Social Action Alien Invasion Training Tool

About a month ago I did a training which was basically an introduction to social action.  As part of this training I wrote up a scenario about alien invasion which I gave out to prompt discussion about social action strategy, tactics, and the process of organizing.  I was very happy with how this worked, and want to share the scenario.

Here it is:

After a long protracted struggle, aliens from outer space have conquered the Earth.  In ___ (insert country where this training is happening) they have not changed the basic governmental structure.  However, they have established a society where the majority of people are paid less than what is necessary to survive; although most do survive through activity in the informal economy and/or through debt (which is largely owned by aliens; who now control the financial industry).  Many humans are also imprisoned, and the legal system (both the courts and the police) tend to primarily protect alien interests.   The highest offices of authority are held almost exclusively by aliens while a lower strata of authority is maintained by humans, most of whom have come to emphatically endorse alien rule.  Elections and voting still exist, although people must always choose between very pro-alien candidates.  The aliens also do not need this planet and are willing to push the Earth’s resources to their capacity in order to produce valuable goods in the overall alien empire.  As a result, climate change and energy scarcity have intensified.  Schools and the media largely portray alien rule as normal and natural, and the majority of humans accept this perspective.  While there are pockets of rebellion, most feel powerless to change things.  Many people say “that’s just the way it is,” when discussing perceived unfairness in their world.  However many people do wish for change, and they occasionally gather for this purpose.  You are a group of people gathering for change [Note, for this sentence I actually named the group I was working with in my original write-up, but you can insert whatever group you want here].  How might you direct your energy towards a better world?

The overt purpose of this scenario was to spark a discussion on strategy, tactics, and organizing.  The scenario also had a covert purpose of sparking social analysis.  It fulfilled both purposes better than I expected; with participants enthusiastically throwing out their ideas and very quickly realizing that the scenario actually described the world we already live in.

Feel free to use the scenario if you like.  If you do, realize that people will probably ask questions about things that are not stated in the scenario.  My answers reflected my understanding of the world we currently live in (with aliens basically replacing the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people).  Also, I treated the aliens as though they had both good and bad traits and were not all of one mind, even though they all did benefit (in some way) from the exploitation of humanity as a whole.  One of the pitfalls I see in this scenario is that it can dehumanize, which I would try to avoid.  But I think overall this is a very nice tool for sparking our social action imagination while deepening our analysis.

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Learning Liberation

I believe there is a very old and shared dream of liberation, a vision for a world which we can imagine but find difficult to create.  To me this vision is defined by the good things which already exist in life, and the possibility that this good can grow.

My own experience of goodness is defined in stories.  As a child I shared my fear of death with my mother and saw tremendous empathy in her eyes that was so beautiful it transcended my fears.  I grew up struggling with wanting support from people that I never seemed to get, but then felt great fulfillment when I was able to give that support to others.  I have had my spirit shattered as I learned of how I benefit from war, poverty, and the systematic oppression of the majority of humanity; then my spirit has been reconfigured into greater wholeness once I committed to a better world.  I have felt true togetherness when crying on someone’s shoulder; and the healing that comes when we cry together. I have been inspired by the risks others have taken to make their behavior consistent with their values; by, for example, fighting global warming, dictatorship, or racial oppression.  I have felt my sense of the human family expand as I marched in solidarity over values of basic worth and dignity. In all this and more I see liberation in a formative state, the dream of what the world can be, struggling to be realized.

“Liberation” was not always the word I used to identify my dream.  As a child I named my desire “peace.”  I saw a lot of beauty as well as ugliness in the world and believed that it was our role as human beings to embrace the beautiful–things like compassion, friendship, and appreciation. In meditation I felt these good things and found a frequent sense of peace, of rightness with the world.  I believed that if we all could just discover this peace for ourselves then the world as a whole would be at peace, and that was what I wanted to live for.

When I was around ten this vision was challenged.  I saw my peers en masse start to say things like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m stupid,” and “I’m ugly.”  To me these statements were heartwrenching because I believed the opposite, and reeled at the idea that the people I loved would hate themselves.

I told my friends that I believed in them; that they were good, smart, worthy, etc.  But time and again I could see that my words were rejected.  Eventually I saw my friends entering new levels of competition over basic recognition and social respect.  To be recognized we had to dominate.  We had to prove who was the smartest; who was the most attractive; who was the strongest.  This competition increasingly involved putdowns and bullying.  I was a target.  I felt so much unnecessary pain and saw that same pain moving throughout the world as children degraded each other.

I had years of nightmares, suicidal thoughts, and trying to avoid the outside world.  But, despite this pain, I could still see the profoundness of life.  For years I had an inner battle between misery and the commitment to resist misery.  Eventually something shifted in me.  I remember a nightmare where I was chased by a monster (as I had been so many times before).  But unlike before I did not wake in a cold sweat, but turned around and killed that monster.  Then I brought it back to life.  Then I made a world of monsters who danced in simple joy.  Though it was all in my head I experienced liberation which went beyond the peace I had experienced before.  This was not just good feelings, but greater clarity over what was worth living for after winning a conflict between the life affirming and the life negating.  I had found some freedom from the weight of depression, and from the ubiquitous hatred that caused my depression.

Yet again it must be stated that this was liberation in a formative state.  It was personal triumph, but only a small change in a world that is much bigger than my head.  Over the years I still saw the same story repeated again and again of people I cared about hating themselves, and most of what I said to counter this had little affect. Eventually I realized that my beliefs held little weight because I was not respected as authority.  Someone with greater authority already told people that they did not measure up; and I began to see clearer who that authority was.

