If you’ve been paying attention for the last few days, you might recognize that something miraculous is happening. In New York City, 30,000 protestors formed a sea of humanity and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on the night of November 17th. Many of them had been attacked by police earlier in the day, yet, that evening, with 30,000 marching across Brooklyn Bridge, there was not a single arrest.
At UC Davis, police officers armed and in riot gear again attacked students who were passively resisting. Later these same police officers were surrounded by thousands of UC students and were asked to leave. Together the protesters stood as one, and delivered their message: “We will allow you to leave peacefully now. You can leave.” They continued their chant, “You can leave.” The police officers began walking backwards, away from the students, their weapons drawn. They were clearly afraid. The students did not back down, repeating peaceably, yet forcefully, “You can leave”. The officers stepped backwards until they finally turned, and left without firing another shot. Later that night, on the UC Davis campus, Chancellor Katehi who had authorized this use of force demanded an escort to her car. She said that she was afraid. The way to her automobile was lined by thousands of students who, with a measure of discipline I would not have thought possible, did not say a word. Their disciplined silence was for the chancellor, a walk of shame.
As thousands marched peacefully to the Brooklyn Bridge, Mark Read lit up the side of the NYC Verizon building with a series of messages. One looked a little like the bat signal, and read ’99%’, another read simply, ‘Do Not Be Afraid’
At the time, I wondered, be afraid of what? Or whom?
The marchers? The police? The mayor?
Another question occurred to me – is the message directed to the marchers or the police, the mayor or wall street traders? The obvious answer seems to be the activists who bear responsibility for the moment, but in the last few days, it seems that the powers that be are fearful too.
Most media reports don’t use that word ‘responsibility’ in connection with the activists; or, if they use it, the term is applied derisively. Yet, it’s hard to argue with the conviction of those willing to suffer baton blows and winter chill. They are messengers and suffer the metaphoric and non-metaphoric pain of any messenger bringing unwanted news. But the occupiers are not the crisis, really, they are merely telling us we are in crisis. Many are like Bronx resident, Carlos Rivera, who lost his job and is about to lose his family’s home: “I’m sitting down on the Brooklyn Bridge today because it’s not fair that our taxpayer dollars bailed out big banks like my mortgage holder, Bank of America, but they refuse home-saving loan modifications for struggling families like mine.”
There’s a sense of innate fairness that has been violated; a sense of deep injustice, of harm. The machinery of capitalism itself is broken, has metastasized and become a runaway engine of casino capitalism with no regard or obligations to main street or the world. Our own Democracy is broken as well. Our Congressional chambers is a millionaire’s club, and each member is caught in a campaign fund rat race of their own. Even committee chairs are doled out based on the level of money that can be raised from lobbyists with little chalkboard numbers jotted down to let you know how much you need to raise, like some kind of perverse congressional version of the unctuous real estate agents in Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a corrupt system and everyone knows it. This corruption has led to stonewalling on everything from a real jobs program to reenacting Glass-Steagall, from a financial transaction tax or a millionaire’s tax to passing global warming legislation. So it is not just one crisis, but many: a financial crisis, a political crisis and a spiritual/environmental crisis. All the while, the essence of the crisis is distorted or hidden by a curtain of kabuki theater played out by politicians. At such times, the situation seems hopeless, but just as most of us were giving up, something happened. A relatively small group of protestors decided that their lives would not be given over to despair. They would do something.
They decided not to be afraid.
Mario Savio famously said that there are at least two ways in which sit-ins and civil disobedience can occur. One, when a law exists which is unacceptable to a group of people and they must violate that law again and again until it’s rescinded and repealed. The classic example here is the Civil Rights struggle against the Jim Crowe laws. But Mario noted another way in which sit-ins and Civil Disobedience can occur. He said that “sometimes the grievances of people extend to more than just the law, extend to a whole mode of arbitrary power, a whole mode of arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power.”
He brilliantly summarized what amounts to an extended metaphor for our society. He argued that the Berkeley Board of Regents view themselves more as ‘Board of Directors’ than as equal humans participating in a Democratic discussion affecting school and community welfare…. “what we have here. We have an autocracy which runs this university. […] I ask you to consider, if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But were’ not. We’re human beings!”
He went on to declare famously, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all”
That is the second cause for civil disobedience. To reassert your authority and your responsibility as humans by stopping a process, a machine that would treat you as nothing more than a commodity. We are not machines, after all, nor are we products, nor are we merely consumers. We are citizens, first. We are humans.
Gandhi always hated the term passive resistance. The English translation came nowhere close to what he wanted to invoke, and so he resolutely used his own term Satyagraha – it’s a wonderful compound word from the Sanskrit that means loosely, Soul Force, or Truth force.
