Saturday, July 29, 2006

Responsibility and Nonviolence

The first bombs began falling on Iraq three days after Rachel died. Will was still in Rafah, in harm’s way. We assumed that the Israeli government would use the conflict in Iraq as a smokescreen to intensify their incursions into Gaza, and to kill more internationals. We were correct.

Emotions were running high for local activists, my self included. I hastily joined an affinity group with a handful of other peace activists, and we began planning an action. I can remember feeling desperate to make some kind, any kind, of difference. The urgent need to stop the war pressed down on us, and we rushed our decision making process.

We decided to target the state legislature. We wanted them to issue a statement condemning the war, and to divest from the military industry (to effectively boycott Boeing, Microsoft, Caterpillar, etc.). We did not use the common channels. We didn’t contact our representatives, write a proposal, or try to find a legislator to introduce a bill. Instead, we sat down in front of the doors as the Senate was about to go into session, locked our necks together with bicycle “U” locks, and issued a terse, one page statement for the press.

There was a rally of about 80 to 100 activists there to support us. There were about a dozen journalists present, representing newsprint, radio stations, and television. There was a small army of State Patrol officers, who marched up in step with one another, forming a wall around us. The rally participants danced, played games, and taunted the police.

The atmosphere was dramatic, and we were certainly getting a lot of attention. At one point, a great big State Patrol officer (Sgt. Dahl, I believe), took a water bottle from one of my fellow affinity group members. She struggle with him for a moment over the bottle, before the top of the bottle popped off, spraying water all over. The press rushed in with their cameras, capturing this dramatic little moment for posterity. Immediately a cry went out among the crowd, and they began yelling and chanting slogans about “human rights”. Some of the other members of the affinity group chanted with them, and protested the officer’s actions. All for a water bottle.

In the end, the police cut our “U” locks and arrested us. I tried to shift the tone of the event a little by openly, loudly, and cheerfully thanking and praising the officer who arrested me.

I don’t regret participating in civil disobedience. But in hindsight, there is a lot that I would have done differently. We didn’t follow the standard nonviolent (read: mature) model for dialogue, negotiation, contemplation, self-criticism, and action. We rushed in prematurely. Even our choice to target the state government is pretty hard to justify. And, as the event unfolded, our lack of circumspection became evident through our behavior.

I see a lot of similar problems running through our local peace movement. There are a lot of unnecessary confrontations with the police. There is a lot of unnecessary attention seeking behavior. There is a lot of unnecessary and counterproductive defiance, agitation, and inappropriate behavior. And when the police react to this behavior, there is a lot of complaining.

The recent protest at the Port of Olympia serves as a good example. Activists were chanting, “Port of Olympia… tear it down!” They shook the fence ferociously, broke through the fence, resisted arrest, and then got angry that the police used pepper spray.

Some of the behaviors at the Unity in the Community festival last Monday also offer a good example. The gathering, which took place in Sylvester Park, was organized in response to a neo-Nazi rally to be held on the steps of the Capitol building the next day.

The festival was a lot of fun. There were speakers from a variety of social justice organizations and faith communities, as well as belly dancers, bands, and poets. Booths were set up around the edge of the park addressing issues that ranged from immigrants’ rights to workers’ rights and women’s rights to choose. Children played games through the facilitation of the YMCA. There were youth, couples, children, elderly people, activists, imams, food vendors, rabbis and priests.

In the midst of the festivities, at around four o’clock, two young women took the stage to play their rap music. I had left the park to run an errand and was just returning as this band was half way through their first song. The chorus line of the song was “What the fucking shit!”

I was shocked and embarrassed to hear, as I walked down the street to the park, amplified obscenities echoing off the walls of downtown Olympia.

Just as I entered the park a State Patrol officer cut the power to the band. Several of the parents there looked relieved. But a small contingent of angry festival participants descended on the officer, badgering him about their “first amendment rights”. I even overheard one person say, “You mean you’re going to let the Nazi’s speak tomorrow, but you won’t let us play this music?!”

When the Olympian printed an article on our festival a couple days ago, someone wrote on the comments page: “We note that in all the times the Nazis have demonstrated locally they have been peaceful and complied with the law. Protestors at the Port of Olympia were violent and damaged property.”

