Creative responses to events in Charlottesville

There are dozens of possible responses to the recent events in Charlottesville. Perhaps our greatest opportunity right now is to have truly in-depth reflection and conversation about what responses would have the deepest and greatest impact on what happens in the U.S. and the world over the next couple of decades. Tremendous energies are spinning in and around us. What shall we do with them?

Interestingly, the Charlottesville calamity has become a trigger event clarifying and magnifying the political and racial polarization of the U.S.

The deadly sense of alienation experienced by marginalized people as a feature of their daily lives is now being felt by the whole society, such that even mainstream majorities (such as “white men”) feel unseen and marginalized. (The term Nazi is provocatively similar to the phrase Not-See.) And what is marginalized, unseen, denied, and not taken into account does not go away; it surfaces in unpredictable and often damaging ways when the time is right for it. We see this in both the emergence of “Black Lives Matter” demands for justice and the white nationalist demand for tribal recognition and power. Both arise from feeling alienated and disrespected – albeit in radically different ways, narratives, and factual legitimacy.

My co-intelligence and wise democracy work is fundamentally about wholeness. In a society wholeness can show up in a number of forms which can be usefully compared to states of a human body. Here are four ways to look at this:

1. There is the pseudo-wholeness of a familiar status quo – the don’t-rock-the-boat conformity, politeness, rituals, structures of power and privilege where there is little visible conflict on the surface and things seem real and stable. This is like a body that is functioning well enough to get by, with various ups and downs, but it “works” as far as the busy ego is concerned – or, in a society, it “works” for the majority and the holders of power and privilege. Little is invested in changing the status quo.

2. Then there is the emergence of disturbance disrupting that status quo because increasingly important factors and dimensions of life have not been properly acknowledged and addressed, and new conditions (like mobile videos and social media) bring those energies out into the open. This doesn’t look like wholeness, but it is part of the dynamic that feeds wholeness. In bodily terms it is like pain (the nervous system) or a fever (the immune system) alerting the body politic that something is wrong. It is thus a vital function of wholeness – vital for the survival of the living system – whether social or physiological. However, when extreme, it can be deadly. For example, too much fever, inflammation, pain or autoimmune responses can kill a body, and the extreme estrangement of polarization, war, and genocide can collapse a society.

3. Then there is the true healing dimension of wholeness, where different parts of the system are brought into collaborative, synergistic, healthy interaction with each other, each part doing its respective role alongside its fellows in ways the serve the welfare of the whole. Here we find increasing harmony, resilience, and functionality in both social and biological systems. To the extent we have effective healing, we generate health. But the question of emergent disturbances remains, so we have a fourth manifestation of wholeness:

4. Then we have responsiveness – awareness, intelligence, wisdom, sensitivity. These are fundamental aspects of resilience which, when embedded in the system, allow for sustaining a dynamic level of coherence that is based on creative adaptation and appropriate innovation rather than on the illusory dependable unity generated by conformity and obliviousness. To the extent we have a high level of responsiveness – including the ability to shift our narratives and behaviors in response to internal and external demands – we do not fall into the pseudo-wholeness described in (1) above, but continually renew and transform our wholeness as events unfold, engaging with disturbances early on as stimulants to pay attention and get creative.

I use the word “interestingly” to refer to responses to Charlottesville events because prior events along this line have not evoked the energy that this one has. I wonder if this is because of the combined visibility of explicit white nationalism, anti-Semitism and Nazi symbolism with the death of a nonviolent white woman protester. I also use the word “interestingly” because the events in Charlottesville have raised potentially productive questions, dissent, and conversations among progressives, anti-fascists, and transformational change agents about what it all means and how to respond.

The dominant themes I find in my mailbox and the mainstream news seem to involve

  • observing, publicizing, and blaming hate, racists and fascists and those (notably Trump) who stir up their energies and/or do not adequately speak out against them;
  • calls or actions to suppress or fight hate, racism and fascism;
  • support for the victims of hate, racism and fascism; and
  • disowning and withdrawing support from people and institutions now associated (directly or indirectly) with hate, racism and fascism.

