Community & Editorial
The possibility of another world
Essay: A reverend preaches nonviolence after alleged police beating at port occupation
On Mon., Dec. 12, I was brutally beaten by my brothers on the Seattle Police force as I stood before an entrance to Pier 18 of the Port of Seattle in my clergy garb, bellowing, “Keep the peace!” An officer pulled me down from behind and threw me to the asphalt. Between my cries of pain and shouts of “I’m a man of peace!” he pressed a knee to my spine and immobilized my arms, crushing me against the ground. With the right side of my face pressed to the street, he repeatedly punched my left side long enough that I had time to pray that the crunching sounds did not mean he was damaging my brain. I was cuffed and pulled off the ground by a different officer who seemed genuinely appalled when he saw my face and clerical collar. He asked who I was and why I was here, to which I replied, “I’m a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ…I believe another world is possible.” He led me shaking to a police van where began a 12-hour journey of incarcerated misery.
How did this happen?
That afternoon began with a march from downtown to the port in a coordinated attempt by West Coast Occupy movements to expose exploitation of workers and interrupt business at major Pacific ports. Upon arrival, the crowd spread out to picket or blockade entrances. I joined a small group of about 40 (we did not stop anyone from walking in or out). Several hours later, word came that business had been canceled for the day and our group left in high spirits. I considered going home after a long, chilly day, but I decided to see if people needed help at other locations.
As we neared Pier 18, the tension was palpable. Hundreds of people had been occupying the blockaded road for hours while police kept their distance. But as night was falling, mounted officers arrived and began to maneuver into position, adopting menacing expressions. I began to feel a great fear ballooning in my chest and seriously considered leaving. This fear was particularly strong because, although my Christian convictions call me to nonviolence, I had only practiced this by intervening in street fights and never in the face of a militarized force. But in my spiritual core, I knew that I could not run away when the situation desperately called for disciplined, nonviolent voices and presence.
Utterly terrified, I made my way to the line between occupiers and 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 advanced behind a wall of horses and heavy bicycles. I linked arms with a young man on my left and a gnarled grandfather on my right. We stood still until the officers approached and began throwing their bikes into our bodies, shoving us toward the sidewalk. I stared into the eyes of the most aggressive officer 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 man to my left was attacked similarly, and he 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. 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: windowless, empty (no facilities, no benches), lit with glaring fluorescent bulbs. 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 meditation techniques for maintaining self-possession in trying moments.
Eventually we were hauled off to county jail and had our handcuffs removed after four long hours. As I walked through the metal detector, a fellow occupier looked at my collar and said, “You’ve just been baptized.” They outfitted us in thin cotton jail uniforms and moved us from cell to freezing, cold cell for the next eight hours. 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 and found an ice pack for my face. Finally, at 5:00 a.m., we were released after obligating ourselves to appear before a judge at a future date.
Why was I there?
First, I participated in the port occupation at the behest of some of the most exploited and underpaid laborers in our city — the men and women who truck containers in and out of the port. Over the past nine months, the spiritual community I convene, Valley & Mountain, has stood in solidarity with these drayage workers in their struggle for dignity in the workplace. We have listened to the truckers’ stories, held a focused study of the issues and attended a port commissioners’ meeting to demand justice from elected officials.
Second, I participated because I have witnessed overwhelming evidence that the economic and political systems of my country stand against those people whom the God I worship stands. My conception of God, inadequate as it may be, is better described as the Love that generates creativity and community than as a super-man judging us from a heavenly skybox. Such a God cannot be exclusively claimed by a political party, a religion or even a movement like Occupy. My commitment to Love requires me to challenge the increasing consolidation of all these good things in the hands of a few and to collaborate for the creation of something that Love would recognize as kin.
A call to transformation
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. It may mean allowing the stories of exploited people, like the port truckers, to challenge your assumptions about the American narrative of equal opportunity.
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. 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.”
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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