Our own misbehavior undermines our work as activists. It misdirects our energy into unproductive conflicts, fuels the complaints of our ideological opponents, alienates people who agree with us, and even occasionally gets someone hurt.

If we are to be effective, if we are to earn the respect of the people whose minds we would change, we must expand our capacity for circumspection and self-criticism.

To misbehave at a rally, and then to complain about “double standards”, begs the question of who is setting the standards. It certainly isn’t us.

Edward J Harris

[From my journal]

On the first night of my first road trip – I like to take annual road trips hitchhiking along the West Coast – I made it as far as Wilsonville, a little town just south of Portland. I had done very little urban camping, had never really been so far from home on my own, and had no idea of where to sleep. My traveling partner and I checked out a freeway overpass. It was well lit, and the cops would probably chase us out. I imagined we wouldn’t be very welcome as unannounced visitors in someone’s back yard. I shrugged my shoulders and suggested we go to Denny’s to slug down some bad coffee and smoke cigarettes. I was growing uneasy; it seemed a long way from home, and San Francisco, our destination, seemed very far off. The vast expanse of road stretched out before us, threatening and luring at once.

As we began to make our way towards coffee and relative comfort, a man approached us. He was older, maybe in his fifties or sixties, and his greasy clothes hung loosely from his body. An oversized thrift store coat hung on his slouched shoulders, baggy jeans covered worn sneakers, and his knitted cap pushed down a mat of long grey tangled hair. There was no part to differentiate his hair from his beard, which hung from his face like a curtain of tree moss.

“You boys are travelin?” he asked. “It’s gettin late an yull be needin a place ta sleep… I got a squat jus over that-a-way. I don’t stay there no more. Ya can have it ta yerselves.” His breath smelled of stale beer, and his teeth were sparse and yellow and brown in color.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, unsure of how to react.

Luke, my partner on the trip, grinned. “Hey, that sounds great!”

The man, who introduced himself as Edward J. Harris, led us across a mist veiled field to a little grove of fir trees about fifty yards off the freeway ramp.

“I figgur I’m about the only homeless man in Wilsonville,” he said. “The cops all know me, but they mostly leave me alone, cause I mostly keep outta sight.”

He swept his arm out at the scene of the squat. “There she is,” he said. “It ain’t a house, but it keeps the rain offa yer head and the wind offa yer face. It’s purdy comfy, actually, an it’s got a view.”

The building he was gesturing at had tarps for a roof and for three walls. It was open at the front, and the floor was made of pallets covered with a dumpstered carpet. It had a big telephone cable spool for a table, a couch and a recliner chair, and a burn barrel out front to keep warm by on cold nights. A plastic skeleton was nailed to a tree just in front of the little shelter.

“I call im Morty,” Edward said. “He keeps me compny.”

My eyes were wide open, and I smiled a little. It was a wonderful little place! It was tidy, clean, and well built. I relaxed a bit as it began to dawn on me that this fellow was offering us something really special.

He started a fire in the burn barrel. “The Fire Department’s come a couple times ta make me put er out. But if ya keep it burnin real low, no-one’ll bother ya none.”

After a good bed of hot coals had developed in the barrel, Edward joined us at his makeshift table, and began sharing his story with us. He loved his mama. She was an invalid, and when Edward’s stepfather died he moved in to help care for her. The shelter was now a place for him to get away, to obtain a little solitude for contemplation and to read the Gospels. He loved Jesus and the scriptures, and told us of how his life had gotten better since he started reading the Bible.

After talking for a while, Luke and I laid out our bedrolls. Edward bid us goodnight and walked out into the fog and the darkness.

I laid my head down on my rolled up jacket and thanked God for this blessing of kindness from such an unexpected place. Then I fell quickly to sleep.

On Begging

[Written in a moment of frustration – from my journal 10/14/05]

I’ve been thinking a lot about begging lately, contemplating its meaning and thinking of doing it a little myself.