Girls would describe themselves as ugly while looking at fashion magazines.  I had a bully that stabbed me in the leg with pencils in order to “toughen me up” who was abused by his father.  Kids doubted their intelligence while adults told them that their entire future depended on them defeating each other in an endless competition for grades, recognition, and status. So many authorities had a tendency towards dehumanization, stripping us of inherent worth and treating us as tools.

When I learned more about history I could start seeing this even more clearly.  European elites created empires which conquered the world, subjugated its people, took their resources, destroyed their cultures, engulfed the planet in World Wars, and pushed workers into the worst conditions they could stomach in order to maximize the profit of a few.  The world of today has inherited all of this pain.  We have normalized the idea that it is the rightful place of authority to abuse, and the powerful of today continue to reap benefits from inequity.

In my moments of peace I have seen what life can be if we can find freedom from injustice.  But experiencing moments of peace is not enough to create this freedom. My happiness does not change the exploitation of humans.  As such it does not change the exploitation of me as a human, and my momentary peace can be nothing more than momentary.  To truly find greater freedom there must be resistance.  At the same time, I can resist injustice in a way that ultimately provides nothing better.  I can use my hurt as an excuse to hurt others, leading to no net improvements in the state of humanity.

Liberation falls into neither pitfall of resistance without purpose nor self satisfaction without social conscience.  Liberation is instead the simultaneous resistance of injustice and embrace of peace that is both the means and the ends to a world which genuinely serves our needs.  This combined resistance of injustice and embrace of peace is a journey taken by both the individual and the many collectives which define the individual.  Ultimately liberation is a long process which requires both struggle and reflection on the meaning of our struggles.  Liberation must be learned, and learning liberation is the best thing I can think to do with my life.

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I am no better or worse than anyone else

Over the holidays I went to the movies and saw Les Miserables.  It was an emotional experience which got me in the reflective mood.  As I watched the revolutionaries struggle and die I felt a strange sensation, a growing internal conviction that I no longer wish to think of myself as better or worse than anyone else.  Perhaps this is my newest resolution (which just so happens to fall near the new year).

Losing the desire to be better than others goes against much that I was taught growing up.  As a child I remember wanting to be special, and competing with other children to prove that I was.  I remember boys performing feats of strength in gym class or feats of numeric processing in math.  We measured each other in order to decide who was worthy and unworthy.  Such measurement then expressed itself in envy towards the achievers and abuse towards the underachievers.  And, as we measured each other, the school measured us with grades and test scores.  For me, I felt a desire to compete that I think came from other peoples’ expectations of me but my heart was never in it.  In school I saw the stress of the overachievers and determined that I did not want to be like them.  Outside of school my father enrolled his sons in wrestling.  I often won informal matches during practices but could not stand the pressure once there was competition between teems and an audience in the bleachers.  Yet looking back I realize that, while I became uninterested in competing with people athletically or scholastically, I embraced a sort of moral competition.  I did want to be superior.

I have spent a good deal of my life watching others and judging them in order to convince myself that I was better than them.  I have listened to the words of good people who meant me no harm and, from the safety of my unspoken thoughts, I have thrown litanies of vulgarity at them.  This includes things like,

  • Why are you wasting my time?
  • That thing she said was stupid
  • He is an idiot
  • I would never get myself in that situation
  • You are not as special as me, and also
  • racist, classist, sexist, and ableist epithets

These thoughts were never the only ideas I had about people but they would pop into my head, and they often disturbed me.  My mind went back and forth between, I deeply admire you, and, you’re a piece of shit; and these contradicting ideas would exist at the same time about the same person.  As I grew up I came to notice my judgmental hostility more and more.  Meanwhile I desired more and more compassionate ways of relating with people.  Through much meditation and self-help experimentation my ability to listen grew and my tendency to judge lessened.  Then, as I noticed these changes, I became oppressively smug.  I wore my moral victories as a badge to prove that I was superior.  This had always been a hidden motivation for me… or perhaps it was a motivation hidden from me though obvious to everyone who knew me.

Eventually I realized that the self was really constructed by society (for example, kids judging other kids is learned by how the school system judges kids via grades).  As I figured this out I shifted from a self-help focus to a social change/collective liberation focus.  Now I think that my desire to feel special was a predictable response to a society that runs off of artificial scarcity.  Basically, we need to prove that we are special in order to prove that we are worthy to receive the resources we must compete over (for example, money).  Only a small minority of us are able to have truly secure livelihoods, have our ideas represented in government or the media, find work that is appropriately challenging and fulfilling, and be taken seriously by the people around us.  In a socially just world these things would not be treated as scarce privileges but instead as basic human needs.  However we live in a world which normalizes and indoctrinates us into accepting less than we deserve; and we behave according to the world we are indoctrinated into.

I also came to see how my desire to be special reinforced racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  The privileges afforded to me by my white skin, Y chromosome assigned male identity*, and parents’ income give me an upper hand in the competition for those scarce societal resources.  For example, as a man I am not expected to cook and clean and do the daily domestic work.  My father did not do this.  Many fathers and grandfathers I have known did not do this.  Unpaid and under valued domestic labor has been the role given to women.  This privileges me and other men because, without having responsibility for domestic chores, I am afforded more time, freedom, and respect when I chose to pursue the things which will actually earn me that scarce societal recognition.  I have more time to work and to play.  I have more time to network and more expectation that I will not be home with the kids.  I have more access to the language and culture of men who, overall, hold more power.  And it is a challenge for me to resist this privilege by, for example, spending an equal amount of time as my wife on domestic chores.  This is because I am scared of giving up the privilege that helps me to compete, get what I want from life, and not be as exploited as others.

