Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

One in Seven Billion

We are one.

It’s a frail and fragile solution I offer to the problems of the world; its only virtue is that it is the only possible permanent fix. In the old Quaker phrasing, it runs, “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” The voice out of Nazareth had it as “Love your neighbor.” In more modern terms, it might be, “You’ve got to be kind.” Give all people what you would ask for yourself and for your own family. Because we are all one kin, one people — we are all one. Continue reading

Righteous Among the Nations

There is a dark place in Washington, DC, and not one of the ones you might be thinking of. I mean a place that is physically dark as well as metaphorically, a place with black walls and low light, and terrible things on display: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an intentionally oppressive and uncomfortable place, where visitors walk through the records of death.

There is, however, a literal bright spot: a white wall, well-lit, standing out from the gloom. It is the list of rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as honored by Yad Vashem: the ones who risked their lives to save the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They were listed by country. I found a few familiar names quickly: Raoul Wallenberg among Sweden’s contingent, for instance. Then I looked for Denmark.

Denmark, after all, had one of the more remarkable rescue efforts of the Holocaust. The Germans had let Denmark be, to a great extent; the Jews had not even been required to wear the hated yellow star. This unfortunately means that the legend of King Christian X wearing the star in solidarity is apocryphal, although elsewhere in Europe non-Jews did put on stars in protest. But eventually the Holocaust reached Denmark, too. Continue reading

Self-Defense

There’s been talk about self-defense in American political/social discourse all my life. It has been a limited talk, however, dominated by limited ideas.

Usually when we talk about self-defense, we are referring to defense of one’s person, family, or property against theft or assault. There is a second and broader strand of “self-defense” talk, concerning the defense of a country, usually either the United States or Israel. Finally people speak of defending rights.

What all these usually imply or assume is that there are evil people who would harm us in a variety of ways, and that the natural recourse of good and decent people is to defend themselves violently. Almost all references to “self-defense” that I can think of regard a violent response to a violent affront. Usually there is some connection to the Second Amendment or to the military. Handguns come up frequently. The speakers usually identify as conservative.

Yet there is a far broader definition of self-defense that is equally valid, and far broader means of self-defense that just the violent resort. (I will not say “last resort,” for when the violent resort is available, it is almost never used last.) Continue reading

Recap For Recent Readers

For those of you who’ve started reading only recently or are just joining us, here are some key posts that somewhat capture the character of this blog.

The namesake post that explains what the generous grasp is — or at least what it could be.

My “belief basesline,” otherwise known as a Credo.

One of my favorite posts, on a topic dear to my heart.

Here’s what the Weekly Query is all about.

A post from last year, but still somewhat timely/seasonal.

Unfortunately this one’s still timely too.

That should get you started — but there’s plenty more out there for you to find on your own. I’m a teacher; did you think I was going to do all the work for you?

“Use of Weapons”

I have an old friend, whom I have known off and on for half my life. I knew him when we were boys, and now I know him as a man; he’s funny, insightful, and generally a good friend. He was among the first to recognize my cutting for what it was. He also owns guns.

Whenever I was over at his apartment, he would get out his latest acquisition, put it together and show me the parts, occasionally demonstrating grip or aim. His eyes would always light up as he did so. For my part, I was nervous, and it showed; he would always take pains to show me that the safety was on, that the gun was unloaded, that I was safe.

Thing is, I was never for a moment worried about what the gun could do to me. I was worried about what the gun was doing to him.

You see, I’ve held a weapon in my hands before. I’ve felt the rush of power that goes through me when I do. It is thrilling. It is a little intoxicating. It is, perhaps, a primal thing — an old human instinct to  pick up a rock or a stick to use as a tool to make oneself stronger and safer.

Trouble is, weapons are tools made to inflict harm… and therefore made to exert power. That I know all too well, and I am reminded every time I look at the scars on my arm. When I held a weapon, things became clear; I had a measure of power over my pain and over my life. My knife gave me a way to dominate my problems. I was raised to not harm others, however, so I became my own target; I couldn’t hurt anyone else. Besides, I wasn’t dealing with my actual problems, just trying to simplify things with a thrill. So I have felt both a weapon’s allure and a weapon’s damage. And it hurt.

