Something in me resists this. It seems whiny, Lefty kvetching. After the court appearance two days ago, I don’t have another explanation. They have put back my trial another month, when the videotapes and witnesses demonstrate my innocence. They say they “need more time.” Really? The tape is 3 minutes long, and you’ve had 8 weeks. Apparently they aren’t as impressed as I am, by the threat of a year in prison.
Now a new angle has emerged, told to the journalist Hayley Fox at Takepart.com, in their “News” pull-down. They think that I preached “toward” the police. You can observe what they mean by looking at the vid posted here, courtesy of old friend Bob Berger. Yes I was asking the cops to respect the names of the dead. Let me leave it to you to find “obstruction” in the few seconds of turning to the cops that surrounded us that day in Grand Central Station.
Speaking out in a public place should be what they hope I will do. They are sworn to protect the US Constitution. I am exercising our most basic freedom. But throughout this whole process, from fingerprinting me to this adjournment, nobody from “the people” has mentioned this. It’s just not on their minds. It isn’t in their culture. The 1st Amendment, to them, is something that Leftys use to oppose them.
As you all know, in the Church of Stop Shopping we believe in “breaking into public space.” It is the name of one of our signature songs, and we’ve sung it to many a quizzical-faced cop. We oppose the privatization of our speaker’s corners, and the privatizing of our police and prisons. We don’t think the police should take a political position. The cops should not accept money directly from JPMorgan Chase, as they have done in New York. It cannot be permitted that police exist as a right-wing special interest group, manipulating the justice system to increase power.
When an innocent person is brought to the courts, the DA ought to be glad to identify that innocence, establish it and honor it. Our freedoms come from creative protest, from those who shouted their beliefs to friend and foe alike.
All this gratitude you've offered us. These quotations of wisdom, to give us fortitude... And all these declarations of love for me and the choir, usually with a light touch, but often so raw and real.
It strikes us as different this time, different than our bus accident, and other trials and tribulations that got you encouraging us to keep going. This time is more like when Lena was born. This most mundane of arrests, arrested for speaking - you are making it a birth. Standing up for free speech when the police expect to be able to use deadly force, and speaking freely when the crisis of the Earth is becoming routinized by corporations - we ARE at a turning point. The courage that we have long known would have to come up in us and hasn't quite, not yet, is close to becoming action now. We feel it, don't we. It makes us want to hug each other.
We know that the heat of revolution makes love happen in many forms, life-long friendships, educational partnerships with hallucinogens and listening to D'Angelo's "Charade," raising kids together and making that big love, a healthy community. Gratitude and forgiveness are always at the beginning of these longer projects. We think of gratitude as a show of memory, but it is visionary, too. Thankyous have a lot of future in them. I just want to say that your gratitude gives us courage in its encouragement. You stopped our shopping! Thank you! Thank you so much!
I’ve been in the subways a lot, gone this way and that under the city, spent lots of quality time with my fellow zombie citizens, listening to the NYPD recorded announcements about how luggage could explode.
I’m having more memories than usual, more regrets, lost friends, lost moments - as I struggle up the stairs to the sunlight. I’m having more unexpected laughter as I walk down the street and remember something deeply funny from the speeches of the almost-five-year-old Lena.
I feel the large shadow of the justice system. So racist and arbitrary and – such a mystifying subculture. I have lawyers who are friends, but even they flabbergast me. The courts are a place to stay out of, and I’ve failed to. I’m in it. I’m in the system now.
I feel that they have no case. But I’ve had friends, smart and prosperous ones, who were innocent and lost and were remanded into custody. And I didn’t mean to get arrested, not this time. It wasn’t civil disobedience. I was hand-cuffed while I was speaking.
Now I’m staying in a friend’s apartment writing a chapter of my next book. The apartment is on 37th and Park, right near Grand Central. I walk over there and remember what happened and I feel really exposed and delicate. They can walk up to us and put us in jail any time they want.
