In Our Name

In many minds, Ithaca NY is a mythical place, intertwining academia and social activism and peppered with small town niceness.  I grew up in a small rural town in Northern California, not only separated from Ithaca by distance but ideologically opposed both to academia in general and to social activism as communism.  When I ended up in Ithaca for work, I was unaware of, well, anything about Ithaca.  However, it wasn’t long before I learned of the Gradys, a family that exemplifies both the approachability and far reach typical of activism here.  I knew Clare Grady from reading articles about her work and from a few brief interactions around town.  After reading her sentencing statement this last Fall, I was struck.  At the beginning of February, Clare began a 12 month prison sentence, for entering a Georgia naval base and symbolically damaging weapons systems in protest of nuclear armaments. Clare’s actions arise from deep listening in many communities, as she describes in her powerful sentencing statement (included at the end of this post).  My initial response to Clare’s statement was discomfort.  And, as I am learning more, this discomfort was signalling me to pay attention to something.  I believe that “something” is guilt related to the ways I have been complicit with white supremacy and the patriarchy.  My hope is that in sharing this discomfort, other white christian cis-women who read this will be able to see a path from complicity with systems of oppression to nurturing more complete communities through action.

I grew up in a very white town, going to a very white christian church.  The church ladies were certainly very kind to me, but I often felt deeply alone at church functions.  While the adults in my life were largely saying one thing about the teachings of Jesus, what I was learning from their actions was the opposite.  I learned that color blindness was nice, that women obeyed (and ensured everyone else did too), and that people who were suffering likely needed elbow grease rather than a neighborly hand.  In contrast, at the outset of Clare’s sentencing statement she describes how her love of the Bible compels her actions:

“7. I love the mission statement of Loaves and Fishes from Matthew 25. I especially hold the part that says, “whatsoever we do to the least, that we do to Jesus.” The Bible passage tells us a little about the least, that they are those without food, drink, clothes, those without health care, without welcome, and the imprisoned. I add to this list of the “least”, those who are being killed, ESPECIALLY THOSE BEING KILLED IN OUR NAME. Because, when we kill others and harm others, we do that to Jesus. I believe it is a Christian calling to withdraw consent, interrupt our consent, from killing in our name. To do so is an act of Love, an act of justice, a sacred act that brings us into right relationship with God and neighbor.”

In high school, I remember being upset by the fearlessness of some of the young women whom I argued with between classes.  I was arguing for the death penalty and against abortion in the name of ‘goodness’. It took me many years before I understood that what upset me was being shown the cognitive dissonance in my thinking.  These conversations brought to mind uncomfortable questions around the internalized rules of whiteness and the patriarchy and capitalism, and the ways in which I might be complicit in harming others.  In Clare’s statement, again right at the beginning, she reminds us of our responsibility for one another.

“It is the consequence of my choice to join friends to undertake an action of sacramental, non-violent, symbolic, disarmament because the Trident at Kings Bay is killing and harming IN MY NAME. To be clear, these weapons are not private property. They belong to the people of the United States. They belong to me, to you, to us. These weapons kill and cause harm in our name, and with our money.”

Over slow decades, I have experienced increasing clarity in understanding the systems of oppression that remove from view harm being done in our name, and how community can exist in the absence of that harm.  I have learned from SURJ to follow the teachings of the most impacted, and in Ella Baker’s life I’ve found an incredible guide in deep listening.  Stephen Preskill of the University of New Mexico wrote about Ella Baker: 

When asked by an interviewer to explain how you organize people, she said matter of factly that you don’t start with what you think. You start with what they think. She continued, ‘You start where the people are. Identification with people…If you talk down to people, they can sense it. They can feel it. And they know whether you are talking with them, or talking at them, or talking about them’

It is this sort of community building that is often used in quick slogans but is the slow work of a lifetime.  Throughout Clare’s sentencing statement she references conversations and learning in her life that center the communities who were most impacted.  Clare speaks to and urges us to also listen to experts on nuclear weapons policy, indigenous people whose lands and lives are harmed by mining and testing of nuclear weapons, survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people from the Marshall Islands, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others.  It is through deep listening and organizing that we can speak with one another, form community, and take actions to reduce harm.