Lessons about the basic mechanics of privilege and oppression were taught to me in my twenties.  But, even as I have learned how the competition for superiority is just a tool of artificial scarcity by a dehumanizing societal machine, I have held on to the child’s dream of being recognized as special and extraordinary (which are ultimately just nicer sounding ways of saying “superior”).  But I have a growing sense of the vanity in this child’s dream because convincing myself that I am special does not actually provide me with the world I wish to see.  I wish for true love, true friendship, and true camaraderie.  I wish to be with people, to share in their joys and their struggles.  I wish for no accolades, no shallow rewards, no teacher’s stars to measure zir favor (zir is a gender neutral pronoun; like his or her).  Liberation is my desire, and I believe it is only possible when we lose the ambition to become better than others and the fear that we are worse.

Like all good resolutions, I need help to maintain this.  I expect to fail often and don’t really care because failure is part of the learning process.  But I would like for people to show me where I am wrong because that helps me learn as well.  In later posts I will explore what it means to live as though I am not better or worse than anyone else.  This resolution entails an awful lot which I am excited to discover.

*I first wrote Y chromosome thinking that the Y chromosome was a trait that could represent many traits that are associated with being male.  It was brought to my attention that this was cissexist because it excludes people who identify as male but do not have a Y chromosome and people who have a Y chromosome but don’t identify as male.  In  other words, having a Y chromosome does not necessarily mean you have a male identity.  I found a link to another blog which describes cissexism in more detail.

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Gun violence ain’t about the crazies. And crazy is a horrible word.

Last week the vice president of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, gave a speech designed to elicit a state of perpetual militaristic panic against violent people with mental illness.  He stated; “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters–people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”  Lapierre finds the source of gun violence in these “monsters,” and proposes we protect our children through a national database that keeps track of the mentally ill.  I believe this is a terrible idea.

“Mental illness” is not a well defined concept.  Looking in retrospect at someone who goes on a shooting spree, it is easy to say they are ill in the mind.  But can we really predict the potential violence of a person, and is “mental illness”–a very broad and nebulous term, really the predictor we want to use?  Does it make me appreciably more likely to kill people if I talk to myself, lay in bed for months with depression, struggle to empathize, experience unexplainable amounts of anxiety, or other fairly common behaviors we like to link to “mental illness?”  Could mental illness actually at times be a source of strength, like having communication challenges that come from focusing on things others do not or having depression that comes from increased sensitivity to the struggles of the world?

“Mentally ill” is a label we use to marginalize people, and I know this because I have spent a lot of time worrying about my own sanity.  As a wee boy I learned, as all children do, the language and logic of my parents.  This language and logic outlined a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “crazy” which was contrasted with a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “normal.”

crazy normal spectrum

The man who went to work everyday to provide for his children was “normal.”  The man who waded into water carrying a baby over his head and declaring himself to be Jesus was “crazy” (this was a news story I vaguely remember from childhood).  All good boys and girls were supposed to be “normal.”  Those who were within the spectrum of “crazy” were dangerous, unpredictable, liable to make bad romances, wallow in endless sorrow, and go on violent rampages.  To me, the actual behavioral confines of “normal” seemed to involve wearing middle class clothing, enjoying sports (for boys) and makeup (for girls), rooting for the home team, not feeling a great need to question authority or critique society, and tending to be uncomfortable with displays of emotion (which were often associated with “imbalance”).  But I had a problem because, although I did not know if I was “crazy,” I also was not “normal.”

I was a bizarrely spiritual boy.  I meditated.  I had mystical experiences (a sense of oneness with the universe).  I did this before I knew what meditation and mystical experiences were.  I came to think of myself as “talking to god,” and I heard quotes like this from Thomas Szasz; “if you talk to god, you are praying; if god talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”  But the thing was…  in my mind, this talking to god was a two way street.  While I was engaged in mystical experience, I had many moments of clarity where I felt the wisdom of an all-connected higher mind come to me.  I also had a vision when I was three where I saw an illusionary inferno that was premonitionary of a house fire that happened moments later.  Now, in truth I don’t know the significance of these experiences and, increasingly over time, I don’t care.  I have met many people who I know find my story very bizarre, even inconceivable.  Others relate to my story.  Others try to use my story, against my permission, to validate their own religious perspective.  But the point here is that I grew up feeling like a damn weird kid.

I was terrified of being crazy.  It haunted my dreams.  I saw the word “crazy” wielded like a club that bludgeoned all the people the bludgeoner thought deserved to be dismissed.  Here are some examples of what this looks like:

  • “Don’t listen to John, he’s just crazy,”
  • “if you say you take that position, people will think you are crazy,”
  • “[insert political or religious group you don’t like] are just a bunch of crazies”

This deep-seated fear of insanity gained deeper perspective for me when I went to a very small college with a very politically radical population, Antioch.  Prior to Antioch I learned that Anarchists, Communists, and other radicals belonged in that “crazy” range of thinking.  Although in retrospect I think I had a lot of leftist inclinations, I was politically what I now call a “militant moderate”–to me the middle ground was always best.  I think I felt that way, in large part, because few people accuse moderates of being crazy, and I was so scared of being diminished for who I was in my head.  Because of this fear I tried to embrace “normality” and, at Antioch, I thought of people as crazy because I was internalizing my own oppression.