I just got back from my prayer spot. It’s a small cemetery with a sign out front that says “Let Peace Prevail On This Earth” in 9 languages. Peace-a-lujah!
My prayer approach: I quiet down and the sound of internal combustion engines fades into the distance and the rustle of winter leaves is beautiful. There’s a big hawk who sits with me, over my head, still as night.
I ask my counselors to join me. These are people who took the time to be my teachers when they were alive. I imagine them in a circle of unusual chairs that hover in the air half-way up the trees. I say hello to them one by one. First, Kurt Vonnegut, then Christine Stevens, then Sidney Lanier and Roxanne Lanier, then Glenn Gabel and on and on around the circle above the graves.
My counselors have been known to laugh at me and vanish, because like in life they don't suffer fools gladly. When I’m in trouble, like if I was cruel to a friend and I’m sobbing there in the trees, then they always help me. One of them will stand up with her head up in the branches and give me good advice, a hologramic ghost dispensing wisdom - stop feeling sorry for yourself!
Today I thanked them all for the teachings of Lena. The way she and her friend Shanti ran and sledded across the snow yesterday. The way they fell down and went into dreams and then got up laughing and then ran and plunged intensely again, a whirlwind tour de force for hours…
I asked them for that flight in our activism, that bravery and fresh creating-all-the-time and fearlessness. I asked them that in the Stop Shopping Church that we teach this to each other, and demonstrate it in the face of corporate marketers, cops, and bankers...
When I’m finished with my praying then I have a passage back to my life, in a series of steps. First, I put my hands in the air above my head and I use the line between my thumbs like a sling shot and hurl myself up through the branches. I’m flying until New York is the size of a postage stamp below me.
I’m following my hands up into the dark sky and the dark sky at some point turns into dark soil. Then I’m riding a blade of grass up into the sky and the wind is taking the grass and we're swinging up and down in the wind. Earthalujah!
Then I let my arms down and I’m standing on the snow again in Brooklyn, surrounded by the dead. That’s it. Amen. I walk back to the living ones.
It is somewhere around here. It seems to have a mind of its own. I feel the power once in a while, coming up from inside me. Or I'll slump in a chair, exhausted, powerless. All I can do is read about it, read about Malcolm. I’ll say, “We need a Malcolm X for the Earth.”
Where will we get the power won’t be ideology. It won’t be god. It won’t be art. It won’t be money. It won’t be environmentalism. People from those tribes are working hard. The sea rises and the wind screams that it's not enough.
The power to save the Earth will come from the Earth. That isn’t a mystical statement. It’s the most practical thing I’ve said in years. To walk straight up to the Man and overwhelm him with life, we must have the power of death. Death. That thing that is inside every living thing. My daughter’s world before she was born and me after I go where she came from.
We defeat that German-American swashbuckler George Armstrong Custer, and his children Chase, the Koch Brothers, Coca Cola, Monsanto and the Pentagon when we know in our hearts, when we really believe, that today is a good day to die. We can walk up to the earth-killing executive and end his depredations by having the power of our death within our life.
Oh, but we will take back our lives because we are glad that death is in life again, the way it always was. Then we turn to the Earth and ask what we can do to help. Earthalujah!
Reverend Billy faces up to one year in jail for this brief #BlackLivesMatter sermon at a peaceful vigil honoring unarmed civilians killed by police.
Please help us exercise our 1st Amendment rights by making a contribution. Reverend Billy will sign a copy of his most recent book and mail it to you if you can make a donation of $30 or more.