I still feel far from any sort of revelation or complete healing, but I now recognize that feeling of intimidation and unease, familiar from debates with my friends in high school, as a signpost toward a deeper understanding of a community where we all belong.  There is however, incremental resolution of this discomfort, an ease that follows taking responsibility for the harm I cause, and joining in a deeper, more vulnerable, and real community. 

It was that familiar feeling of discomfort that came up for me in reading Clare Grady’s sentencing statement. Her strength and conviction about the teachings of Jesus drew my attention towards the gaping chasms between what is often taught in white churches and the harm that is proliferated through christian legislation, charity, and evangelism. My understanding of the lesson of Jesus’ life: to build abundant community by deep listening and leaning into discomfort to better understand how to care for one another.

One day in Sunday School, my father drew a picture of a wall with a garden on one side and suffering on the other. He drew people climbing the wall, seeing the garden and not turning around. “Jesus,” he said, “saw the garden and went back to tell others about it”.  As a child, I understood the lesson of kindness in the story.  Now, I think that the wall represents all the ways in which we separate ourselves from one another, how we ‘don’t have time’ to understand the suffering of others, or the ways we invalidate trauma with stories of bootstraps.  We can begin to take down the walls of oppression by simply listening to others’ experiences of harm, and as good folks (christian or not) taking action in community to reduce harm.  Clare Grady’s deep listening and commitment to action are a wonderful example of how to do exactly that.  

There is room for so much more connection, more love, and more discomfort.  I would love to talk with you about what that might look like, or hear how my story might be similar or different from your own journey.  You can leave comments here, or reach out via email at

Myrick Takes Wrong Side in Defunding Fight

This is a statement from the Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition. Contact:

ITHACA, NY — 22 January, 2021 — Mayor Svante Myrick’s recent statement on the confrontation between police and local antiracist protesters is a disgraceful attempt to rehabilitate the image of cops, conceal the dynamics of power, and discredit the growing struggle against abusive policing.

He has chosen the wrong side in the fight against brutality and discrimination.

Myrick’s statement whitewashes the Ithaca Police Department and slanders protesters by likening progressive activism to the actions of the right-wing mob that stormed the US Capitol earlier this month. Though couched in the rhetoric of objectivity and civility, his report is nothing more than an attempt to undermine the moral authority of popular antiracism, a movement that has generated a groundswell of support nationwide and across the world.

The statement is riddled with false premises meant to justify the power structure, including the absurd notion that aggressive speech weakens a movement’s moral standing; that the status quo is essentially peaceful; and that police forces and their defenders—the guardians of a grossly unjust institution—are somehow capable of “objectivity.” It shames activists for their uncivil opposition to an obscene and violent system. At its core, the statement is an ode to the idea of police impunity.

Myrick’s opportunistic pivot to the right is sure to fail. But it is vital that antiracists respond forcefully. As elites look to restore their legitimacy in the wake of last year’s protests, we can expect more efforts to distract us from the critical issues of our time.

The status quo is deeply threatened by campaigns to address racism and insecurity by defunding bloated police budgets and reinvesting in social programs that actually keep us safe. The defunding struggle reflects growing outrage over an institution of policing that many Americans recognize as inherently racist, hostile, and violent.

Despite Ithaca’s serene image, our local police routinely abuse people of color and poor people. In recent years, Ithaca cops have shot, assaulted, tased, profiled, harassed and otherwise abused scores of nonwhite and vulnerable residents. As Myrick’s report acknowledges, as recently as last year a young black man was arrested after being threatened by a white man with a knife. The white man walked away with no charges.

Now local authorities are trying to use the call for “reimagining public safety” to undermine the popular demand for police defunding. But the Ithaca Common Council has already ignored the Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition’s demands for a budget that defunds police and expands desperately needed community services.

It is ironic that Myrick should try to use the recent assault on the Capitol to justify a local crackdown on antiracist protest. Part of what made the Capitol siege so troubling was the clear alignment between right-wing forces and many of the police—another sign of the underlying corruption of law enforcement.

Myrick’s attempt to frame the malicious transphobia exhibited by the IPD deputy chief as an honest mistake is equally appalling. Transphobia is a virulent problem that disproportionately affects people of color, and that perpetuates the social and personal violence so many vulnerable members of our communities face. It is shameful that Myrick would stoop to blaming the victims of state-sponsored violence for the injustices inflicted on them.

