For the past 24 hours, I have been making a fierce prayer. This is what I’ve been saying over and over again in my heart:
May the nonviolent, peaceful components of the worldwide social-change movements continue to strengthen and grow. May this commitment to creating peace be the deep grounding of all our actions. May the Shadow of the societies we have created continue to be revealed and healed by the light of Love.
My prayer is inspired by two actions taken by students from the Occupy movement who responded to blatant police brutality with remarkably gentle, imaginative actions of peace.
By now the infamous video of the UC Davis cop pepper-spraying a row of passively kneeling students has gone viral. What some people may not have seen is what happens six minutes into the clip. Suddenly the students (several of whom we’ve seen dragged away) say to the police, en masse,
We are willing to give you a brief moment of peace. You may take your weapons and our friends and go. Please do not return. We are giving you a moment of peace. We give you a moment of peace. We give you a moment of peace.
The police, decked out in Darth Vader riot gear, look around in confusion; there is no resistance, nothing for them to fight. Slowly, as the students all around them chant, “You can go! We will not follow you! You can go! You can go!” they back away in a cluster, their faces looking a little lost, their batons loosening in their hands. It is as if the very force field of the students’ firm goodwill is pushing them off the quad. The shift in the energy is astonishing and palpable.
The other student action I’m moved by is described by UC Berkeley poetry professor Robert Hass in a recent New York Times article. Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, decided to go check out reports of police brutality at Occupy Berkeley. He and his wife got caught up in an unprovoked melee:
The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down….
I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me—it must be a generational reaction—was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines. None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning.
After the attack and numerous arrests, the cops took down the Occupiers’ tents. Hass returned a few days later to see how the students had responded and found that “the air was full of…helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.”
I am in enchanted by this image of tents floating over Sproul Hall, the place where the Free Speech Movement was born in 1964 and an area that the university has designated a permanent free speech zone for students. You can see news footage of the floating tents here.
These two actions brought home to me the absolute necessity for those of us who are passionate about creating social change to walk our walk and talk our talk. I believe we need widespread nonviolent-action training of the sort that was given in the Civil Rights era, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s great Indian liberation movement. (Paul K. Chapell of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation writes thoughtfully about this issue in his recent article “How to Destroy the Occupy Movement and How to Prevent it from Failing.”) And, closer to home, I must scrupulously and continuously examine my own actions. If I am promoting peace and love in my words, how do I bring that into my daily life–especially when it’s challenging to do so? If I say I believe in unity consciousness–that we are all one–how does that translate when I am talking to someone virulently opposed to my views? Can I maintain kindness in my speech and softness in my heart? Can I open my ears truly, can I stretch far enough to see things from their perspective, can I actively seek common ground?
The answer is, I must. If I want to see a world grounded in unconditional humanitarianism, I must practice this myself in all circumstances. I believe the choice comes down to something as simple as this observation from Pema Chodron, the Tibetan Buddhist nun, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:
Video is from YouTube.com.
All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, “Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?” Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”