By Michael Goodhart, University of Pittsburgh
This piece is part of the first installment of Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting, a series edited by Heath Cabot and Michal Rose Friedman.
On the afternoon of 30 October 2018 I left my office—late—to attend what had been described to me as a “rally” or a “protest” to coincide with President Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh in connection with the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue carried out three days earlier. I was furious that he was coming: his repeated public support of white nationalism sickens me, and his decision to come to Pittsburgh to “pay his respects” was transparently an attempt to repair any electoral damage he might have done to his team with his initial remarks about the massacre. I was looking forward to some catharsis, marching and yelling and being indignant with a few thousand of my like-minded neighbors.
It was a perfect fall day, crisp—sun brilliant in the clear blue afternoon sky. As I cycled toward the meeting point, I could see the marchers passing ahead of me, already on the move. I dismounted and fell into step with the crowd, which extended as far as I could see in either direction.
It’s difficult to convey my experience of those first few moments after I joined the group. Despite the numbers, there was a kind of quiet in the multitude. As people walked, many were softly singing words I could discern but not understand: Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah – over and over, like a kirtan. I later learned that these are the Hebrew words of Psalm 118:14, which translates (roughly) as “My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation.”
I was initially surprised and somewhat disoriented: this was not the angry protest I had thought I was joining. But the successive waves of the song quickly eroded my anger, carrying me into a meditative state, and I began to notice the signs people were carrying. In place of the indignant, feisty, raw, or cheeky placards of the Women’s March or March for Our Lives – signs whose rage and creativity I love and admire – these bore messages of healing, (comm)unity, and reconciliation: “Stand with Love Against Hate”; “We [Pittsburgh] Do Bridges not Walls”; We Love All our Neighbors”; “Hate is Not Welcome in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
There was one overtly political moment: when sirens announced that the presidential motorcade was passing by, everyone in the crowd turned their backs. But by and large this manifestation was about politics in a different register. This was clear when, later, the procession came to a halt—as near to the synagogue as we could get given the police protection for the President. Organizers had passed out slips of black paper to the crowd, and we were led in the keriah—the ritualized tearing of clothing by Jews mourning the dead. We stood, silent or weeping, wrestling with our emotions, our collective strength making space for our personal vulnerabilities.
I was overcome. I had never been part of anything like this. Over the years I’ve participated in many rallies and protests, but nothing with the dignity and solemnity of this event. I walked alone and with acquaintances, greeted colleagues and neighbors, hugged friends and strangers. When the march reached its end, I pedaled home, feeling strangely – unexpectedly – moved.
This experience lay dormant in my mind until I was invited to write this piece. As I thought about it anew, it both evoked and enriched the “politics of reflection” that Jeanne Morefield and I called for in an essay published shortly after Trump’s inauguration. In that essay, we argued that a critique of national and global politics can and should inform resistance situated in specific local contexts. Moving between the local and national/global helps to clarify points of convergence between similar struggles, we argued, and to disclose layers of meaning that might otherwise remain buried or obscured. Specifically, this kind of critique must engage forthrightly with the past. We can’t move forward unless and until we look back, honestly, in a spirit of reconciliation and reparation. This kind of critique “foregrounds the productive, forward-looking potential of a politics of acknowledgment and repair” (S79). Morefield and I referred to the politics of reflection to emphasize how this kind of critical engagement with the past can help to produce an intersectional solidarity – one that recognizes that differences are constructed in part through their histories of conflict and injustice and that those histories must be addressed if solidarity is to function in an emancipatory rather than oppressive way.
The march on October 30 beautifully embodied this politics of reflection. Much like the movements that had informed our earlier study—the Women’s March and the resistance at Standing Rock—this march was predicated on an understanding that healing present wounds and redressing past injustices must be part of the same process. Genuinely intersectional solidarity is only possible if past wrongs are acknowledged and repair initiated. At Standing Rock, for example, it was only after a group of veterans, who had come to “defend” indigenous activists, atoned for the US military’s brutal history of treachery and genocide that productive concord was possible.
It was, I later learned that there were really two marches, organized by two groups (Bend the Arc Pittsburgh and IfNotNow Pittsburgh) which I gather don’t always agree on some issues. The two marches merged, intentionally and symbolically, from their different starting points. Yet they were united in their commitment to tackling the history of anti-Semitism and white supremacy as part of the process of healing our community following the murders: in its announcement, Bend the Arc stated that “We are committed to healing as a community while we recommit ourselves to repairing our nation.” IfNotNow invited the community to
join us in grieving and praying and standing tall for all those we have lost and all those we love. […] Our nation has been rocked by several hate crimes in the past week – all motivated by supremacy, which harms all of us. Antisemitism props up white supremacy. We stand with each other and mourn for our dead, and show up to love and protect one another. Nationalism, Antisemitism, and White Supremacy cannot be allowed to exist in our city.
Acknowledgement and repair are urgently needed because Americans have not been honest about our history of imperialism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy, and until we are, we won’t be able to overcome it. As the march organizers recognized, repair is impossible without an honest acknowledgement of what’s broken, without a critical reckoning with the past. Neither malignant white-nationalism nor metastatic gun violence can be countered nationally or globally without a meaningful acknowledgement of and engagement with the white supremacist ideology at the core of both.
The organizers and participants also drew on local frames of reference in constructing solidarity within the group and for the future. Bend the Arc asked “our allies to join us… in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, as we unite as a city to show our love for our neighbors, all our neighbors, whoever they are and wherever they come from.” They drew on symbols of community and connection by invoking local Pittsburgh symbols and meanings (bridges, Mr. Rogers). In merging their marches, the organizers and participants chose to both acknowledge and negotiate – not necessarily overcome – their differences, to build a unity they could use, politically.
In many ways, then, the march reinforced and expanded my sense of the productive possibilities of a politics of reflection. But it also taught me something that I hadn’t realized: the deep and generative relationship between personal and political reflection. Morefield and I used “reflection” to mean something like “historically informed critique.” The march, through my profound experience of that resolute calm, taught me how essential reflection as mindful awareness can also be to this transformative politics. Mindful awareness can help us to cultivate the disposition for virtuous action (what Aristotle called hexis). It can do so in part by helping us to acknowledge suffering and injustice and to face them with honesty and courage, thereby enabling the kind of historical critique on which the politics of reflection depends. It can also engender healing and forgiveness, restoring us and helping us to balance (not eliminate) rage and indignation.
The march also showed me that it’s both possible and quite powerful to cultivate mindful awareness through collective political action. My experience on that brilliant October afternoon has persuaded me (like no argument could) of the transformative potential of this kind of politics.
Michael Goodhart is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and he holds secondary appointments in Philosophy and in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. He is Director of the Global Studies Center and a University Honors College Faculty Fellow. His current research focuses on questions to do with global injustice and responsibility for injustice and how political theorists think about these problems. He is also interested in human rights praxis as a form of counter-hegemonic politics under neoliberalism. His core intellectual interests are in the theory and practice of democracy and human rights in the context of globalization and in related questions concerning global justice, democratic governance, and political responsibility at the transnational level. Among his many publications are two monographs: Injustice: Political Theory for the Real World (Oxford 2018), and Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization (Routledge, 2005).