The day before the Twin Cities Never Again action, the group of us who had decided to risk arrest met at a synagogue in south Minneapolis. We began with snacks and conversation about why we’d chosen to participate in this particular way.
The three people with whom I talked shared similar thoughts: in short, all of us essentially said, we could. Each of us recognized being at a point when taking this type of risk, which might (but didn’t) mean a couple of uncomfortable days in jail and a minor knock on our records, was something we had the resources and capacity to take on. Too, that there were folks who might want to take that risk, but for medical or work or other personal reasons, couldn’t. To pull off the action the organizers wanted, we needed a number of bodies: we could be those bodies. So we would be.
What we didn’t talk about, because, I think, we felt it assumed, was our shared desire to respond to the urgency of the moment—our obligation to speak out against increasingly egregious violence toward immigrant communities, and the particular opportunity to use our credibility as Jews, as people whose experience of historical oppression grants us (justly or not) a unique moral authority.
What we also didn’t talk about was the complexity attached to that urgency: the way in which systemic and racialized oppression of many in service of prosperity for the few draws a throughline in this country’s history and present. The way that detention camps and deportations are not new. The way that slavery and incarceration and environmental racism have been separating Black families for centuries. We didn’t talk about poverty wages, corporate health insurance, de-unionization, soaring housing costs, or the military industrial complex that creeps into all forms of law enforcement—and how that translates to half of American families being unable to withstand a $400 emergency. The way, in other words, that there is cause for moral outrage daily and has been for a very long time.
What we didn’t talk about either was how, after a day or two of anxiety or discomfort, many of us would return to relatively comfortable lives: shielded from the violence of racism and xenophobia. A day later, I sat on my porch and worked on poems. As I write this, I’m at a cabin in Northern Wisconsin having spent the day boating and laughing and enjoying drinks.
(I do want to note that many of the lead organizers for this particular action are queer and trans, and their experience as targets of erasure, bigotry and violence is very real. It’s also true that Black, immigrant and brown members of those communities are most targeted; almost all those of us participating in and organizing the action are white.)
The protest was, in moments, scary and uncomfortable. Some frustrated drivers attempted to drive into people. There was reason to fear that those angry drivers could have had weapons and caused serious harm. (Thankfully, no one was badly hurt.)
It was also joyful: we passed the hours chanting and singing Jewish songs. We taught Hebrew words. We had a marching band; a pair of people whose sole role was to keep our spirits up; another pair charged with emotional support (including water, rescue remedies and snacks). We danced and laughed and wore our voices out.
Later, I’d learn that at another part of the protest, my friends had felt rapt with fear for hours; I, meanwhile, felt like I passed a pretty pleasant afternoon, surrounded by friends. I didn’t have to deal directly with angry drivers, or decide how and when we’d negotiate with cops.
If you’ve ever participated in a direct action, you know how much unseen labor goes into them: they become sort of utopian (if chaotic and dysfunctional—as humans tend to be) ecosystems in which collectives urge individuals to find roles that fit them best—from writing press releases to tactical planning to making signs to recruiting drivers to public speaking to hauling water to talking with police—and every role, it is often said and it is plainly true, is essential to pulling the thing off. The intensity of planning and the event itself fosters vulnerability and anxiety and quick, tender connection—many people with whom I have participated in actions have come to feel like certain kinds of siblings.
And that’s kind of where I’m going: because the other, perhaps truer, answer to why I participated as I did is because I heard that Celeste was. And Abbie. And then Bailey. And because Ori and Sophie and Lila and Eli and Leah and Mira and Jacob were all involved. And if that same group of people had asked me to block traffic for a different cause—housing injustice or wage theft or stopping Line 3—I likely would have.
At the end of an organizing training I participated in a couple years ago, we talked through where we would focus our social justice energies moving forward. Those of us less immersed in that work at that point struggled to answer: with so much injustice everywhere, how would we decide on what issue to focus?
(“The issues” are all connected, of course, but messaging that broadly targets white supremacist capitalist patriarchy tends not to be super effective.)
One answer, my friend Lillie chimed in, is relationship: I tend to decide when and where and how to show up, she said, based on who I’m in relationship with.
I don’t think it’s bad to be guided by relationship—we have to be guided by something, and trust feels like a solid place to begin. And I don’t think we should avoid having fun while doing it—joy is an important part of building community, without which we can’t resist.
But paired with the underlying complexity of our framing, those things prompted me to feel some unease.
They’ve prompted me to contemplate the arbitrariness, the fickleness, of what can determine how we show up; how we can sometimes be righteous or smug about ourselves for doing activist work, when often, what allows us to—relationship—is the same thing that prevents others from doing so.
(I’m sure most of the people who came to the action saw it on Facebook; those of us involved earlier than that only heard through word of mouth.)
I’m contemplating the discomfort of getting a lot of kudos for doing something that brought me more than it took away.
I’m contemplating the endless uncertainty of how much resistance is enough in the face of widespread catastrophe.
I’m contemplating how never again is now, but it is also yesterday and every day since European colonizers came and began exploiting this land.
I’m contemplating how best to express our outrage in this moment as we also recognize that—for many of us—our outrage is long overdue.