It took me a long time to learn this but I have figured out that actually, like the Anarchists and Communists I once marginalized, I was a radical too.  Now, when I embrace my radical identity, I feel the spiritual liberation of simply being present with who I have always been.  It is healing.  And yet I also know that, by calling myself a radical, I open myself up to the same marginalization I have always feared–the marginalization bound within the words “crazy” and “normal.”

I realize I am somewhat conflating mental illness with abnormality but this is because they are conflated.  As I said earlier, mental illness is an ill-defined term.  Should you study psychiatric diagnoses you will find that “mental illness” actually is defined  and diagnosed by abnormal behavior.  In fact, the DSM (manual for diagnosing mental illness) keeps getting updated as society renegotiates what we consider normal and abnormal.  Homosexuality, for example, used to be called a mental illness (and just spend a moment contemplating what this fact would signify for a mental illness database).  And the thing is, there are many abnormal people in the world.  I suspect there are far more people who exhibit abnormal behavior than those who do not.  This points out that abnormality is not really about how often a behavior occurs but how shunned a behavior is in mainstream society.  Many shunned behaviors are problematic (going on a killing spree, at least within one’s country, is one of them).  Many shunned behaviors might actually be beneficial (like having an unusual ability to empathize or think critically).  But, of all the people we might decide to label as mentally ill or abnormal, only a very small minority actually commit physical violence.

We do not live in the nightmarish world outlined by Wayne Lapierre.  If we did, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings would be much more common.  But thinking that our safety is constantly besieged by mad individuals causes real problems.  When mental struggles and abnormal behavior are seen as excuses for marginalization people are actually disincentivized to seek and find help, which makes them more likely to act on destructive impulses.  Further disenfranchisement by stamping crazy on peoples’ permanent records is an ill-informed attempt to make the world better which will actually make it worse.

So you may wonder, what do I propose to prevent violent people from acquiring weapons.  Dismantle the military industrial complex!  While we’re at it we can also dismantle the small-arms industrial complex (which involves the NRA).  These groups benefit from guns, the use of guns, and from the mindset that guns represent legitimate ways to solve problems.  In general I think we need a more serious analysis of violence in society, but unfortunately massive amounts of propaganda make it hard for us to really look at ourselves.  Still, it is immoral to avoid difficult tasks just because they are difficult when peoples’ lives are on the line.  And, in the spirit of seriously examining violence in our society, I ask you to ponder the following:

We are upset by the mass shootings committed by a “crazy” person in Connecticut.  It is tragic, horrible, angering, and saddening.  Most disgustingly, it is only a ripple in the overall waves of violence that are produced by frightened people with destructive technology.  Consider how many children have been killed by “normal” people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan?  Cruise missiles and drone strikes do not have an avoid children switch.  Could it be that there are people with power who have an interest in dismissing and destroying human life?  Could it be that this is what is done in any war, every mass shooting, and even in the label of “crazy” itself?  And, if you want to further explore the expendability of human life by people with power I suggest viewing the video on this page.  I will warn, it is extremely violent, disturbing, and potentially triggering.

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We Need to Acknowledge the Reality of Violence: My Account of the Eviction of Occupy DC

So I know the semi-eviction of Occupy DC happened many months ago, but I want to give my account of it and explore some of the lessons I learned.

On February 4th in McPherson Square, at Occupy DC, it was a day filled with brutality.  There had been a lot of talk that the eviction was coming after a congressional hearing decided that people could keep a constant vigil in the park but could not sleep over.  Police told occupiers that tents could stay, as could objects like chairs and tables, but the sleepers could be arrested, and sleeping bags could be confiscated.  Police asked us to leave our tents open and told us that, if we complied, our things would remain in the park.

Occupy DC protesters in front of the Tent of Dreams

On January 30th, the pre-eviction happened.  The cops said they would come.  Occupiers, in response, threw a giant tarp over the statue of General McPherson which stands in the center of the square.  We named the tarp “the tent of dreams.”  We carried signs talking about our dreams, and spoke about why we occupy -the beauty of the camp, the community we created, the troubles of the world, the necessity to resist.  We talked about struggles with debt, foreclosures, homelessness, health care, with being used and abused in the military.  We talked about the world we wished to see -a world which serves people above profits, a world which stands up against exploitation, a world of fairness and justice.  The police left.  Protesters basked in victory.

A few days later I got a text message describing the scene unfolding downtown as a “full eviction.”  I came to McPherson Square and saw the damage.  Hundreds of cops surrounded the square.  Horses watched on at the periphery.  The park was sliced up by barricades.  The tent of dreams had been taken down.  The southeastern section of the park was filled with officers in hazmat suits, systematically tossing almost every bit of occupy property into a dump truck.  The majority of these tents had been left open, which the police had promised would allow us to keep them.

The eviction

Around the camp people walked in shock, trying to clear out their belongings before the cops threw them away.  There was a sense of betrayal, of violation.  I know I felt the desire to fight back but, with more cops than protesters, this felt like a losing battle.

