Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Fertilizer Warehouse

This is a story about an afternoon in 1986, and how a hailstorm and a microphone changed my views on conflict and peacemaking. I was walking from Los Angeles to Washington DC on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. 500 earnest peace-niks left California, crossed the desert and the rocky mountains, and onto the Great Plains. By the time we strolled down into the eastern Colorado summer we were deeply divided. Yeah, I know: the peace march was deeply divided. Go figure. 

The problem was that some of us wanted to leave camp when we darn well pleased each morning, walking in the cool early hours, or waiting until the coffee shops were open, or the sun was up, or just wanting to avoid spending another six hours in earshot of the non-stop drumming from the Buddhist contingent. We were peace pilgrims on a 4000-mile meditation; why should we subject ourselves to regimentation? What’s the problem with letting people walk how they wanna walk? 

Others thought that our impact as a political movement was diluted when we were all strung out, only ten or twelve of us per mile, enough to raise a question in passing drivers, but not enough to answer it. Why bother walking all that way if we’re not going to make a major statement? We should walk in a coordinated group!

Frustration became anger, which bred factions. On one side, the “let people walk when the want to” faction, and on the other, the “we have to walk as a group” faction. People left the march over it. Couples broke up over it; aging civil rights veterans were pitted against young gay rights activists. It was bad. You can guess which side the Anarchists were on. 

On that fateful June afternoon, a storm rolled in as we were trying to set up our tents in a muddy field. Strong winds gave way to hard rain, then large hail. We sprinted for the only building nearby: a fertilizer warehouse. If you’ve never been in a fertilizer warehouse, picture a corrugated metal building with a concrete floor, big rolling doors at the end like an airplane hangar, and stalls around the walls filled with, you guessed it, two dozen different kinds of manure, in big piles suitable for a front-loader. 

We were stuck in there until the storm let up, so someone set up a microphone and a speaker, and, over the roar of hail on the metal roof, invited us to just talk, two minutes each, about the issue of how we should walk each day. With nothing else to do, not even a safe place to sit down, we listened. We talked and we listened. Some got in line several times; some didn’t speak at all, but everyone had a chance to share their thoughts. At first, the tone was angry, then exasperated, then thoughtful, then a bit sheepish, and finally conciliatory, ending with peals of laughter and jokes about our surroundings that aren’t appropriate to repeat here. 
It wasn’t a debate, or an argument, or a courtroom scene; there was no motion on the floor, nothing to decide, just a bunch of people in an uncomfortable situation, sharing their thoughts one at a time. And listening. (Smelling, tasting, and touching weren’t really options.)

After a couple hours of listening and talking, one at a time, both the storm and our divisions had completely passed. We knew exactly what we would do: we would walk in a tight group through cities and towns, and strung out in the rural countryside: City Mode and Country Mode. It was an obvious resolution, but one that we couldn’t see from our self-righteous factions. There was no big vote, no straw poll, no formal consensus sought or gained, no talk of enforcement, we just knew. It was obvious. It was peacemaking. It was magic. 

In today’s fractured world, with its hot wars and religious strife and dysfunctional politics, “listening” as a way forward just seems too simple, too quaint, too naive to even mention. Maybe we need the global equivalent of a hailstorm and a manure warehouse, but I don’t think so. I think the magic of making peace really is as simple as taking the time to listen. Listen, speak, listen some more. 

Who do you need to listen to? 

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