Myrick’s targeting of young activists is especially offensive amid this moment of social and economic desperation and critical political mobilization.

The horrific murder of George Floyd last year brought a new generation of brilliant young people into the street. A vibrant local movement fostered discussion, political education, and engagement while bridging many of the social divisions that kept our neighborhoods atomized.

Our activists have worked to highlight the realities of poorer and nonwhite residents who are especially vulnerable to police violence and social insecurity. The grassroots defunding struggle has helped inspire a larger renaissance of local activism against gentrification, economic exploitation, and inequality. That activism will not be derailed by the mayor’s hypocritical defenses of the status quo.

Aggressive and racist policing were longstanding problems before the Trump Administration, and they remain so in Trump’s aftermath. Now is not the time to turn our backs on antiracist organizers or to distort their challenge to corrupt power. There is much work left to do. That work starts with defunding the inflated police force and refunding communities that have been systematically abandoned and abused.

Call Me In

The first week in June, 2020, I was a ball of anxiety. George Floyd had been murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, and the country (as well as the world) had erupted in protest. In addition to the swift, mass mobilization on the ground in major cities and smaller towns, there was a flurry of activity on social media, including an urgent call from Black and POC folks for white people to “do something.” White people, in turn, took up that call as well, urging other white people to “do something.” And as such, the social media cyber-verse transformed quickly into a theater for the performance of white folks’ progressive politics. Parades of infographics, links to donate, book recommendations, discussion groups, protests, rallies; a veritable buffet of ways to “do something,” proffered by white people for white people, served with a saccharine glaze of the kind of shaming that tends to provoke actionable results in groups well-conditioned by capitalism.

At this point, I’d been on my own personal antiracism journey for over a year. I’d already read “White Fragility.” I’d seen “If Beale Street Could Talk.’” I was thinking about the racism rampant in white feminist circles. I’d read “The Fire Next Time.” I believed (and still believe) ardently in the necessity and vitality of the movement to dismantle the white supremacist, capitalist state. And so, when 85% of the white people I knew suddenly started screaming about systemic racism into the social media void, seemingly for the first time, I experienced a mix of emotions which organized themselves into a general state of agitated anxiety. I was relieved and inspired to see so many white people finally heeding the call to better understand and take action against the very real expression of white supremacy and systemic racism in the U.S.

At the same time, my fragile ego was raging. “I was already doing this work! I must be recognized for that!” And so, I became one of the white people authoring those aforementioned informative yet shaming Facebook posts. I always addressed white people, always with a tone of moral superiority meant to obligate them into action, like a mother scolding her child. I took the stage with all the others, performing my politics with an attitude of unwavering self-assuredness and courage. Backstage (so to speak), it was a different story. I was terrified of being called out for not doing enough, certain that every time I opened Facebook, I’d be met with a comment exposing me as a virtue-signaling fraud. Rarely was that fear satiated by one-off actions: yet another post, a donation, a digital forum. That first week of June, I went about in a haze, living in a liminal space between action and inaction, performing certainty but in reality not brave enough to take the next meaningful step into this work.

Now, as I reflect on this moment, a couple things come to mind. First, how intensely narcissistic and indulgent it was to center my own white insecurity at a moment which was focused on precisely the opposite: the abdication of power by white people in favor of the empowerment of Black Americans and other people of color, in pursuit of a more just world. But, at the same time, I wonder whether I ever would have taken a next step, had I not waded through that period of anxiety. A heightened emotional state can provide information. In this case, my body and mind were reinforcing what I already knew: I could do more, and therefore I needed to do more.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about bravery and the relativity of safety. I mentioned that in June I didn’t feel “brave enough” to take the next step into action for racial justice. But what does that really mean? I wasn’t at any immediate risk of bodily harm or psychological trauma. I was afraid of being uncomfortable. For my whole life, I’ve been coddled by systems which uphold the architecture of white supremacy, and that conditioning caused my mind to conflate discomfort with danger. It was (and to this day still sometimes is) internalized white supremacy which prevented me from fully integrating racial justice work into my everyday life. It’s not that I wasn’t “brave enough”—bravery implies some kind of valor or virtue in the face of real danger—rather, due to my white supremacist conditioning, I didn’t have the psychological and emotional endurance to sustain discomfort.

