The Black Lives Matter AIW, Part 3 - Landrum

So almost everyone wanted a Black Lives Matter Action of Immediate Witness to pass at the UU General Assembly this year.  And there were some factors leading into the debate and vote on the AIWs that indicated that this might not be the smoothest process, despite the fact that many of us would have loved to come in and vote quickly and cleanly to affirm that Black Lives Matter.  But there are also things that happened on the floor of the General Session that made for a difficult time in passing this important AIW.  After AIW C passed in six minutes and AIW B in 20 minutes, what led to it taking almost two hours for the General Assembly to pass something that almost everyone wanted passed?  I have a few factors that I can determine: first, a procedural quagmire, caused partly by fear that we were not together on this; secondly, a confusion about "prison abolition" and what it means; and, third, a conflict between our rules of procedure and what needed to happen resulting in a second procedural quagmire.  And then, I have some questions: What does it mean to be a good ally?  How could our rules be better shaped to make us better allies or to make us more anti-racist?

Procedural Quagmire:  Amendments at the General Assembly fall into four categories -- incorporated amendments, in this (A) case incorporated by the Commission on Social Witness (CSW) into the AIW; (B) unincorporated amendments that get moved and passed; (C) unincorporated amendments that get moved but don't pass; and (D) unincorporated amendments that don't get moved either because they're moot or clearly don't have enough support or because we run out of time.  Because time is precious and because sometimes amendments clearly will be falling into category C, it's not uncommon to move to call the question early in debate on amendments.  If we get through the amendments quickly, that leaves more time to talk to the main motion.  With a huge amount of support from people of color, youth, and allies lining up for the AIW, and that large support moving to the Con microphone while dealing with amendments, it looked to some of us like these amendments were more in the (C) category of amendments without much support, and not the (B) category of amendments that will get incorporated.  Therefore, the question was called on the first amendment.  But then the vote passed, and the amendment was included.  When I moved to call the question on the second amendment, that's when the system bogged down.  The support wasn't there to call the question -- there were those on the one hand who wanted to better understand the issue of "prison abolition" that would be struck by the amendment, and those on the other hand who didn't want the amendment to pass but feared there was too much confusion in the house to go straight to the vote to support the writers of the AIW.  They were right -- the house was still divided.  That wasn't clear to me in making the motion -- I was ready to stand with the authors and vote for what the people of color were saying was an important phrase to be included.  What usually would have been a quick no vote on calling the question somehow became a very long process, with a called count.  While it happened, singing broke out in the hall; more singing in was led from the microphone while the vote was being counted.  Finally, the vote failed, after 23.5 minutes, over a sixth of our time, spent on the question of whether to call the question.

The effect of the long counting time in the calling the question vote is that the tension in the room skyrocketed.  The people at the con microphone left to go to the back of the hall.  There was wondering whether people would walk out of the vote entirely.  There was a feeling that if we called the question at this point, the amendment would succeed and the cost would be a weakened AIW that lost the support of the very people who created it.  The hall responded to the tension with song, but it didn't cut it entirely.  Eventually the chaplains came to the microphone in response to the tension, as well.

Prison Abolition: At the root of the debate was the term "prison abolition" in the AIW. Three different unincorporated amendments had this term deleted in various ways.  There were basically four groups of people in the hall in relationship to this term.  (1) People who understood the term, supported its use, and believed it should be left as-is.  (2) People who understood the term and supported the concept, but worried that its use as-is would alienate people reading the AIW who didn't understand the term, and who wanted it defined.  (3) People who didn't understand the term and wanted it defined.  (4) People who either did or did not understand the term, and wanted it removed.  There was frustration on many sides -- some who thought AIW should be left as is were frustrated at people who seemed to want to strip the AIW of its power for action; some who thought the term meant something different at face value than it seemed to mean in the BLM community were frustrated at the resistance to defining it and the procedural problems with doing so; some people more deeply invested in the BLM movement were frustrated with others for not doing their homework and understanding this better; some people at the mini-assembly were frustrated that this hadn't happened there; some people not at the mini-assembly were frustrated that this hadn't been solved at the mini-assembly; some were frustrated at what seemed like racism prevalent in the discussion; some were frustrated that we were being asked to be allies in a way that meant not wordsmithing and we were refusing to do so; some were frustrated that we were being asked to vote for something without the wordsmithing we always do.  This frustration in the process was in no small part due to the frustrations from the mini-assembly, where a better process might have found the solution that the delegates would finally achieve. 

