I am sharing this account of my arrest along with 16 other activists who chose to participate in an act of Civil Disobedience for countless other activists who have yet to go through the experience. I hope it helps in making the decision of whether or not to volunteer for arrest.
My community has expanded considerably since last Sumner. Following the events in Ferguson and a local event in my state where a teen was tasered by police in an egregious abuse of power, I joined with others to express my outrage and work for change. In order to do that, it was necessary to venture into unknown territory both literally and figuratively. My previous experience in Hartford was limited for the most part to the route I took to work, the public library, a local stage company, a few restaurants, City Hall, the Legislative Office Building / State Capitol and a few other destinations where friends would gather for socializing or political activities. I’ve since discovered new neighborhoods – neighborhoods that are home to the police station, community black churches and private businesses where I’ve never shopped, neighborhoods where my face is the minority presence. The more time I spend there, the more familiar I become with the area and the less I am able to dismiss these places as separate from my immediate life and concerns. They are the neighborhoods of my expanding community and so have taken on personal as well as political significance.
The most remarkable “unknown territory” has been the territory of certain ideas, introspection, and self discovery. I’ve entered both personal and social media conversations about racial bias, white privilege, individual responsibility within the broader system of institutional racism and the call by some for white America to remain quiet long enough to really listen to what black America is saying. What distinguishes my current conversations from those of the past is that they are now inter-racial. New perspectives demand intentional, invigorated and discomfited listening if they are to lead us anywhere. My reaction to these conversations has evolved over time. They have run the gamut from defensive to open, loud protestations to quiet thought.
I’ve written about perspective before and it is imperative that it be kept in front of us in any conversation about race, racism and the most effective ways to produce meaningful change. People with different experiences have perspectives that must be known and understood in order to respond in any meaningful way. I offer a few examples here:
1. Property damage during the “riots” in Ferguson and Baltimore – senseless destruction or a last, seething attempt by citizens living in neglected and brutalized communities to be heard?
2. Riots vs. uprisings – have we recently witnessed baseless acts of looting and destruction or have we witnessed contributions to a revolution against marginalization, the militarization of police forces in poor urban centers and the denial of equal opportunity to millions of citizens?
3. Patience – is it more reasonable to expect generation after generation of marginalized communities to wait for change or should we be thinking about how in any situation, there is a breaking point at which waiting is no longer an option?
4. “They” – who are they? Are they black? Are they women? Are they LBGT? Are they physically challenged? Are they minimum wage earners who have no hope of seeing the arrival of a better life? Do “they” have a story to tell that others have never considered? How does our own personal history and experience determine the limits of our understanding?
Attending a panel discussion several nights ago, I was astounded to hear that the town I live in was identified as one of the towns here in CT to most engage in racial profiling during traffic stops. The relatively new police station was built on the Wethersfield / Hartford line. Had I heard about this a year ago it would have angered me simply because racial profiling anywhere is a disgrace. Now, given my expanding community, it feels more like an assault against MY community on both sides of the town line. One of the panelists, a black clergyman who is among the people from whom I’ve been learning about perspective and active listening, told of more than one instance when he was stopped in Wethersfield. Unlike a year ago, this is now personal.
Discovering new territory certainly has its dangers. We run the risk of hearing things we don’t want to hear. We may hear that either as individuals or as a group, white people must take responsibility for a system that is for many, dysfunctional. If responsibility for having built the system seems far fetched, responsibility for participation in that system without trying to change it is not. Listening and consideration must both be part of the plan for moving ahead.
I can’t remember why I joined Facebook or who influenced me to give it a try but it happened in December, 2008. That was before my current activist days began so it must have been a way of staying in touch with current friends and possibly finding old ones. Since that time, my use of Facebook has become much more involved, intense, time consuming and at times, overwhelming and aggravating.
As an activist interested in a number of issues that I consider urgent, I rely on Facebook to keep me informed of updates and developments, possible new alliances, ideas that others can share about creative actions and events as well as a platform from which to offer events of my own creation. All of this is accomplished through the flow of communication amongst my Facebook friends, some of whom I only know through this medium and are fundamental to the work I choose to do. I am grateful for the immediate access to information and the exchange of ideas that is crucial to intelligent decision making. That is a summary of the things I value about Facebook. The following list of things that sometimes make me wish I could wean away from the forum will likely be longer.