It’s also worth unpacking what I refer to when discussing “discomfort.” I think this sensation is multi-fold. At its most essential level, “discomfort” refers to a reticence to engage in racial justice work that’s based in a very racist, deeply entrenched, and historical lack of care for Black people and other POC worldwide. I don’t personally experience this sensation consciously, and the thought of it permeating invisible levels of my consciousness horrifies me. But, in examining the real root of white discomfort in racial justice work, that’s what I discover. Further, white people have been conditioned to consider ourselves a distinct social group—to “believe that we’re white” (to paraphrase Baldwin). We’ve isolated ourselves in our own perceived uniqueness: a fortress fortified by privilege that we mistake for freedom. Our entrenched white supremacy allows us to believe that we can be free while others are not, and therefore the fight for common liberation is one that doesn’t concern us. Again, this is not a belief I consciously hold or espouse, but I recognize it as another subconscious layer in the larger experience of white discomfort. Other layers include fatigue due to an under-developed emotional endurance (as I mentioned above), and the invasion of the fragile ego when engaging with others who are already invested in racial justice and political work. I’ll come back to that one.

Like many people socialized in a capitalist world, I’m a person who craves structure, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from productivity and accomplishment. Seeking that structure as a means to outpace the anxiety to “do something,” I attended a SURJ meeting in June. I was nervous, secretly afraid that I’d encounter a brash, unapologetic austerity in the group’s leadership, and subconsciously feeling like I deserved the same sort of scolding I was doling out on Facebook. To me, the world of structured organizing was a daunting one: a place full of smart, well-read, courageous people who certainly possessed a more comprehensive analysis than I’d ever know, not to mention general ease in any high-stakes protest situation. Here’s that other kind of discomfort I mentioned: the fear some white people have of not being “woke” enough to engage with other activists in political settings. I think this phenomenon is a two-way street: as newcomers, our egos butt in, crying “don’t ask any questions, just smile and nod, you’ll look stupid because after all you don’t know anything!” In the oncoming lane, activists do at times project an ideological opacity, righteously holding their political line. The result is two ships passing (not to mix metaphors), and a missed opportunity for more people to unite in the work.

At that June chapter meeting, facilitators from the leadership put out a call seeking new membership in the leadership circle. Leadership seemed like an even more concrete infrastructure for accountability, and so I thought to myself “I could do that.” It’s now November, and I’ve been a member of the leadership for four months. In that time, I’ve planned and facilitated chapter meetings and action hours, participated in protests, contributed at a common council meeting, learned from more experienced organizers, and engaged in numerous discussions about this movement. And the truth is, in many ways I’m still the anxious person I was in June. I’m not always comfortable, I still sometimes misconstrue discomfort for danger, I’m still sometimes visited by the shameful and urgent voice saying “Do something! You’re not doing enough!” The difference is that SURJ provides a structure. I’m not floating out there alone on social media. Rather, I’m a spoke in a much larger wheel of a people-led movement working to build networks of mutual aid. Being accountable to other chapter members keeps me accountable to myself, and to the movement writ-large. When that voice crops up, there is always something to get involved with, supported by a network of experienced and compassionate colleagues.

In SURJ (and elsewhere) we talk about “calling in.” Calling in acknowledges that “the left has a long history of shaming and blaming people who don’t have the ‘perfect’ words or don’t exactly agree with our analysis” (SURJ National). It also emphasizes a compassionate examination of our own expressions of white supremacy, so that we can learn through shared experience and do better.

The purpose of this essay is not as an exercise in public self-flagellation, but rather to lift the veil on the perceived barriers to entering activist communities by transparently calling myself in. While I’m certainly not a seasoned activist, I’m doing it, I’m doing it visibly, and I haven’t left behind every vestige of white supremacist temerity and fragility that I knew before I got involved. I know that activist circles can intimidate. I know I’ve been guilty of insisting on SURJ’s political line at the expense of another’s engagement. I know, also, that transparency breeds trust, and trust creates the conditions for learning and growth towards progress.

Whatever you’re carrying, there’s space for you in this work. Bring your questions and your anxieties; know that you don’t have to have all the right answers all the time. There’s a free spoke in the wheel: come help us keep it turning. We want to welcome you.