John Helmiere is the convener and Minister of Listening at Valley & Mountain Fellowship in Seattle. On his blog he’s written “john’s response to police brutality,” detailing his recent arrest and overnight experience with Seattle police responding to Occupy protestors.
It’s acutely distressing first-person reportage interlaced with faithful analysis.
Utterly terrified, I made my way to the line between the occupiers and the police, held my arms out, and began shouting to my occupation brothers and sisters: “Peaceful Protest Everyone,” “Keep the Peace,” “Do not respond with violence.” My brothers and sisters on the police force began advancing behind a wall of horses and heavy bicycles. I linked arms with a young man in dark clothing on my left and a gnarled grandfather on my right. We stood still until the officers approached us and began throwing their bikes into our bodies, shoving us toward the sidewalk. I stared into the eyes of the most aggressive officer, who was seething, and shouted above the noise, “Why are you causing violence to peaceful people? Think about your actions! Think about your humanity!” With an open hand he rammed my throat. The old man to my left was attacked similarly and reached back with a cocked fist, but I yanked him back.
A minute later, an officer threw me to the ground and punched me numerous times. With hands cuffed behind my back, I was led into a police van and caged alone for a half hour. In the dim light and cramped space, I sang “This Little Light of Mine” and recited Psalm 23 to stave off a gnawing fear. Eventually, a few more occupiers joined me and we were transported to a holding facility where they split us into pairs and left us in tiny concrete rooms for several hours. The rooms were voids in every way: windowless, empty (no facilities, no benches), lit with glaring fluorescent bulbs, gray and white. My void-mate was a terrified kid who had gotten in over his head. He gave me heart by singing protest songs while I shared some meditation techniques for maintaining self-possession in trying moments. Eventually we were hauled off to the county jail and had our handcuffs removed after four long hours of immobility. As I walked through the metal detector at the jail, a fellow occupier I hadn’t spoken with yet looked at me in my collar and said, “You’ve just been baptized.” They outfitted us in thin cotton jail uniforms, and proceeded to move us from cell to freezing cold cell for the next eight hours without any clear purpose or explanation. During that time, the adrenaline wore off and my bruises and lacerations began aching intensely. I asked officers and staff at least six times to see a nurse and was consistently denied that, as well as water and food. During the final hour a nurse took pity on me and found an ice pack for my face. Not all the staff, it seemed, had contempt for their charges. Finally, at 5:00am we were released to the street after obligating ourselves to appear before a judge at a future date….
Here is what I am asking of anyone who will hear it:
· Listen deeply.
· Get upset.
· Generate Love.
By listening deeply, I mean allowing the experiences of others to alter your own worldview. It might mean allowing my story to challenge assumptions you may have about the reliability of police discipline or mainstream media impartiality (reports of the activity by the Seattle Times, for example, are significantly skewed thus far). It may mean allowing the stories of exploited people, like the port truckers, to challenge your assumptions about the American narrative of equal opportunity. Whatever it means, it will require humility and proactive encounters with those you tend to avoid.
By getting upset, I mean being appalled at the dehumanizing forces operating in our world—forces unveiled by deep listening. Nothing changes just because you become aware that port truckers have to defecate in plastic bags because their unjust classification as “independent contractors” bars them from using the employee bathrooms. Nothing changes just because you know that some cities have police cultures that encourage brutality, particularly against people of color. We must have the tenderness of heart to become upset when human beings are violated and oppressed.
By generating love, I mean channeling that passion into creative and liberating action. There are so many excuses to avoid it: “The issues are so complex,” “There are two sides to everything,” “I don’t want to alienate anyone and lose a chance at making an impact later.” But as the great preacher/activist William Sloane Coffin once said, “Not taking sides is effectively to weigh in on the side of the stronger.” As finite creatures, we cannot fight every worthy battle. But refusing to participate in any struggle for a more loving world is a nihilistic rejection of even our very finite power. Right now I am praying for the courage to transform the molecules of my anger and the raw material of my frustration into the greatest, most indestructible, most transformative power on earth: unconditional love in action.