Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Occupied Sermon

By Bucky Rogers 
Originally delivered to the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students on Friday, October 28.

From the writings of Thoreau:
Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?

As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.
This, I am proud to say,  is not the 60's.  The Occupy movement represents a new era of activist cooperation, collaboration, and co-creation. It has been my experience in Students for a Democratic Society and other contemporary movements working to build a sustainable group structure, one grounded in meaning and unified in method. This we have done intentionally, based on lessons from the past, and we are therefore grateful to those who have come before. I will always be particularly indebted to Paul Buhle, my professor at Brown, for “The 60's Without Apology.” Professor Buhle let met apply his lessons directly by giving me time for announcements in lecture, with the aim to recruit students to ride on the bus with our student anti-war group to a rally in Washington DC. We all rode the bus down, and I stayed there, with my shirt and tie, to lobby Rhode Island's congressional delegation the next week. But this sermon isn't about me, it's about a movement. 

When Students for a Democratic Society was formed in 1962, the Port Huron Statement was proudly written by a secluded group of vanguardists, Tom Hayden in particular, at a labor union camp in northern Michigan. Today, the Occupy movement is shaping not just its goals, but its assumptions, critiques, and methodologies out in the open, communally, in parks and squares in Manhattan, Boston, and across the country. This may seem like a frustrating difference in strategy, a slowing down of the process, but in fact it is a key shift in movement-building that will eventually pay off large dividends in the size and sustainability of the coalition Occupiers build. 

On Wednesday evening this week, at an event about the life and work of Conrad Wright, presenter Rev. Elz Curtiss, a historian and blogger, commented that she hoped the Occupy movement would represent evolution, not revolution. Revolution, as my friend Will Pasley says, is just a turning of the wheel; you're still on the same axle. Evolution has the power to move you to a truly new place, remake the device, not just give the same tools and weapons to a different set of oligarchs. And if that is to truly happen, we need evolutionists alongside our revolutionaries. 

One of the things that I am proudest of in Unitarian Universalism is that we have a history of bridging gaps between groups that might not otherwise be in dialogue. We build big figurative tents, in the best possible ways. Radicals have long found places in some of our congregations alongside institution-builders. Whether you are a radical or an institution-builder, a Calvin or a Servetus, comfortable or afflicted or probably both, whether you are like Thoreau thought of himself or like we think of him today, whether you are a van-driver or a vanguardist (or both...),  whether you are a Taft or a Holmes, there is a home for you in the Occupy movement.

It was this hope for a new method of protesting and activism, for a role in the co-creation of an empowered beloved community, that brought me to the Rose Kennedy Greenway at 11:00pm on the evening of October 10th.  I had been texting with my HDS friends Kye Flannery and Josh Eaton that evening, getting details on the police's preparations. The news came in rather abruptly, but as a Red Sox fan I am used to fall evenings taking unexpected and tragic turns. I picked up my coat and my Bible, put my Charlie Card and a credit card in my pocket, and took off for South Station.  

To be honest I don't remember my precise reasoning while en route on the T for deciding to risk arrest. I slightly underestimated the consequences; I definitely thought I was going to be out of lock-up in time for class at 8:30am the next morning instead of held all night and the next day as well. Never once did I regret it, though, or think to myself that it wasn't worth it. On the contrary, as I sat in jail cells all day with fellow civil resisters, we kept getting more and more excited at how much we must scare the city for it to keep us locked up hour after hour! 

So I arrived at Occupy Boston at about 11:00pm and I found the assembly where people were deciding how to resist the anticipated police efforts to dismantle the second site. There were 2-300 people gathered in one place, trying to come to consensus about what to do, and resolution was by no means a foregone conclusion.  Some wanted to stay in the tents until they were dragged away, others wanted to be outside the tents but surrounding each of the individual tents. It is a genuine testament to the collective decision-making power of the Occupiers that they were able to ALL agree, essentially everyone who was there aside from a few who actually did just stay inside their tents, over 200 people said together, let's link arms and form a human chain around this site. 

And not to get ahead of myself, but it kinda worked!  We didn't hold the site, there was no actual chance of that once the police had made up their minds to remove us violently, but the Greenway now stands alongside the Brooklyn Bridge and the Scott Olsen incident at Occupy Oakland as one of the most identifiable turning points in gaining public support for the Occupy movement.  The Veterans for Peace members who were assaulted by the police and arrested were the most visible and took the bravest stance at the protest, providing a national face to that evening, but everyone who was there brought with them not just numbers, but a deepened sense of solidarity to our collective resistance.

