The point, to reiterate, was that lots of academic & private polling research, plus my own movement experience, confirms the idea that nonviolent protests move public opinion in a progressive direction, while violent demonstrations nudge it toward the reactionary right, often with tragic and lasting outcomes.
I didn’t expect to have corroboration so soon. But by sundown there was a raft of it, starting with a brand new Reuters/Ipsos poll with all the data one might need.
First, the new poll. The big number in it was the trend in public support for the latest round of protests. Here’s the summary:
The poll follows a series of late-night clashes between protesters and federal police in Portland, Oregon, where demonstrators have held nightly anti-racism rallies. Trump sent federal police into the city despite the mayor’s objections to deal with what he called “anarchists and agitators,” and he has sent others to Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque.
According to the poll, 52% of American adults say they are sympathetic to those who are still gathering to protest the police treatment of minorities, especially African Americans,about 12 percentage points lower than a similar poll that ran in mid-June.[Emphasis added.]
Twelve per cent. That’s a big drop. And 52 percent is perilously close (within any reasonable margin for error) to tipping over into majority public dislike of the protests.
And there’s another drop to take note of: The percentage of those who are unhappy with Trump’s response to the recent protests has dropped from 58 per cent to 54. Ipsos puts this another way:
. . . [A] majority of Americans remain unhappy with the way [Trump] has responded. The poll showed 54% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, which is only a slight improvement from a similar poll that ran in mid-June when 58% disapproved.
Another way to slice it is that Trump appears to be reclaiming some Republicans whose support he was losing as the early rounds of protests crested. There the increase Ipsos found, is substantial:
The rise in support comes primarily from Republicans who have backed the president in greater numbers as the protests rage across the country: 78% said they approved of Trump’s response to the demonstrations in the latest poll, up from 67% in mid-June. Nearly nine out of 10 Democrats say they do not like the way Trump is dealing with the protests, and that has not changed over since June.
It’s not time to panic. But what’s important here is the trend, and it’s in the direction of Trump’s strategy: paint the protests as domestic terrorism, fan the flames of hysteria, turn up the media echo chamber volume to full blast, and build the image as the savior of [racist white] suburbia.
Trump: it’s ridiculous, they [Biden & Democrats] want to abolish, and really hurt the suburbs, because under their plan, they will, under a plan that’s very much agreed to by them, they want to make it worse, they don’t mind if low income housing is built in a neighborhood, in a beautiful suburb of Iowa, but a beautiful suburb anywhere in the country, they want low, and this has been going on for years, Obama made it much worse, and now they want Cory Booker to run that program, Cory Booker of New Jersey to run that program, and make it many times worse than it is right now. People have gone to the suburbs, they want the beautiful homes, they don’t have to have a low income housing development built in their community, which is going to reduce, which has reduced the prices of their homes, and also increased crime substantially. [Emphasis added.]
As one analyst said, this effusion turns his racist dog whistles into train whistles. I would add, foghorns.
The Iowa rant, if typically rambling, was not at all incoherent: it aims to reassemble and harden the racist suburban base Trump plundered in 2016. And I hate to say it, but the poll suggests he’s making some headway with that. And do I think protesters need to take this into account? You bet.
One other meaningful tidbit from this busy day; The Minneapolis police department said they’re closing in on a suspect who was the “umbrella Man” who broke windows in protests there on May 27, clearly “lighting the match” of fiery protests later. The New York Times has an affidavit police filed for a search warrant:
“Erika Christensen, an arson investigator with the Minneapolis police, wrote in the affidavit that the vandalism ‘created an atmosphere of hostility and tension’ two days after Mr. Floyd’s death. It unleashed a chain reaction of arson and looting in the Twin Cities, she wrote, after protests had been relatively peaceful.
‘In a short time after the front windows are broken out in The AutoZone, looting started, the affidavit said, noting that the AutoZone store burned down later that day. ‘This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city.’”
They allege that the suspect is associated with white supremacy groups and racist prison gangs. The Washington Post had a video clip of the suspect, showing other protesters pleading with him to stop, unsuccessfully.
Unless the Minneapolis cops are completely wrong, this disclosure cements the case that Umbrella Man was no more than a provocateur, who fully achieved his goal of undermining peaceful protests and touching off violence.
And if that happened in Minneapolis, my sense is that it has happened elsewhere. The conclusion that strict nonviolent tactics is the best defense against such subversion is plain.
