools have grappled with hate crimes in an active healing, and effective way.

A project of The Working Group, NIOT’s first video focused on Billings, Montana, where members of the Jewish community were under attack by hate groups in the early 1990s. Rather than avoiding or accommodating these episodes, town-members publicly demonstrated their solidarity with their besieged neighbors. Since then, the series has focused on a wide spectrum of hate crimes.

The Working Group’s goal is not simply to document and disseminate a series of moving stories, but to support and help build a movement that challenges hate from coast to coast. Through its website and newsletter, it encourages other communities to take action, to share their innovative initiatives, to network among communities, to foster ongoing intergroup and interfaith dialogue, and to strategize and brainstorm with individuals and groups seeking to stand up to hate in their communities. It is, as the project says, “working together for safe, inclusive communities.”

This fall, the Public Broadcasting Service aired “Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness,” a one-hour documentary focused on the ways that Patchogue, New York, responded to a wave of anti-immigrant violence that culminated in the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant who had lived there for 13 years, by seven white youths from nearby communities. The film tracks the call from the Latino community for justice and for the town’s grappling with the underlying causes of this violence, the efforts to listen across racial and class lines, and the fragile and the slow work of creating a more just and enduring peace.

The Working Group has posted numerous video reports on communities that have done Not in My Town work, including in Kootenai County, Idaho and my hometown, Olympia, Washington. A number of institutions of higher education are featured, including Princeton University. And numerous communities and schools have responded to the hate speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, including Charleston and Wheeling, West Virginia, and Gunn High School in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see more videos here.

What are some of the factors that mark this growing movement?

One is the fact that a relatively sizeable segment of the community makes a decision to publicly take a stand. Most violence and injustice is sustained by indifference or silence. Here are examples where a decision was made to break this silence and, most powerfully, to align with those who have been traditionally and systemically rejected, excluded or dehumanized. It is one thing for a handful of people to do this. It is quite another for this to become a decision made by the public, especially because it often (though not always) implies a criticism of the existing public order.

Second, the community searches for creative ways to name and embody its opposition to violence and its affirmation of what often becomes a new approach or set of civic relations.

And third, such actions reverse a typical “crowd” dynamic, where the group rallies in favor of the dominant order by scapegoating a person or a group. (“Unanimity minus one,” as author Gil Bailie puts it.) Here there is solidarity with the victim or victims but also, in some cases, using creative and nonviolent approaches to defuse the situation. (Gunn High School students, for example, didn’t put its energy into verbally or physically attacking the Westboro Church folks but, instead, turned their school into a festival of song and affirmation for the day.)

The Working Group’s Not in Our Town movement has built on many past examples of communities refusing to hate and even risking themselves to do so (for example, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France and Denmark during World War II). And while it is increasingly mainstreaming this option, clearly much more work in this area needs to be done.

Nevertheless, this a powerful model—and perhaps it is expanding before our very eyes. In many ways, the Occupy movement is a type of Not In My Town action. It is responding to the community-rending emergency in which millions have experience the structural violence of being forced into poverty, unemployment, foreclosure and marginalization.

While, strictly speaking, it is probably inaccurate to call these “hate crimes” (though it is intriguing to reflect on its definition), there is a huge, systemic injury being visited on millions—and the Occupy movement is taking clear action to say, Not in Our Town, Not in Our Nation, Not in Our World.

Like those in Billings and Charleston and Olympia, Occupiers are going public. They are not avoiding. Not accommodating. Not using violence. Instead they are using the most powerful symbols at their disposal—their own vulnerable bodies—to sound the alarm, to show solidarity, and to embark on recreating a society in need of healing and transformation.

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