Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Protest tactic


Photo: REUTERS/Stringer (MYANMAR)

The German paper Der Spiegel ran this photo from the Myanmar (Burma) protests with this caption: "The monks have been refusing alms from members of the military and their relatives, effectively excommunicating them."

Now there's a campaign tactic that wouldn't work here -- or would it? Obviously the fact that Myanmar's ruling military recognizes the majority Buddhist faith as the state religion makes the monks' rejection more powerful. But the underlying tactic -- claimants to moral legitimacy refusing to take gifts from persons or entities they deem immoral -- can and has been used in other settings.

In fact, I was part of communities that routinely practiced this in the 1970s. In Catholic Worker houses that served free meals to the hungry in New York and San Francisco, we begged for vegetables at wholesale produce markets every week. Our policy was to refuse donations of lettuce not picked by United Farm Workers Union members and tell the middlemen who offered it why we couldn't use it. The wholesalers were mostly good Italian Catholics. They were pretty flummoxed by our refusal of their lettuce.

As you might imagine, they didn't always react positively. "You aren't Christians; you are some kind of commie hippies!" Occasionally we lay folks would bring some visiting nun along, just to keep them confused. After some years of this, they got used to us and showed a grudging respect for our odd principles. We did other work in support of the UFW boycott of non-union lettuce, but this too was part of carrying a message of justice for the people who raise our food.

This is not a tactic whose only relevance is within religious contexts. Sometimes progressive movements have just about nothing except justice and truth on their side. When that's your situation, you have to be darn careful about who your "friends" are.

For many years, the movement for LGBT equality had very few rich and powerful friends -- and nonetheless in those precarious times, one of the movements' pillars was the boycott of Coors beer. We didn't want the homophobic, anti-union, racist Coors family cozying up to our emerging community, even if they'd pay for a few ads in gay papers and sell beer at a Pride march when nobody else wanted our "perverted" business. The Coors boycott hurt the company economically because for years they couldn't sell in gay bars -- but in addition, it hurt the Coors brand, calling the company on the right wing activities of the owners. It was only when LGBT folks had won a measure of wealth and power of our own that we were ready to take Coors' "friendship."

When the moral high ground is all you have, it's your best and only weapon. Don't give it up easily. There will be lots of "friends" who want you to disarm yourself by accepting their "friendship." You not only don't need them; you empower yourself by keeping them at arms length.

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