Is help on the way? There’s an outfit in DC called the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and it has published the title & an abstract of a new monograph which addresses this head on: “Agents Provocateurs, Violent Flanks, and Nonviolent Movements: A Historical and Strategic Perspective.” The abstract sounds totally on point:
“When the adversary of a civil resistance movement sends infiltrators to join the movement, what do these covert operators do, and what impact do they have? Furthermore, how can civil resistance organizers respond creatively and strategically?”
Yes how? In Minneapolis, the video shows two other protesters appealing to Umbrella Man to stop breaking windows. He ignored them, kept swinging the sledgehammer, then walked away. Peaceful protesters need help on this.
Unfortunately only the paper’s title & abstract are online; the actual paper is “forthcoming.” Better get the lead out, folks: it’s burn-the-midnight-courthouse—err, oil time.
Nevertheless. Most of the protests have been peaceful, and many have been quite imaginative. Such creativity is an important tactical resource. (Looking at you, Wall of Moms.)
One of the less useful of the recent media tempests involved a report about the fate of David Shor, a somewhat lefty data analyst.
Shor had tweeted a summary of a paper by Princeton scholar Omar Wasow. Wasow argued that his research on 12 years of Black-led protests, particularly in election years, moved public opinion in a progressive direction, whereas those marked by violence to property and persons moved the needle toward support for reactionaries, helping bring Nixon, Reagan et al to power. In his own words:
Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, Congressional speech and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share among whites increase 1.3-1.6%.
Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968 . . . I find violent protests likely caused a 1.6-7.9% shift among whites towards Republicans and tipped the election.
Shor’s tweet provoked a storm of online denunciation of its purported racism, and in a few days Shor was fired from his job at Civis Analytics, a Chicago-based “data science software and consultancy company,“ for somewhat lefty clients.
I mention it not to rehash the cliched debate about cancel culture. Instead, I want to say a few things about Omar Wasow’s overall thesis, that violence in protests helps reactionary politics, while nonviolent direct action boosts progressives.
First, I strongly agree with Wasow’s main point. My conviction is not based on academic research, though; it comes out of fifty-plus years of surviving the ’60s and their aftermath, under the heels of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes, and the Orange Menace.
Oh—and second, if it’s not permitted for a lefty progressive to say such a thing, so shoot me. Though that would be a waste of ammunition, given my age and retired status.
Third, and most important, there are others who also agree with Wasow, and are acting vigorously on that conviction, but with very different and anti-progressive ends in view. Also with far more clout than I’ll ever have.
A vivid glimpse of that reality is what moved me to write this post. It came in the latest edition of “The Righting,” an email newsletter that brings “Top news headlines from the Far Right for the rest of us.”
The rightwing media this letter aggregates rant about many issues and topics.
Yet the current issue is essentially focused on just one: how violent protests are terrorism unleashed, that are burning up the cities, threatening the country. They must be stopped, and only harsh repression by their preferred leader can save us.
Looking this over, and remembering the Shor & Wasow hoo-haw, it suddenly hit me: the far right totally believes both of them: they’re convinced violent protests can move the needle.
And they’re desperate to move the needle. All the credible polls are showing Trump lagging Biden, many by huge numbers. Some foolish pundits are already announcing that it’s all over, and trotting out their pet names for a Biden cabinet.
But it’s not over yet. And every urban nightscape that is lit up with flames and resounds with gunfire presents a chance for them to stop the Trumpist slide. Maybe their only chance. Will the violent protests give it to them?
Americans are not overall a radical, or even radical-leaning people. They want some peace, quiet, a real crusade against the pandemic, a way for families out of the new depression, open and SAFE schools, and action on police misconduct and the racism behind it.
Violence in the cities threatens the positive momentum that has been built up on all these matters since George Floyd’s murder. And putting up with or excusing it is no better. Here I am following the words and example of those who have been most honored this month: C. T. Vivian, John Lewis, and both Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King.
This appeal is particularly aimed at “my people,” the liberal Quakers and those of similar outlook, who have largely stuck with this heritage during my lifetime, I know it’s tempting to rationalize or give into the rage that’s loose. The sight of unidentified federal stormtroopers snatching mostly peaceful protesters off the streets is enough to send most of us over the edge.
But resist that impulse, Friends. As the old freedom song says, “keep your eyes on the prize.” Advocate for, plan, and carry out protests and actions that are strictly nonviolent.
It’s not only safer. It’s both strategically and tactically smarter. And the stakes could hardly be higher. If Americans become desperate for safety, many can be persuaded they will only get that from the right, and they can and will turn that way — it’s happened often before.
The far right knows this. So they are all out for the opposite to happen. Don’t fall into the trap.
The internet is a mystifying thing: emails can go round and round, and some end up in my inbox that have been many other places on their electronic journey.
