Friday, November 11, 2011

Violence, Gunshots, and Candlelight

Tonight was an evening of candlelight at Occupy Oakland. 

I never thought about it much before, but in our culture, we light candles to both celebrate life and honor death.  Tonight, both felt immediate and present at Oscar Grant Plaza, as people came in ones and twos and little clusters, in both sadness and curiosity, after the news hit the wires that a young man had been shot and killed near the encampment. 

As fate or synchronicity would have it, we had already planned a candlelight vigil to celebrate Occupy Oakland’s one-month birthday tonight.  But that had shifted suddenly, of course, just as everything must change in the moment that a young man was murdered on the streets of Oakland.

Sadly, a young black man being murdered in the streets of Oakland is not an uncommon occurrence.   There have been over a hundred homicides in Oakland this year alone; statistically, two-thirds of homicide victims in the city are African American.  This is a city riddled with poverty and violence, with more school closures being announced every day.  This fact, however, has not stopped Mayor Quan from capitalizing on this tragedy as yet one more reason why the encampment should be shut down, arguing earlier tonight at a press conference that, "The risks are too great for having an encampment out there. It's time for the encampment to end."  Earlier this week, the mayor hosted a press conference that focused on why the encampment was bad for business downtown.

In both issues, she seems to be missing the point that so many Occupy Oakland folks understand at a deep level: the violence, the poverty, and the hardships that the Occupy encampment brings out of the shadows and into the middle of downtown Oakland, where they cannot be ignored, are part of the reason that we Occupy.  We aren’t creating the violence or the pain – we’re just not willing to hide it in social or psychological ghettos anymore. 

In the plaza, a woman from the Oakland Teacher’s Union steps up to the mic, offering her condolences for the victim’s family and her union’s continuing support for the Occupation.  “We teach these kids every day, and some of the kids that we teach die.  There have been nine students killed in Oakland this year alone,” she says.  “Even those that make it, many of them go on to college and get saddled with debt for the rest of their lives.  So we understand why you are here, and we will also be here with you, after school and at night, doing whatever we can to make a difference.”

Earlier in the evening, I went to a meeting of folks committed to creating a unified voice for people dedicated to non-violence at Occupy Oakland and beyond.  It’s a conversation that I’ve been a part of, and desperate to write about, since the police riot last week after General Strike protesters closed down the Port of Oakland.  And yet, each time that I’ve sat down to write about it, I feel stuck – as stuck as the conversation has been within the community, held hostage by didactic idealogues, ego, and distrust.  Strangely enough, somehow in the stark, heartbreaking violence of today’s events, there was a sudden opening within me, as if the energy was forced free from its stuck place and could now pour forth, tumbling out like water against rocks.  Perhaps that’s simply because everything feels shaken and stirred up inside of me. 

As humans, our relationship to violence is confusing and long.  It marks our history books, maps out the eons of cultural evolution on timelines that begin with roman invasions and carry on through two world wars, while the countless days of peace and prosperity are invisible, unremarkable.  For many spiritual leaders, both the ancients and the new-fangled, violence is the external manifestation of something dark and hard to look at within us.  Interestingly enough, those who endorse philosophies such as the innocuous-sounding “diversity of tactics” agreements and the “defense” tactics of the Black Bloc also recognize the truth of this internalized violence – it’s folks like me, who identify with non-violence as a philosophical belief, that can sometimes stridently ignore it or discredit the reality of violence as yesterday’s affliction, somehow passé now that we’ve all become yogis and co-counselors.   

I’m not saying that I’ve suddenly gone all black-bandana-and-gas mask on you.  But I can feel the deep complexity of violence tonight, the fingers of this disfigured thing within us and how, in a heartbeat, it can change everything.  I don’t think that wise folks like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, the Dali Lama, or Emma Goldman would advocate turning away from the fact that violence in the world is actually the manifestation of something fractal and injured within each of us.  They would say, I’m sure, that we need to look at it and listen to its story in order make peace with ourselves and with our world -- to create healing on a level that we can only begin to imagine from where we stand now.

Tonight, in the yellow glow of the candlelight vigil, I could see in the tears and hear in the hushed voices a movement trying to deal with violence in a real, deep way for the first time. 

An older black woman is singing something wordless and vaguely hymnal when I arrive.  She stands beside a young woman wearing a hat that says “Faith” on it in sparkly rhinestones.  The young woman doesn’t say much, and what she says is fairly unintelligible, though the emotion is clear and unambiguous.  She is in mourning.   She has lost someone that she loves.  Later, I learn that Alex – the young man who was murdered – was her cousin.

After a while, the interfaith group that had meant to host a vigil of an entirely different nature starts singing “Peace, Shalom, Salaam,” and then “Circle round for freedom.”  The amorphous circle around me, however, does not pick up the song.  There’s something awkward yet heartfelt in the group, and after a moment, I remember that most of the rituals of grief and mourning in our culture have been lost.  No one seems to know what to do or say.

Finally, the older black woman speaks up, her voice strong and melodic, like a preacher.  “This is unity,” she says.  “Why can’t the whole world know this unity?  Black and white, all of us together.  We’re not out here for violence – we’re out here for love.  Now, Alex is love.  He is spirit now, and the spirit never dies. He is with God.  And God is with us, because God is love.”

