Faith leader with Occupy Seattle tells his story

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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.

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joebrewer
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joebrewer

"If you decide you're going to break the law and take on the police (either here or Oakland or wherever), at least man up (or woman up) to the consequences and don't go crying about how unfair it is."

Really? I'm assuming you've seen the video of protesters sitting with linked arms being sprayed with pepper spray and that you read the linked story. So I'm having a hard time following your argument.

People who engage in civil nonviolent disobedience realize the consequences are arrest. However, the police act illegally when they use excessive force. I'm sure you don't actually condone slamming the head of someone who is not resisting arrest into the pavement repeatedly....

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Dave Paisley
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Dave Paisley

"reports of the activity by the Seattle Times, for example, are significantly skewed thus far"

Wow, just wow. The Times is a notoriously lefty rag that has no problem taking the Seattle police to task (rightly so) for many recent transgressions (mostly of an individual nature). That it's reporting is seen as skewed shows just how skewed this individuals own views are.

If you decide you're going to break the law and take on the police (either here or Oakland or wherever), at least man up (or woman up) to the consequences and don't go crying about how unfair it is.

If you choose to run across a busy highway you might just get hit by a car.

That's not skewed, that's just physics.

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Dave Paisley
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Dave Paisley

"Police are part of the 99% economically."

Yeah, but 99% of the 99% don't need or want OWS et al speaking for us thank you very much.

You want to speak for us, get elected. Otherwise it's what's known as a coup, or usurping authority.

If I need an anarchist I know where to get one, and I rarely need one...

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Michael Russell
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Michael Russell

It seems insane to me that a polarity has become established between police and protesters. Police are part of the 99% economically. As more people become desperate crime rises at the same time as Police face budget cuts.

The OWLS folks here and elsewhere need to be recruiting police to the 99% point of view.

Gandhi and his followers would hold a line and take the beating, absorbing the spiritually the harm being done to the attacker by his or her attack.

But I am not convinced that "conversion" happens through these confrontations. I rather think that it allows people to displace all their frustrations and angers from other parts of their lives into that confrontation. I think that is true of both sides.

The problem at the moment is that many of the 99% identify with the interests of the 1% in keeping peace. I am also pretty sure that you are not going to convert much of the 99% to some other economic model than capitalism. There is little interest among the 99% for central planning or control.

What there is interest in is ending cheating, stealing, and predatory capitalism, the Caveat Emptor of bygone times. We have never had pure monopoly capitalism and when we drifted that way Teddy Roosevelt led the charge to stomp on it. We have modified regulated capitalism and that is where the fight needs to go.

The most successful publicists for the Occupy movement are the Republican Presidential Candidates! Not only do they want to reduce regulations on predators to zero, but for God's sake Newt wants to bring back child labor! What more could we ask of a candidate than that?

The whole "Job Creator" nonsense also needs exposing. The historical truth is that left to themselves job creators have never ever offered the "Job Doers" living wages, safe working environments, or an unpolluted place of work or community. Unions and Gov't regulation grew from the pure predation be exacted upon job doers.

People being people, however, it is entirely likely that history will have to be repeated since few want to learn it.

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joebrewer
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joebrewer

Very powerful. When I did jail support as a Protest Chaplain, I heard a lot of the same stories about unnecessary police violence. I like how John referred to both the protesters and the police as his "brothers and sisters." I can empathize with both sides and their passion (but not violence)--this is rough. There are good tips in there for anyone doing chaplaincy in such a situation.

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