Taking Impromptu Leadership

A white supremacist group recently distributed racist flyers in our town of seven thousand people in Maine (the whitest state in the United States). They targeted the neighborhood where our representative to the state legislature lives. She is the Speaker of the House of Representatives and also a Jew and a member of the Democratic [more liberal] party.

She called a meeting in the town community center. My spouse, Beth Edmonds (the Regional Reference Person for Maine), and I (the International Liberation Reference Person for Working-Class People) heard about it. We were scheduled to have an Area leaders’ group that evening and decided to cancel it. We all went to the town meeting instead.

The room that could hold only a hundred people quickly filled up. I heard they were turning people away, and I said to Beth, “This isn’t right; let’s go do something outside.” She agreed.

There were about forty people waiting in the hall and another hundred outside. We tried to communicate with leaders, including the police chief, about what we wanted to do, but they didn’t have the attention to okay our plans. So we had to do it on our own and hope that we didn’t get in trouble.

Talking to others about what we wanted to do, and why, started some other people thinking. They arranged to stream the outdoor event on Facebook and other places.

Beth and I stood on the steps of the building and looked down on about a hundred people. We had to act fast—some were already walking away to their homes. We consulted. I got the attention of the crowd. Then Beth introduced herself as their former senator. People cheered. (She is also the former town librarian. Many people know her.)

Beth thanked people for coming. She talked briefly and appreciated everyone for taking a stand against racism and hate. She said that we were welcoming every group, and she named the groups. I led a cheer and applause after each group was named. We were smiling and energetic. The tone changed. (Before that some people had been quiet and obviously scared.)

Beth said, “Let’s sing some songs.” We quickly consulted and sang a bunch of easy-to-learn liberation songs, most of them from the civil rights movements of the twentieth century. We had no microphone, so I used my arms to keep people in time and called out the words as best I could.

Someone wanted to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” a song with simple verses about the beauty of the land and a poor or working-class life. Beth said she would lead it but added that we had to remember that everything we enjoyed here had come at the expense of the Native people and that we had to make up some new words. There was loud agreement, people cheered, and we sang the song.

People were enjoying themselves despite the cold. They seemed to love seeing two people thinking and leading who were obviously not prepared but just deciding it needed to happen.

We ran out of songs, so Beth asked people to turn to someone and tell him or her why they had come and what they liked about our town. She said she would time for a minute.

Soon the Speaker of the House came out. It was well below freezing, and she wore only a dress. She thanked everyone for coming and gave a warm and powerful short address. She said that the hour-long meeting would be repeated after it ended, for those of us who’d been waiting outside, and that we could also see it online.

We were chilled by then, so we decided not to attend the second meeting. We brought things to a close, went home (as did the three other RCers from our leaders’ group), and had sessions sitting close to the wood stove.

Later we found out that people had cried in the mini-sessions. Someone had told one of the RCers that she was a Greek immigrant who had fled political violence in which her family had been killed. Her twelve-year-old adopted African-heritage son had asked her after the immigrant bans, “Will I lose you?” She was crying. An Asian person had come up to me with tears in her eyes.

What are we learning?

  • We have to be ready for anything. Have songs ready. Don’t hesitate. Don’t wait for other people to lead—just move—but involve as many people as you can. Act with confidence, whether you have it or not. Don’t think too much about it.
  • The tone is important.
  • Speak powerfully but briefly. Appreciate everyone, several times.

We are thinking of having a portable public address system ready, perhaps with a handheld “bull horn,” to take to these impromptu events.

Today I posted it all on Facebook, along with the video coverage from two different TV stations. Each of them had commented that there was one group of a hundred inside and another outside and that both were singing. They showed a local man crying during the presentation at the inside meeting, and they later interviewed him and he cried again. It was listening to the young people that had brought him to tears.

Having the additional meeting outside made a difference. It made the inside meeting feel even more successful. It would have felt like a loss if we had let people go home. I knew that. Don’t settle; don’t do anything halfway.

It was a good evening.

Dan Nickerson

Freeport, Maine, USA

Reprinted from the e-mail discussion list for RC Community members involved in eliminating racism

(Present Time 187, April 2017)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00