One such came yesterday, and it is germane to the current issues roiling SAYMA (Southern Appalachian yearly Meeting & Association). It is no less than the Enemies List of Sharon Smith, the self-styled uber-anti-racist activist and Indian elder/matriarch, whose demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds (& $10,000 per year thereafter indefinitely) will come before the group’s representative meeting this evening.
Of course, it is not titled as an “Enemies List. ” The email was originally sent to the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a relatively new project based in Ithaca new York. But Smith does say explicitly that “the above list are those known to be upholding white supremacy, causing the most harm to Friends of color, particularly URJ members, through their leadership roles in SAYMA . . .”
The names are below. I’ll point out here that for a Quaker body, it’s a pretty weighty lot. It includes
>> A former YM Clerk, the current YM Clerk, and the incoming YM Clerk;
>> The former Clerk of its Finance Committee, and the Committee’s incoming Clerk; the Clerk of its Ministry & Nurture Committee; a distinguished Quaker historian; an experienced CPA; and
>> A founding member of SAYMA, and at least one who has been arrested in civil rights protests.
It’s also worth noting that they are scattered from Asheville to Memphis, and are hardly a homogeneous, well-oiled machine. What they do have in common is the temerity to have questioned, or even opposed, Smith’s demands for money and control.
And so, these are the “white supremacists” who she identifies as obstructing her path to a SAYMA sinecure, and she wants them out. Note that her “list” of “Root Causes” actually specifies only one: “White supremacy/racism among Friends.” That is the only basis she has been known to recognize for pushback against her plans and demands. She has also stated in other emails that she intends to block the nominations of those on the list who are incoming officers.
If she were to achieve her organizational and financial goals, the apprehensions about a schism, or at least a major purge, in SAYMA would be all but realized.
One might think that, as Smith is neither a member of SAYMA nor of any other Friends meeting, such a cleansing might be difficult. But in fact Smith has already driven away numerous former SAYMA stalwarts, so she is not to be underestimated.
This Washington Post article, “Trump pushes schools to open in the fall, downplaying risks as virus spreads,” in my view seriously understates the convergence of tensions rapidly approaching panic among many of the stakeholders involved:
> depression-strapped school districts lackIng funds to pay teachers;
> legions of teachers are angry & resistant about facing life-threatening classroom conditions of chronic exposure;
> many parents feel the same anxiety for their children;
> teachers & parents of color fear they & theirs will be left in the lurch, again.
> Congress is out to lunch almost continuously through Labor Day, then will quickly be off campaigning til past Halloween . . .
Washington Post: “Making his case for a return to normal, Trump repeatedly played down the rising number of coronavirus cases, saying treatments and vaccines are coming soon. He said there are only more cases because the country is doing more testing, a point health experts dispute. A statement from two teachers unions and four other school associations said they, too, want to return to the classroom but that it must be done with safety, not politics, in mind. They also said funding is needed to cover protective equipment and other expenses. “The White House and the CDC have offered at best conflicting guidance for school reopening, and today offered little additional insight,” the groups said. On Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers planned to begin airing a $1 million digital and TV ad buy, urging additional federal funding to help reopen schools. Many university faculty members have raised questions about whether reopening plans will accelerate the spread of the virus and pose risks to public health. In response, colleges are requiring students to wear face coverings and submit to virus testing. On Monday, Florida fell in line with the Trump approach, though coronavirus cases in the state are rising. Florida’s top school official ordered all schools in the state to reopen buildings for in-person instruction this fall. Hybrid models, as many Florida districts have proposed, are allowed, but schools must offer full-time instruction five days a week for families who want it.” “Parents have to get back to the factory. They’ve got to get back to the job site. They have to get back to the office. And part of that is their kids, knowing their kids are taken care of,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.. . .
“We cannot simply focus on virus containment at the expense of everything else,” said Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS.
The confidence projected from the White House stood in contrast with the angst in many local districts working to develop plans for the fall. Most big cities and many others are developing hybrid models that alternate days in the building and days at home to minimize the number of students present at any given time. Those models are being developed in part to comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends “enhanced social distancing” in buildings. For instance, the CDC recommends that desks be placed at least six feet apart, something that might not be possible if all students are on site. Administration officials did not address these hybrid plans directly, though Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that schools “must fully reopen and fully operate this school year.”. . .
