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.
A man in a suit stands next to a car that looks like a bullet. Another man stands next to him in clean, neat work clothes, the construction project manager. He stands next to an SUV-like vehicle with a 4 by 4 truckbed. He unfolds a blue-print and lays it flat on the open tail-gate. The man in the suit takes his eyes from the forest before him and looks down.
They look many times from the map back at their property. The project manager points, placing building lines over the rough green foliage that faces them. A wind blows from the property, and if you held up a certain kind of microphone, up into the forest wind, you would hear a voice.
“You have no jurisdiction here. This is the world. And here in the world we have our own predator, hidden in the rustling leaves, up in the swaying branches. The world’s power may be unnoticeable to you, a crack of a twig on the ground, a flickering shadow over the sun. The predator that beat you here by a million years is all over everything, like a storm.
“It should be the only thing on your map. It is the life that holds everyone of us in place. You only see the contour of the hill and the edges of the lake. If your truck explodes with rust, then you have met the power. Look at yourself. Weeds are growing through your bodies like beautiful swords.
“There is a storm of life in here, at rest, waiting. Our life turns toward you with ten thousand eyes. We see you.
Barack Obama’s mention of the slaughters of the Christian Crusades was the opening of a can of worms that turned into snakes. The victims of the knights in shining armor were Jews and Muslims, but that was that time. The followers of the three desert deities, Jehovah, the Prophet and Jesus — have battled back and forth through history. But then each religion has devout peace activists, too. Zealots, zealots everywhere.
In Occupy Wall Street and in the Black Lives Matter as well, there was a steady presence of ministers and rabbis — and I remember a Lakota wisdom leader at Zuccotti Park — even though clearly most of the movement-makers are secular. But we welcomed the aura of Dr. King and the Dalai Lama and Chief Joseph and Gandhi and Bishop Tutu and the movements that they represent. They both comforted and emboldened us, as we marched off to lock arms in the doorway of Goldman Sachs or die dramatically across the floor of Grand Central Station.
The dismissal of religion by Marxists is discredited by present day radicals, but so are belief systems with patriarchal gods. And yet, religion never leaves. Leaders of change sometimes seem like saints, if they are more humble in demeanor, like Joan Baez or Aung San Suu Kyi, or Yeb Sano, the Filipino climate diplomat. If they are brassier, like Vandana Shiva, or Jose Bove or Edward Snowden, then they are called messianic.
I’m in the business of manipulating the memes of right wing apocalyptic Christianity, with the Stop Shopping Choir. We study the presence of intolerant religion within Consumerism and Militarism; in banks that finance C02 emitting industries, like Chase and HSBC and UBS, and manufacturers of toxins like Monsanto and Bayer. We believe that the marketing departments of these industries are the new fundamentalist churches, with crusaders in the form of sexualized automobiles and product placement on celebrities’ bodies.
Of course we rarely get anywhere near a financial or fossil fuel policy-maker. They surround us with police, who are kept in a state of angry fear. And time and time again our protests are like a clash of fundamentalist religions, the activism of two churches claiming the same God. In the conflict with banks and police, things are always very muscular, lots of finger-pointing, refusals, threats, stand-offs. We’re dealing with mutual, simultaneous damnation. You are my infidel.
I was recently handcuffed while speaking in New York’s Grand Central Station with the group “We Will Not Be Silent.” Surrounded by placards featuring the names of those killed by deadly police force, and wearing my usual white polyester and priests collar, I was cuffed in mid-sentence. The metal went into the verb. So much for the 1st Amendment. The next day the police told the Murdoch papers that I attacked a cop.
Of course, I felt outmaneuvered by the flamboyant right wingers. But did I misguess the event? Did my analysis of power against power, protesters against institutions — preempt any connection with the possibly sympathetic people within Grand Central Station? Anything internal in those folks, anything deeper than their anger, was unrevealed in the activist event. The cops feel like 9/11 is still happening. And I’m taking their Christian preacher and shouting about their blunders. We all get angry together.
I find myself desperately wanting to talk to the employees of Grand Central Station about what happened. But these big structures, the courts, the press — all of that gets in the way. A quiet human conversation is no longer possible. A good pastor can engage in loving conversation in the middle of horror, like Bishop Tutu looking the apartheid leaders in the eye. Could I have somehow done that? I did return after I got out of jail to try to talk to the cop who manhandled me, but he wouldn’t shake my hand.
Birth, and life, and death — no one knows what life is. Life is unexplained. Science doesn’t know and religion doesn’t either. Fundamentalists rush in with hard answers, to assuage our fear of death. Usually, the doctrine is encased in bigotry. Fundamentalist holy men arrange for us to fear the Other. And yet, again, religion cuts both ways. A “person of the cloth” carries the burden of these deeper questions, and so they can have the effect of slowing down violence. I remember clerics inserting themselves between the front lines in the Balkans.