I can remember begging as a teenager, when I was a runaway. A couple years ago I wrote about it for the Voice:

I learned to panhandle pretty quickly. I panhandled for food, for cigarettes, and for pot. Panhandling is a lot like hitchhiking. You have to be in the right spot. You have to look un-intimidating. Occasionally someone will screech their tires driving past or throw something at you while you are trying to thumb a ride. Sometimes people will make rude remarks or spit at you when you try to spange money for lunch. At least with hitchhiking there is a sense of adventure. Panhandling was just humiliating.

I think I am beginning to understand the difference between my experiences of panhandling and hitchhiking. When I hitchhike, I intentionally place myself at the mercy of others. As a result, when I hitchhike I am filled with the experience of being on a pilgrimage, of stepping into a great adventure. The hardships make me a better person; the good times and lucky occasions come as little miracles to lift my spirits. I discovered great things about poverty and good fellowship as a hitchhiker. I was taken under wing by homeless people, gifted money by rich people, and offered grand stories by fellow travelers, all given honestly and with a spirit of generosity and encouragement. I asked for rides, for directions, for advice on good places to camp. I was often given what I asked and a good deal more.

When I was homeless, I wasn’t panhandling to place myself upon the mercy of others (although many offered it generously, and I only felt more ashamed). Though I asked for money, what I was begging for was independence. So my actions and my intentions were alienated from one another, and I resented my situation. Maybe that is why work, when it first became available to me, seemed like such a blessing.

I try to imagine what it would be like now to go and beg for money downtown. Aside from the dirty remarks that are to be expected, I think people will question my purpose. Don’t you have a job? You look like you are able to work. Why don’t you work for money? The staff at Bread & Roses might be embarrassed and try to increase my stipend. What would people think of Bread & Roses? Don’t they pay their people enough? How can they presume to help the poor when they must beg for themselves?

There would be condescension as well. I give my money to the Salvation Army. Here, take a resource brochure, do something useful with yourself. You’ll just spend it on booze. (I might well, I do like a beer occasionally, and a good deal of my stipend is spent at my favorite bar.) I’m reminded a bit of the evangelicals who “work for the poor”. I once heard a man from [a faith base social service agency] speak at an Associated Ministries meeting.

“Don’t give them money!” he exclaimed. “They’ll just spend it on BOOOOZE! Give them the 12 steps, but for God’s sake, don’t give them money! God helps those who help themselves, and we should help the ones who are choosing to clean up their lives,” he says. I was boiling hot with anger.

In fact, it is convenient that Ben Franklin first coined the phrase “God helps those who help themselves”, because I say that it is Caesar who helps those who help themselves, and God who helps the helpless, as we should! Let the government care for the avaricious, we should seek a different way for ourselves.

When I think back on it, I would like to have invited this man to step outside onto the streets to panhandle with me. We could’ve spanged money for a cup of coffee, and discussed the experience together.

I want to beg now because I am done with independence. I want hope. I want to know that people are still kind, and that I can count on my brother to be my keeper.

Confessions of a Teenage "Bum"

[From my submission to the Voice of Olympia]

Sometimes I am struck by the nostalgia I feel for the way that French fries wore themselves into the carpet at the Denny’s in Parkland. I distinctly remember the sickly smell of cheap food, battered and deep fat fried, and how my empty stomach was comforted by the repugnance my nose felt for the slop. Denny’s, noisy and filthy as it was, was my safe haven for the nine months that I was homeless. Whenever I didn’t have a couch to crash on, and when the weather was too miserable to sleep outside, I’d panhandle enough money for a bottomless, gut-burning cup of coffee and stay up all night writing and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

I first ran away from home when I was fifteen. I had started using drugs, fighting – sometimes violently – with my parents, and skipping school. As I became more rebellious, my parents became stricter, and our arguments escalated.

One night I finally got fed up, packed a backpack, and climbed out my bedroom window. Things had been particularly ugly at home, and my parents, foreseeing the possibility that I might run away, had taken my shoes. I walked barefoot for several miles to a bonfire party that a friend was throwing in the woods. I got drunk and slept outside. Two days later, a friend in Yelm took me into her home and let me stay for a month and two weeks.