Making his case for a return to normal, Trump repeatedly played down the rising number of coronavirus cases, saying treatments and vaccines are coming soon. He said there are only more cases because the country is doing more testing, a point health experts dispute. A statement from two teachers unions and four other school associations said they, too, want to return to the classroom but that it must be done with safety, not politics, in mind. They also said funding is needed to cover protective equipment and other expenses. “The White House and the CDC have offered at best conflicting guidance for school reopening, and today offered little additional insight,” the groups said. On Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers planned to begin airing a $1 million digital and TV ad buy, urging additional federal funding to help reopen schools. Many university faculty members have raised questions about whether reopening plans will accelerate the spread of the virus and pose risks to public health. In response, colleges are requiring students to wear face coverings and submit to virus testing .. . . “
Just read a very striking piece by E. J. Dickson in Rolling Stone. It says the “Cancel Cops Crusade,” in order to root out systemic police racism, killings & impunity, also has to take down the media images of the police. Even — especially– those of the “good cop.”
Why? because the problem isn’t “bad apples” but rotten trees — in fact, a national forest of 18000 rotten orchards.
To get to the core of the rot, this media dethroning, Dickson argues, has to include even the very best of the media good cops, including the clear favorite of the author and so many progressive TV viewers.
That would be Officer Olivia Benson (played so persuasively by Mariska Hargitay) the main character in “Law & Order-SVU.” In this role she has fought the good fight against every kind of sex offender one could think of for 21 seasons.
In late January, a post here described the struggle between the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW) and the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, in Orange County near Los Angeles. EFCSW’s Board of Elders decided to close the Midway City church, and fire its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.
The Elders acted after several homeless people (from the LA area’s estimated 59,000 homeless multitude) were briefly taken in there. The Midway City congregation has gone to court to stop the closure and keep Pfeiffer and his wife Cara as co-pastors.
Background and initial details re in the blog post and a followup. Court proceedings have been put into suspended animation by the pandemic, likely til late this year (at least). But the theological debate brought to light by the controversy continues. It should heat up after today, with the publication of Quaker Theology, Issue #34. In it, Joe Pfeiffer lays out the theological and historical case for the challenge he and Midway City have mounted against its putative ecclesiastical overlord.
My onetime colleague Joe Klein gets this right: I too was among many angry youth (even worse, an angry young Quaker) who despised Establishment Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. I remember hearing Dr. King’s close aide Andrew Young pleading with an angry college crowd to vote for Hubert Humphrey.
Young made two memorable points: “Some black folk have a saying:’White people are snakes. But there’s snakes and snakes.’” And: “The Supreme Court.”
I was unmoved. Joe Klein wrote in a comedian; I refused to vote at all. Besides, Humphrey carried Massachusetts, where I was living then, so my indifference mattered not a whit in the electoral tally. But still: Andy was right.
Now in summer I have small snakes in my backyard. They eat bugs and stuff; they don’t bother people. And after Richard Nixon narrowly beat Humphrey in 1968, he appointed, among others,William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court. And it was Rehnquist’s fifth vote that stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush, than whom only 45 is worse, or as bad.
Joe Klein is snobbish about Bernie, and I don’t like that. But otherwise he’s still right. This year I’m an angry old Quaker, but if I make it to November, you bet I’m gonna vote.
Joe Klein, Washington Post: “I am trying to remember the person I was in 1968. I was 22 years old and a recent college graduate. I was angry, infuriated by the war in Vietnam and racial segregation. It was my first chance to vote in a presidential election. I was living in New Jersey — very briefly — and I voted for Dick Gregory, the brilliant comedian running as a write-in candidate, instead of Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat running against Republican Richard Nixon. It was a protest vote, obviously. I regret it to this day.
Humphrey barely lost New Jersey to Nixon. Gregory’s 8,084 votes would not have turned the state. But I wonder: What would have happened if I, and hundreds of thousands like me nationwide, had given Humphrey the same level of energy, support and enthusiasm we lavished upon Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy in the primaries?
Humphrey was the Joe Biden of his day, a standard-issue establishment Democrat. He was known to be a lovely man who had a problem with his mouth: He talked too much. He had started out as a civil-rights crusader in Minnesota, but that seemed like ancient history to me. Worse, he was Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president and a supporter of the war in Vietnam until late in the campaign. We — the Bernie Bros of the moment — had driven Johnson from the race. It was infuriating that we’d done so in order to make the world safe for Hubert Horatio Humphrey. . . .
We were counseled by our elders: Vote the lesser of two evils. But Humphrey’s kindness and humanity simply didn’t register. We saw only this wimpy, old guy who was probably lying about his newfound opposition to the war. And it didn’t really matter if Nixon won: We were young; we had a world to win, an establishment to overthrow. We had a plenty of time. Four years of Nixon would bring the country to its senses. What was one election?”