As I stood in the line of the human chain for two hours, arms linked and palms pressed together, I was getting the text messages I read earlier from my friend James, relating them to my new friends from the Jewish Outreach Initiative, the affinity group I had joined, and hearing the news reports they were receiving.  And...nothing happened.  Jason Lydon came by to tell jokes (I swear, he does that!) and remind people to breath.  We waited.  Jason and other care-givers came by again.  Nothing.  People in the line went to use the bathroom, had their places saved, came back.  I stretched my legs, couldn't find a mailbox to put my Netflix DVD in, came back to where I had been standing.  Ate the apple I had brought.  Marked that the T had stopped running.  Watched anarchists in black and red sprint past every fifteen minutes or so warning of an imminent action and exhorting everyone to reform the chain.  Nothing.

But when the time came, we knew.  At 1:30am the police moved in with military precision.  They announced that everyone was breaking the law there and should leave.  There were no statutory grounds for deeming our gathering “unlawful”, but as far as I can tell the “criminal trespass” charges leveled against us had a legal basis, if not a moral or even sensible one (we had received the blessing of the park's honoree earlier that day).  The police cleared out the media and support personnel first, forming phalanx-esque lines to march them off the Greenway and arresting any who stayed behind.  All of a sudden we, the protesters, were on our own.  The medical personnel, the comforting friends, the chaplains, the photographers had been swept aside along with the Veterans group. 

Immediately to my right, about five people away in the chain, a group of officers pushed down the protesters and stepped over them to begin arresting tent-dwellers.  The line was broken but I kept my arms around the people on either side of me.  I didn't really know what else to do at that point.  We held our line and were advanced upon by another gang of a half-dozen police.  They spread out their arms in a crowd-control posture and when they saw we were holding our ground, I felt a hand on my neck and my cohort tumbled over backwards.  A man in a blazer leaned down very close to our faces and explained in a voice that was unnecessarily loud even for my genetic hearing loss that if we were arrested our schools would be notified (I suppressed a smile) if we were University students, and our immigration status would be cause us to be deported if we were undocumented. 

Things got a lot more boring after that; I went into a paddy wagon, holding cell, jail cell, paddy wagon, Courthouse, courtroom. Total time: 14 hours.   Long story short: the BPD and the mayor's office were not happy and wanted to make it hard for us.  I told a friend of mine who is a retired police officer about how much time we spent in zip ties and he said “Jeez, they don't even zip tie armed robbers once they've put them in jail cells”.  And if this were purely a civil narrative, that would be my climax: the system is scared of the Occupiers, so let's press our advantage, allies.  And indeed, if you're taking notes, that is one of the basic points I want to leave you with. 

But I have the privilege of telling this story from a pastoral perspective.  If you have felt like this sermon was politically problematic or uninspiring, here is where you should tune back in for a perspective on the enduring human lessons of civil disobedience, as interpreted through my personal experience.  Sitting in the jail cell during the wee hours after all this, I kept coming back to one mental image I know will stay with me for years.  You may have seen the same thing, actually, it was all over the news from about a 90 degree angle to where I was.  I'm talking about the 74-year old Vietnam veteran who was pushed to the ground by a police officer as the BPD forced its way past Veterans for Peace.  When I looked up, I didn't see the guy lying on the ground at first.  I saw a tall, strong, very angry-looking cop.  And I felt a bolt of empathy.  I had a pre-conscious reaction to his emotional state, a deep and sudden feeling of human connectedness with this soul being asked to commit violence against his brother.  The commonality of our human experience was imminent in ways that I usually must find intentionally during pastoral attention-giving.  After hours of nervousness, I found myself in a calm, serene heart-space.

As we were bumping along in the paddy wagon afterward, all I could think was, well, I suppose now I have to figure out how to make direct action for justice work a part of my life. Because after what just happened, it can never not be part of what I do and who I am. There is no self that any of is doing justice work; we are all part of the oppressors and we are all part of the victims. Any illusions that we might have about our separateness, our capacity to attain a fate distinct from our co-creators in this collective endeavor we call human existence, are precisely that: illusions. If you are going to do this work, come to it not out of pity, but because your own salvation is tied up in the salvation of your human brothers and sisters, the victims and the antagonists. 
Our second reading comes from Micah 6:8:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Amen, and blessed be. 

Bucky Rogers is a third-year MDiv candidate at Harvard Divinity School and a candidate for UU ministry. He was a co-founder in 2006 of the Brown University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. He is grateful to everyone who is camping out at Occupy Boston and at Occupy sites around the country.

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