On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech in Harlem’s Riverside Church. In it, he spoke of being confronted with “the fierce urgency of now.”
He went on to say that, “there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time … We must move past indecision to action.” He warned us that if we do not move into action, “we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Almost 50 years later, this country is once again faced with the “fierce urgency of now.” Within hours of his inauguration, Donald Trump signed an executive order to begin the process of repealing Obamacare, and the White House website was updated to reflect his administration’s views: the site’s sections on climate change, civil rights, disabilities and LGBT issues were removed.
And many around the country have feared what this administration is going to mean for our Muslim friends and others of Middle Eastern descent, immigrant communities and those who are already marginalized. What will this administration mean for the movement for black lives, for Standing Rock, for our struggles against patriarchy, income inequality and so many critical issues of our time?
Yes, we are in an urgent moment in history, and we need to respond accordingly. We need to organize harder than ever, mobilize more people than ever, knock on more doors than ever, and fight like we’ve never fought before.
And that brings us to what I believe is a critical question for our movements to answer today: As we confront the urgency of the moment, how do we ensure that we are not organizing from a place of panic?
Oftentimes, when we get caught up in momentum and the urgency of the moment, our energy begins to shift and we enter a frenzied panic state. And organizing from that place can deeply impact both our external work as well as in our internal process through which we do the work.
I can still hear the voices of the elders at Standing Rock, reminding us that we need to slow down. That for indigenous peoples, struggle is nothing new. We’ve been here before. That for them, everything they do is ceremony, prayer, ritual. And those are not things that you rush. You do it with intention, with all of the time and respect that it deserves.
When we move from a place of panic, our work happens with less mindfulness. We miss steps. We don’t have the right information. Our strategies aren’t as tight. We react as opposed to respond. We aren’t as prepared. We are easier to counter. We make mistakes.
We also are much likelier to perpetuate the same systems of violence that we are trying to resist when we work in a frenzied pace. Those with the loudest voices tend to take over, and we often lose the voices of those who are marginalized. We are more likely to emphasize actions over process and relationships, and we begin to distrust each other. Newer activists have a harder time finding a way in, feeding the exclusivity of activism. We are less careful with our messaging, which can turn potential allies away.
The work of social change is stressful enough on its best days. But if we are moving without intention, without mindfulness and without awareness of how we are moving, it can easily add to what is already a challenge.
So we need to learn to slow down, while acknowledging the urgency of this moment.
There is no doubt that this is not a moment to procrastinate, but a time to act, as King reminds us. But the frenzied pace that we do our work in is oftentimes a habit that has been ingrained in us by a capitalist system functioning with a different time frame than we do.
We have always known that this was a long-term struggle. The struggle towards social justice is not one of multiple election cycles, but of multiple generations.
Another piece of wisdom from our indigenous teachers reminds us that the work we do is not for ourselves, but for the seventh generation that will come after us. And the work we do now stands on the shoulders of the seven generations that came before. That is a lot of wisdom, and a lot of time.
It is with that long-view approach that we need to tackle the urgency of today. Trump and his agenda is one urgent thing that we need to resist. But the tendency to come from a place of panic and move too fast is, ironically, just as urgent of an issue that needs to be addressed.
We need to act, but addressing this crucial moment cannot come at the expense of strategy, process, intention and remembering to slow down enough to breathe.
So, what is our work moving into 2017? Organize, breathe, repeat. Organize, breathe, repeat. Organize, breathe, repeat.
Kazu Haga is a Kingian Nonviolence trainer based in Oakland, California. Born in Japan, he has been involved in many social change movements since he was 17. He conducts regular trainings with youth, incarcerated populations and activists. He is the founder and coordinator of East Point Peace Academy, and is on the board of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, PeaceWorkers and the OneLife Institute.