Here’s a speculation: For three years, Trump has been singling out American military commanders and lower-ranking troops and treating them like dirt. He’s also elevated some dirt bags, like the Navy Seal prisoner-killer he pardoned, who was hated by his own team members.
He’s toyed with whole units, sending them on phony-baloney, embarrassing “missions” to the Mexico border, to repel what all of them knew were imaginary, nonexistent immigrant “invaders.”
Further, he forced them to hold a Soviet-style parade (making them mimic the old enemy?) It was a completely superfluous ordeal for the troops required to be there in heavy uniforms and zipped lips. And he made them do it on a day when the Washington Post said “extreme heat and humidity will power through . . . the day and into the evening . . . . Overall, it’s going to be ridiculously hot and sticky on July 4, in Washington, D.C.” Temperatures were in the 90s, then it rained buckets.
The response of the generals was dumped in the last paragraph of the New York Times‘s report, but was unmistakable:
The president announced months ago his intention to speak on Fourth of July. But it was just in recent weeks that he demanded a robust military presence, including tanks and fighter jet flyovers.
That led to a mad scramble in the Defense Department to gather the military leaders who would attend. The Pentagon was given only a few days’ notice that Trump wanted his defense secretary, all the Joint Chiefs and all the service secretaries by his side during his remarks.
Most of the Joint Chiefs were on leave or on travel and did not attend.
In September, there was another slap: most of the money diverted to Trump’s wall-building came from projects meant to benefit military families and their kids. CNBC put it pithily:
Pentagon pulls funds for military schools, daycare to pay for Trump’s border wall
The Pentagon said on Wednesday it would pull funding from 127 Defense Department projects, including schools and daycare centers for military families, as it diverts $3.6 billion to fund President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
Schools for the children of U.S. military members from Kentucky to Germany to Japan will be affected. A daycare center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland – the home of Air Force One – will also have its funds diverted, the Pentagon said.
A month later, Trump abruptly abandoned Kurdish troops who had fought & bled against ISIS for years on the U. S. side. Trump trashed their loyalty and left them to be slaughtered by the Syrian army without a backward glance.
I was raised in a military family; but that was long ago, and I haven’t been in the military myself; so I’m no expert. Even so, observing this long roster of chickensh*t antics, I felt it must be having some impact on opinion among U. S. troops. A great many of them still take what are called military values & honor with some or high seriousness.
Officially, they’re supposed to keep out of public politicking. But many of these troops vote. And there are large numbers of them in North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and other states with pivotal races.
What this procession of follies adds up to is that Trump has repeatedly shown no more respect for the troops than for anyone else. These repeated shocks should have been pounding this ugly message home to many of those in uniform.
Nor is this merely an ego/image matter: these are the Americans who go into harm’s way, and stupid, reckless leadership ultimately produces needless casualties, in and out of uniform. Surely, I’ve been thinking, some of the troops must be getting fed up with this.
Could a shift in GI opinion make a 2020 electoral difference? Rhetorical question: in a tight race, for sure — say, the one facing Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, home of Fort Campbell, one of the largest army bases. Or Thom Tillis in N. Carolina, where more than 100,000 troops are assigned to Ft. Bragg and Marine base Camp Lejeune. Add family members and the numbers nearly double. Almost any move could tip the balance.
Sure, many servicepeople are strong Trump supporters. But the feeling is both not unanimous, and appears to be measurably slipping. The Military Times papers do such polls, and their most recent one was in mid-December. The summary of that tally was stark: Military Times:
“Trump’s 42 percent approval in the latest poll, conducted from Oct. 23 to Dec. 2, sets his lowest mark in the survey since being elected president. Some 50 percent of troops said they had an unfavorable view of him. By comparison, just a few weeks after his electoral victory in November 2016, 46 percent of troops surveyed had a positive view of the businessman-turned-politician, and 37 percent had a negative opinion.
The poll surveyed 1,630 active-duty Military Times subscribers in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. The numbers likely reflect a more career-minded subset of the military than the force as a whole . . . .
“These are people for whom the morals and standards of the military mean a lot,” [military analyst Peter Feaver] said. “The president has criticized those same career workers in the State Department and other agencies. So, it’s possible they are more likely to be offended by the president than other parts of the military.”
Still, Feaver said, the drop in Trump’s popularity in the poll (conducted with the same parameters over the past four years) indicates growing dissatisfaction with Trump and his handling of several military issues.
When asked specifically about Trump’s handling of military issues, nearly 48 percent of the troops surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of that part of his job, compared to 44 percent who believe he has handled that task well. That marks a significant drop from the 2018 Military Times poll, when 59 percent said they were happy with his handling of military issues, against 20 percent who had an unfavorable view.