Sometimes, when people say things like “God is love,” and “We’re all here together, black and white,” it just sounds cliché and trite.  But not when someone has died.  In the face of deep mourning and our own human mortality, these simple words become the simple truths that we can fathom in spite of the chaos in our hearts and minds.  And it is true – we are all here together, those who knew him intimately and those of us for whom Alex is a symbol and a moment in time, not a person – lover, friend, cousin.  They graciously allow us to share their grief. 

There is a bright gift in this tragedy, as there often is in dark, sad moments – the energy in the circle around me, even with the slight awkwardness, feels galvanized and cohesive for the first time since the violence following the General Strike.  Just this morning, we were all arguing, almost ready to come to blows about non-violent discipline and property destruction and creating shield barricades around the perimeter of camp -- even the pacifists, or perhaps, especially the pacifists.  And, well, we still don’t agree.  But something has shifted. 

I’m not sure what that shift looks like for the those folks who are more likely to throw bricks or start bonfires, but for me, I’ve come to understand something of why non-violence seems to sit so awkwardly in the collective mindset of the motley Occupy Oakland encampment.  In Oakland, the concept of non-violence, which linguistically can seem like the negation of the reality of violence both internalized and external, doesn’t make sense on a visceral level, that deep place of life-experience and instinctual understanding.

And yet, this is what we are all yearning for in our best moments -- it is part of the driving force behind our occupation.  We are not here for violence.  We are here for love.

“We are a people who’s hearts have been broken,” a woman with blonde hair and a clerical collar in her purple shirt steps into the center of the circle and stands next to the altar.  “A people who’s hearts have been broken, in this plaza where miracles are happening every day.  And we pray to you, oh God, to take Alex’s spirit into your arms… to bring him home at last.”

Silently, I say my own prayer to the Goddess, who is the mother of life and also the crone who brings death and rebirth.  I pray for Alex, who I never met and now never will, and I pray for the ex-soldier who killed himself at Occupy Burlington earlier today, and I pray for this movement as we struggle to find our own path in our quest for love and unity. 

But I do have faith – it sparkles within me, within my grief, like rhinestones, or candles, or stars in the darkness of night.  And I know when my faith seems unfounded or too complicated, I can chose to align with it anyway, in the face of those stark realities.  At those times, it helps to have the solidarity and wise words of friends and allies of this great work – like those of a wise witch named, wonderfully enough, Serenity:

I remind myself that it is not "light" and "dark," or as simple as "oppressive" and "free." It is the struggle within each of us and within society as a whole to recognize and reconcile these selves. Some people feel an intense fear that change won't come, coupled with rage at the system-as-it-is, and feel no patience for prayer or non-violence. I know
that, for many who may turn to property destruction or banging signs on patrol cars, their fear and rage are born in love, and hope: love of justice, and hope that it is indeed possible. Doubt creeps in, we sense in our bones all that is at stake...

Why does system change seem to be more possible in the daylight? Why do some forget their own power when night sets in? Is it that when the sun sets, we recognize that the struggle will continue into the next day, and the next? Did we hope this one action would be enough to change the tide?  And it *is* changing, beings awakening in their solidarity with one another and the earth.   But it will take patience.

I am restored in dark-pit moments when I remember that my brothers and sisters around the world stand with me. The Great Lie that we are alone simply cannot hold up in the face of such activism! May we nurture and support that root love in each of our kindred, and work together to heal the hatred planted there by a system day by day losing power over us.

And with those words, with that serenity in the face of all that’s sorrowful and hard, I’m off to sleep. 

In love and solidarity,

More photos, graciously given permission to reprint by Elizabeth Dougherty...


  1. i got there right after it happened. i was stunned, wandering around, listening to and joining many conversations. like you, i also felt the un-jamming of a river of thought and feeling inside of me. unlike you i was coming from the other side of the "diversity of tactics" debate. a few minutes after the shooting, as a circle of pretty anguished people was growing in the middle of the "stage" in the amphitheater, this black preacher used mic check to lead a prayer for the soul of the young man killed moments before, and for protection for the encampment in the political wake of the tragedy. i found myself joining in, repeating his powerful words. i let love silence my usual alienation from all things religious.
    amazing how calming it was. i was able to feel the sweetness of unconditional love set suddenly free of the trappings of political thought in me. the legacy of what you've called "the fingers of this disfigured thing within us" has weighed so heavily on my heart for so long, i have deeply resented those who seem to pretend it's not there and dismiss it's power.
    until last night it was easy to roll my eyes and reject the peaceniks singing "all we are give peace an chance." im grateful for the heightened solidarity we all found last night. sobering, and comforting, and challenging. thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Thank you for your words... what you're saying is very meaningful. I'm glad to read them and hope that we all can continue to find and work for this heightened solidarity and sweetness without the trappings of political thought. I do think that "The Big Lie" that Serenity talks about, our alienation, is often at the heart of our political and tactical debates, unspoken and unresolved, and it is one of the reasons that the debates are unresolvable. And yet, just saying, "Let's all be united," doesn't quite cut it. I'm not sure what will, but I'm willing to stay in the process to try and find out.

    With deep appreciation,

  3. Keep up with pacifism Riyana! I feel that is a crucial perspective in this world where (according to mass media), it seems to be somehow OK to take lives because of money, oil, drugs, greed. Keeping ourselves aligned with love has a healing effect on those around us. Some day in the future nobody on this planet will be willing to break someone else's body because of silly petty reasons...