It looks as if
Our brothers and sisters in uniform
Of the names
Of these victims
Of there heroes
Of these children
Of these fathers and mothers
And what they are doing goes right to the heart
Of the uprising
That started with Michael Brown
Black Lives Matter
One of these policemen right now is thinking
What a PR disaster it will be for them
To force away from this public space
The names of our citizens who have been murdered unarmed
Sleeping on couches
Walking the dog
Being a human being
But they don't have protection
Call your marketing people
This is a disaster for you
You should stand here and respect these human beings
Don't take those names
Black Lives Matter
The Peoples Climate March, celebrated how many of us there are who oppose climate violence. The next day, Monday Sept. 22nd, the "Flood Wall Street" activist event saw thousands do just that, flood wall street like the rising tides surely will. Eleven of the arrestees, who refused a plea deal, are pressing forward with a "Necessity Defense" in the New York courts this week.
Tim DeChristopher mailed us this message, which I was honored to read to the defendants at their lunch break from trial.
"The #Flood11 represent the cutting edge of the climate justice movement, and they deserve our respect and support. As part of Flood Wall Street, their action highlighted the important systemic connections between capitalism, the corporate control of government, and the climate crisis. They helped focus national attention on the structural nature of a crisis that demands revolutionary structural changes. Their action used people power, creativity, music and beauty to nonviolently send the message that to truly combat climate change, we need to dismantle the power structures of oppression.
"It is especially encouraging that the #Flood11 did not let their civil disobedience end with a mere photo-op. They are taking their case to trial to continue demonstrating the necessity of drastic action to respond to the climate crisis. Since our corporate-controlled political leaders have failed to hold Wall Street and fossil fuel executives accountable in court for their “disorderly conduct” on a massive scale, the #Flood11 are risking their own security to force this issue into the courtroom. In a world where a tiny elite can prevent the solutions necessary to defend our civilization, there is nothing disorderly about committed nonviolent resistance to that economic and political injustice. The very necessary actions of the #Flood11 are an example to our movement, our leaders, and our society, and I hope more will follow in their footsteps.
Sending my love to you and them,
Since last summer, we have lived through this remarkable movement called Black Lives Matter.
So much is revealed in this movement's beginnings. How did this little township in St. Louis do this? How can it be that a patch of sidewalk in front of a police station in Ferguson, Missouri, would become the stage for the world's conscience? Is it only because local black youth refused to stop shouting there? This is the exhilarating return to the actual magic of free speech.
And now, the future. The outlines of the difficult challenge that we face in the future is shown by the legal (or illegal) end-game of this movement. The police are watching us go back to consumer society, putting wires back in our ears, withdrawing from the streets and parks – and they are attacking the remaining protesters, who now have less protection.
In November we received the disheartening news from Ferguson. Protest leaders were now being taken into custody, assigned a crime, and issued a bail level that was so high that they could not leave prison. It was a Machiavellian tactic to separate the most effective activists from their work out in public space. The human rights advocate Joan Baez helped us send them money.
At times like these, the law enforcement community is a cultural force and not a legal one. The police consider protesters to be their "enemy," and that is the right word in this era of militarization. When the police are on the defensive, as we saw in New York so dramatically, they resemble Scientologists. They imitate the anguish of a minority group. They are "disrespected." This leaves them free to talk themselves into unjustified – even bizarre, in my case - arrests of those of us who publically criticized them.
The police believe that "free speech" is an alien privilege used by protesters in the manner of head bobbing hip-hop or organic arugula. They oppose it when they see it, but mostly, they are not aware of it. The 1st Amendment is not a concept in their culture. It isn't easy to imagine that police would ever feel the importance of building trust and community by way of free speech in public space. But we do need the long-range safety that comes from free speech and assembly, not the more short-term safety of arresting anything that moves. Talking politics loudly in parks? Performing for each other "on the corner." That makes us safe and secure? Yes! Yes it does!
Impossible as it may seem, we need to bring the police back to the nurturing arts of the five freedoms of the 1st Amendment, worship, speech, press, gathering and protest. Since 9/11 such freedom has been called illegal anarchy. We have to find how the Bill of Rights can be non-threatening. Freedom can be more than a spacey slogan, it can be active cooperation.