In fact, it hurt both ways.

When I see a weapon, therefore, I see its effects in both directions. I see the damage it can do to others: whose lives will the weapon claim? Whose body will be rent by it? Who will mourn? Who will hurt?

I also see the damage the weapon can do to its wielder: who will they stop seeing as people, and start seeing as targets? Who will they feel they have control over? Who will they feel they can dominate and coerce? What problems and disputes will they be tempted to simplify or resolve through using weapons, or threatening to? How will the weapon alter their anger? Their fear? Their grief? Will they take it out on others? On themselves?

Perhaps my history — first as a Quaker, then as a cutter — has misinformed me. Perhaps people with weapons need not be so altered; perhaps all those who defend the Second Amendment are well aware of the intoxication of going armed and doing harm, and guard against it; perhaps they are well aware of how much responsibility lies on them when they carry weapons or allow others to do so. Perhaps they are aware of the potential consequences and are content to run the risk.

Still, no matter if I am misinformed about the mental damage on the users, I feel at least a little qualified to speak to the physical damage done on the targets; I’ve seen the blood I’ve drawn, staunched the deep wounds I’ve inflicted, felt the pain I’ve dealt out. And I know that when it comes to weapons, power through doing harm is their only purpose; even when used as deterrents, it’s the potential for damage that gives them their power. They work by hurting. Hurting is their work.

So I think of innocents in the line of fire. I think of those like me who turn their weapons on themselves in a desperate bid at controlling something. I think of those who really are guilty of something, but are never given a chance to atone. I think of all those who love the targets, and their pain. And finally I think of what weapons did to my mind, that addiction to power and dealing pain, and wonder what might happen to other weapons users.

So no, I don’t trust weapons, from the pocketknife up to the atom bomb. I don’t trust their power and I don’t trust the hands that wield that power, be it a lone wolf or someone in uniform or just someone like me. People are not always healthy, after all.

And so for the sake of all, I don’t use a weapon anymore, and I hope others will think twice about using them as well.

(I am indebted to Iain Banks, who first used this title.)

Peace Is Courage

These times erode people like me; they gnaw us, leave us diminished. We spend so much energy in just staying on our feet that to take a step forward exhausts us. Just as well, perhaps, since so often the path’s unclear to my type and I. Our victories are hard-won and our defeats seem to come too easily. Storms are coming–and we are already weary. It sometimes seems that the whole world has gone gray.

It’s at times like these that we must remember our inspirations. Inspiration, meaning putting spirit back in us–and spirit meaning, in the oldest sense, breath. Life. The light may be failing, the storms may be gathering or breaking, but we carry the fire in our hearts that never leaves us, if we can only remember it. There is life in us yet. There is strength we have not yet called on. We can rise, and rise again.

Let us rise by making peace.

Peace flows from the still center within. Some have accused those who choose peace to be cowards, but remember: peace is nothing but courage. It is the courage to go unarmed–although perhaps not undefended–while everyone else is girded for war. It is the courage to walk into the fire in order to pass through it, when everyone else tries to flee. It is the courage to go up against every command, every assumption, every instinct of one’s own body, and trust.  So, remember courage. And remember courage is not the same as fearlessness. We are afraid; we have reason to be. War and struggles for power stem from wanting to have nothing to fear, by killing or dominating all sources of fears. Peace stems from facing one’s fears.

But peace within is only a job half-done, although it’s a grand start. We must also have peace between us. This can be done by taking our courage and adding compassion. Everyone around us who is lashing out, everyone who is dominating and conquering, is doing so out of fear and pain. Yes, even the most greedy and arrogant. Yes, even the most power-hungry and destructive. They fear justice, after all–and time. All the money and all the force in the world cannot hold off time. Remember that, too. Others have joined them for other fears: fear of poverty, fear of change, fear of what they do not understand, fear of Hell, fear of isolation–fear of being alone in a world they no longer recognize. But it’s all fear. So peace can be built, oftentimes, by facing our own fears and then teaching our enemies to do the same. Peace can be built, stone by stone and seed by seed, when we come to our enemies in compassion and say, “Don’t be afraid.”