Of course, there is also the commonly adopted approach of

  • privately expressing one’s disapproval of hate, racism and fascism.

All these responses are understandable (in the lives and perspectives of the people involved and in the larger trajectory of America’s social evolution). They also can be (debatably) viewed as necessary and/or productive, in moral and/or strategic senses. But I am especially encouraged by the presence of some less well-publicized responses that seem to me to offer even greater promise for positive transformation. These include (with links to references below):

  • Empathy, listening, compassion, dialogue (Empathy Tents, Life After Hate)
  • Humor and satire (How to Make Fun of Nazis)
  • Nonviolent action and dignity (ditto, plus SPLC’s Ten Ways to Fight Hate)
  • Promoting positive vision and common ground (Rabbi Lerner and Swami Beyondananda – and the work of so many social innovators, including the Co-Intelligence Institute)

I provide below a lot of inspiring articles and videos about these and related responses. I also have included (at the end of this email) a list of unusual questions that arise in my own mind and heart when I interact with dramatic issues like those raised by the events in Charlottesville. I’ve tried to include enough notes to help you decide which ones to explore further (and partly as amends for the length of this email!).

May you find all these perspectives intriguing, inspiring and/or useful.


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How to make fun of Nazis
Chronicles activist exercises that creatively and effectively made fun of neo-Nazis activity. The article also has great information about the dynamics of effective nonviolent action in general.

How Johnny Lee Clary, now a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, was loved into “defeat” by the good-humored, imaginative friendship of an old black minister, Reverend Wade Watts, Oklahoma state president of the NAACP.

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Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s great list has more creative solidarity than actual “fight” – and its “fight” is nonviolent and strategic.

A few further intriguing recent acts of solidarity

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Life after Hate
Where former white supremacists and Nazis help people leave those movements.

I learned the hard way how to stop hate
By Arno Michaelis (a former White supremacist activist)
“Being on the receiving end of violence never made me any less violent or filled with hate. What changed the course of my life was the profound courage extended to me by those I claimed to hate; their kindness, forgiveness and compassion destroyed my narrative of oppression. As ridiculous as it may sound, I had myself convinced that white people were oppressed, and that there was a centuries-old Jewish conspiracy to exterminate us…. Fortunately, people I claimed to hate, such as a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor, and black and Latino co-workers, defied my hostility. They treated me with kindness when I least deserved it, but when I most needed it. These examples of how human beings should treat each other ultimately built upon an exhaustion that had me looking for an excuse to leave ‘the movement.’”

A black man – Theo E.J. Wilson – goes undercover in the alt-right
“There is no way out of each other. Human beings all want the same things, and we have to go through each other to get those things. Human beings are not the barriers but the gateways to the very things we want.”

The Best Response to Hate
A progressive activist explores with fellow change agents the question of how best way to respond to hate.


The power of positive visions

The Staying Power of Racism after Charlottesville
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
“Liberal and progressive forces seeking to win a veto-proof majority in 2018 and the presidency in 2020 must purge themselves of their shaming and blaming of Americans, their religiophobia, and their internalized belief that somehow they are on a higher plane of being than the rest of the American public, and move beyond the economistic fantasy that everything will work out if only they had more progressive economic programs. Those are necessary but will never adequately address the psycho-spiritual deficits that leave people feeling terrible about themselves and their lives. Instead of focusing only on what they are against, a revived Left must put forward a positive vision of what it should be for: ‘The Caring Society: Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.’ When a Left starts to talk about a world based on love and justice, and shows genuine compassion for those not yet in their ranks, it will have a real chance of defeating the racism, sexism and other distortions that the Right peddles. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is offering an online training for leftists to help them develop the skills needed to transform the Left so it can be more effective in speaking to its natural working class constituency which it has managed to alienate.”

