Being Disturbed…and Disturbing

Rus Ervin Funk

I am disturbed.  There is a lot that has been going on lately that I find deeply disturbing.  I am talking about the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as our new president, but also about so much more.  It seems to me that there is a lot to be disturbed about, and (fortunately) as this past weekend demonstrated, I am not the only one feeling disturbed.

I don’t like being disturbed, but on further reflection, I know that a period of disturbance is often followed by some significant growth.  I don’t tend to grow so much, or so willingly if I’m not first disturbed.

Being disturbed at what is going on around me – outright lies being presented as “alternative facts”, the recommendation from President Trump to eliminate the Office of Violence Against Women and all grant funds coming out of the Department of Justice, the movement to build the wall, the efforts to pull back reproductive rights and justice, etc etc etc. is, it seems to me, a pretty healthy response.   But it is not enough for me to be merely disturbed if my disturbance doesn’t move beyond my personal outrage, fear, and discomfort.  If I don’t move, I’m being complacent, and as Ambassador Shabazz shared in a recent talk here in Louisville, “to be complacent is a crime.”

I aim to also be disturbing!

And I mean to do some serious disturbing in the weeks and months to come.

I realize I need to clarify what I mean by being disturbing.  I like to garden.  In particular, I like gardening roses.   In order for my rose bushes to have a chance of growing, I need to disturb the soil prior to planting.  I can’t, quite obviously, simply put a rose bush on top of the ground and have any chance of seeing blooms.  at the very least, if I want my rose bush to have a chance, I need to dig a hole (I.e. disturb the ground).

But, the clay mixture that we call soil in this part of Kentucky is hostile to roses. If I really want my roses to flourish, I need to do a lot more disturbing of the soil than just digging a hole.  I need to add some compost, some extra nutrients, and some manure.   And then churn it up.   In short, If I want my roses to grow and produce healthy, vibrant, beautiful rose blooms, then I need to do some serious disturbing of the soil.

Like the way that my back yard is hostile to roses, the election of Donald Trump (and Governor Bevin here in Kentucky last year) has surfaced a political and social environment that is increasingly hostile to human rights, social justice and more generally kindness and caring.  YES, we need to find ways to oppose this agenda and efforts.  AND as (perhaps more) importantly, we need to do some intentional disturbing to encourage the growth of a more nurturing environment human rights, justice and kindness — 2 or 4 or 8 years from now.

The disturbing that I’m talking about is more than disrupting.  There’s some planning and intentionality to my disturbing my yard as I plant a rose bush.   I don’t just dig random holes in my back yard.  I’m thinking about where I want the rose bush and the kind of rose I’m planting (different kinds of rose bushes require different kinds of preparation and soil conditioning).  I’m paying attention to what other plants are around.  And I am aware that the disturbing of my back yard that I need to do in order to grow healthy and vibrant roses is different than the kind of disturbing I need to do to grow healthy and vibrant blueberries or carrots.

A disturbance can, and often does, lead to growth.  Being intentional about my disturbing increases the likelihood that positive growth can emerge.  For example, after Rodney King was severely beaten by members of the Los Angeles police department in 1991, and the officers who beat him were subsequently acquitted, a grassroots collective of us organized a demonstration at and around the Department of Justice in Washington, DC (I was living in DC at the time).  A part of the action included blocking traffic around the Department of Justice.  We intended to risk arrest as a way to show solidarity with Mr. King and draw attention to the ruthless (and unnecessary) beating of another Black man by police officers.  We had developed some materials to explain why we were blocking traffic to the people who’s commute (and thus their lives) we were disturbing.

The planning of this disturbance resulted in a host of organizations that had not previously worked together to come together and  forge new relationships which resulted in a new coalition that continued to work in DC for several years thereafter.  We were very intentional in our disturbing to not target the police as a whole for the actions of a few in LA, while also examining the problem of systemic racism and violence that needed to be confronted (and as Black Lives Matters has shown, systemic patterns that persist and continue to require our attention).  The result was an experience in which the Washington Police Department making no arrests that day. As we took the streets and blocked traffic, and shifted the movement throughout the day, they simply diverted traffic around us.

Disrupting (aka, the tea party) does not necessarily create a space for something beautiful to emerge, much less blossom.  Disrupting doesn’t generate movement.   Disrupting doesn’t necessarily move us forward.  I don’t want to just get in the way of the Trump agenda.  Don’t get me wrong, I whole heartedly believe that we need to do everything we can to push back against his stated agenda and the harms he’s proposing to do.  I intend to do so in a way that lays the groundwork for so much more to flourish, grow and bloom.  that being said, there are most certainly times and situations that call for a disruption.

I also do not intend to be disturbing in ways that are disrespectful or hurtful.  There are certainly models of this kind of disturbing , and by and large, these haven’t proven to be terribly effective.  I may well inadvertently disrespect someone in the process of my disturbing, but my intention is to disturb in a way that is respectful.    I encourage and expect that if and when I am disrespectful in my disturbing, that other folks call me out (or call men in) to my dis-respectfulness, and encourage/support/challenge me to do and be better.

I want to be careful here. I am talking about being accountable for my behavior.   I am well aware that a lot of disturbing can feel disrespectful.  Most folks avoid being disturbed, and when there is a cause for our being disturbed, it’s really easy to confuse being disturbed with being disrespected.  This seems especially to people/groups who have historically been in or represent those in positions of dominance or power.  Disturbing dominance is likely to be experienced as being disrespectful.  And frankly, it may well be, if in this case its understood that I am disrespecting the dominance, not the person.  In these kinds of situations, I don’t believe that I necessarily need to be accountable for being experienced as disrespectful.

But when I disturb in a way that puts someone down, that discounts their human-ness, that presents intolerance or shuts someone else down (which I distinguish between shutting down a behavior)… in these moments I need to be very aware of how I come across and be accountable.   I know this is an awkward and in some ways unclear distinction, but I do think It’s an important one.

In 1997, during the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, we organized the “Counter-inaugural coalition for a People’s Agenda” with the theme “1000 Sparks of Dissent” (President Bush’s inauguration theme was “1000 sparks of light”).  During the week-long series of inauguration events, we countered with counter events – such as a counter-inaugural banquet for the homeless and hungry outside the grounds of the $1500 a plate inaugural dinner held in honor of President Bush.

Without a doubt, there were folks (perhaps President Bush himself and his family) who attended and who supported President Bush who felt disrespected by our actions.  We were, however, intentionally not disrespectful of Mr. Bush and his family, or the 0ffice of the President.  We did not allow content in the flyers or materials we distributed to go after Mr. Bush or his family as people, and interrupted the chants that were mean.  We did not seek to disrupt any of the events the he or his inaugural committee planned.  We absolutely did seek to disturb the activities, those who attended, and the public at large.

It seems to me in these days of the emerging Trump presidency, when so many of us our so outraged (as demonstrated by this past weekends turnout around the globe) that some lessons can be learned.  We can and should disrupt the agenda, but we can and need to do so in ways that aren’t attacking or insulting Mr.  Trump or his family.

There is room and significant value to being disturbed…and to being a disturber.  It seems to be human nature to avoid both so I recognize that I may be challenging human nature.  That being acknowledged,  it is out of being disturbed that we all progress, and there are times, such as these, when a disturbance is called for.  so lets share some strategies and stories of our disturbing.

 © 2017 Rus Ervin Funk