Soon the cops entered another section of the camp.  They went through more tents with their hazmat suits and threw more things away.  At this point protesters started gathering into the last section of the park, our main street, where the information tent, the kitchen, the university, and the medic station sat.  A call went out to protect the library, a center for conversation and a symbol of the camp.  Here we would stand our ground.

We waited on that front with slow boiling tension.  We spoke again about why we occupy.  We chanted in solidarity.  “Whose park?”  “Our park!”  “Whose first amendment rights?”  “Our first amendment rights!”  We read passages about how we appreciated the library.  At one point I led the group in a very awkward mic checked version of the song “Hold on” (otherwise known as “Keep your Eyes on the Prize).  All along, a line of very stoic officers stared at us.

As this was going on, the library committee was negotiating with the cops to keep the library from being thrown away.  The cops said they would inspect it.  The library said they needed to have librarians present while police inspected.  We all felt we couldn’t trust the cops.  Some were very vocal about this, saying the library should make no agreements.

In the end two librarians would stay in the tent while the police inspected it, and everyone else who was supporting the library would be asked to move away.  I noticed one officer say something else during these negotiations, almost as an afterthought.  The library was going to be inspected at the same time that the police would open and search the final section of the park -the section everyone was standing in.

Police attack

As police moved in, they started yelling “move back!”  Librarians also pleaded for protesters to comply.  Some were adamant “we should not move, the cops have been lying to us all day.”  I was moving back in support of the libraries request, while also being concerned about what was soon to happen.  Stepping back from the heart of confrontation I saw the police moving to surround us.  They were coming behind the tents, flanking us.  I told some people what I saw happening.  Then I heard screaming.

I moved around the camp, scouting out what was going on and trying to see how I could be most helpful.  At one place where a barricade was just being raised I saw a protester yelling into a cop’s face.  I thought either the protester or the cop might be ready to strike out and was worried of what might happen.  I stepped in between them.  The cop didn’t seem to see any difference between me and my compatriot however and, as soon as the barricade rose, he stabbed me with his billy club, knocking me to the ground.  I picked myself up.  He pushed forward again, knocking me down once more.  I saw him ready to charge yet again while I lay.  He yelled “get up and walk away!”

Despite the tension, I found this somewhat comical.  I raised my hand, indicating I meant no harm, then said “I will walk away, if you let me get up.”

He repeated “get up and walk away.”  In his eyes I saw fear.

The big push

Around me others were pushed.  Usually this was at a manageable pace but occasionally the cops charged into the crowd, rushing people, knocking them down, trampling them.  It was horrifying to see people I cared for, people I stood in solidarity with, being hurt.  At one point I saw a cop jump out of the line, swinging his riot shield like a weapon.  He hit the person next to me, then swung his shield into my face.  My nose and teeth stung.  I lost it.  Glaring deep into his eyes I yelled “police brutality!”  For a moment he looked like he was ready for more, and so was I.  But my allies calmed me down while his marched past him.

There were a few more instances of screams.  I told the police what I had witnessed from their colleagues.  I said “you know, if you just stop charging us, no one would get hurt.”

One cop responded “if you would just turn around and walk away…”

The person next to me said “turn around while you’re charging into us?”  Then I felt a horse nuzzle into my hair.

Soon we were pushed into the street.  The police closed off the park.  We stood at the perimeter and yelled our anger and our passion.  I continued walking around the park talking to stoic officers about what their fellows had done, asking the question “who do you protect and who do you serve, because it sure as hell isn’t us.”

My friend started rattling the barricade and yelling “We’re not afraid of you!”

Then we had a general assembly in the middle of k street.  At this point I had to leave.  That evening I had agreed to take tickets at my wife’s chorus concert.  The eviction had ended, I was not in jail, and I didn’t want to let her down -though it was such a bizarre clash of environments to go from overt police violence to choral music.  After coming down from the adrenaline I found myself distracted from the music.  A deep disturbance clung to my brain.  I realized, holy shit, I’m traumatized… and I know everyone else is too.

The next day I came back to the park and saw people walking on crutches.  The police had broken their bones.  One friend described his experience of being slammed on his head, knocked unconscious, and hospitalized.  His body would never be the same.  My nose hurt for a couple of weeks from the cop who swung his shield in my face.  I found myself thinking I wish I got his badge number, but in the middle of the chaos it was hard to keep track.  Fortunately my nose got better.

I told people about what happened, and my experience in retelling these events was probably the most disheartening aspect of the whole process.  I talked about watching my friends trampled, having bones broken, and cops who behaved brutally.  People stared somewhat blankly, not acknowledging the factual basis of what I said, and quickly wanting to change the conversation.  But I needed them to understand.  I needed them to understand how many people have faced this violence, from police brutality in working class communities, to nations invaded overseas, to the proxy dictatorships that promote the interests of elites.  And I needed people to recognize that this violence was also a part of them.

When I eat a hamburger, I am part of the process which kills the cow.  When I buy from companies who use sweatshops, I am part of the process which puts workers into oppressive conditions.  When I do not intervene in the silencing of people who are advocating for their democratic rights, I am part of the processwhich undermines my own rights as well.  And I suppose the lesson I want to come from this experience is that standing in solidarity with the 99% means acknowledging the violence, exploitation, and marginalization that has been practiced upon our diverse communities.  I ask readers, do not dismiss the suffering of one group of people just because it clashes with your experience or view of the world.  One way to create a more humane existence is by granting yourself the moral courage to see the realities which contradict our desires for how reality should be.  And thank you for reading my story.

