“Skillful means” is a very important concept in Buddhism. Before you act, you figure out what your intention is. And then you take action to realize it — but not just any action. You’re supposed to figure out a skillful way to achieve your intention, because, if you don’t make skillful choices, it’s unlikely that you’ll be successful. And if you’re not successful, then you step back and examine your actions, to figure out if there’s a more skillful way to go for what you want.
“SKILLFUL MEANS” AT THE ARBERY TRIAL
There was a very interesting column by David Leonhardt in the NY Times, discussing the strategy of the prosecutor in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery. It made me consider how skillful means apply in a courtroom:
“Arbery was in a predominantly white neighborhood near his home in coastal Georgia on Feb. 23, 2020, when three men in pickup trucks chased and shot him. Racism played a clear role in the killing. One of the defendants used a slur shortly after the shooting, according to another defendant. All three had a history of sending online messages tinged with white nationalism. Nonetheless, the prosecutor in the case, Linda Dunikoski, decided mostly to ignore race during the trial. She accused the defendants of having a racist motive only once, in a single line of her closing argument. She instead portrayed them as lawless figures who killed a young man.”
This strategy was extremely controversial while the trial was going on. When I read that people were upset because Dunikoski wasn’t talking about the obvious racism motivating the murder of Arbery, I thought, “Oh no! They’ve chosen an incompetent to prosecute the case!” In other words, I thought the prosecutor was not using skillful means, and that these racist thugs might get off. That would have been a terrible defeat for racial justice.
However, Dunikoski turned out to be very skillful. The jury returned a verdict of murder for all three men! Victory!
Dunikoski hasn’t spoken about her strategy, so Leonhardt speculates about what she was thinking:
“The prosecutor evidently believed that emphasizing race would be a gift to the defense. It could cause the jurors — all but one of whom were white — to retreat to their ideological corners. Conservative jurors would be reminded that they often disagree with allegations of racism. Many political moderates disagree sometimes, too, especially if they’re white. On the other hand, any jurors likely to be appalled by the racial nature of the case — three white men killing a Black man in broad daylight — would recognize the role of race without needing to be told about it…
Race-based strategies are especially challenging in a country where living standards have stagnated in recent decades…
Working-class families of all races have reason to distrust the notion that they enjoy a privileged lifestyle. No wonder that Steve Bannon, the far-right political figure, once said that he wanted liberals “to talk about racism every day.” When they do, Mr. Bannon said, “I got ‘em.”
So Dunikoski’s intention was not to prove that racism was a terrible problem in this country. Her intention was not to convince the jury that the defendants were racist. Her intention was to convince every member of the jury that the defendants were guilty of murdering an innocent man.
The prosecutor used skillful means to achieve her intention. And, while commentators all over the country were freaking out about Dunikoski’s strategy, Arbery’s family understood what she was doing from the beginning and supported her.
Leonhardt’s words again:
“When activists try to combat racism by calling it out, they often struggle to accomplish their goals. Focusing on Mr. Trump’s racist behavior didn’t keep him from winning the presidency. The Black Lives Matter movement has mostly failed to implement its policy agenda on policing.”
Both Leonhardt and Bannon are saying that race-based strategies are not skillfull — that they even drive people to the opposite side. And Bannon is absolutely chortling about it. And anything that makes Bannon happy is cause for alarm.
HAS “BLACK LIVES MATTER” USED SKILLFUL MEANS?
“The Black Lives Matter” movement started out powerfully by speaking a simple truth that unfortunately needed to be said, chanted, shouted, sung again and again. Not just the police, our whole society acts as if Black lives are not as valuable as white lives. That is a truth that I have witnessed. And that simple truth repeated, again and again, has raised the consciousness of millions. We are having a reckoning over race that is painful but necessary and long overdue. This has been very exciting and has transformed our society on a cultural level.
HAS “DEFUND THE POLICE” BEEN A SKILLFUL CAMPAIGN?
But the Black Lives Matter movement has not been skillful in moving towards its goal of changing the behavior of the police toward the black community. In the words of former SF Mayor Willie Brown, the most powerful Black politician in the country until Obama was elected: “‘Defund the Police’ is the worst slogan ever.” Really, how many people, white or Black, want the police to just disappear? With all the guns floating around? Not me! Of course, mental health professionals should be dealing with mentally ill people instead of the police — for starters. But just demanding that the police be abolished is not only totally unrealistic. It has only served to divide people further. It has proven to be very unskillful.
HAS THE VIOLENCE OF ANTIFA AT BLM PROTESTS BEEN SKILLFUL?
In my opinion, the refusal of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to disavow the looting and vandalism done in their name has been a huge mistake. Everyone is supposed to consider this violence an “understandable” response to police violence. We’re supposed to concentrate on the evil police rather than the destruction the anti-racists inflict. Easy to say unless you’re a small business owner whose store has been trashed by idealistic, freedom-loving, anti-racist looters — or you’re a customer who patronizes that store. And who’s to say all those business owners and customers are white? Antifa isn’t checking to make sure they’re only impacting white businesses.
Looting and vandalism and destruction are extremely unskillful ways to work for social change. I’m not even talking about whether these activities are right or wrong. Not only do they not work, they make progress less likely by deepening divisions in our country, and giving the Right valid talking points.
WHAT MORE SKILLFUL TACTICS COULD REPLACE THE VIOLENCE?
Everyone talks about honoring the life of John Lewis, but nobody’s talking about using the tactics he used successfully to bring about social change. He and Martin Luther King used, and believed in, non-violent civil disobedience. They did not countenance violence as part of their protests. If someone became violent, others would surround that person so that they were unable to act on those impulses. Yes, the civil rights movement disrupted daily life and economic activity with their protests and sit-ins, and marches. But they did not destroy property.
How do we bring about change in the relationship between the police and the black community? It’s a tough problem to solve because we’re talking about changing the behavior of people who make their living by carrying around guns and sometimes using them to shoot people. Has smashing store windows and burning cars worked? Has threatening to abolish the police worked? No! In fact, both those tactics have strengthened the Right-Wing.
We have to look deeply at whether the tactics we’re using for social change are effective aka skillful. And if they are not only ineffective but fueling the Right, we have to consider what else we could possibly do to make our country a more equitable, just, and peaceful society. How about honoring the late John Lewis by studying the tactics he used — non-violent civil disobedience for starters?
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