Just Because the Right Is Wrong Doesn’t Mean the Left Is Right
by Swami Beyondananda (a.k.a., Steve Bhaerman)
“‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ While resisting Trump and Trumpery would seem irresistible, the ONLY thing that would not only keep us from falling backward but would propel us forward is a clearly focused vision of the future we would like…. When you only get to play defense, you never have a chance to score. It’s time for the courageous visionaries to step forward, and take a stand for the world we want and not merely predictably and ineffectively react against the one we don’t want. John Perkins uses the distinction ‘life economy vs. death economy.’ I like that. It’s simple. Fossil fuels … exploitation of people and planet … destruction of air, water and soil … that’s the death economy. Restorative agriculture and regenerative enterprise, adopting the Golden Rule as the ‘golden standard’ for behavior, and reverting to Plato’s three expressions of love — truth, beauty and goodness — that’s a good start as a true ‘pro-life’ stand…. Regardless of race, religion, belief system or sexual preference, we all want and require clean air, water and soil. We all want to be free from oppression, both from the lowly criminal at the bottom and the highly criminal at the top. We want to be treated with respect, and likewise are willing to treat others that way in an atmosphere of reciprocity…. Now that so many of us — including Republicans — find ourselves in accord opposing Nazism, it may be time to gather the 75% majority under ‘one big intent’: Thrival for each and all in a world where we have economic and political wellbeing, and respect for one another and the web of life.”

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Empathy Tents

Edwin Rutsch organizes “Empathy Tents” at intense demonstrations which draw counter-demonstrations, inviting anyone involved to be fully heard and, if they wish, to participate in fully hearing each other. He sees his work as manifesting the kind of activist empathy described by Marc Erlbaum in “The Best Response to Hate”  (see above). (Marc wrote to Edwin “Arno Michaelis [is] a reformed supremacist who now rescues people from violent extremism… [He] says that the worst thing we can do is respond to the extremists with hate – that’s exactly what they’re hoping for and exactly what corroborates their narrative and helps them to recruit.”]

In correspondence about Charlottesville that I was part of, Edwin wrote the following, which he entitled “Best Response to People” – an evocative reformulation of Erlbaum’s essay title of “The Best Response to Hate”. It includes descriptions of some thought-provoking interactions with alt-right organizers. Contrary to what you might expect, this is not a “kumbaya” initiative…

The Best Response to People

Our empathy tent team went to Sacramento to a right wing rally held on the State Capitol lawn last month. Police were all around to protect them from possible counter demonstrations.

I always feel a bit nervous when I arrive at these rallies and am not sure how we will be received. We went up to the organizer to tell them we were there to listen and we wanted to set up our empathy tent. They actually recognized us from Berkeley, since we had talked to them there at previous rallies and given Empathy Kisses (chocolate kisses) and hugs. They were glad we were there and actually gave us hugs. Hugs are something that always calms me. So I try to do a lot of that at the rallies. Other people feel wired as well and it seems to help them, too.

We talked and offered empathic listening to a bunch of people that came by the tent plus we walked around and chatted with people.

At one point a group of 5 or so Identity Evorpa members came by and sat down. There are many different groups there and Identity Evorpa folks have an emblem on their shirts. I was talking to someone else and Dave, who is Jewish, talked to them. They were just talking without active listening [i.e., reflecting back what they hear] and I noticed from the corner of my eye that the dialog was getting slightly heated. Feeling a bit worried, I turned over to them and mentioned we offer listening and empathy circle practice at the tent. I handed out the flyer on how to do empathic listening in a group. It’s having one person talking to someone and that person reflecting their understanding of what was said to the speaker’s satisfaction. Also the turn-taking part [each person, before speaking, reflects what they heard from the previous speaker before taking their turn]. They were interested in giving it a try.