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My Spiritual Passion for Social Justice: Speech at the Washington Ethical Society

This is a transcript of a speech I recently gave at the Washingtion Ethical Society (WES).  WES is a part of Ethical Culture which is basically a religious humanist community.  This means that people are humanist -their worldview is generally nontheistic; focused on human experience and human relationships and not so much on god.  But WES differs from secular humanism in that people have regular gathering times, religious services, and form a religious community which in many ways operates similarly to theistic congregations.  I was asked to give the following speech about my personal passion for social justice.  Enjoy!

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When I think about social justice at WES, what really resonates with me is the spiritual underpinning behind my passion.  I grew up not raised in a religion.  There were no holy books, no Sunday services, no community of faith.  Yet I had a lot of what are called “mystical experiences.”  I frequently felt a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of sacred interconnectivity and higher truths.  This was a sense of love and beauty.  The world was beautiful and deserving of love.  I suppose that is my fundamental spiritual belief, which also translates into a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

My beliefs, my faith, my background, became a commitment to social justice once I realized that society as a whole did not follow loving principles, and all of us are hurt because of this.  I remember being a student in elementary school who was eager to learn about so many things, but I was continuously struck by the fact that the adults who oversaw me never thought to ask what I was truly curious about and what I truly cared for.  I became an anti-war activist when I saw that the invasion of Iraq was manufactured from dubious reasons, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who I believed deserved love and dignity.  In the working world I noticed a repeated tendency for people to be treated with respect or abuse depending on their pecking order in the hierarchy.  To me, all people deserved respect.  It wasn’t something you earned with your status or were denied because you failed to pull yourself up by the nonexistent proverbial bootstraps.

There are a lot of things I could talk about.  In the end I saw a dissonance between the world I lived in and what I knew in my heart was right –my spiritual commitment to love and dignity.  The beautiful thing about WES; it is one of the places where I can feel safe to live according to my heart.  We are all here to seek the highest.  Even better, we can seek the highest while not forcing ourselves to follow one version of what that means.

My passion is nurtured by the people and places where compassion, connection, love, respect, honesty, humility, listening, and generosity are valued.  Real community is built by the things we do for each other that make life worth living.  A commitment to social justice is a desire to nurture, protect, and expand such community.  It also means resisting the parts of the world which destroy what is worth preserving.  It means occupying wall street, desegregating lunch counters, protecting the natural environment, putting our voices and bodies on the line for the right to vote, putting our voices and bodies on the line for all our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

There is a cost to such passion.  The abusive world knows how to strike back.  I have been arrested, assaulted, kicked out of class, and fired because my passion for social justice would not allow me to quietly accept the hurt I saw people putting onto each other.  Despite the costs, every day I find myself feeling more free, powerful, and whole.   I suppose it is the sense of growing wholeness that most fuels my social justice passion.  I get something out of it.  I have something to live for which is consistent with human dignity and seeking the highest.

Ironically however, the more whole I feel the more meaningless my wholeness seems.  My life is sacred, but it is very short and very small.  I have spent a lot of time meditating on my own personal growth and liberation.  Now I have come to want something more.  It is collective liberation I care about; it is the healing of all who have been hurt; it is the transformation of society.  This to me represents a deeper vision of social justice which is constructed by all the loving people in all their safe spaces.  It says a lot that WES has been the safest religious community for me.  My hope is that we can still do more to engage with the world in a healing way, and strengthen the life-affirming bonds which hold us all together.

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High School Students Changing the World

Life has been very busy recently and I haven’t posted in a while.  One of the things I have been busy with involves lending support and encouragement to the students at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County Maryland (usually called “PG County”).  PG County has a very large immigrant population.  The schools are majority black and Latino.  It is not a rich county and many schools are underfunded, which creates problems for students, teachers, and everyone involved.  A group of Northwestern students got together to plan a walkout on March 1st this year, protesting large class sizes (frequently over 40 students to a class), the firing of Phillippino ESL teachers (who were then deported because they lost their work visas), and unsanitary conditions (one student said he found a tooth in his food).  300 students agreed they would leave during the last period of the school day on March 1st.  The school found out about the plan, kept 4 organizers in the office all day, threatened them with expulsion and ultimately suspended them, and prevented many students from walking out.  Police where there, including dogs.  I and others did some activities of support for the students.  I wrote the letter below which I thought I’d post on this blog

Dear Northwestern students,

When I was in high school, I remember my elders talking about how kids now a days don’t believe in anything.  I knew this perception was false back then.  You, students at Northwestern, have proven this perception false today

For 20 years I have struggled with the educational system, and over those 20 years I have seen it getting worse.  In school I learned reading and math.  I also learned how to follow the rules, even when they didn’t make sense, how to compete with my fellow classmates, even when I didn’t want to, how to value myself and others based on our racially and socio-economically biased grades, even when I could see this wasn’t fair, and how to survive in a world which didn’t give a damn about what I thought or cared for -it wasn’t until college when I was first actually asked what I wanted to learn.  With the passage and continuance of No Child Left Behind, the authoritarian tendencies of school have gotten worse as teachers, students, and schools are all rigidly judged by standardized tests which rarely measure the actual retention of meaningful learning.