This week has been marked (so far) by the bum’s rush of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his uninvolved brother, Col. Yevgeny Vindman out of the White [supremacy] House like criminals, Alexander for the “offense” of doing his duty & complying with a legal subpoena, and his uninvolved brother for being — related. These petty acts also made public fools of DOD higher-ups, who had vowed to prevent any retaliation.
What will come next? There are many other currents swirling in the maelstrom of the 2020 election. But military servicemembers are citizens who whose votes will also count, and both their experience with Trump, and their reaction to it will make their mark before it is done.
The little church challenging the huge California Quaker megachurch (described in the blog post, David vs. Goliath, the “Friendly” Version, of January 30), won a round in court on January 31; but its reward was only a reprieve. The struggle over an aborted effort to help the homeless continues.
Orange County superior court judge Thomas Delaney denied the motion from the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW), based in Yorba Linda, California, to dismiss a lawsuit by the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, California. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop EFCSW from closing the Midway City church and firing its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.
In late 2017 and early 2018 Midway City took in several of the many thousands of homeless people who cluster and camp across Orange County, just south of Los Angeles.
Hostile neighbors complained to Orange county about signs of homeless people staying on church property, in violation of county codes. When an inspector wrote Pfeiffer a letter about it, he promptly but reluctantly complied, sending the homeless visitors on their way.
But when a copy of the inspector’s letter arrived at the EFCSW office, members of the Elders Board, made it the basis for a secret decision, taken March 27, 2018 to close the church, fire pastor Pfeiffer, and oblige him, his wife and their four foster children to vacate the parsonage behind the church.
Pfeiffer and his wife Cara were told of their removal and eviction in June. They were also told to vacate the parsonage within weeks.
The church’s membership, barely 30 people, rallied behind them and resisted the closure order. It was delayed for months, then on October 12, 2018, Midway City filed suit, asking the Orange County Superior court for an injunction to stop the closure and the firing.
EFCSW filed a motion for summary judgment, which argued that the Midway City lawsuit did not raise any issue the court had jurisdiction over. It insisted that EFCSW was a “hierarchical church” with total power over member groups like Midway City: EFCSW owned the buildings and property, controlled the agendas and conduct of meetings, and could remove pastors at will, without appeal. Its brief claimed the First Amendment religious liberty provision protected the denomination from legal interference. It cited precedents where courts had declined to take up cases involving church doctrine and internal practices.
Midway City countered that EFCSW had in fact frequently violated its own rules with secret meetings and decisions that were not subject to review by the whole body, contrary to its own and other Quaker traditions. They also contended that EFCSW did not really own its buildings and property. Such violations they said, were subject to judicial remedies.
At the January 31 hearing, Judge Delaney agreed that there were real questions about whether EFCSW’s actions followed its own rules, and thus summary judgment was not warranted. He scheduled another hearing on March 30 to consider the issues involved. Midway City won the day, but the reward was only a two-month reprieve.
What moved the judge? There were technical arguments about passages in the EFCSW book of Faith and practice, regarding quorums for meetings, and about various kinds of property deeds. Such is the nature of most civil litigation.
But there were also in the case file papers of a different sort. Two of these stand out: statements by veteran EFCSW pastors which bring a very different perspective on that body’s life. The two were from James Healton, of Sacramento’s Friends Community church, and Joe Ginder, from Long Beach Friends.
Their statements combined personal witness with long experience both in EFCSW and among Quakers. They directly challenged one of the denomination’s main claims, that it was a hierarchical church, governed by a Board of Elders at the top which was, for all practical purposes, sovereign.
This challenge proved to be risky, as we shall see. But first let’s hear from them directly:
I am the pastor at Sacramento Friends Community Church. Since 1974 I have been a member of the EFCSW . . . . I have served as a local pastor therein since 1982.
During the last twenty years, a number of changes to Faith and Practice were adopted by the Representatives. On the governance side of things, the trend was increasingly toward concentration of responsibility in fewer hands. Those who recommended these changes defended them on the basis that it was increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers to fill all the boards, committees and offices. Despite this trend, we were never told that the Elder Board had replaced the Representatives as the ruling body of the Yearly Meeting, without appeal.
I was present in the Representatives meeting when the language in Faith and Practice . . . was adopted, under the heading, “Essential Business of Representatives”. I asked for and received assurances during the meeting that the words, “The final decisions and actions on the following must be approved by the Representatives”, implied no limitation on what other business the Representatives were free to consider but only a limitation on what other bodies (including the Elder Board) could act upon. We never understood this language to mean that the Representatives could not discuss and decide upon any other matters of concern to them. I had not heard that there was such a limitation implied by that language until I heard it from the attorney for EFCSW . . . .