Monday, February 23, 2015
Today was a turning point for me. I acted on what I’ve been saying I respect for a long time while watching from a distance. I know that many people whose opinions and approval are important to me may disagree with what I did. The best I can hope for is their understanding of my need to act on what my gut tells me is right. Here’s the story…
I’ve been fortunate to meet some pretty amazing people in the months following Ferguson. Some of those people are White, most are Black. All of them are sympathetic to “Black Lives Matter” but most know the truth of that slogan from a lifetime of personal experience. I am doing my best to listen when they talk of White privilege. I am doing my best to untangle my emotional reactions to that concept from the reality of its truth. I am doing my best to identify ways to make a difference in a meaningful rather than merely a rhetorical way. So, after much thought, I decided to attend the first Moral Monday in CT, set to address the urgency of “Black Lives Matter”. I knew we’d be meeting at a church and that following some speakers we’d be marching to City Hall. After that, I didn’t know what to expect. (Debra, you can walk away at anytime if your comfort level is challenged beyond tolerance) Some call that ability White privilege.
So, there you are at work, thinking about all of the other things you’ll need to do when you get home to take care of your other job… you know, the one that really matters to you, your activist job. If only you didn’t have to plan around the paid employment that keeps you otherwise occupied for eight hours every day, not to mention the time needed for travel and unwinding once you get home. IF ONLY YOU WERE RETIRED!
That is precisely the situation I found myself in for the last 3 or 4 years that I was gainfully employed at a job I held for over 25 years. In my last few years there, I became more and more frustrated over not having enough time for the other things that had taken on great significance to me. I envisioned life after retirement as easily managed, comfortably paced and enriching not only in terms of my activism but also in terms of all the other aspects of my life that need attention. I had the chance to discover that first hand when my department was eliminated and I was handed the very chance I had craved for so long.
The national conversation about racism and police brutality in America, when discussed at all, has been going on for decades. There remains an ever growing list of young Black men who are no longer with us and police officers whose names have faded from memory as they returned to their lives as if nothing happened. Headlines, if there were any, reminded us that change remains illusive but within days usually returned to other matters and our attentions were focused elsewhere, usually closer to home in both a figurative and literal sense.
And then Ferguson happened.
Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. Many of us prefer the word murdered. What makes this case even more explosive was the promise of an investigation into possible grounds for an indictment against Darren Wilson, the police officer who ended Michael Brown’s life. We waited. We waited. We waited. And we waited some more.
We were all braced for the Grand Jury’s decision, few of us doubting that no grounds would be found to indict Darren Wilson. Even before the decision was handed down, talk began of the reactions to be expected in Ferguson and beyond. As usual, Facebook became a community board and at times, a battle ground of opposing views. News media took their expected positions. The conversation now taking place has an added dimension, that of whether or not the resulting looting and burning outbreaks in Ferguson are riots or the logical and understandable reaction of people who are feeling the ultimate degree of hopelessness that results from having been abandoned by justice and reason. This conversation is a most necessary and vital one that needs to be happening now. The decisions made about how to move forward will have a profound effect on our ability to really make change.
I understand, to whatever degree is possible (and many will say I can claim no understanding at all because of the color of my skin and privileged experience within the system), the rage and contempt felt by communities who are the usual recipients of police brutality. But it isn’t hard to imagine myself in a position of powerlessness and responding violently to a situation such as the Ferguson debacle. I also know that what I am about to write will not be taken too kindly by many who live that reality every day but I hope that it can at least be part of the conversation in which we must all participate.
The scenes of over a dozen building ablaze brought questions that may not have easy answers. What purpose does this serve? How does the destruction of property that belongs to people who are in no way responsible for the despicable behavior of the police do anything to move toward a solution? At least in the case of over turned police cars that were eventually totaled by fire, the target dealt a blow to the enemy. But burning and looting stores only brings more destruction to a community that needs so desperately to stay together, act together, stand together, fight together, resist together, gather allies together. I most certainly support all who resist the insanity that is the Ferguson experience but is it not a waste of energy to burn down a beauty shop when that resistance energy could be used for the occupation of the court house instead? Couldn’t that energy be used to haunt the police department with a daily presence taking the forms of silent protest or civil disobedience? Violent reaction allows momentary release of rage (maybe) while other paths address the problem by bringing the kind of attention that could draw allies willing to join the number. I offer as an example the June 2013 Silent March against New York City’s practice of “Stop and Frisk”. As thousands of us marched the long blocks of the city, holding signs but not saying a word the message was intensely palpable. The police who stood along the route knew we were saying that we would not allow the practice to continue. To be sure, that march did not deliver a panacea of reform but in non-violent silence and solidarity, the people spoke and drew the attention of media and allies from both within and without the city.