My experience in higher education was much better than my schooling up to that point, but it came with a steep cost which will probably require many years of servitude to pay off.  And the cost of higher education is rising, making it increasingly exclusive.  In general, educational funding is being cut.  This is happening at Northwestern.  It is happening across the country.  Teachers are fewer.  Class sizes are larger.  There are also many efforts to remove the teachers with more experience (who cost more) and replace them with newer teachers who cost less.  Northwestern, your struggles are national struggles.

Many are aware of the problems I am outlining.  Few are willing to do anything about it.  You at Northwestern have done something, and I hope you feel proud of it.  I feel grateful for you.  You have done what many are scared to do.  You have stood up for your rights.  You are practicing real democracy.  I would love to see teachers, students, and staff across the nation stand up in protest of this broken system.  Perhaps you will be trendsetters.  Know at least that I support you, and that there is a community of people who support you.  Whatever ridicule, punishment, or fear you face, keep your head held high.  Many have been trained by the authoritarian world to fear that which represents real hope and possibility.  The resistance you faced is only proof that you represent something powerful.

With Deepest Love and Appreciation,
Andrew Batcher
Writer, Activist, Educator

After the walkout people sent letters like mine to both the students and the administration.  We also called the administration, and there was an open community meeting that supporters could come to.  At first the administration was saying they “would not discuss alleged disciplinary actions,” seeming to deny that the suspensions even took place.  But students made sure they got their voices heard and supporters were there to encourage them.  This week, the students planned a day of silence for Trayvon Martin and the principle decided to revoke their suspensions.  It was a victory with a complex web of players.  I think there is a lot to learn from this, and I hope there can be many more victories after this.

Occupy DC Endorsing an Ammendment to end Corporate Personhood; Connecting Reform to Revolution

Those of us who have been part of the Occupy Movement are familiar with the common critique, “what exactly do you want anyways?”

Generally answers like, “justice for the 99%” do not seem to satisfy.

Of course we do not need to satisfy a hostile audience, and the meme of “they don’t stand for anything” is clearly coming from a hostile place.  Still, this meme is exploiting a real gap which exists between the potential of the movement and its current state.  I believe our  long term success depends on closing this gap.

The gap is this: there are a lot of people who believe injustice has been done to the 99%, and they would like to see (and perhaps be involved in) repairing that injustice.  Sympathizers and possible sympathizers far outnumber actual occupiers, and the potential of that broader support is society changing.  But that potential needs something concrete to focus on.  They are waiting to see where Occupy heads.  To be more involved they need to know, what do we see as a pathway for finding the justice we seek?

One such pathway may involve a constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood and get corporate money out of politics.  Two weeks ago, at both camps in Occupy DC, the General Assemblies voted in support of such an amendment.  It is concrete.  It is consistent with the issues occupy is addressing and the general point of view of occupiers. It is something other groups have been working on and a lot of people can get behind.

But creating any concrete goal also threatens to magnify the divisions which exist within the movement.  When talking about the constitutional amendment, one person described it as “reformist bullshit.”

I sigh when I hear this.  I consider myself the type of activist more concerned with revolution than reform, yet I also recognize that revolution is a long term struggle, and the reforms we create are not necessarily inconsistent with that process.

I can desire a revolutionary overthrow of our profit-maximizing, humanity exploiting, power consolidating, government corrupting, unsustainable, and ever-obsessed with “more,” economic system; and I can believe that a lesser reform, such as ending corporate personhood, is still a good idea.  In fact, these ideas seem nothing but complementary to me.  Some worry that reform takes energy away from revolution.  But I think, if I really believe in revolution, than achieving a more minor reform is not going to dissuade me from that ultimate goal.  And, if the minor reform does dissuade me, I was never seeking revolution in the first place.

I think those who want revolution are frustrated because the progress is slow; but remember, how long did capitalism take to overthrow feudalism?  How long did it take master-slave hierarchies to overthrow hunter-gatherer equality?  The future which is coming cannot be imagined in the present day; and creating that future is a process which can take hundreds or thousands of years.  If we really wish for revolution we have to ask, do we currently have the conditions which make it possible and, if we don’t, what is the process of cultivating those conditions?

Perhaps reform is actually part of the revolutionary process.  Humanizing political reforms have always been born from a process of people standing up for themselves, and what is more central to revolution than that?  Through reform we practice engaging with opposition.  We develop new ways to look at the world.  We energize ourselves and our neighbors.  We make democracy into more than a platitude.

Besides, if our ideological purity is such that we cannot contemplate anything but revolution, do we oppose voting rights won by the woman’s movement because they engaged the official legislative process?  Do we oppose child labor regulations won by the labor movement because they became backed by government?  Do we oppose the constitutional amendment which freed the slaves because it is in the constitution?

Revolution is the only way to overthrow the broader realities of oppression.  Yet this has to be the right revolution.  It has to be built upon a long process of rehumanizing ourselves, of learning to live together, and of learning to stand up for ourselves -not only against our external exploiter but the exploiter within.  Personally I think, trying to overthrow a system without doing the necessary legwork will only lead to nothing really changing; and maybe certain reforms -such as Occupy helping to win a constitutional amendment which ends corporate personhood- are actually part of that legwork.

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Separation of Institution and State, not Belief and State

Last Monday I listened to prayers for jobs in DC.  Members of the Washington Interfaith Network had gathered together, two thousand strong, as a coalition looking to influence city officials.  I was there as part of my own faith community, the Washington Ethical Society -a nontheistic, humanist-leaning, religion.  Reflecting on the fact that I was with humanists who were attempting to influence politics with religion, I was suddenly struck with a sense of irony about the separation of church and state.