It won’t always work on the first try, or on the fiftieth. But it can work, and it will never work unless we start by trying.

So, my friend, we have work to do. Let us make a covenant between us, you and I, here and now–to be at peace, and to build peace wherever we go.

When we see fear or grief or rage or hate building–in an act, in a word, in a lack of a word–let us step forward and speak. When the argument builds on the street, don’t turn away, don’t flee; these are your sisters and your brothers who are in pain. When the cruel joke comes, or the casual harassment, remember the fear behind them, and speak–especially if the joke is aimed at another, especially if the harassment is aimed at someone who isn’t there to speak for themselves. When fear sweeps into power, when hate takes charge, stand up and speak out–speak with compassion for the fearful, even if they are oppressing you, even if they boil your blood. Underneath everything, they’re afraid too.

You will be rejected. Facing that chance takes great courage.

You will be laughed at. This is worse; facing that chance is courage also.

You will be ignored. This is worst of all, and is courage’s very core.

But there will be times when you will not be rejected, not be laughed at, not ignored–not entirely. So stand. Speak. Be brave. And take the chance. Build the world anew, one act of courage at a time. One day at a time. One step at a time.

No matter how we are burdened, no matter how lost we feel, listen: the sun will come up. Day will come again. The clouds and the darkness cannot keep out the light, not forever. Remember that, and be brave.

 

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— JRR Tolkien

“We cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation…. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln

“The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between. But there is still a chance to seize that last, fragile moment. To choose something better. To make a difference… and I intend to do just that.”
— J. Michael Straczynski

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
— Isaiah 40:31

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”
— George Fox

“Somebody has to speak for these people… so now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as anything I know this: they will try again… A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.”
— Joss Whedon

I will not let you fall.
— The One Who Is

Four Stories: Shawn

This is a work of fiction, based on actual events, but the characterizations and dialogue are my own invention. See the note on “Four Stories: Jon” for more details.

—————————–

“Even if I did,” Shawn said, “why would I tell you?”

“I’ve got four good reasons why,” the cop said. “Mark Renninger. Tina Griswold. Ron Owens. Greg Richards. They were good officers, and they got killed for being good officers, and we’re trying to find who killed them.”

Shawn stared the undercover right in the eye. I got a lot more reasons why I shouldn’t tell you, motherf***er. Oscar Grant. Sean Bell. The brother in New York, funny name… Amadou Diallo, right. I could go on.

“Asshole, we could haul you down for obstructing justice,” said the cop with the rifle.

“Justice? That what you call it?” Shawn said. He regretted it instantly. They’d beat his ass for sure for that. But man, was it worth it.

There was a lot of yelling, but in the end the cops turned him loose. They didn’t have anything on him, anyway, except sassing them. Which wasn’t an arrestable offense, not with the reporters right there.

But when they catch up to Maurice, there’s nothing that’s going to stop them. Mad as they are right now, he could scratch his crazy ass and they’d shoot him dead. “Reaching for a weapon,” they’d say. Like Lovelle Mixon. Or King. F***, both Kings. FBI definitely shot Martin, after all.

They’ll shoot Maurice for sure.

Shawn was not exactly tight with his cousin — more like an uncle, really — but Maurice was good people. Sure, he played a little fast and loose with the law, but you had to, to get by. And he was always, always there to help out his family. He’d helped Shawn move, loaned him his car once or twice, stuff like that.

Yeah, FBI killed Martin, like they killed those other two… the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, right.

Maurice was also completely nuts, talking about how he could fly, that he was Jesus. If he was Jesus Christ, Shawn was the Angel Gabriel. And killing cops? S***, there was nothing more stupid than killing cops, even if cops did drop brothers every day of the week without even thinking or getting busted for it. But crazy or not, Maurice was family. Good people, or was when he wasn’t out of his mind. And you didn’t turn over family to the law because he was nuts, or turn him over for anything, especially when the cops would just be itching for an excuse to waste him.