Michael Brown’s family issued a number of statements after the murder of their child. Following the Grand Jury’s decision their statement was one of profound disappointment that Darren Wilson would not have to face the consequences of his actions. But their statements from the very beginning of this tragedy called for a non-violent response. Is it possible that further violence is not what the family wants as a remembrance of Michael’s legacy? Is it possible that they are hoping for something infinitely better to result from his death?
I believe this conversation must take place. We must hear more and feel more about the daily experience that drives some to react with such rage following events such as this one and the disenfranchised and system abused must hear from all of us that we stand with them. We must deliver a credible, measurable and immediate message that we are willing to participate in protests in a multitude of forms which, rather than destroying communities, makes them stronger, rid of oppression and respected in ways that are long overdue. We must do this because until we change that daily experience, Ferguson is bound to happen again.
I attended a vigil in Harford CT. We heard from religious leaders, we sang, we filled the church with awareness. But the most important thing we did was to give people a chance to make a statement about what they intended to do starting right now to make change happen. There are things that everyone can do. Give it some thought and if you need ideas, let’s use this space to communicate ideas with each other. I’ll start the process now with an idea we’re already planning in Hartford. If you have concerns about police harassment or worse yet, brutality in your town or city, file a FOI request and get hold of your police department’s policies and procedures for the use of all “lethal and less
than lethal weapons”. Study them. Determine first whether they are reasonable and if they are, whether or not they are being adhered to. If they aren’t reasonable, work to change them. “Power to the People” requires people to act. It’s time.
We’re coming up on a season that I often dread. No, it isn’t Autumn. It isn’t Winter. It’s election time. You know, the season of negative ads at every turn, debates that leave us with as little insight into the candidates as we had before the exchanges and the pressure of knowing that the decisions we make may literally affect history. So here we are, coming up to elections for offices across the country and I find myself asking some nagging questions: What is a reasonable course of action when we deem none of the candidates on the current ballot worthy of our vote? Do we stay away from the polls? Do we vote for the “lesser of two evils”? Do we vote for third party or independent candidates who have little chance of winning? Do we write in the name of a person not even on the ballot?
I’ve always considered voting to be not only a right but a responsibility. When people complain, whether about individual politicians or entire party platforms, my first question is always whether or not they voted in the last election. Basically, I view voting as the basis upon which our rights to protest rest.
Staying away from the polls is not a personal option for me for this reason although the notion of not participating in a system that seems, at times, to be ineffective and unworkable is appealing. While some consider not voting to be an act of revolution, it strikes me as an act of simply giving away our power.
Voting for “the lesser of two evils” is an option that many people reject. Some refuse to make any choice at all when all candidates are deemed unacceptable. What qualifies a candidate as acceptable? Is it their agreement with our personal agendas without exception? If that is the case, I doubt many of us would ever be able to vote for anyone on the ballot. Does the perfect candidate exist? I think not. Someone who upholds my environmental values may not have the same views on gun control. Someone who shares my goals for tax reform may not feel the same way about immigration. Perhaps it makes sense to identify the candidate who represents our views on one or two issues that most concern us and give them our support, hoping that what we find reasonable in their character will allow them to be further swayed on other issues in the future. I’m not aware of any group, be it political, family, friendship circle or activist coalition where members hold 100% of the same views and priorities.