They started earnestly talking about their views and I modeled the empathic listening. A lot of the topic seemed to be about having an identity, and the world working on the bases of tribes and they want their tribe. It would be great if there were not tribes but that is the reality, they said. Also heard a subtext that everyone’s pain mattered, and so on.

After modeling the listening we asked them to listen and reflect and we kept teaching them the practice. At one point the conversation came to the Holocaust and they tried to minimize it.

When it was Dave’s turn to speak he said to one of them, “Half my relatives were killed in the Holocaust.” And waited for the person to reflect his understanding.
The person tried to reflect but gave a detached concept or theory of something. I could feel him in some far off detached space.
Dave then again said, ”That’s not what I said. I said, ‘Half my relatives were killed in the Holocaust.’”
The listener tried to reflect. Be he was still not there.
Dave then again said, “Half my relatives were killed the Holocaust.”
This went on for a few more tries. Until finally the listener said,
“You’re saying, ‘Half your relatives were killed in the Holocaust.’”
Yes that’s it.

So the conversation continued for a while. Marlena who does the KPFA Talk-It-Out radio show was there and had been listening one-on-one with one of the guys before. Somehow he had picked up the empathic listening really fast and started helping the others with the process. I was surprised at how well he did it. The energy was calm and everyone was earnestly trying to understand each other.

When they were leaving, I reach out to give the last guy a handshake.
I then said, “Can I give you a hug?”
He hesitated for a second and then said, “I guess it’s all right” and gave me a hug.
and we thanked them for coming by.

After the event, the organizers said on Facebook they were glad we came and invited us to their next event.

So this is how I would have handled any of these events like Charlottesville and the upcoming SF and Berkeley events.

Instead of protesting, I’d say that we are there to listen, then actually listen until they feel heard to their satisfaction. Then, as a next step, invite people to engage in empathy circle dialogs and build on that. Start teaching how to do it. That is an ideal. The reality is conflicting sides are coming together at the upcoming events, there’s all kinds of building tensions and people will not hear each other much, they see each other mostly as enemies to be suppressed and the violence will likely keep escalating. Even the church groups I went to feel very righteous, hyped-up and wanting to do battle. We at the empathy tent are barely a handful and don’t have much resources to do all that much except be a presence, listen to some people, reach out.

The possibility is there to build this container. We just need baby steps to keep making this space stronger and stronger.

I figure if we could get the SF and Berkeley rally leaders to take part in empathy circles online before the event, then that could help. The organizer from the Right wing event said he would take part but the different organizers on the Left don’t even bother responding.


That evocative description raises the question of what does this whole issue look like “from the other side”?


How the Charlottesville Suspect Became Radicalized
“Three universal components lead to radicalization: the quest for significance, a narrative serving as a vehicle for that significance, and a network of support. ‘They all share the motivation to matter, to be somebody, to have respect and power. They…are exposed to some narrative, some ideological narrative that tells them how they can be significant.’”

Quartz: The complete story of what happened in Charlottesville, according to the alt-right
The mainstream media account of the Unite the Right rally and the alt-narrative ultimately diverge regarding the weekend’s violence: Who started it, what kind occurred,…

VICE News’ Inside Account Of The Charlottesville Protests Is a Terrifying Must-Watch
22 minutes, but important, to see the violent heart of the white nationalist perspective, the story they are living in, and the very human reactions they had to violence against them during the event.

A black man – Theo E.J. Wilson – goes undercover in the alt-right
“There is no way out of each other. Human beings all want the same things, and we have to go through each other to get those things. Human beings are not the barriers but the gateways to the very things we want.”

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Dialogue resources

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Debilyn Molineaux’s brainstorm of Living Room Conversation dialogues to develop soon…

Note that these are brainstorming notes from an email conversation, rather than fully developed proposals – but they are worth thinking about. And we can all learn from the LRC’s gentle but powerful process.

