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Coalition building and adapting to circumstances: How to pass a resolution for Tibet

February 6, 2012

By Tenzin Mingyur Paldron 

On January 31st, a resolution I wrote with a good friend was unanimously approved by the City Council of Berkeley, California -- the first of its kind in the United States.  Its passage was not coordinated by any organization, and its significance cannot be dismissed to the status of a merely symbolic gesture to China.  I’d like to share the story behind this resolution, as I believe similar measures can be taken up by communities all over, and I hope the unique aspects of this story help convince people that all kinds of obstacles can be overcome. 

Political organizing, depending on the project and level at which it takes place, can be difficult, unpredictable, and wearying.  However, my personal experience with this resolution makes me believe that what is crucial, above everything else, is the relationships you cultivate and the people you hold close to your heart.  Who you let into your life and give your energy to affects the devotion you can in turn receive -- and this resolution is just one of many highlights in a friendship I cherish, a connection that I know will yield many more victories.

I was friends with Noah Sochet (the co-writer and official sponsor of this resolution) for nearly three years before we did anything explicitly related to the Tibetan movement.  We went to college together in Washington State, where we shared common interests in anti-war efforts and LGBTQ organizing (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer).  Our friendship continued in Berkeley, where we both coincidentally ended up moving to.  I began a PhD program at UC Berkeley, and he manages his own business, while serving the City of Berkeley as a member of its Peace & Justice Commission. 

Having been raised in Colorado and Washington State, I was unfamiliar with the Tibetan community in the San Francisco-Bay Area.  Furthermore, as a Tibetan who is also out of the closet as a queer and transgender man, I chose to only occasionally attend Tibet-related events, and channeled my interests in Tibet through my research. 

After Lobsang Phuntsok Jarutsang’s immolation in March, I was struck with sorrow and pain, as I’m sure many Tibetans were.  Those closest to me immediately wanted to express their support, and that is when Noah joined me to protest outside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.  The three people closest to me in the Bay Area -- Noah, my partner, and my partner’s twin sister -- drove to San Francisco and protested in front of the Consulate, prompting them to call in anonymous security to observe us from a government vehicle.  We attended the candlelight vigil held in downtown Berkeley that same night. 

When other Tibetans began immolating in fall 2011, Noah approached me and asked whether I might want to introduce a resolution to the Peace & Justice Commission, so that the City Council could pass it and raise public awareness around the situation.  I agreed, initially because I was simply sad and wanted to do something I felt I had some direct influence over.  Later, as we were writing the resolution, I began realizing the dynamic potential a local action like this held.  Doing things locally may feel smaller and not appear in the national news, but because it is more contained, the actions you take will have greater impact.  What I can affect in Berkeley and the Bay Area, as a graduate student and a resident, is very different from what I could affect in New York or New Delhi. 

We spent an evening writing the resolution.  I will briefly explain our choices in its language, but of course writers of other measures will make their own choices.  We avoided the term “human rights,” as we felt it was an over-used term that is often only utilized in one direction -- from the West to the non-West.  We believed we could convey our message and support for Tibetans inside Tibet without this language, as we also did not want to promote an image of Berkeley or the United States “saving” Tibet. 

We chose to go through the Peace and Justice Commission rather than try to bring it directly to City Council, because passing it through the commission would give the resolution more strength and likelihood of passing when reaching City Council.  Many major cities have similar commissions -- I strongly suggest finding a sponsor on such commissions first, as not only will it help the chances of the resolution passing but you will get practice presenting the resolution to a smaller commission before having to go to City Council.  It is at this stage in the process where the resolution may be amended -- the city official sponsoring the measure will either have to accept the amendments on the spot, or bring the measure back to a later meeting if they want time to reword it themselves.  I strongly suggest having one or two organizers in charge of this process, and have them prep the sponsoring city official before the resolution is debated.  They can inform the sponsor what pieces they are okay having cut or changed, so that less time is wasted and hopefully the resolution can pass that same night, rather than being postponed. 

In order to do this, you want to be sure to have the resolution well-organized and properly sourced.  Make sure to include a reference to local actions undertaken in response to the immolations.  Present a clear timeline of the immolations and the response by the Chinese government.  Since protests and shootings have now begun, you will have to consider how to incorporate these into the resolution.  The Berkeley resolution was specific to the immolations, and a particularly significant feature of it was its recognition of self-immolation as a critical means of political expression in atmospheres of severe repression.  Others may want to broaden the scope of what their resolution is saying or taking a stand on, but make sure to retain clarity and specificity -- it will make the text more powerful, and help it resonate in the local community. 

I did not alert Tibetans to the existence of the resolution until after it passed the Peace and Justice Commission.  I did this because I first wanted to see if it could succeed, before getting any hopes up.  I also did this because I wanted to limit the number of people who knew about it coming before City Council -- as it would be the first city to adopt such a measure, I wanted the process to be as smooth as possible.  I am sure there will be opposition in certain communities against future resolutions, and I wanted to avoid the potential for opposition as much as possible for the first resolution.  However, we were prepared for resistance, and paid careful attention to the rules at City Council regarding the number of speakers allowed, and how certain numbers of speakers would automatically change the form in which the resolution was debated (or not debated). 

At the beginning of this article, I claimed that the significance of this resolution was not merely symbolic.  I say this because a key goal I had in mind when beginning to work on this process was to begin dialogue within the Asian-American community, of which the Bay Area is a major hub.  China’s relationship to Tibet is complex and will not be changed through a single path.  Waking consciousness in the Bay Area is a significant first step to increasing the diversity of voices supporting Tibet, and helping persuade China to rethink its policies. 

This dialogue has already begun, not only in the Bay Area but across the country.  I can’t show you any surveys or public statements to confirm this belief.  This is because the people who I believe will join the Tibetan movement for freedom are not visible on petition sites or magazine covers, but are from communities I have personal ties to -- they are LGBTQ activists, they are Asian, Pacific Islander and South Asian activists -- and they include people who belong to both these groups.  I know that in these circles, people have the capacity in both their hearts and minds to approach the Tibetan struggle, to learn about it through careful research, and to add their voices if they feel so inclined.  Furthermore, I sincerely believe that such support will not merely be effective in name or numbers, but will in fact transform the conversation around the Tibetan cause in thoughtful and productive ways, and vice-versa. 

I wish all of you a great deal of luck and patience in your organizing for Tibet, as well as in your personal lives.  My friend Noah cares about many issues and struggles, but it was our friendship, which crossed various movements and categories we each belonged to, that helped bring this resolution into being.  The people you care about and let care about you will open new spaces of working together for many important issues, of which Tibet is one. 


Link to Press Release: http://bit.ly/whwtPf 
The City of Berkeley resolution can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/zBLK9U

Tenzin Mingyur Paldron is a filmmaker and PhD student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. 
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