Shawn wasn’t going to make it easy for them to do that. Keep the cops off his trail for a while, let things cool off, then have him go in, nice and peaceful, no guns. They’d take one look at him, call him crazy, ship him off to Western Hospital for a while, and then when he was back on his feet, he’d be back on the street, good as new.

Shawn glanced up at Beacon Hill ahead of him. Now, there was an idea…. he reached for his phone to call in a fake tip. Let the cops wander around in the woods for a while.

Not going to make it easy. You take care of your own.

Four Stories: Cassie

The following is a work of fiction. While based on actual events, none of these characters are real and the interactions mostly invented. One exchange of words, beginning with “Police! Open the door!” was taken from a Democracy Now! segment, found here and originally viewed at Feministing; All other dialogue and characterizations are entirely of my own creation.

———————————————

“They’ll get through eventually,” Alan said, bracing himself next to Cassie, “but we’re not going to  make it easy for them.”

Cassie hung onto the door handles with all her might. The cops were coming. Well, UCLA campus police, technically, but still: cops. People in uniforms with badges who were allowed to carry weapons and make arrests.

Right now Cassie’s only weapon was her own dead weight, holding the doors to Wheeler Hall shut fast. She and her friends had occupied Wheeler to challenge the decision by the University of California Regents to raise tuition in the UC system by by a third. That kind of price hike would make it impossible for a lot of low-income students to attend the UC. This wasn’t about the budget crisis, as the organizers had said: this was about what the elites valued. The UC system gave a world-class education, and it was open to all — unless the poor got priced out. Again.

I can’t believe they’re trying to do this, Cassie thought. Don’t they know the value of an education?

So here Cassie was, taking direct action. They would occupy Wheeler Hall until the Regents heard their demands, which were simple: rehiring laid-off workers, maintaining one dorm building for low-income students, and keeping a fair contract for the only immigrant-owned business on UCLA campus.

“Anyone can do well in this country if they work hard,” Alan had said in the meeting the night before. “Well, that’s kind of true. Anyone can do well if they have access to education. Right now the Regents are proposing to deny access to thousands of hard-working people, people who will be trapped in the cycle of poverty as a result.”

The doors shook, bringing Cassie back to the present. “Police! Open the door!” a voice shouted.

“We have demands!” Cassie shouted back.

“Open the door!” came the answering bellow, a voice that brooked no discussion at all.

“They’re really not listening,” Cassie said, despairingly.

“Why should they?” Alan said. “They have guns.”

She held on tighter.

The Generous Grasp

When can you take hold of something and give something simultaneously?

A handshake, of course, among other things. To clasp hands can show friendship, trust, alliance, love; to grab someone’s hand could restrain them from doing something stupid, or pull them up after they’ve gone over the edge.

Mark Kurlansky wrote in “Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea” that there is no positive word for nonviolent action — it is always phrased in terms of what it is not (i.e., it is defined in terms of the violence it isn’t). Gandhi, he pointed out, had tried to rectify this gap in our vocabulary by inventing the term satyagraha, “truth force” as Kurlansky translated it, but pointed out the term had never really caught on.

I thought, “Well, heck, I can invent a term nobody uses!” And that night the term “the generous grasp” came to me.

“A handshake?” some may ask. “You’re trying to rename nonviolence after a handshake? We’re talking about confronting the oppression inherent in our culture, challenging violent forces that have prevailed in this world since the invention of the punch, and you want to rename it after a handshake.”

Well, it’s not just a handshake. After all, one can restrain someone, and that, as I mentioned above, can be a generous act as well. There are people in the world who have to be stopped, no doubt; if their views prevailed we’d all be worse off. But we also have to remember that such people are, well, people, and thereby entitled to the compassion we show to all others. So we can restrain them, and give them the chance to mend their ways. To put it another way: the generous grasp, if need be, could be a flying tackle.

The compassion, however, has to remain in the center of all our acts. And hence the generosity comes first… but the grasp is there to finish whatever has to be done.