We Shall Not Be Moved

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

By Robert C. Koehler

“A fight, a fight . . .”

Oh Lord. From what depths did this story come? This was the power of the peace circle, pulling something out of me beyond any known zone of emotional safety.

There were five or six of us, in a small breakout group, challenging one another with the deepest puzzles of our lives. Most of the people in this classroom, at a high school on the West Side of Chicago, were either teachers or connected in some way to the city’s schools and young people, as social workers, counselors or community activists. One of the participants was a school security guard. I was on the edge of all this — a “peace journalist” (as I call myself), investigating the future of nonviolent conflict resolution, restorative justice and education itself.

I’ve been aware of the restorative justice movement here in Chicago for a number of years now — this movement that pushes justice into a new realm, beyond revenge, punishment and isolation, to the healing of broken relationships and the building of peace in schools, workplaces and communities. It is common sense itself, turning conflict into the opportunity to discover who we really are. What’s more, it’s cost-effective, which may be why our cash-strapped and desperate school systems are slowly, warily embracing the process.

But it’s not easy. We have to get to know each other and start figuring out how to work together as equals. And this is the point of the peace circle, the wheel that churns at the center of restorative justice and drives everything. How radical: We’re all equal, we all belong here, we are all invaluable to the whole that is slowly finding form.

When I heard about this weeklong training session in the leading of peace circles, I jumped at the chance to be part of it. But because confidentiality is paramount — all personal disclosures stay in the circle — I can only hint at the work, struggle and breakthroughs that occurred, by which the 16 of us cohered as a group . . . except to talk about what happened to me.

During a one-on-one process, we had taken turns opening up about A) a time when we were harmed; and B) a time when we did harm. I found part B, in particular, excruciating, but also liberating: to have permission to grope among the darkest of my memories, release the pain and shame in a public context, among others doing the same thing, and forgive myself and be forgiven.

We broke into smaller groups shortly after this exercise, and I was still swimming in those memories: the push-pull of growing up, the boyhood fights and beyond that the smug, complacent racism of suburbia in which I came of age. And suddenly — I couldn’t believe this — I found myself telling a racially mixed group of people, all of them listening with a sympathetic calmness that made it possible to utter the truth, what kids did in the town of Dearborn, Mich., and probably elsewhere, when there was a fight.

The wonder of violence — even among children, with physical damage usually limited to bloody noses, bloody knuckles and a rush of hot tears — is that it summons the lurking social evils of the day, almost as a blessing. Thus when two boys (in those days it was almost always the boys who fought) began flailing at one another, a group of kids, a mob, would gather and begin chanting.

“A fight, a fight,” they would chant, “between a . . .” And I can only describe the rest of the rhyming ritual in cautious, neutered language. The onlookers spontaneously chose sides, labeling one of the combatants the “white” and the other the n-word, then, in childish irony, urged the designated loser to “beat that white,” which meant, of course, that he was the racial outcast. This was, of course, an all-white community, rendering the ritual an act of bizarre solidarity with the front lines of white-sheet racial barbarism we knew of only by hearsay.

My telling of this story was just a fleeting moment in this week of disclosure, struggle and listening, but it’s emblematic of the level of truth we sought from each other and ourselves.

Because so many in the group were teachers, I learned a great deal about the realities of the inner-city classroom, at one point scrawling into my notebook the words: “the wounded courage of teachers.” What struck me about these teachers in particular, some of whom taught in truly challenging settings, such as Cook County Jail, was their commitment to a loving, caring, peace-building process — in the face not simply of difficult students but the forces of cynicism and burnout, among their peers and bosses, that would discount and mock such a process: “You’re too nice. You’re too soft.”

Moments of extraordinary solidarity arose from our discussions of the phenomenon of mockery. Kindness is called weakness? Be kind anyway! At one point during such a discussion, five or six of us in the small group grabbed hold of the straw “donut” we’d been passing around as the talking piece and gripped it with intensity, vowing, in the words of the civil rights-era spiritual: We shall not be moved.

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world,” wrote Victor Hugo, “and that is an idea whose time has come.”