Moreover, Faith and Practice says that “Other business may be introduced from any of the local churches, Elder Board, and other boards, committees and task forces.” . . . Again, this indicates that the Representatives have the right to bring any matter they choose before the assembled Representatives. If a church wishes to propose a decision to the Representatives different from one taken by the Board of Elders they are free to do so under the rules governing EFCSW the corporation. This would, of course, include the possibility of an appeal to the Representatives.
In all my years in the EFCSW denomination, I do not recall an instance where a church was closed against the decided will of its members. If pastors were removed by the Yearly Meeting it was on account of serious moral failings or because the local church was divided over their leadership and the Yearly Meeting was asked to step in to settle the matter. To my knowledge it was never the case that pastors were removed because of things like “poor leadership skills, lack of discernment as a minister, an ineffective ministry, inability to increase the membership of FCC, poor decisions” or even “misuse of church property … “ as has been alleged against Pastor Pfeiffer. Dealing with such matters was left up to the local church unless Yearly Meeting staff or other people were asked to help or offered their help.
In the case of Midway City, there was not an offer to help them meet the city code requirements. They were simply told that Joe Pfeiffer was fired, their church was no longer a church in the EFCSW denomination and they had to vacate the premises. Of course, had the church failed to meet the code requirements, there would have been possible grounds for discipline but the church did meet the city’s expectations. Again, this severe a response to a church in need is unprecedented in my experience of more than forty years in EFCSW.
I note that the charges against Joe Pfeiffer and Midway City Friends Church that they violated Faith and Practice were for actions after they had been removed from membership in EFCSW denomination by the Elder Board of the corporation.
These alleged violations all amount to one charge against them: that they objected to, and sought remedy for, the actions the Elder Board had taken against them.
The closing of Midway City Friends Church and removal of Joe Pfeiffer as its pastor represents a sharp departure from what I have known and from what I understood to be the relationship between the local church and EFCSW as a whole. I would also add that though
Pastor Joe Pfeiffer is unafraid to speak his mind I have never known him to be intentionally rude or mean-spirited in his remarks. He has high ideals that sometimes make us feel uncomfortable but it is always clear to me that he is motivated by good will toward others, including those with whom he may, at times, disagree. . . . They did, however object when Midway City Church was closed. To me this indicates that their motive was not to divide the body of EFCSW or vindicate themselves but to protect the interests of their flock and to defend the historic balance between EFCSW oversight and the rights of its constituent churches.
I have been a member of EFCSW since 1986 and pastor of Long Beach Friends since 1996. . . . I’ve been a representative to the Yearly Meeting / Annual Conference Business Meeting nearly continuously since 1987. The Yearly Meeting is a traditional term for the annual gathering of local Friends church representatives to decide upon the business of the EFCSW denomination as a whole. . . . Prior to coming to Long Beach, I grew up at Anderson First Friends within Indiana Yearly Meeting, soaking up Friends ways from my seniors. Many of my ancestors have been Quakers since the beginning of the movement. . . .
About hierarchy. I read a claim that the EFCSW denomination is a hierarchical church because our Faith and Practice invests authority in some that is not given to all. This is a distortion of the Friends way of doing business. Our Faith and Practice speaks clearly to this. We expect leaders to lead rather than to rule. We do not empower individuals or small groups of leaders to make decisions that disregard the sense of other members in good standing. We empower individuals and small groups to act and lead on behalf of the larger group when the larger group is not meeting, or when the smaller group has followed the Friends manner of making decisions within the larger body as a gathered people of God.
The Friends approach for a group of leaders to take on important decisions is to build unity and listen before taking a controversial direction, at least when a matter requires no urgent action. We always expect our leaders to act to try to build unity. Friends were cast out of a hierarchical church because we did not simply accept the decisions of the few in hierarchical leadership, despite their claim to divine right.
Rather, we held decisions up to the light of scripture and the leading of the Spirit. For this we were persecuted and imprisoned, some unto death. As a representative to the EFCSW denomination representatives business meetings, I have never agreed to or believed we were approving changes to our Faith and Practice which would allow a small group of leaders such as the current board to make decisions that could not be questioned or re-examined by our representatives.
The list of items of “Essential Business of Representatives” in Faith and Practice . . . is a restriction on committees and leaders, not on the representatives! Those who say otherwise are simply in error. [also] any EFCSW church can bring business before representative sessions. Several churches have not been allowed to bring items regarding FCC-MC to the representatives sessions in the past two years.