When we are fortunate enough to have the possibility of a third party or independent candidate upset the status quo, our options can seem even more complicated. We often hear that third party or independent candidates might swing the election in favor of our least liked option. We hear voters who are loyal to the two party system tell us that a vote for a third party or independent person is a wasted vote at best and a dangerous vote at worst as it might result in the election of the greater of two evils. This situation has had my attention for quite some time now. After a lot of consideration, I’ve come to rue my decision to play it safe in a past election when I truly believed in an alternative candidate but bought the argument that voting for him would simply weaken/bolster the chance of the most desirable/least objectionable candidate from winning. I now wish I had voted differently. Voting for either of the two major party platforms, even when they do not meet our values and expectations, helps to perpetuate the status quo and thus give away our power as surely as if we hadn’t voted at all. It allows our decisions to be ruled by fear rather than hope.
Writing in the name of a person who is not even running for office is a way to make a statement but not one that is bound to be noticed by anyone other than the individual voter. My write-in vote for Jane Doe does little else than allow me to say that I did in fact vote, therefore keeping alive my right to rail against the election outcome to my heart’s content when it’s all over.
So, here we are with choices to make. This year’s state election still find me undecided. As for the national elections coming up in 2016… I am so grateful that I have a bit of time to decide the best course of deciding my vote. I find myself hoping that a particular independent candidate will be part of the equation and that I’ll have the courage of my convictions when the time comes.
There are countless ways for us to reach out and share our messages. For those among us who choose to stay out of the spot light, this can be accomplished through making phone calls, sending emails, signing petitions and making donations. Each of these approaches allows for participation from the comfort of home, if not anonymously, then certainly without publicity. Even more public events such as rallies, marches and town hall meetings grant the opportunity to participate and make our voices heard without having to move into the spotlight. While it may be impossible to avoid media cameras, requests for interviews can be denied, we can move our physical location to the sidelines of an event and we can let our signs or a spokesperson represent our thoughts.
There are other, more “center stage” ways of being involved and I have been wondering lately what it is about those actions that call to me. After all, I was the performance dancer who sickened moments before going on stage! It can be a big step from attending an event to actually planning one, from listening to a speaker to being the speaker before an assembled crowd, from participating in chants to taking the bull horn and leading a group to a crescendo of voices. Recently, as I was returning from an event where I took part in two unanticipated on-camera interviews, I thought about three possible motivators for my participating in these ways. They are the “thank you” factor, the need to practice and hone my skills and setting an example that I hope others will use in developing the courage to take leadership roles.
The “thank you” factor comes when someone says, “Thank you for __________ (fill in the blank). That simple statement is an affirmation that what I am doing is of value to someone other than myself, that my goals are shared by others and I am not alone. Two small words can provide huge motivation to continue.
The second motivator is the need to practice those things that I believe must be done but that certainly do not fall within my comfort zone. Fear, self-doubt, uncertainty about my own abilities are all capable of stopping me before I get started if I allow that to happen. Had I allowed my dancer self to avoid taking the stage I would have missed out on some of the most joyous experiences I’ve had. The best way to get past a fear of public speaking is to speak out more often. The best way to overcome a belief that someone else will put together a better rally is to plan rally after rally and learn what the strengths and weaknesses of each event were – time after time – and keep getting better at it.
The third reason for “getting out there” is the one most important to me in the hope that it will inspire others to do the same. How many times have I witnessed leaders in action and thought that they must have some innate comfort zone that allows them to do something I can’t? How often have I assumed they all must have some magical talent that costs them nothing to do what they do? The answer is “too many!” At an event that my Activate CT cohorts and I put together this past May in Mystic Ct, I agreed to an interview with both an independent reporter and a reporter from an area newspaper. During one of those interviews I heard myself say that had anyone had told me four years ago I’d be planning rallies, speaking at town hall meetings, participating in radio and television interviews or meeting with elected officials personally to make my views heard, I would have called the whole idea folly but now I believe that if I can do it ANYONE can do it. For those of us who have reservations about our abilities it might take a few more “thank you” comments and a bit more practice and tense filled hours before we go into action but it can be done.
There are so many justice, environmental and economic issues that need attention. If we rely on a small number of people to take on spokesperson and other leadership roles to address them there will never be enough people to do the work that needs to be done. I believe it is up to all of us in the activist community to inspire, teach and support everyone in the community and help each other push aside our own perceived limitations that stand in the way of our becoming more effective and visible. We can do this by not only encouraging participation but offering to stand by each other (literally!) when we take on roles that are intimidating.
