How to Derail a Coalition – Even if You Don’t Mean To

Today I participated in a march to the White House to bring attention to the plight of immigrant families and to call for an end to the deportations. As it happens, some Palestinians had also organized a march to the White House to protest Israeli actions in Gaza. Now, I can’t tell you why the Palestinians believe that President Obama is responsible for what’s happening in Gaza, but that was their position, and they certainly have the right to express it.

I stress that the organizers of the march I was participating in were well-prepared. The route was well-planned. The stops were well-planned. There was water for people to drink. There were plenty of marshals to keep us on track. We marched peacefully and followed directions.

But something happened. When we came upon the Palestinian protesters, something happened. Some of our folks wanted to show support for the Palestinians (I understand that), and began chanting “Free Palestine” along with our own chants. This is when it began to be a problem for me.  It’s not that I’m siding with Israel – it’s that I can no longer be unilateral. I can’t chant “Free Palestine” while people are holding up signs accusing Israel of being a terrorist state, while ignoring the terrorist actions of Hamas. I want peace for everyone.

Then there was the thing with the stage in Lafayette Park. Our organizers didn’t know about the Palestinian march until late yesterday, but even so, were expecting that when we got to Lafayette Park, the Palestinians would be finished with the rally on the stage, and it would be ours. Instead, the Palestinian group was still using the stage, and we had to wait. At this point, one of our folks with a bullhorn (not one of the organizers), began to chant “Free Palestine” again, and many of our people responded. This was when I decided that I had to leave.

Leaving was a difficult decision for me. I wanted to stay to support the cause I’d come for. I wanted to be a good ally. But I also wanted to be true to who I am and what I’ve been supporting in other areas, as well. I discovered that shortly after I left, that one of our leaders asked the person with the bullhorn to stop the Palestinian chant, for which I am grateful, but it was already too late for me. I had left already.

It’s not that I think the Palestinians were wrong for being there. I don’t. They have every right to express their frustration and anger. I don’t understand why they blame the President, but that’s not really the point, either. If I were Palestinian I might well take a one-sided view of this, as well. I’m viewing this from the outside, and as an observer, all I can do is weep for both sides. At this point, I think siding with one side or the other is simply pouring gasoline on the fire.  But that only explains why I, personally, couldn’t support this particular cause.

Here’s the thing. It’s all about coalition. Coalition is often a fragile thing. When we build coalitions, there is usually a tacit, or even explicit, understanding that we don’t agree on everything. Sometimes we only agree on this one specific thing for which we’ve come together. That’s fine. That’s what’s brought us together. The immigration group was, itself, a coalition, and it worked well. But coalition is intentional.

Coalition isn’t something that is initiated spontaneously by an individual within a group who then presumes to speak for the whole group. That can be a way to quickly dismantle a coalition. It’s a tactic that’s been used intentionally to attempt to drive wedges into powerful coalitions.

I was once at an interfaith gathering of well over 1000 people that had gathered to demand, among other things, dental care for low-income residents in the community. We had invited several politicians to call them to account. One of the politicians, who didn’t like the power that we wielded, decided to speak to a topic that was off the table (he talked about the evils of abortion), as an attempt to disrupt the coalition.

In today’s instance, I think there were only good intentions. There was certainly no hostility on the part of either march toward the other. But not being hostile, and even having a degree of sympathy for another’s cause, is not always enough to build a coalition.

I can remember some marches in the ’80s that were marches for….well….anything and everything. It was on one of those left-wing marches-for-any-cause-you-care-to-think-of that I suddenly realized that I had no direction for what I was doing. We, as a group, marching toward the capitol, had no focus. People were holding signs for all sorts of things. It was just a march of angry people. Angry people who accomplished nothing.

There are many good causes. And there are many complex issues. But I think that messages come through best when they’re delivered clearly and succinctly. Is there room for intersection? Yes, of course. The world is full of intersections. But it has to be intentional. Our organizers understood that. We had a clear message. No more deportations. Keep families together.  The question is how do we educate all the people who come out to lend their voices to stay on message? I don’t know if that’s even a possibility.

For me, today, I felt I couldn’t stay until the end. I lent my voice and my feet as long as I could. I’m glad others stayed – because I didn’t want to derail our cause, either. I wish no ill upon the Palestinians. And I have great respect for our organizers. It was a lot of work to put this together, to keep everyone safe and in line, and to keep our message on point – which, ultimately, they did.

I still believe in coalition. Much can be accomplished, and it often makes us stronger. I’m all for coalition. With intention.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

 

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