I live in a cop neighborhood in Brooklyn. My best conversations with police men and women take place when we are shepherding our children to school at the same time, or watching sports in one of the famous Irish bars like Ferrell's on Prospect Street. I will feel them drop their guard, talking frankly, without the supervision of their racist leaders. I can hear "Well, Reverend... you know... these protests can't go on forever. What are we supposed to do?" And then I try to find the translation of the phrase, "Stop shooting people."
Amazingly, I have very good talks during the process of arrest. When they hold my hand and press my inked fingerprints against the computerized glass, we can speak in low tones. We don't feel surveilled. That's when I need to remember not to be angry. I can quietly talk about what the 1st Amendment is in Grand Central Station recently, while I was getting printed down there in their jail. Something like this:
"Next time, I want you to protect my free speech rights. You cuffed me in mid-sentence. Now you'll put me in the can for a day or two and I'll see the judge and I'll get offered credit for time served if I plead guilty. That's not right."
I do believe that they are listening. They are mostly silent. But I feel that when I'm talking in that setting, with the cop being gentle with my hands, that I am softly saying something that is heard deeply. For a few minutes, in that unlikely intimacy, free speech still works.
Photo credit: Fred Askew
I urge activists who live in their isolated outposts called "issues" - including those of us who reside within issues that we think include all the others, the big ones like Peace activism and Environmental activism, to understand that state-sanctioned violent insanity of the kind we see with Tamir Rice is a death gene that is in each of our bodies now.
This is not a tragedy. This is not tragedy that needs healing and closure. It is racialized murder coming from political leadership in suits and uniforms with straight faces. And oh let us demand of each other that we refuse to slide into some kind of purgatory of bloggy snarkiness over this. There is no witty comment that survives this. We can't drink, have sex, make money - to head-fake our way out of this.
We must reclaim our last goodness for this, as ripped and shredded as it might be. We can't possibly be free of this as long as it exists, and it is a flourishing killer, expanding in our bizarro reversed-out morality. This militarized-and-marketed racism is designed to seamlessly merge with all the old verities like "freedom" and "security" and "prosperity." Certainly no American can say that this is not central to their work if they are dedicated to health, to democracy, to growing loving communities.
Racism kills people, yes. Racism kills a 12 year old with a toy gun in a playground and slams his sorrowing big sister to the ground and handcuffs her but racism just as surely kills a smartly dressed hipster a thousand miles away living on save-the-world foundation grants. Racism kills all the good causes and so it has become the only progressive cause at this time in our history. Racism is the only issue until we are killed by it or we are free of it and we are all free.
Public safety after 9/11 is identified with law enforcement. The safety built up by the sharing of culture by many different kinds of people – with uncontrolled things like humor, large gestures and tom-foolery, loud-voiced speechifying, children as central and music as ever-present – that “eco-system” of culture was actively discouraged, especially for black, brown, poor or queer citizens. (In most cities this is much of or most of the population.) For years in New York, the police take people to jail from their front stoops. Singers in the Stop Shopping Choir tell stories of being told to “move on” when they are talking to friends in the doorway of their own apartment house.
There is always the threat that you will just be hand-cuffed on the spot, without explanation or cause, and that after some days and nights in the system you will be granted “credit for time served” for pleading guilty, a ritual of humiliation before the judge. This “sentencing-by-police” has grown to epidemic proportions over the years. It is extra-legal. And of course, it makes any protest of government or corporate abuses a risky outing. We proceed with our arms penned with the numbers of 1st Amendment lawyers and loved ones.
In Grand Central Station, a raised voice, a group of people gathered in common purpose, placards that suggest criticism of official violence – all such activity is quickly surrounded by police and solders, Homeland Security and state troopers. In the winter season, the famous old train station is the spot where an ordinary voice can carry to the maximum number of fellow citizens. But the fear of the message is palpable. So our pride in the message must over-ride that official fear.
Now is the time to trust the creative safety that is grown by uncontrolled free speech of citizens. We have so much to build in our communities, and so much work to do to live in a nonviolent way with the Earth.