Immediate Witness (AIW) would and should happen, why was the process of passing it so painful? To answer that question, there are some background pieces that should be understood. First, there is what happened earlier in the General Sessions (Plenaries) at this year's General Assembly. Secondly, there's the mini-assembly for the AIW and what happened there. Lastly, and most importantly, there's the UUA's history, and in particular the "Empowerment Controversy" and walkout of 1969.
Earlier in the General Assembly, there was a controversial set bylaws amendments that would dramatically change the nature of the Commission on Appraisal. In that discussion, much of the time allotted for discussion was eaten up by procedural questions and their responses. After I moved to add four minutes to the clock, citing the need to hear voices of people who hadn't been represented yet, particularly people of color, the entire four minutes was eaten up by procedural questions. Another amount of time was added to the clock by Jim Krawarik-Graham (CLF delegate), and the same thing happened again. Still, there was the problem that after the procedural questions were handled, we were spending time on unicorporated amendments when people still hadn't had the opportunity to speak much to the main motion, which was a much larger issue. After Krawarik-Graham added time again and pleaded with the delegates not to use it on further unincorporated amendments, we finally got to hear one or two more pro and con voices. Based on the frustration of this experience, the delegates voted that for the remainder of the General Assembly procedural questions and the time spent answering them not be deducted from the time on the motions -- the clock would stop for procedural issues.
On Sunday afternoon before we got to the AIWs, we had an explanation from Susan Goekler, chair of the Commission on Social Witness. Without naming which one, she said they acknowledged that "some were particularly frustrated with the way things went in one mini-assembly in particular" and said "We recognize that the process did not go as smoothly yesterday as we hope it will in the future." The hand-outs we received of the AIWs and unincorporated amendments made it clear which one she was talking about, for those whose ears had not already heard the rumors that the BLM AIW mini-assembly hadn't gone well. Whereas AIW B on climate change had four unincorporated amendments and AIW C on Immigrant Dentention had only one, the BLM AIW had a total of fourteen. Six of them were similar to other edits that had been accepted, but that left eight amendments, three of which were about the line referencing "prison abolition." It would become clear over a difficult General Session that the delegates were essentially mirroring and recreating the mini-assembly in the AIW approval process, both in the attempts to wordsmith the document and in the breakdown of process that would happen. The "frustrations" experienced in the mini-assembly would lead to frustrations in the General Session.
This year we've been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the marches in Selma. The anniversary was very present in the General Assembly at several points. Rev. Gordon Gibson received the Presidential Award for Volunteer Service for his work on the Living Legacy Project the morning of the AIW vote. But only four years after Selma, our General Assembly had its most divisive moments, culminating in a walk-out of 200-300 Black delegates and additional White supporters. Other good sources exist about this controversy, but its impact on the delegates today can't be under-emphasized. The high degree of tension in the room was not in small part caused by the earnest and fervent hope that history wouldn't repeat itself. There was a moment when the rumor -- whether true or not I do not know -- that the Youth Caucus, DRUMM, and ARE were considering leaving and/or pulling their support for the AIW if it got further amended. There was tension that the entire AIW would end up not passing, creating a glaring example of lack of real commitment to our anti-racist rhetoric. Or, worse yet, that it would pass but without the support of people of color in our movement, becoming a living symbol of white folks doing arm-chair activism without real commitment to being true allies and engaging in this work.
Between the high tension from our divided past and the frustrations of the week, not to mention the heat index, in retrospect it was no surprise that things got difficult in the BLM AIW. But even so, there are things that went wrong in the General Session that we can learn from, and things that can be done differently in the future.