In recent years I have stumbled across the names of remarkable individuals whose lives have been all but hidden in the vaults of history. They are the people who have worked tirelessly alongside some of the biggest activists and social revolutionaries of our time. They are the myriad people around the world who have demonstrated that “long obedience in the same direction”, without critical acclaim.
We are a people of celebrity. We like our social heroes big and loud. We think that the true weight of social action is found in fanfare: clergy climbing over police barricades, moving speeches, and dramatic arrests. I am convinced that there is a right and fitting place for all of these, that the “theater of social action” is necessary in particular in the face of brazen injustice and evil.
But behind each of those actions are a thousand acts of mundanity and unremarkable revolt.
We all know of Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington in 1963. Few of us have heard of the man who organized that march – Bayard Rustin.
Bayard Rustin organized transportation rosters for the thousands bussing in to the march, ensured off-duty police officers were trained and prepared to serve as marshals, put people in place to direct traffic, and scheduled the podium presentations. At the time, he received no credit for his role; as a black gay man who had already received scathing criticism and been targeted for his sexuality, he was deemed a liability to the success of the march. Nevertheless, he continued to serve in the background, acting as deputy director of the march.
A year after the March on Washington, Rustin was again asked to coordinate a public protest, this time a citywide boycott of New York public schools over segregation. That march involved 400,000 participants and became known as “the largest civil rights demonstration” in American history.
Bayard Rustin wrote,
“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”Bayard Rustin
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who will speak loudly in the public sphere and halls of politics. They must also include those who will speak boldly in the personal realm, at family dinners and in groups of friends.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who march and stage sit-ins on golf courses and hold banners outside parliament and shut down streets and maybe even throw a little manure around (yes, some of our most cherished institutions could do with a little creative compost to help them flourish). They must also include those who run spreadsheets, draft press releases, put together volunteer rosters, make food, plan transport schedules and buy the paint to rename streets.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who boycott school anthems and boycott sports. These groups must also include those who boycott slavery, oppression and environmental degradation by changing their household buying habits.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who bring lawsuits against city bylaws that discriminate against the poor and vulnerable. They must include those who produce powerful social theater against the scourge of gender based violence. They must also include those who chop vegetables five hours a day, seven days a week to feed the hungry in defiance of State gazettes, those who work to establish local food chain supplies that are just and accessible, those who plant gardens on street corners, and those who stage hunger strikes – not eating lunch until all can eat lunch.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who practice civil disobedience, and refuse to pay taxes that fund a violent police force. They must also include those who practice social disobedience, and refuse to pay anything less than a living wage, even when neighbours complain that doing so ‘drives up the price’ of human labour. They must include those who practice religious disobedience, refusing to buy into the politics of hate that exclude the other on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or money.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who stand in front of weapons of war – in front of tanks, guns, bulldozers, the army, the police, and parliamentarians. They must also include those who wash the feet of the racist farmer whose toes are caked with the soil of his stolen land and who wash the dead feet of the refugee with no land to call home, who hung himself from a street pole in Sea Point. They must include those who name and call out death-dealing conditions, and those who cut strips of cloth to prepare bodies for burial.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who tear down statues of slave holders and throw them in rivers. They must also include those who tear down racist mindsets and perceptions and worldviews. They must include artists and poets and musicians and dancers who make the unfathomable understandable and who unflinchingly bring us face-to-face with the unconscionable.
Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must act in boardrooms and church vestries, in school classrooms and staff rooms and courtrooms and bedrooms, in homes and streets, in public spaces and private spaces, in the halls of government, the halls of (in)justice, the halls of power and the halls of abandoned buildings, on stock market floors and in corner stores.
We may call these individuals angelic troublemakers or ordinary radicals or unconventional saints. The writer Flannery O’Connor writes,
Trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus…the Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire.Flannery O’Connor
Here’s to those who will take their bodies – their bleeding, weeping, thinking bodies – and step out into a world of loss and fire and tuck their bodies in places so that wheels don’t turn and it’s no longer business as usual.