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Randall Amster: Gandhi and Anarchism

Randall Amster: Rooting Anarchy in Nonviolence

Randall Amster, a passionate lawyer and human rights activist, used to work for a prestigious corporate law firm in New York City.
 

He was a successful, well-to-do professional in the traditionally accepted sense of the word. Skillfully navigating the crowded and busy streets of New York City, he mostly avoided homeless individuals by keeping his gaze at eye level.  Until one day, one homeless man’s presence stood out.  Unexpectedly, Randall found himself slowing down, and stopped to have a conversation with this individual. That day was the beginning of a whole new direction in the course of Randall’s life. 

Over the next few months, even though they were different from each other in every demographic way that is possible, they were alike in the one way that meant something-their hearts and spirits were aligned.  One day after enjoying lunch together, Randall returned to the office where his colleague commented on how kind he was to try and save this person.  That’s when Randall realized the truth. “You guys have it all wrong.  He is saving me,” he responded.

Within ten months, Randall left the firm.  He went on to work as an activist attorney, representing underrepresented and marginalized groups in some of the most difficult environments that you could work in.  Following are his profound insights on achieving change through nonviolent anarchistic approaches. What seemed like a paradox became crystal clear through this conversation.  By sharing stories from his human rights work, Randall’s experiences offer real life examples of how anarchy is actually rooted in nonviolence.

Becoming Friends with the “Enemy” and Cultivating the “We”

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Randall and a few friends felt compelled to travel there on a bus with a few tons of food and supplies.  Just on the outskirts of the city, they learned that the National Guard had been given orders to lock the city down. No one was allowed in and people living there were basically being forced to leave their homes. But driven by the intention to offer help Randall and his friends somehow found a way inside.  Within a few days, they set up an adhoc relief center in a home in the lower ninth ward, and distributed food and supplies to the people that had been cut off from assistance.

“We came at a time when people were barely hanging on and we were able to bolster them…we kept that area from being entirely decimated.  It was a critical moment in the political scene.  But what was more striking was the relationship that we were able to build with the National Guard.  After we came into the city and set up our relief efforts in the ninth ward, we heard a banging on the door. We opened it to be confronted by people in uniforms with guns pointed at us. Soldiers were flanked on the right and left side of the house and it looked like a scene out of Baghdad.  What could we do?  We took a deep breath and smiled and tried to break the tension and invite them in.”

Over the subsequent weeks, Randall and his team of grassroots volunteers came to know many of the soldiers at a more personal level.  When the soldiers realized that the team was trying to accomplish exactly what they had been sent there do themselves, many understood that the only difference between them and the volunteer team was outward appearances and approaches.  Both groups were trying to preserve community, restore order, and promote safety, but the difference was that Randall and his team were trying to accomplish this by feeding stranded and displaced people, inviting them into a space where they could talk, receive grief counseling, or therapy through art and music.  The desired end result was the same and it didn’t matter anymore who was providing the much need relief, a group of nonviolence activists or armed soldiers.  Many of the soldiers began coming by for coffee in the morning. 

“It was a very eye opening moment.  Even across those types of differences there are moments of magic that are possible.  The important questions come to the surface.  Who are we as people? What are we doing with our lives?  What matters to us at the end of the day? At the end of the day, people are much more alike in those terms than different and this is the basis for working together.”
 
A Third Way: Where Nonviolence and Anarchism Interconnect

Would Randall’s experience in New Orleans be considered anarchistic according to the base definition of the word?  We think of anarchists as violent people that take bottles and make bombs with them.  A common conclusion is that anarchism is synonymous with random violence. Randall currently teaches peace studies at Preston University and explained that anarchism is actually a way of reclaiming self-governance and autonomy from the bottom up and this can be done nonviolently.
 
“Even though a lot of anarchists disdain nonviolence and vice versa, if you put the word nonviolence on one side of a board and anarchism on the other side, there is a lot of overlap between the two because they stand for similar principles.  Some of these principles were demonstrated by people like Gandhi.  He isn’t thought of an anarchist per se but if you look at the things he stood for, decentralized communities and anti-imperialism, these stances are very much aligned with the way anarchists think about the map of the world.”   

Randall explained the problem with getting caught up with the labels.  People will we miss the larger picture- that good ideas are good ideas.  It doesn’t matter what noun is applied to the changemakers.  What is important is to ask, “Is the approach working?  Is humanism being reclaimed in the face of dehumanization and is autonomy being reclaimed in the face of authority?”   Maybe we need a new name, a third way, instead of calling it anarchism or non-violence we need another way of conceiving this approach.

Emphasizing that we should work at all levels of engagement, Randall explained, “It’s not appropriate to resort to civil disobedience unless you have tried civil obedience.”  Whatever tools we have within the four corners of the law, whether it’s attending city hall meetings or collecting signatures for a petition, working with these tools within the system can be useful in bringing change in a way that engages everyone.  Change is a process and cooperation is what moves the conversation away from the “us” versus “them” dichotomy towards the “we” perspective. 

Patient Teachings from Mother Nature: Practicing the Third Way

Randall expressed that there is no greater exercise in faith than when farming in the dessert of Arizona.  Through the process, he has learned to take things slowly, and take the failures as well as the successes. He has learned that every experience is a lesson, and everyday he has to learn anew while drawing on what he already knows. Most importantly, he has learned that in patience, there is wisdom.
 
“Fear can also be a teacher for patience.  It’s great to acknowledge that you’re afraid and it can be a source of tremendous strength as long as you don’t let it rule you.  In those moments when fear arises and that split second before you react, if you can practice patience, stay present, and say, “Ok, I’m afraid right now but I’m not going to turn and run,” you have the power to change the entire conversation and break the cycle of action and reaction. You’re still vulnerable but it changes your stature, and you realize that your fear is a deep well of potential energy for turning the situation around.”   
 
Nature has also beautifully illustrated to Randall how each of us is embedded in relationships all around us.  These relationships are visible and invisible, spiritual and physical. And how we react, or don’t react, in those relationships matters.  But we often forget the relationship we have with our own selves.  

“There is nothing we can injure without it having it come back to us.  We are human beings with emotions and cope with stress in different ways.  While we work to practice nonviolence in all of our relationships, what I reflect on in my quiet moments is practicing nonviolence and expressing empathy toward myself.  We try to hold ourselves to such a high standard that it becomes impossible to meet it.  Ironically in the name of nonviolence, we become violent towards our own selves.”
 
Randall’s last piece of advice to us was a lesson learned from the Zapatista movement in Mexico:
 
“Go back to wherever you come from and work hard to make change in your lives and in your communities.  Take your vision and work with others, implement it, and manifest it.  If we all start doing that, we will change the paradigm, slowly and steadily, and one day, these types of conversations will be part of our daily lives.  I’m looking forward to that day, and I think it’s closer than we think it is.”   


Listen to the Audio (mp3):    
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To stay connected to Randall's journey,New Clear Vision is a great resource, along with his upcoming book --  Anarchism Today.


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