So, when I post my activities and accomplishments on facebook or share them with people in other ways, I am not doing so in order to say, “Look at what I did. I am special. I, I, I, I………” but rather to say, “Look at what I did. I am not special. You can do it, too!” The next step is to begin asking, “How can I help you get there?”
Taking a stand and taking action is what we, as activists, do. We all have experience with fighting for causes in our towns, state and even on a national level where people have come together over issues of common concern and pooled our creative talents to figure out ways to make a difference. Our collective successes are motivating, strengthening, heartening. But there are issues facing us now on a global scale that defy reason or our ability to fathom the depth of violence, hatred or potential for destruction that they bring. Israel/Palestine and Russia/Ukraine are just two examples. Sadly, there are so many more.
I am sometimes envious of those who have a clear, black and white vision of who is right vs. who is wrong, who is the perpetrator vs. who is the victim, who represents the world’s hope vs. who is an evil that must be eliminated. Indeed, that certainty of position is what often moves us to action but those of us who are still trying to make sense of it all can get stuck in a place where taking sides is impossible because even a small perspective from the “other” keeps us questioning. I recently re-read a book entitled Who Owns History by Eric Foner. Mr. Foner talks about perspective and how it influences one’s view and determination of those things just mentioned. Events around the world affect all of us. Whether governments remain neutral or intervene in events taking place halfway around the world, each decision becomes a link in a chain of unforeseen consequences. If ever there was a time to be able to see into the future, this surely is one but sadly, that is not possible.
As an activist, I want to determine my positions, share my perspective in hopes of influencing others and then determine actions I can take to correct what I deem wrong. I see my job as being an active participant in not only bringing injustice to light but then involving myself and hopefully motivating others to work toward a solution. That is only possible with clarification and certainty of where I stand and lately that certainty eludes me. For this I weep as surely as I weep for the lives being torn apart across the globe.
As a human being whose heart is breaking for every act of aggression, violence, blind allegiance to any particular dogma, I want to shout “STOP!” in a way that could actually make that happen. I weep as well for the fact that such a possibility is merely the stuff of dreams.
I long for a time when people and governments will begin to ask WHY questions. Why do “they” hate “us”? Why are “we” afraid of “them”? Why have we all allowed human relations to evolve as they have? Why is it so impossible for warring groups to stop hostilities long enough to literally sit down, break bread and actually know each other? I can hear the predicted responses from many in my circle of family of friends, responses from both sides of any of the conflicts we choose to talk about. Some will respond with outrage that I might consider the “other” side. Some will call me naïve and useless. It is the second of these possible reactions that most troubles me because it is a possibility that I fear may be true. I keep thinking of John Lennon’s words in the song Imagine: “You may say I’m a dreamer…” Dan Fogelberg’s song There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler suggests: “There’s a light in the depths of the darkness. There’s a calm at the eye of every storm. There’s a light in the depths of the darkness. Let it shine, oh, let it shine!” Dear Goddess, let my activism take the form of daring to dream, to helping find a way to shine that light.
There is one more song I must share here because it speaks to the very heart of the matter. I hope readers will find some truth in its words and help those of us who feel stuck to believe that we are making a difference. The song is titled Swimming to the Other Side and was written by Pat Humphries. Please find a recording and listen if you can.
We are living ‘neath the great Big Dipper
We are washed by the very same rain
We are swimming in the stream together
Some in power and some in pain
We can worship this ground we walk on
Cherishing the beings that we live beside
Loving spirits will live forever
We’re all swimming to the other side
I am alone and I am searching
Hungering for answers in my time
I am balanced at the brink of wisdom
I’m impatient to receive a sign
I move forward with my senses open
Imperfection, it be my crime
In humility I will listen
We’re all swimming to the other side
On this journey through thoughts and feelings
Binding intuition, my head, my heart
I am gathering the tools together
I’m preparing to do my part
All of those who have come before me
Band together and be my guide
Loving lessons that I will follow
We’re all swimming to the other side
When we get there we will discover
All the gifts we’ve been given to share
Have been with us since life’s beginning
And we never noticed they were there
We can balance at the brink of wisdom
Never recognizing that we’ve arrived
Loving spirits will live together
We’re all swimming to the other side.
Blessings to all who are working for what I must believe is possible….
