What Do I Bring When I Bring My Grief to a Protest?
What is grief good for, anyways?
I went to a ceasefire protest in downtown Boston the other night, on the last night of Hanukah. It was organized by If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace. We met in City Hall Plaza and then we marched to the intersection of State and Congress Streets, and there we stayed for a couple of hours blocking traffic: singing, shouting, and speechifying.
Well, what I did was cry, mostly.
This kind of protest is called a direct action, because it does involve a coordinated and deliberate breaking of the law and, also, frankly, pisses people off. Snarling traffic for over 2 hours at a major intersection in a major city causes a ruckus, which is the point, because it brings awareness to the demands of the protest, forces news coverage, pressures the powers that be. I haven't participated in many direct actions in my life, and even though this was a small thing, a nonviolent thing, a very, very well-organized direct action, I was a little scared.
Still, though, mostly what I did was cry. I sang while I cried, I held a sign while I cried, I shouted while I cried, I cried while I cried.
I brought my body to the protest, and that was good. We need bodies at protests. But I also brought my grief and my tears.
What good are the tears of white ladies? I wondered to myself. Sometimes people think I must be much closer personally to something than I am, because how could I be crying so copiously over something that doesn't affect me extremely personally. After September 11th, I didn't go to work for two days. People thought I must have lost someone I knew in the World Trade Center, or on one of the planes. But I hadn't. I was overwhelmed with grief for people I didn't know, for the entire tragedy of it all. For the wars to come, and the people who would die in them.
Sometimes I feel bad showing up to protests with so many tears. I don't bring big energy, I don't bring my extroversion or my organizational skills or my loudest voice. Just me and my tears. I do not want to stand there crying and in my crying to seem to be centering myself in any way, making something about me when it isn't about me, not quite, not directly, not such that bombs are falling on my head, not such that my children have been kidnapped, or murdered, or called up for military duty or buried in rubble or starving or dying of thirst or of disease.
Still, whether I'm allowed or entitled to cry in such moments, whether it's disruptive or disrespectful or takes up too much space, it's what happens. I can choose not to bring my body to a protest or I can choose to bring it and to cry.
It helps, maybe, to understand that I cry a lot. I cry in many places and at many times that it is inconvenient, or annoying, or untoward. I cry on the street, I cry in bars, I'll cry all the way through dinner, a yoga class, a trail, a dental cleaning, a plane flight. I cry every time I go to a religious service, of any kind. I often cry during sex. I used to cry whole days at work; in the halls between meetings, at my desk, in shower rooms and bathrooms and also actually in meetings. I have sat in meetings with tears streaming down my face and said "these tears are just here, they can be ignored, let's talk about data engineering."
I also walk around town crying, and I thank my privilege then that mine are the tears of a white lady, because it means that when I'm stumbling around town crying people merely ask me "can I help you m'aam?" instead of calling the police.
No, no, you can't help. This is just how I am. My grief is spacious, my tears are copious, I was born, I have said, with a vale of tears where my mind should have been.
I just wrote a different piece about grief, which further details the contours of my grief, the reasons or unreasons or my beliefs about the reasons that I have it. In that piece I pointed a little bit at the kind of grief I experience at protests. I will quote here from it in case you don't want to go read the whole thing. (Or do want to, but leave it open in a tab and then you get a slack message to respond to or a baby cries and it is forgotten):
Some of the grief is what Joanna Macy or Cindy Milstein or other activists would call social or planetary grief: empathetic grief, not abstract grief or elemental grief but still large: grief over what is happening in Israel and Palestine right now, and grief for Ukraine and Congo and the Weelawnee forest and the ancient tree that was cut down in Great Britain not long ago and for dead whales and dying ecosystems and laid-off workers and dead children and murdered transfolk, the list goes on.
That grief is both large and specific; I can't name everything and everyone I grieve for because I am not a god and I do not know the names of every sparrow, but I know the names of some and I know that the others do have names, that everything and everyone can be named, and grieved.
Here, I want to talk more specifically about this grief. But I don't have my own fully formed thoughts about it yet: about what it means, how I can use it, what to do about the fact that many days it seems to be the only thing I can bring to an action, to a group, to a moment.
Usually when I don't yet have a complete thought, I do not send anything out, because I don't like to send partial thoughts. But I worry this is not a good way to turn my partial thoughts into complete thoughts, because partial thoughts benefit from conversation, and I can't have conversation if I don't share my partial thoughts.
So, I'm going to turn to some of the theorists of grief in the world of activism (like those mentioned above), and, just kind of quote some of the things they've said, and see where that takes us.1
This means I really do want and need your responses in response to my thoughts though, even more than usual, so please comment or reply if the spirit moves you.
Cindy Milstein is a Jewish anarchist activist currently in Brooklyn. They've written/edited, among other things, a book called Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief.
In the introduction to Rebellious Mourning, Milstein describes one of the "cruelest affronts" of our present society as "the expectation that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized -- a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses." 2
Our grief -- our feelings, as words or actions, images or practices -- can open up cracks in the wall of the system. It can also pry open spaces of contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability and strength, empathy and solidarity. It can discomfort the stories told from above that would have us believe we aren't human or deserving of life-affirming lives -- or, for that matter, life-affirming deaths.3
And later in her introduction she quotes Judith Butler, in Precarious Life: "What counts as a livable life and a grievable death?"