It was always an interesting principle to me.  I understood, we didn’t want theocratic despots and religious oppression.  Yet I had seen the separation of church and state applied in ways that did not make sense.  I remember, in high school, when friends were upset because they couldn’t pray in school.  One friend was a Bahai, who had an obligatory prayer to say at noon.  Also there were Muslims, who are supposed to pray five times a day.  In this example, the separation of church and state, a policy theoretically designed to encourage religious equality, was actually disproportionally burdening already disenfranchised faiths while probably not providing much of a burden to the more dominant Christian faiths.

Plus we said “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.  In other words, individuals were not allowed to privately practice their faith, but the state institution could actually promote the idea that the US was supported by God.  Thus I saw, separation of church and state was a principle like many legal principles, selectively applied when it was convenient to those who had power.

Separation of church and state can be misused.  Personally, I do not think it is the belief element which is the problematic part of the church involving itself in politics.  I really don’t know how I could oppose people’s religious, spiritual, moral, or ethical values influencing their politics.  In fact, the separation of church and state is itself a religious, spiritual, moral, or ethical value.  I also realize, if I did think that such values should be taken out of politics, I would have to oppose the work of Martin Luther King and the SCLC, the American Friends Service Committee, Father Roy Bourgeois and his work to end the SOA, Liberation Theology, and the work of the Washington Interfaith Network.

To me, the separation of church and state is really about separating the institution of the church from the institution of politics.  In other words, I am okay if a Hindu is in office; I am not okay if Hinduism becomes the state religion.  Ultimately this is a principle about undue influence in a pluralistic society, and I think it can be applied to much more than religion.  In the present day, corporations hold the same influence traditionally held by the church.  They spend billions of dollars lobbying to influence public policy, corporate executives move back and forth from political office, and corporations also have strong ties to the media, legal, and educational systems.  This power promotes our race to the bottom in terms of wages, how acceptable it is to give workers’ no say in their work environment, and our lack of any sort of real regulation for environmental, health, or economic security.  This is undue influence coming from the corporate sector, and dominating the broader interests of the plurality.

In general, no single institution should ever have that kind of power.  This idea that individual institutions should not dominate society is, to me, the spirit behind the separation of church and state.  In simpler terms, it is just saying that political officials should not have a conflict of interest.

Stopping Traffic on a Rainy Day; To Block or not to Block?

Yesterday was a rainy day along K street, famous for its lobbyists who make a living promoting corporate interests.  For the beautiful, loving, rabble-rousers, it was a day of action.  Thousands were gathered in protest of the lobbyists’ work.  Around three o’clock, about twenty lay down in the street.  They were covered in plastic and signs.  They stared up at the sky.  Medics walked in and out of the prone group which blocked traffic.  Two rows of police surrounded them, prepared to make arrests.  Along the sidewalks a crowd chanted, said words of support, and attempted to influence the cops -who stood with stoic resistance.  Everyone was soggy.  The rain was as constant as the action.  I was standing slightly in the street, speaking to a reporter -words that I knew he was not looking for.  Then the line of cops moved in; “get off the street or you will be arrested.”  I moved.  Soon the arrests followed.

I had thought about risking arrest that day, but decided against it.  I had mixed feelings about the scene.

On the one hand, I believe in civil disobedience.  In 2003, I jumped a police barricade, protesting the war in Iraq.  My heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were the types who would risk-arrest in the face of unjust laws and unjust social order.  But a lot of people would not risk arrest.  Being arrested (even for a just cause) carried with it a stigma which I knew often prevented people from taking action for social change.  And I wanted to take a real committed action again.  I was happy for the protesters laying in the street, taking bold action.  They were breaking the stigma of arrest within themselves and, in the process, reaching a sense of empowerment like I felt when I jumped the police barricade.

On the other hand, I had reservations.  These are well summarized in an article written by George Lakey about the WTO protests.  Lakey writes,

…there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of…  However… [suppose] we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There’s no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

In the end, I think blocking traffic is better than nothing, but it does not particularly call out to me as something to put my body on the line for unless I can make a clear case that I am blocking something horrible which is being transported down that road (weapons, for example).  My preference would be to shut down the buildings lobbyists work in (instead of the street), although I know this involves complicated logistical and strategic decisions.

I am uncertain; but I suppose there are three points I want to make.

  1. I am proud of the protesters who risked arrest, who were willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believed in.  I think they are brave people who stood up for the nation and the world’s well-being.
  2. If you are witness and support for an action, do not taunt the police.  Seriously.  Stop that.  I know, police are representatives of an unjust system.  To one extent or another we all are.  Chanting “shame,” or “what would your children think,” or claiming you will make a “citizen’s arrest,” is inviting the press to think we are crazy when the cops are behaving reasonably (when they are not, it is a different story).  This is also inviting the police to be angry and unsympathetic (and they will direct that anger towards the people who are actually taking a risk, not the fool standing on the corner trying to rile up trouble).
  3. The struggle is not about protesters versus police.  In this case, it is about democracy being sold to corporate interests, and protesters resisting the lobbyists who represent those interests.  I also think that, when the message of an action is less clear, it is more likely to become hijacked by the common, tired, and almost ritualistic meme of protester versus cop.  Bear in mind, this is not a message of change; it is only a continuation of what we are used to.
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