This is clearly in violation of our Faith and Practice. The representatives in session are the highest authority of our organization and can consider whatever business they choose; all of our churches have access to bring business to the representatives.
The elders board is not exempt from the Friends Way of Doing Business. Faith and Practice, p.33. This way of doing business embodies the value of building unity and seeks to prevent a few from imposing decisions unilaterally upon others without going through our business process of discerning the mind of Christ together. . . .
This description of our way of doing business applies between the Elder Board and other members, not just between members of the Elders Board. . . . We should never hear, “We didn’t have to ask you” as an excuse for excluding stakeholders from participating in the Friends way of doing business as has been done with FCC.
This statement directly contradicts Friends teaching. We are not a hierarchical church and never have been. While FCC (or the corporate elder board) cannot change the Faith and Practice of EFCSW without agreement of the Representatives. . . as Friends we do not empower one group as superior and relegate another as subordinate. Jesus is our Head. We are all subordinate to Him . . . .
I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that the foregoing is a true and correct. Executed this 15th day of January 2020 at Long Beach, California.”
Joe and Cara Pfeiffer came away from the court hearing with a sixty day extension of their residence, and eight Sundays for their church to gather in the home they had built and maintained for nearly ninety years.
EFCSW Annual Conference
Later that same day, EFCSW opened its 2020 annual conference, with a dinner for representatives from its 39 member churches in California, Arizona and Nevada. As noted by Joe Ginder, in most similar Quaker bodies, such events are called yearly meetings, and extended over several days, with a mix of business sessions, worship, family reunions, and social events. EFCSW had discarded that tradition, and compressed the gathering into one tightly scheduled Friday evening, followed by a Saturday morning session.
Among the attenders were Joe Ginder and James Healton. As they arrived for the opening dinner, they were taken aside by a member of the Elder Board, and shown a letter on a smartphone, addressed to them. The letter sternly rebuked them for submitting the statements, and warned them not to speak openly about the Midway City case during the annual conference. They were taken aback.
Ginder and Healton complied with the letter’s strictures. The evening went as planned.
Saturday morning was similarly programmed, with 35 minutes set aside for a “business session.”
As the meeting was getting underway, Cara Pfeiffer appeared, but members of the Elder Board quickly surrounded her and, despite her protests, firmly ejected her from the room.
Reports indicate that the “business session” lasted not much more than fifteen minutes, although it included formal approval of a $1,200,000 three-part budget, and a pre-selected slate of nominations for various boards. No one spoke about Midway City.
–Well, that last sentence is not quite right. In a packet of “Advance Reports,” Midway City was mentioned in print twice. The Elder Board’s report noted that “A challenge over this past year has been the ongoing legal issue related to the closing of one of our churches. Unfortunately, this issue has occupied a significant amount of the staff and elders’ time and energy. Continue to pray with us for a God-honoring resolution to this issue.”
Then under “Annual Budget,” EFCSW Chief of Staff Ron Prentice reported that “The 2019 General Administrative budget projected a year-end balance between income and expenses. However, the legal costs for the defense against the claims by FCC Midway City and the increase of one staff position from part-time to full-time are the two primary factors that caused our expenses to exceed our income by $111,000. As we look to 2020, the increases to personnel and our legal expenses have been included into our budget projections for the New Year.” There were no reports that either item was discussed. (The letter read to Healton & Ginder reportedly told them that if they tried to speak about Midway, they would be ruled out of order.)
The business session was followed by a “Prayer initiative and Time of Prayer,” then adjournment for lunch and departure.
Testimony by ECSW staff in pre-hearing depositions made clear that they believed the nine-member Elder Board acted with full authority for EFCSW, 364-plus days per year, except for the abbreviated session on that one Saturday morning. The board also prepared the agenda for that annual half-hour. The Board’s meetings were private, and there was no appeal from their decisions. We have seen what happened to those, like pastors Ginder and Healton, who spoke of when practices were different for that body. Their temerity in submitting affidavits dissenting from the Elder Board’s understanding could be hazardous both to their jobs and the churches they served.
Joe Pfeiffer advised me that late this week there will be a court-sponsored mediation meeting between Midway City and EFCSW officials, to see if a non-judicial resolution is possible. Pfeiffer insists that would be his preference, but says EFCSW Elders have turned aside several such suggestions already.
And lest it be entirely forgotten, this multifaceted melodrama will continue to play itself out against the backdrop of a vast city in which thousands still sleep outside each night, and their number continues to increase.