The author holds her sign during the confrontation described blelow. Photo by J. Rooney Photography
“Wait wait… hold on. She might be on our side.”
Nick, a member of the self-described “Western chauvinist” group Proud Boys, put a hand on his friend’s shoulder to stop him from screaming in my face while I held my sign and my eye contact with him. He looked me up and down, trying to figure out what my deal was.
We were in Seattle at one of 20 “anti-sharia” protests that took place around the country on Saturday. My friends and I somehow found ourselves on a side street, away from the mostly-peaceful protest, standing between a group of anti-fascist demonstrators and a group of anti-sharia protesters trying to prevent a brawl. The three of us were standing back to back to back—a triangle of small women that, for some reason, neither side was daring to cross.
The right-wing guys in front of me were trying to size me up. I didn’t look like one of them. But I was standing between them and the people who wanted to hurt them.
“What side are you on?” he asked.
“What if I’m not on a side? What if I believe that we’re all Americans and need to figure this out together?” I answered.
“I have no idea what that means,” Nick said. “But I’m intrigued. Tell me more.”
I tried to ignore the screaming behind my back, coming from anti-fascists determined to shout these guys out of the city. I heard one of the anti-fascists yell that the Proud Boys should just punch me so they'd get kicked out. I didn’t appreciate the suggestion.
I introduced myself. Told Nick that I believe everyone should be treated like people. Everyone. Including the armed anti-fascists behind me. Including him and his armed friends in front of me. Including me.
He said he agreed. I asked him why he was here, and he explained that he felt he was standing up for marginalized people… which was not the answer I was expecting. Nor, in my bias, did I feel like it was the entire reason.
Throughout our conversation, people from both sides behaved badly—screaming, blowing whistles in our faces, and taunting each other—but when I politely asked them to knock it off, they stopped. It was as though I held some kind of strange power by standing in the middle and treating everyone with respect.
After 5 minutes or so, I shook hands with Nick, a guy named Joey Gibson who organized the “free-speech” rally I saw in Portland last week, and a couple other guys. They said it was the only decent conversation they’d had all day and thanked me for “being cool.”
My friends and I had done what we came there to do. We showed everyone love. We prevented potential violence. And standing in the middle meant that everyone listened and there was more peace than there would have been if we had not been there.
So why did I feel so weird about it? Why did I wonder if I had done the right thing?
It made me feel icky that people I vehemently disagree with thought I was cool with them. But then… I did love them. Or at least I wanted to love them. Didn’t I? Could I love them and not be cool with them? I think so. But what does that look like in conversation?
I started to think about lines in the sand. When do we draw one? Or do we ever? Just how radical is this love we preach?
Can we love and listen without validating? Can we oppose the ideologies of people on opposite fringes while loving them all?
And… do I really want to love them? I’m pretty sure I just want to punch everyone on both fringes in the face. I guess I have to choose to love them anyway. But how does that work when I’m speaking with them face-to-face and they’re carrying a gun or an anarchist flag? What do I actually say and do?
(Image edited for language)
I know these sound like hypotheticals, but they’re not. These are the situations my friends and I were in this weekend. And I found myself unsure of what love actually sounds like in conversation with these people. I didn’t know how to manifest it in skin and blood and words in Occidental Park.
I did my best, but in this case, #loveanyway felt more unsettling than inspirational. And I realized that maybe that’s how it’s supposed to feel. Maybe it only feels inspirational when it’s easy for us and we’re using it to shame someone else into loving the people we love naturally. I think when it’s applied the way it’s supposed to, it’s disorienting and counterintuitive...but not in a bad way.
About an hour later, the opposing groups found each other on another side street and got the fight they were looking for. Fists flew, they smashed wooden signs over each other’s heads, and the police sprayed them all with pepper spray. Both fringe groups celebrated their fighters as heroes while the rest of us watched sadly.
The bulk of the counter-protesters on Saturday stood peacefully in support of their Muslim neighbors. They were disappointed by the presence and behavior of fringe groups on both sides—and by the fact that the media fixated on the violence and barely showed the peaceful and productive aspects of the rally, like my friend Aneelah’s “Ask a Muslim” booth or the “Ask a Pastor Why I Support Muslims” booth.
There were quite a few Muslims present, and I have such deep respect for them. I wondered if I would have been brave enough to show up if my privilege didn’t put me several steps away from the topic of the protest.
But since my privilege gives me a buffer, shouldn't I be the one to step out further? The one to step out away from my fellow peacemakers and into the fray? My white skin, my Judeo-Christian background, and my hipster haircut mean that I have less to lose by walking up to a guy with a “West Is Best” shirt and a handgun on his hip. This is my responsibility because these are somehow my people… even if they are not my people.
If bridges are going to be built, if peace is going to be made, we must step into every responsibility and opportunity presented to us, armed to the hilt with a commitment to love and an arsenal of unanswered questions. It will look different for each of us. It may not always mean stepping into the chaos of a protest.
But all of us can do something. Because these conflicts are not isolated to urban areas or the West Coast. They’re in your church, your school, your family, and your social groups. Maybe not to the extreme that I saw in Seattle, but they’re there. And you’re there. So what are you going to do about it?
How will you confront these issues even though you don’t have all the answers.? How will you prevent violence, make peace, and love anyway? How can you take these ideas and give them flesh and blood on your frontline today?
I know many of you are doing this and many more of you want to, and I want to hear about it. Will you do something this week or this month to make peace and write me about it? I’d love to hear what you’re doing.