More of our activism needs a spiritual basis, and that doesn’t only mean the absence of mindless confrontation. Spirit is laughter, shape-shifting and music. We felt the impact of Erica Warner dying-in on the Staten Island sidewalk where her father was murdered, a mysterious and beautiful act. And we remember Wangari Maathi planting trees in the Nairobi park, in the face of the brutal dictator, and Chelsea Manning opening the door of secrets.
I should go back to Grand Central Station and talk to those people. At least I should be able to talk to mothers, because they have the endless questions of children ringing inside them, even if those moms are cops. That is the antidote to fundamentalism. All those questions. If I talked with a hundred mothers, wouldn’t that be a better kind of activism than shouting in the echoey station and getting hauled off? Here’s the question I want to ask: “How do we end this violence?”
Oh "fetish" is the wrong word because this comes from pre-sexual time, when I was ten and eleven. I would escape from my family and walk forever in those waves until it was dark. It was how nature carried me off, the world closest to the edge of the yard, where nature waited for me, waving and dancing.
If I knew I was dying I would want to go back there to the long grasses. When I go to pray, which is sometimes difficult being so without any god, I think of that time in my life, because the natural world was overwhelming the god that my family insisted was all-powerful and all-knowing. Creation was overwhelming the Creator and it came in the form of undulating prairie grasses.
So I've shared this with people openly of course, since I'm a public confessor, but it always feels like a secret, too. I pray in the park near our home and there isn't prairie there. But when I pray I close my eyes and I see the sky and the grasses blowing in the sunny wind and then New York changes into South Dakota swirling its grasses around my prayer.
Black Lives Matter segues into gardens and libraries and back to defending ourselves against the police. In New York, the cops enforce property rights. Gardens and libraries, parks and hospitals are under privatizing attack, with a full-on lobbying (bribing) offensive in City Hall. But we got the faith. The books will return, the Rose Reading Room re-open, and the 1%ers in the library trustees LEAVE.
If we pretend that saving a library is not an issue of police violence as well as real estate violence, we are startled when the thin veil is ripped by our shouts and suddenly a gun is there pointing at us. Then a “communications officer” steps in to announce that we are the violent ones.
The dots connect again and again, but we all have memory problems. Good politics is forcefully reminding each other. It does get spacey out here on the pavement under the iCloud. But here it is again: Human rights and Earth rights are the same thing. The Earth will remind us with the screams in her insistent wind. BUT ON V-DAY - WE SAY - LOVE-A-LUJAH!
Lena is in the next room, walking around inside a play that she has written. She is a character in it, but has the author's position too, talking with fellow actors that she listens to and talks to and gestures with - I almost see them. There seems to be a boat with fishing, and a map and a fish "on the fifth floor," which is a bit of apocalyptic imagery right out of the ocean rising to drown Wall Street. There's more than that in this scene. Much more.
She'll be 5 years old in two months and should be in school but we decided that her 3-D world was so vivid that we would wait for a break in the action before taking her into the city. Our love of invention is so extreme it is socially improper, suspect child-rearing. Then again, the hair-raising destruction by Brian Williams and Dominique Strauss-Kahn of their careers by invented worlds that overwhelmed them - is the top of the news today.
And the police in New York have created a fictional world that we walk and drive through at our own risk. Their idea is that Al Sharpton and Barack Obama flew the jets into the towers on 9/11. And the consumption economy is Frankenstein religion, making us salivate on cue, but now over-ruled by the Earth. Lena, the day will come when you will have a co-author in your scenes, or you already do. A wild wind turns us away from the script that we thought was our life.
Returning to my intuitive resistance to the 70 ft. tall supermodels with jewelry and purses hanging down the sides of Times Square buildings like juicy secondary erogenous zones - oh Earthalujah! help me!! That was 1998 and I began sidewalk preaching THERE IS ONLY ONE SIN AND THAT IS TOURISM! We bring it all back home sometimes, and here it is, to the original notion that got us singing together and loving each other free of materialism and jailed every so often: Stop Shopping! Start Living!
Three days ago another mysterious jury refused to take to trial an Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) policeman accused of strangling a passenger. Last night an MTA train coming into the Wagnerian town of "Valhalla, New York" saw a stalled SUV too late and six died in the collision. And as you members of the congregation are aware - your pastor was arrested in mid-sermon by over zealous MTA cops in Grand Central Station, and now we have filed a $500k lawsuit to help finance this Facebook page which siphons money to the MTA's banker, Goldman Sachs, but don't get me started.
And today, with the MTA a large, painful joke at the expense of our once-great city, I sit down with Lena to take the train home from kindergarten, and we're under the East River zooming along and we look up from The Cat In The Hat and find ourselves surrounded by these moral advisories from that same MTA, up and down the length of our train, placard after placard of unasked-for advise designed to reduce us to polite consumers with beige personalities. They should tell us not to do strip dances on the poles in front of the children... Because what evil is possible here? I want to know. I hope that Lena & I will always know what to do wrong & have the courage to do it.