Allowing myself to grieve the death of others, to mourn them publicly, even if they are not — especially if they are not — my people, is a means of insisting that every one of those deaths is worthy of my grief, that my grief is not contingent on who someone is.
You might have heard of the book Let This Radicalize You, by Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, intended as an introductory handbook to people new to activism and trying to find their way. If not, you might check it out; the publisher, Haymarket Books, have also made available a reading guide for individuals and groups, as well as other resources.
Here are some things I'm meditating on from that book, as regards grief:
In the chapter "Hope and Grief can Coexist"
Our oppressors rely on our hesitation to feel for one another. They rely on our suppression of empathy and grief and on the desensitization that often takes hold as a defense mechanism in the face of so much suffering.
Fortunately, the system's reliance on us to deaden and dull our capacity for grief presents us with a lever for change. Our oppressors are wholly unprepared to confront a multiracial, intergenerational movement of people who share a loving practice of grief and who are prepared to care for one another and act in one another's defense.4
Later in that chapter:
When we enact grief with intention, and in concert with other people, we can find and create moments of relief, comfort, and even joy -- and those moments can sustain us. As Malkia Devich-Cyril writes: “Becoming aware of grief gives us more choices about how to respond to grief and opens up possibilities to approach grief not only with compassion for self and others, but also with joy. Joy is not the opposite of grief. Grief is the opposite of indifference.”5
Acts of rebellious grief can take many shapes, but all are a rejection of mass death and an insistence on the humanity of those who have passed.6
I have hope that you will rebel against the continued normalization of mass death, human suffering, and annihilation. I have hope that you will choose to keep feeling the things that are hard to feel, even as people around you may surrender their values.7
I’m going to be thinking about this in particular for a long time “Joy is not the opposite of grief. Grief is the opposite of indifference.”
Okay, on to Joanna Macy. She’s a Buddhist environmental activist, a deep ecology person, a systems thinker, and if any of those things sound interesting to you I urge you to get yourself a copy of her World As Lover, World as Self ASAP. This book rocked my world. Like, immediately:
The distance between our inklings of apocalypse and the tenor of business as usual is so great that, though we may respect our own cognitive reading of the signs, we tend to imagine that it is we, not society, who are insane. 8
Macy writes about both grief and despair in the context of the climate crisis."Between the beauty of this world and the knowledge of what we are doing to it came a luminous and almost unbearable grief."9
She also distinguishes between grief work, which is about the acceptance of loss, and despair work, which is about what we can save.
Here she writes of social despair; you can hear the Buddhist notes, and the deep ecology notes, and the systems thinking notes, and also the immense power and hope of this understanding of ourselves:
So long as we see ourselves as essentially separate, competitive, and ego-identified beings, it is difficult to respect the validity of our social despair. Both our capacity to grieve for others and our power to cope with this spring from the great matrix of relationships from which we arise.10
We can open to the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are resilient patterns within a vast web of knowing. [emphasis added]11
I have space enough in me — we have space enough in ourselves, together, to mourn everyone and everything we have lost, are losing, may lose in the future, and not to fall apart, but to let that pain be our strength.
As I said, I don't know what to make of all this yet. For me the current moment is marked by the urgent need to act for ceasefire in Israel and Palestine, as well as to stand up against white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in all its forms. I do not know the most effective way to turn my grief to its best use in that movement. I do know that I cannot help but bring my grief along, and maybe all I need right now is to insist on doing so.
To show myself and everyone else that our great grief in this moment does not have to be hidden away or left at home. We can show up IN our grief. It won't destroy us, and it isn't useless, shameful, or selfish.
"To hope is to accept despair as an emotion but not as an analysis."12
There's something else, something from the Torah, in Parsha Eikev, that is also relevant here. I don't usually quote Torah these days (although I used to, ALL THE TIME, I had a whole blog about it), but I've lately been sitting more in my Jewishness, for obvious reasons, and this has always been a verse that hit me hard.
In Eikev, Moses exhorts the Israelites: "You shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts." This has also been rendered as "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts."
We build walls around our hearts because we cannot bear to fully feel all the suffering of the world. We turn away from the news, from our fellow humans, because we fear we cannot bear the full anguish of the human condition. But, as Joanna Macy tells us, we can. We can bear all that pain because we are not each alone inside our own selves, we are connected.
When I bring my grief to a protest, I bear witness to the pain of this moment in concert with other people. We let our grief move us to action, and it does not destroy us; it makes us stronger.
Thanks for reading. Reminder: I would love to hear your comments or replies! I like it when you subscribe and share!
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please don’t write to tell me my footnotes are not in any known format. The necessary information is there, and I’m not turning this in for a grade.
Rebellious Mourning, p8
ibid p 8
Let This Radicalize You, p. 153
ibid p 176
ibid. p 176
ibid p 178
Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, p 37
Not Too Late, p 6