1. America We Want to Be: August 2017

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The aspirations expressed in our founding documents have resonated for over 240 years. Most of us have expanded and modernized the meaning of this language to include women. And we have yet to fully come to terms with the legacy of slavery, destruction of first nations and ongoing discrimination.

Rounds 1 & 2 are warm-ups and getting to know each other better
Round 3 questions:
• What are your thoughts and feelings about our country today?
• If you could wave a magic wand, what would America be like?
• Where do you see hope?
• What is your personal commitment to creating the America you want?
Rounds 4 & 5 are spaces for reflection, learning and next steps, then the conversation is concluded. With six people, these conversations take 90-120 minutes.

2. What are American values?

(add paragraph)
Round 3:

3. Cultures Gained and Lost: The American Melting Pot

(add paragraph)
Round 3:
• Fear by some of “white culture being lost” – affinity for white European culture – fear of becoming a minority
• What is uniquely American culture? What do you most appreciate about the culture you are part of?
• If all people are created equal, what does that mean…?

4. Free Speech and Tolerance

Racist, white supremacist, Nazi – across the political spectrum most Americans oppose these groups and proudly state that all Americans have equal rights—even free speech. How do we react to white supremacists marching in our streets and on our campuses? What about white supremacists in our government? How much tolerance is healthy and when does it become dangerous?

Round 3:
• Should we curtail free speech in this country?
• Should hate speech be outlawed?
• Should people be allowed to say whatever they want? Why or why not?

5. Victim Status: Harm and Power

Our culture worships heroes. From action-movies to good Samaritans. Yet every hero needs someone to save —the victim. And every victim has been persecuted by something — or someone. Within our love of heroes, we’ve cultivated a privileged position for victims. Some people ARE victims — but the attention of heroes has made victim-identity a powerful identity. And whole groups of people are now claiming to be victims — to have been harmed — and stayed in the identity. Where we used to have a martyr in the family, we now have a culture that flocks to the rescue of our martyrs — identifying and demonizing “them” who caused the harm. But what if there was a better way?
Round 3:

6. Extremism and Democracy

(add paragraph)
Round 3:


A wider view

Those inspired me to think of six additional conversations I can imagine people having, which are part of my own internal day-to-day struggle… – Tom

1. What is privilege? What is its role and impact in society and in our lives and relationships? Are there different kinds of privilege that different people have? If so, what do we do with that? Is privilege something to get rid of, to assume and live with, to use for personal benefit, to use for the common good…?

2. What are the gifts and limitations of our empathic responses to clear, immediate damage and suffering – especially when compared to suffering and destruction that is hidden (by design, denial, or systemic complexity), distant, long-term, future or potential? How do we be fully human in the dynamic tension between these two different challenges to our responsiveness? What does this dynamic tension mean for our actions if we see ourselves as life-serving change agents?

3. Aside from the immediate horrors of oppression and hate, what do you think is the long-term meaning of the events of the last few years that make that long-hidden oppression and hate so visible? What interacting dynamics do you see unfolding, for better and/or worse? How do you think events like these will influence what society will be like 10 or 20 years from now, and why? What role do you think you will be playing in these history-shaping collective processes?

4. What is the relationship between love and power? What is “forgiveness” all about and what impact does it have on the individuals involved, the situation they are involved in, and the larger social (or even spiritual) dynamics at play in that situation? In what forms and ways can loving responses manifest powerfully and in what forms and ways are they weak, irrelevant, or even counter-productive?

5. What is the relevance and role of racism, sexism, and other oppressive isms in the context of extinction-level issues like climate disruption, nuclear war, new technologies run amok, global crop failures or pandemics, etc., that could collapse civilization or wipe out the human race? To what extent are extinction-level issues separate from and/or more (or less) important than how individuals and groups treat each other (and have treated each other)? If these two kinds of issue are connected, how – and what do we do about it? If they are not connected, how do we sort out and prioritize our efforts to take life-serving action?

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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