In this post I to want to make a few points about #operationsitin and the peace gathering at the City Hall on Sunday. You can find a big discussion on the merits of peace rallies on Slugger. For what it’s worth, this is my ‘two cents’.
This post is not against #operationsitin, nor is it against peace rallies or marches for peace. I am also neither apathetic nor cynical about peacebuilding. In the last five years I have facilitated over sixty workshops on nonviolence with mostly Loyalist young men (and some young women), much of it unpaid. Some of the participants of those workshops have been involved in helping to keep the current flag protests nonviolent. I also recently taught a course on peacemaking for the School of Open Learning at Queen’s University. I say all this because although I have a deep personal commitment to peacebuilding I am frustrated at some of the things being done in the name of peace.
One comment I noticed on facebook was that the peace gathering would make people feel good. For five minutes, it said, you can yell and scream and dance and laugh. Well, I fully support this! For too long many of us had no reason to laugh or dance (Belfast has the second highest rates of anti-depression drugs for any city in western Europe). Alice Walker was right when she wrote, ‘Hard times require furious dancing’.
My problem with both of these initiatives is not that they are not good, but that they are not good enough. We need to do better than this. Much better. If we only start thinking about how to create peace when violence breaks out then we are thinking about it much too late.
Aside from the cathartic aspect of peace rallies, they can also be symbolically important. While they are not themselves the answer they are, at their best, a yearning for the answer. Perhaps we do not even know what the answer is, or even what it is we should do, but what we do know is that something needs to change. But here’s the problem: peace rallies do not represent change nor do they inevitably facilitate change. I would go so far as to say that if peace rallies are not coupled with a deep commitment to social transformation then they are nothing more than sanctimonious irrelevancies.
Another problem with these peace rallies specifically is that they have pitched themselves as a kind of counter protest to the flag protests. The assumption is that all the flag protestors are against peace. This is a dubious assumption. Many flag protesters are working very hard to keep the peace. To have a ‘peace’ rally in opposition to the flag protests is insulting to those who are part of the flag protests and also involved in building the peace. One Loyalist leader who has battled to keep the protests nonviolent is said to feel betrayed by the counter protests. Do we really want to demonise all protesters as being anti-peace? Perhaps we would be better asking him, and others like him, if there is anything he thinks we could do that would be helpful to him? What is key here is understanding that sometimes even our best intentions can be badly off target when it comes to what is going on ‘on the ground’.
Aside from the emotional catharsis, I also wonder what the purpose of the peace gathering is. There is a danger we think that if all the flag protesters go home and stop protesting that we are going to have peace. We’re not. There are deeply rooted problems in Loyalist communities that require fundamental changes to the power structures of society (some of which are unique to Loyalist communities, some not). Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it the presence of justice.’ If the rioting stops it does not mean we will have peace, it will just mean the rioting has stopped.
Again, although it might not be the intention, there is also a risk peace rallies can be fundamentalist – in the sense that they seek to convert people to their way of thinking rather than to understand why people are protesting in the first place. There is a danger the message outsiders will hear is: ‘We are not like you. We are not the problem. We have nothing to learn from you. You’re the problem and you can fix it by being like us’.
Let’s also be realistic, the peace gathering won’t change the protesters minds about the flag. In response to a previous peace rally one flag protestor said to me, ‘I see they have embraced the tree totally’. If we want to see real transformation we have to do better than to attend a rally.
Peace is not inevitable. It has to be created every single day. It has to be fought for. Ask anybody who is involved in grassroots peacebuilding and they will tell you it’s a painful, slow process. It can’t be done from behind a desk or from an ivory tower. It requires you to get your hands dirty. Get involved.
Let’s not expect someone else to usher in the peace. If we do go to the peace gathering, let’s ask ourselves what we can do in addition to it.
‘But what else can we do?’, you may ask? There are a million things you can do. It doesn’t have to be in peacemaking or in community relations. You can mentor a child. You can volunteer at a homework club or at a youth centre. You can adopt a grandparent. You can join a community association. You can lobby your political representatives for real substantive changes. And in the absence of real substantive changes to the system you can make small real meaningful change where and when you can. Perhaps a good approach is to start by listening and then asking yourself the questions, ‘What do I have to offer?’ and ‘What do people need?’ After that the only limits you have are your creativity and imagination.
‘ This is the judgement. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?‘ – MLK
So if you go to the peace gathering: yell and scream and laugh and dance. Do it furiously. Do it standing on your head if you like. Then ask yourself, ‘What next?’