PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — There Is More To Activism Than Sheet Cakes

I love Tina Fey, and I laughed out loud when she poured her sorrows over the events at the alma mater, the University of Virginia, into stress eating a sheet cake on “Weekend Update” this past week. It was a brilliant segment.

However, my fear is that her satire of feigned helpless is all too easily embraced. We laugh with her at the ridiculousness of ignoring the current struggles by attacking a sheet cake with gusto. Yet I have read on social media people who failed to capture her satirical intent by claiming that Fey was right about what she said at the end of the sketch — that maybe it is best that we simply ignore the white nationalists and “Let these morons scream into the empty air.”

That attitude misses the point entirely. While it is easier to take Marie Antoinette to a new level and “let us eat cake,” the path of nonviolent resistance is the far better way.

The reason I can’t ignore white nationalists is precisely because I am able to ignore them. I am a cisgendered heterosexual middle-class Christian woman of Northern European descent. These angry white men aren’t going to bother me as long as I’m not outspoken and don’t draw attention to myself.

It would be easy to just scream into the abyss as I listen to NPR, watch MSNBC and scroll through my Facebook and Twitter feed, occasionally sharing something on social media so people know I am outraged.

But right now, what I need to do, more than ever, is show up.

I am an old hand at marches and protests. I took part in my first boycott when I was 9. It was against Nestle’s over their distribution of infant formula in developing countries. And it worked. Nestle changed its practices after years of pressure.

During my college and grad school years, I took part in sits-ins, die-ins (in response to nuclear proliferation), boycotts, rallies, vigils and marches.

My college graduation photos show “Divest Now” emblazoned on a patch on my robes. I was standing outside the South African consulate in Chicago singing and protesting the day Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. I know pressure makes a difference.

Those actions continued when became a pastor. Sometimes I show up in a collar if I feel the issue is one where I am representing my faith, and sometimes I go in a T-shirt when it is just my personal conviction. I pushed my kids in strollers at marches when they were little and this summer loved attending rallies with with now adult son.

One of the things I’ve learned in my years as an activist is that you have to know who you are with. Before my sons left for college, I had that all important mother/son talk. “When you take part in any protests, know the people around you, so you aren’t caught up in violence unexpectedly. You should only get arrested if you intend to as a result of civil disobedience, not because someone around you was stupid.” (Every mom has that talk, right?)

I am fully aware that if someone is violent at a peaceful march, that is what gets the headlines.

I was at Standing Rock with six Lutheran Bishops the day before one of the most volatile confrontations with law enforcement. I prayed in a circle with well over 100 of the people who were committed to take a stand at the front line. I knew as we prayed together that 98 percent of the people who were there were fully committed to nonviolent resistance and that the headlines would focus on the few that were not.

I also know that loud and angry responses draw more headlines. I spoke at the Rally Against Bias Speech and Hate Crimes in Fargo a few weeks ago. For over two hours, several hundred people stood in the rain as we listened to speeches encouraging love and lifting up mutual support.

However, when the media reported on the event, nearly one-third of the article was devoted to the white supremacist who shouted out a couple of rude epithets while I was speaking and then he left.

Hate sells. So whether there are counterprotesters or not, these rallies and gatherings of white nationalists shouting Nazi chants and spouting bigoted hate speech will be covered.

And sadly, their ilk are no longer hiding in the shadows, clinging to the fringes of society. Because of the political climate they are becoming more and more mainstream. And that acceptance terrifies me.

That means that now, more than ever, I need to show up, speak up and stand up for the rights of others who may be silenced. As a white person of privilege it is imperative for me not to ignore the angry voices simply because they aren’t directed at me.

There are well-meaning voices who say “we simply need to be united and work together.” “All this division is terrible — we need to find a way to live in peace.”

I agree. We need to be united as a nation. But that unity cannot compromise the values upon which this nation was built — values that all people are created equal and that we are a nation of immigrants who have benefited from the opportunities we all receive as citizens, which include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Peaceful unity is a good thing, but not when it is bought with the price of tacet acceptance of hate speech and when actions that promote bias are ignored. When that happens, we play the role of Neville Chamberlain and look the other way as the scourge of bigotry grows stronger.

The way to unity is in peaceful, pro-active support. It may not mean marching — but it does not mean standing silently by. Perhaps it means learning how to be an ally, how to be effectively present for those who are being oppressed when the struggle is not your own.

You can do that by speaking up when you hear something that denigrates on the basis of creed, color or country of origin.

You can do that my taking part in de-escalation training, so that you know how to respond effectively if you see someone being harassed in response when you see an infraction.

You can do that by reading articles written by people of color and ethnic minorities to gain a deeper understanding of the issues they face and sharing those articles with others.

We each can respond in a lot of different ways to the current rise in hate speech and crime and the proliferation of acceptance of bias and denial of white privilege.

We know that, no matter how many are gathered, the violent thoughts of white nationalists will be covered whether counterprotesters show up or not.

Because of that, just screaming into a sheet cake while we bemoan the state of the world without doing anything is not an option. Doing nothing is not an option. At least if we want the world to change.

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