You can break it into three parts:
“Sat” — which implies openness, honesty, and fairness, in short, truth. Encapsulated in the term are a couple of unifying concepts: each person’s opinions and beliefs represent part of the truth—not all of it. People must share and communicate their truths cooperatively, that means, in turn, that they can not categorize themselves or others in an alienating way.
Next there is “Ahimsa”, or the refusal to inflict injury on others—the now famous non-violent part of Gandhi’s formulation. The notion of nonviolence is politically smart, in other words, looks better from the perspective of civil society, but it is also important in relation to the truth-speaking aspect of Satyagraha. If you are violent, you shut off channels of communication. As any good parent would understand, Ahimsa models the behavior by which you wish to live with others—again communicating, in a physical sense, how you wish the world to be.
Finally, there is “Tapasya”, a willingness for self-sacrifice, perhaps the hardest for Westerners to embrace. The person who is causing the disorder or civil disobedience must be willing to shoulder the resultant consequences. They must bear “any sacrifice that is occasioned by the struggle” rather than pushing such sacrifice or suffering onto their opponent. There must also be a face-saving “way out,” for the opponents. The goal, as Gandhi noted, is not to silence your opponent, a ‘victory’ in the traditional sense, but rather to allow the opponent to understand the truth as you understand it.
“Only those who realize that there is something in man which is superior to the brute nature in him, and that the latter always yields to it, can effectively use passive resistance. This force is to violence and, therefore, to all tyranny, all injustice, what light is to darkness. In politics, its use is based upon the immutable maxim that government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed.”
One of the surprising things about the Occupy movement is how closely they adhere to the tenants of Satyagraha, whether or not many of them realize it. Not perfectly, of course, but their inclusive General Assemblies with their determination to maintain consensus or modified consensus allowing as many people to speak as necessary, is, in fact, an impressive embracing of ‘Sat.’ Their acknowledgement of non-violence as a tactical goal as well as an ethical position, and their willingness to sacrifice physical comfort, sleeping in the bitter November chill and snow, to talk with the police who beat and pepper spray them, to keep all lines of communication open even as they are harmed physically and ridiculed, is an inspirational instance of ‘Tapasya.’ They are our conscience, as Scott Price, Public Policy Director of Alliance for Progressive Values has said, “They stand as a moral lens that focuses on what is wrong, not on what must be done… They are the conscience of the nation.”
‘Another World Is Possible.’ Mark Read showed that message in light against the side of the Verizon building as well. One almost wants to add, another world, not made of greed and fear—the two emotions that any good economists will tell you drive our financial machinery — but of justice, equality and love, the underlying force of Satyagraha. This is manifested in many ways through many cultures. It was embraced in the civil rights movement as they marched through Birmingham, disrupting the order of the day and accepting the consequences—water hoses and vicious police dogs — non-violently. This embrace of sacrifice, the Tapasya portion of Satyagraha, eventually changed the conscience of our nation.
On the evening of November 17, over 30,000 activists marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, holding LED candles in a wonderful display of solidarity and light. It didn’t get much play in the press, but one sensed in their calm determination that almost anything was possible, that the loss of Liberty Square, the multiple arrests and violence by the police were as nothing compared to where they were headed. One of the chants Occupiers used hails back to the civil rights period:
We’ve come too far
We won’t turn around
We’ll flood the streets with justice
We are freedom bound.
The streets that evening were flooded with justice, and light, and something else you’ll rarely hear the press talk about these days. They were flooded with love.
Difficult to convey in physical terms, but you can see manifestations of that love in the care that was taken of the homeless, the acceptance of the drunks and addicts, of the marginalized and indigents that the NYPD, as a matter of course, had directed toward Liberty Square. It was in the willingness of those who occupied to accept the punishing terms of physical discomfort and societal ridicule. An 87-year-old activist who marched with Occupy that evening expressed her gratitude for this phenomena saying, “They’re spirit, their dedication, their love, it’s like food, it’s like energy.” One Oakland Poet of the Occupy movement put it this way:
Hope still lives here in America
She has always lived here with us
And now she is back before our eyes
Marching head high, fist higher
And whispering to you, to the millions amongst her,
When speaking to the Occupy Wall Street crowd, the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek said that any space where people gathered together with openness and love, there too was the Holy Spirit. He may have been speaking metaphorically, of course, but, as a kind of footnote, nearly those exact words, ‘Do not be afraid’ were also used by Jesus to calm the disciples when the Holy Spirit descended on them.
They were told to go forth and bear the message that the world must change.