The last several months have been busy ones for me on the activist front. We held a successful march against Monsanto in Mystic, CT that was preceded by a teach-in and two sign making events. We paid a visit to a CT congressman hoping to sway his vote to a “NO” on Fast Track for the TPP and this morning I attended a rally in support of a transgender teenager who is currently being held in an adult prison, much to the consternation of a wide community calling for more appropriate arrangements. Add to this the daily check-in on Facebook to keep up with issues, actions and perspectives on so many other fronts.
All of the events mentioned above have given cause to question the place for civility in our dealings with those whose views we are trying to influence, including those whose positions and practices we find abhorrent. Many of us at the march against Monsanto believe that corporation to be as evil as they come and that our efforts to stop it must be tireless and fierce. Is it then acceptable to carry signs and sing out chants with the message “F— Monsanto”? What reaction can we reasonably expect from motorists or pedestrians who are passing by and actually paying attention to our messages? Will they be receptive to messages conveyed in such a manner? Will our other messages, both verbal and in print, be taken seriously or will our entire group be seen in a negative light?
Our experience of meeting with a CT congressman maintained a very positive tone. It was agreed that our approach would be one of open communication rather than attack. While we pressed our belief in the importance of our position and our unyielding belief that it is the right position for the congressman as well, we did so in tones of respect and found that he truly listened. This certainly doesn’t mean that he will come around to our way of thinking but as the meeting neared the end of our allotted time, everyone realized we hadn’t covered a good portion of our intended agenda. It was actually the congressman who suggested a follow up meeting in a month or so to continue the conversation. I absolutely believe that his willingness to meet with us again had as much to do with our delivery as it did with our message.
Today’s rally in support of the transgender teen who has been underserved (to say the least) by DCF and others, was well planned, well attended and energetic. We gathered in front of DCF headquarters with signs and a bull horn. Most of what people shared while using the microphone was supportive of the teen and critical of DCF. So far so good. Did it remain good and effective when some speakers referred to “the f—ers in this building or to the head of DCF as a “f—ing liar”? Chances are, if the head of the agency was indeed in the building, she was aware of our presence and what was being said. What are the chances that being referred to as a “f—ing liar” would do anything to make her listen to anything else we had to say?
And then there is Facebook. I had an exchange with an activist friend about a week ago (no names here!). In her post she referred to anyone who supports the political party to which she is opposed as an “ignorant, manipulated moron”. I felt compelled to send a private message in response. My position is that if there was any possible room for debate, discussion, sharing of perspectives or any chance to influence the thinking of someone in the group to whom she was referring, it was destroyed by the likes of that comment. Are we influenced by people who deride us for our positions? Are we willing to listen to people who dismiss us as hopeless? I believe it is more likely that we turn such people off as they turn us off when we use that approach. The sad part is that the only thing accomplished by such outbursts is the smug and naively self congratulatory feeling on the part of the attacker. Nothing else is accomplished – nothing! Indeed, the only result of this particular Facebook post was a long thread of reciprocal and vitriolic back and forth.
We talk about the ineptitude of Congress, where members of opposite parties can’t stop deriding one another long enough to actually talk and listen to each another. We are tired of Congress doing little else than playing the blame game. We roll our eyes when the rhetoric begins, knowing full well what is coming and losing all interest and patience before it gets too far. I believe we need to be better, both in terms of our legislative process and as individuals.
It’s important to tell you that I am very fond of expletives and my description of Monsanto and other corporations/policies/individuals is often uncivil at best, downright vulgar at worst. The difference is that I try to be careful about the settings in which I let loose my insults and swear-ridden rants. They don’t appear on the signs I carry, in face to face meetings with people whom I’m trying to influence or in Facebook posts that I know will be seen by people whose positions I’m trying to change. We need to decide if our mission is to influence or insult, communicate or shut communication down, make a difference or just make noise.
There is no doubt in my mind that there are times when our anger, frustration and insistence must be expressed in terms that are unmistakably sharp, clear and unapologetic, using whatever language and messaging is necessary to accomplish that goal and I’ve participated in my fair share of such circumstances. It is in our narrower, more personal interactions when we have the possibility of influencing one other person’s thinking that I hope everyone will take a little extra time to consider how our ideas will be delivered. Time and energy are limited. Let’s use them wisely.