The Rules of Procedure: What eventually became clear is that there would be enough people comfortable with including the term "prison abolition" if a definition was also included in the AIW for those who didn't understand.  However, this solution had not been found at the mini-assembly, and so was not one of the unincorporated amendments to be suggested.  It's against the rules of procedures to allow any amendment that wasn't proposed at the mini-assembly.  Amendments can be amended, however, and this was tried, but the amendment to the amendment was substantive, so still not allowable.  Finally we were brought to the conclusion that we had to first vote to suspend the rules of procedure for the purpose of making this amendment, after which the rules of procedure would go back into place.  This awkward process was put through, the clarifying amendment went through, and most people in the hall were satisfied with this result, with the exception of people who still disagreed with the term at all, and people who were still frustrated that any amendment at all had been handled.  A strong enough coalition had been forged, however, for the AIW to finally pass.

Questions and Thoughts: At the heart of all this, I found two questions: What does it mean to be a good ally?  How could our rules be better shaped to make us better allies or to make us more anti-racist?

It was clear that we were being asked to be a specific kind of ally here to people of color -- the request was made clearly and strongly to pass this document as it was, without adaptation.  To do so, however, would be a move highly unusual in Unitarian Universalist general assemblies, for a document with this many unincorporated amendments.  Does being a good ally mean not questioning and not seeking explanation?  Or does it mean that we were not good allies for not having done our homework on the terms ahead of time?  My own answer is confused.  On the one hand, I think it would be a sign of being a strong and good ally for us to have come in and just passed the BLM AIW.  On the other hand, I think it would have left us with a document that would have a term in it that would upset and deter some people in our congregations and communities who might not understand what we were saying.  I want to be a strong ally, and I want a strong document.  I think it's true, however, that the strong document might alienate some potential partners.  The work of clarifying and building bridges doesn't have to fall on the document, however, it can fall on the allies to do that work.  We can be challenged to dig deeper and confront our own misunderstandings.  In a way, I think we did do that through this strange procedural process.  I think we saw a group of delegates hit a learning curve and tackle it.

What can we do to improve our process?  I think there are ways our Rules of Procedure can be adapted to improve the process.  First of all, the pro/con process of the AIWs is currently designed for debate, not education.  We can include a time in the plenaries where proponents of an AIW spend some time educating the delegate population -- time that's not included in debate time.  Secondly, by the time we've winnowed the proposed AIWs down to three, we're almost guaranteed that these have enough support to pass.  Instead of spending time debating pro/con on the AIWs themselves, let's spend more time on just the pros -- let's hear from the different constituencies affected by each AIW.  Let's hear what the youth think.  Let's hear what the leaders in our movement think.  And if we want to be an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural association, let's specifically ask to hear from groups about how each AIW impacts people of color and impacts oppressed groups.  Finally, let's have some time specifically for question and answer before the mini-assembly to get those clarifications we need handled through that process better. 


  1. Eric Kaminetzky10:12 AM


    Thank you, Cynthia.

    As one who attended the Mini-Assembly, at the request of an Ally Minister who could not attend, I was not surprised that the AIW ultimately passed. And, I was not surprised that the path forward was messy, uncomfortable, educational, and unorthodox.

    The AIW process, as it is presently practiced, is useful and fraught.

    Why we should think it will become otherwise is a puzzle to me.

    That a community as diverse as that represented by Delegates to the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association manages to make statements of import about anything at all, highlights beautifully the existence of everyday miracles, ordinary magic, and practical glamour.

    May it continue to be so.


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