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PORTSIDE  February 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE February 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Anticipating Fear

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Mon, 20 Feb 2012 22:33:29 -0500

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Anticipating Fear

By Mary Elizabeth King
Waging Nonviolence, /Op-ed

http://www.nationofchange.org/anticipating-fear-1329749758

Black History Month has many meanings. For me, it is a
time to remember the tremendous contribution African
Americans have made to the building of the United
States--as much as any group, and possibly more. I mean
this literally, as in constructing so much of the
nation's material infrastructure, but I also am
speaking of another realm.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported 4,733
lynchings between 1882 and 1962, nationwide. Of these,
three-quarters of the victims were black, mostly in the
Deep South, and we may assume that the incidents were
underreported. Among the greatest contributions of the
civil rights movement to the United States was its
participants' willingness to confront a culture beset
by violent racism and pervasive fear. Random acts of
violence could occur at any moment, with no expectation
that police would intervene. It is easy to overlook
today, especially considering the ways in which
insidious racism continues, how great a distance has
been traversed.

The measures used against us in the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to provoke fear included
cattle prods, shootings into homes and churches,
bombings, and the administration of preposterous,
systematized obstacles to voting. Anything that could
be done to arouse fear was done: arrests, harassments,
harsh reprisals, jailhouse beatings. Three of my fellow
workers were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 by law
officers.

In the interim between college and seminary, my father
had been voter registrar in a rural Virginia county in
the 1930s and told me that the form he had to
administer was essentially blank. Hence there was no
objectively correct way for a would-be voter to become
registered to vote--it was at the discretion of the
registrar. This was common across the South.

What is often forgotten is that the intimidation and
fear of reprisal affected the white community too. I
remember the entire state of Mississippi as being
frightened and bullied by the Ku Klux Klan, vigilante
groups, and by state-sponsored and -condoned terror
organizations, often operating with the complicit
support of local law enforcement agencies. The state
seemed conformist, silent and fearful. The only white
Mississippians that I recall ever attending a SNCC
staff meeting were Malva and Red Hefner, who were run
out of McComb for inviting white civil-rights workers
into their home. (Their daughter is the writer Carla
Carlisle, who in her flight from Mississippi headed for
the Sorbonne and has since lived in Britain for most of
her adult life.)

How did we in SNCC overcome fear? As I have written
elsewhere, field secretaries went into plantations
around Indianola, Sunflower and Ruleville, but not
before dusk. In the fading rays of light, they
approached uninsulated tenant cabins and went from door
to door, politely asking if they could sit and talk
about registering to vote. Many sharecroppers were too
frightened to admit them to their cabins. This
prolonged organizing required that they first develop
trust, and then build confidence. The work was
ethically heavy: no field secretary could urge
sharecropping families to take the risks of registering
to vote without appreciating that as a consequence they
might be driven from the plantation with nowhere to go,
lacking housing and food, having no job, and left with
what amounted to only our insubstantial moral support.

Undertaking nonviolent action does not place
anyone or any campaign on a high ground or exempt them
from attack. As Christopher A. Miller notes in the
section "Arrests, Injuries, or Worse," from Strategic
Nonviolent Struggle: A Training Manual, potential
participants need to be made aware of possible dangers.
When people become persuaded that passivity and
submission are no longer acceptable and that action is
necessary, it is important not to force or coerce
individuals into taking part. Risks should never be
understated.

Once participants are made aware of the hazards, those
who are dedicated are likely to stay so, and unity
within the group often increases. Knowing what you may
encounter and what to do if arrested is crucial in
addressing fear. We held workshops and brought in
lawyers who gave both staff and local people
familiarity with how the actual process of arrest
proceeds step by step, how police systems operate, what
it is like in jail, and what rights and entitlements
can be sought. As the various steps were detailed,
elements of fear begin to subside. The more one knows,
the less fearful is the prospect of being arrested for
your cause. We also play-acted the procedures.
Virtually every session involved robust singing, part
of combating dread. Music is an antidote to fear too,
as I have written before.

Photo: Tipton Genealogy 

Awareness cannot be detached from strategy, in the
sense that real-life preparation needs to coincide with
the tactics that have already been chosen and planned.
Lists should be prepared in advance of contact persons
for those expected to be in the path of arrests. No
individual should be functioning alone, and tiers of
others need to be prepared to support those locked up
through the monitoring of police stations, acting as
witnesses, or by taking notes at key facilities.
Potential psychological side effects of trauma need
discussion, including arrangements for violence or rape
counseling. Cases of arrests or casualties always need
documentation. The ability to notify families should be
planned. Evidence ought to be gathered to fight
wrongful imprisonment or prove the injurious behavior
of an opponent or group.

Today, as never before, the use of cameras and mobile
telephones by witnesses and monitors can convey the
message that the police or security forces are under
scrutiny and that attention will be brought to any
harsh or brutal practices. If participants may be
attacked, ensure that they wear white or light colors
so that the results of an assault appear clearly on
television and in photos. The viciousness of an
opponent can and should be exploited as one of its
weaknesses. Documentation of cruel reprisals may help
to delegitimize an opponent and potentially undermine
its backing.

I remember being taught how to roll into a fetal
position to protect my vital organs and the vulnerable
junction between my neck and the base of my head.
Training and preparation pursuant to strategy can
minimize injuries. People need to learn how to handle
tear gas. In preparing for injuries, trained medics
should be on hand if violent reprisals are anticipated
or large numbers of people will be gathering. Medical
supplies and water need to be available.

SNCC workers always carried a toothbrush in a pocket,
and chapstick. Something this simple can help to
deflate fear. The toothbrush connoted readiness for
being locked up and the acceptance of penalties--which
is at the core of noncooperation and civil
disobedience--and since all of us did this it also
signified that we were bonded together.

How does one think strategically after suffering
serious trauma at the hands of police, with no time for
rest or recovery? According to Gene Sharp,

"To think strategically" means to calculate how to act
realistically in ways that change the situation so that
achievement of the desired goal becomes more possible.
This is very different from simply asserting its
desirability or declaring opposition to the current
system.

Once enmeshed in a protester-police dynamic, it becomes
very difficult to think strategically. I learned the
hard way that the moment when I became afraid was no
time for analysis. Trepidation compromises one's
ability to evaluate the best progression of actions and
sub-strategies for a grand strategy; fear impedes the
ability to think through interlinked campaigns. When a
group prepares together and has familiarized itself
with what may come, this grounding will bring about a
subsidence of fear. The intensity of the discussions
also helps the group to nourish itself, in reviewing
its goals and aspirations, and such a review produces
recommitment.

When you are frightened, it is not possible to plan how
to counteract the adversary's actions. This is because
all physiological resources are mobilized for survival,
including the so-called fight or flight response. Your
system is flooded with adrenalin and blood is directed
toward the muscles, and away from the brain. Your mind
is entirely geared to ensuring your survival, with
little room for analytical thought. Rather, the
planning for the sequencing of nonviolent methods of
sub-campaigns in the pursuit of long-term goals must
take place under calmer circumstances, isolated from
direct encounters of any sort.

Weakening the grip of fear can benefit everyone
embarking on nonviolent action. After the struggle is
over, onlookers often comment in amazement at how brave
and courageous were the civil resisters. The full story
is always more complex. Yet Black History Month reminds
us, in case anyone has forgotten, that the interracial
civil rights movement has taught how it is possible to
prepare to stand in the face of fear.

___________________________________________

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