My parents tracked me down, took me to court, and had me placed on the “Youth-At-Risk” program. The judge ordered me to return home, obey a curfew, speak respectfully to adults, keep my grades up in school, avoid certain friends… The list of rules was lengthy, and failure to obey would result in being charged with “contempt of court”, a misdemeanor.

As my term in the “Youth-At-Risk” program came to an end, my parents motioned the court to renew my participation. I had already racked up two counts of contempt for breaking the rules, and the tension between my parents and I had grown thick. I decided that I would not tolerate living at home any longer. I packed a small backpack and a gym bag, snuck out my window again, and hitchhiked to Tacoma.

I was aware that I couldn’t go back after leaving. I was still court ordered to remain at home, and if I had returned my parents would have reported me to the police.

At first I was overwhelmed by the sense of finality, and loneliness. My safety net had fallen away and I felt as though I was suspended mid-air, grasping tightly to a thin line of fraying yarn that prevented me from falling. Anxiety pushed stiffly outward from within my chest, hampering the flow of air into my lungs. I was on my own, and the noisy, sinister world and an uncertain future loomed overhead, shrouded in the cold Pacific rain.

I learned to panhandle pretty quickly. I panhandled for food, for cigarettes, and for pot. Panhandling is a lot like hitchhiking. You have to be in the right spot. You have to look un-intimidating. Occasionally someone will screech their tires driving past or throw something at you while you are trying to thumb a ride. Sometimes people will make rude remarks or spit at you when you try to spange money for lunch. At least with hitchhiking there is a sense of adventure. Panhandling was just humiliating.

I was lucky to have a number of friends in the Tacoma area, and usually had places to stay for one or two nights at a time. Most of my friends put me up out of pity, rather than out of any sense that I would get my life together. I was for them a likeable but rather stupid pot-head teenager who had little potential. Occasionally a person that I would crash with for the night would try to talk sense into me. What were my plans? They would ask. How was I going to start making something of myself? The conversations were generally more embarrassing and guilt ridden than productive for me, and I would talk my way around the questions. From a distance of fifty miles, and without having spoken to them in months, I could feel my parents’ disappointment tugging at my gut.

On my seventeenth birthday, a friend took me out to stay at his cabin on Anderson Island. His father was building a house on the far end of the island, and Scott offered me a day’s work at five bucks an hour to do some pick and shovel work and to clean up around the construction site. It was good, hard work, and he paid me forty dollars at the end of the day. This was the most money I had held at one time in my nine months of homelessness, and I was elated. We stopped at the island market on the way back to Scott’s house and bought fresh tomatoes, herbs, and sausage, as well as a package of pasta to make spaghetti for my birthday. Scott made me the best spaghetti dinner I’ve ever eaten.

I had never bought my own groceries before. Everything I had was unearned, a gift from someone like my parents or the people who gave me change when I panhandled. The spaghetti was good, made from scratch with fresh tomatoes and herbs, but the experience of having earned it was far better.

A month later, my buddy Jeremy let me move into his camper out in the woods on the outskirts of Yelm. I started getting a lot of work splitting firewood and digging ditches. I had quit smoking pot, and was starting to get my energy back. I made enough money to start renting, and I got my first full time job three days before my eighteenth birthday.

In the time since I was homeless, I've worked two years as an EMT for an ambulance company, graduated from the WA State Fire Training Academy, spent three years as a volunteer firefighter (and I nearly got hired on a professional department), and owned a home that I later sold to pay for college. I've spent the last three years as a live-in staff person at the Bread & Roses Catholic Worker Community.

The greatest gift that anyone has ever offered me was the gift of work, the gift of pride in work and the beauty of hard earned food. I was once homeless, hungry, and depressed. I had alienated my family and relegated myself to what I once thought to be the lowest class of society. There were few people who saw any value in me, but their contributions to my life made a tremendous impact on me, and through me impacted the lives of the patients I served as an EMT and the people I serve now at Bread & Roses. I've lost touch with most of the people who put me up as a teenager. If I could visit any of them now, particularly Scott, I'd immediately drag them to downtown Olympia to see the work I do at Bread & Roses. They can take credit for it.

Currently Reading:

  • Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America - Todd Depastino

Recently Finished Reading:

  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Utopia of Usurers - GK Chesterton
  • Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton