Let Them Eat Tacos

It’s been a busy week in East Haven, Connecticut.

On Tuesday, the FBI arrested four East Haven police officers on charges of false arrest, excessive force, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The charges were related to many years’ worth of abuse that Hispanic members of the community have suffered, including racial profiling,  harassment and beatings. In its indictment the Justice Department accused the East Haven police of “biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and the excessive use of force”. The New York Times called it “a  harrowing picture of arbitrary justice for Hispanic residents.”

One would hope that this kind of news would receive widespread attention and outrage, but in today’s world that seems to be the luck of the draw: sometimes people pay attention and sometimes they don’t. This time, thanks to the remarks of East Haven’s mayor, Joseph Maturo, the wider world is all over the story.

On Wednesday, Maturo was interviewed about the arrest of his police officers by a reporter for WPIX (Channel 11), who asked what he intended to do for the Latino community in light of the charges. Maturo replied, “I might have tacos when I go home. I’m not sure yet”. During the nearly five-minute clip — which immediately went viral — Maturo became more combative but never truly engaged the question. He returned repeatedly to the taco statement.

So today, I helped deliver around 500 tacos to the mayor’s office in protest of both his insensitivity and the larger issue of racism in our area. This brilliant idea was hatched by Reform Immigration for America, which invited anyone outraged by the mayor’s remarks to text them and order a taco to be sent to the mayor. It was enacted by Junta for Progressive Action, the lead organization serving the Spanish-speaking community in the greater New Haven area.

We were a small group, led by Junta’s Acting Director, Latrina Kelly. The restaurant that had agreed to make the tacos was in over its head: the protest orders kept flooding in until within just 24 hours, they’d received over 2,700 texts. The media attention had also made the restaurant owners and workers nervous: they requested anonymity, and accompaniment for delivering the tacos. So, off we went, about a dozen of us carrying trays and trays of tacos. We walked in through the big glass doors of town hall and were met by literally dozens of reporters and television cameras, everyone jockeying for position.

The mayor had fled just before our arrival (what a surprise), but Latrina delivered her statement to him anyway, with poise and passion. When it was all over the tacos were delivered to a local soup kitchen, with the exception of one tray left for the mayor, along with a printed copy of the statement he missed out on hearing.

It’s clear that the mayor regrets his tone-deaf comment about tacos. It’s less clear whether he will use this as a wake-up call. East Haven is surely filled with thousands of men and women of every ethnicity who want their town to reflect the values of inclusion, civility and equality before the law. It will be up to them to make sure their elected officials — and their police officers — fulfill those aspirations.

Slouching Out Of Iraq

Yesterday the New York Times reported on Iraq in the immediate wake of the U.S. withdrawal:  “Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq threatened on Wednesday to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago, throwing the country’s fragile democracy into further turmoil just days after the departure of American troops.”

Okay, for starters, could we please agree to stop using the term “fragile democracy” in this context? Iraq is not and has never been a democracy, fragile or otherwise. Constructing a democratic government was the thin disguise for a U.S. invasion that was premised on other things: illusory weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the drive to secure the American oil supply.

Webster’s defines “democracy” as:                                                                                       a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority                                                   b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

The stage props that the United States set up to create an illusion of this definition are swiftly crumbling just days after our army withdrew, so let’s stop pretending that it is a “fragile democracy” that’s struggling in Iraq.  The Times article continues: “The escalating political crisis underscores the divisions between Iraq’s three main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here and lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man, and a political culture with no space for compromise…..I’d say that this analysis is a direct contradiction of the earlier characterization in this article of a “fragile democracy”.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because words matter, and the truth matters. Call Iraq a “fragile democracy” and it implies all kinds of things: that the United States really intended to foster democracy in Iraq and truly succeeded in that wildly ambitious plan; that this delicate new flower of freedom is now threatened by outside forces bent on destroying it; and that the United States will be positioned on the sidelines, wringing its collective hands in regret that our well-intentioned efforts, so heavily financed by both money and the lives of over 4,000 Americans, are threatened by the forces of evil.

It would be well to point out that if our goal in Iraq had been democracy, we could have begun at any point during Saddam Hussein’s rule, since we established and sustained him in the first place. And it would be honorable to admit that the people of Iraq might organize for their own democracy, like those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have begun to do, if they’d not been beaten down not only by years of dictatorship, an earlier US war, terrifically costly sanctions and then nine years of another US war.

I’m in the mood for a little humility and a lot of truth-telling as this shameful war winds down. I will not say “ends” because it is not going to end, though the US troops are largely withdrawn. We have set the conditions for more suffering. The least we can do is be honest about it.

Veterans’ Day Prayer in a Time of War

Light a candle to name this hollow sadness,
to name the fear, and the tendrils of despair.
Watch the fragile light flickering there, and promise
in the name of all that is holy
that you will shelter within yourself an answering flame:
the call of peace, the insistence on peace,
setting other lights ablaze for as long as it will take.

Pray for the soldiers of our country,
warriors who battle in our name.
They are so young, these sons, these daughters.
They are afraid they will be killed,
afraid they will do grievous harm.
They are frightened of failure, and of what they must do
to succeed.
Pray for the safety of their bodies and the wholeness
of their spirits;
pray for some comfort to touch the ones who love them.

Pray for the soldiers of our enemy,
whose names are shaped by a foreign tongue.
Pray for their safety and wholeness as well.
Pray to remember that these are our brothers:
they bleed when they are wounded,
their hearts break in sorrow.
Like us, they long for a gentler day
when they might wake to the morning in peace
and know themselves to be safe.

Light a candle in a time of war.
Do not hide from the truth of what unfolds now
on the far side of the sweetly spinning earth.
Remember: swords do not shape themselves
into plowshares.
That work is in our hands.                                                                                                From Shine and Shadow, Kathleen McTigue, 2011 Skinner House Books

Evicting the Occupiers (or not)

I’ve been scratching my head a bit over the Occupy Wall Street events of the last 24 hours. Why would the Bloomberg administration order an evacuation of the protesters right on the eve of a well-publicized call to action? It was completely predictable that since several thousand new protesters were already gearing up to join in, a significant percentage of them would get there early in order to prevent evacuation. Hence the “oops” moment early this morning, when the police action was called off in the face of 3,000 new bodies.

But the whole thing was a bit peculiar. Why would the police decide in the first place to descend the day before a major mobilization? Why not wait until Sunday, after the day trippers had returned to their jobs and other commitments far from the epicenter and media attention? (Of course, that’s probably exactly what they’ll now do).

Maybe the timing was absolutely arbitrary: it took this long to figure out some marginally legal ploy for booting people off the property. Maybe it was just a dumb mistake on the part of the city administration, so fixated on getting rid of the protest that they neglected to notice the gathering energy right under their noses. But another, grimmer possibility exists as well. It’s conceivable that the choice of timing was a cynical calculation made precisely because larger numbers were expected this weekend. More people means more chaos, especially when the police are pushing people around.

One of the images noticeably absent from all the Occupy protests thus far has been any violence on the part of the protesters. Is it possible that the timing of today’s aborted police action was chosen in the hope of serious confrontation? One clear image of a bandana-disguised protester hurling a brick through the pristine glass of the surrounding office buildings would just about do it, if the goal is to scuttle support for this movement. Is it possible that the Bloomberg administration is itching for just this kind of image to broadcast?

When I visited Liberty Square this past Monday, one of the most striking things in the densely packed community was the high level of organization of the physical space (kitchen, comfort station, media table, meditation corner). But just as evident is the philosophical organization. It’s crystal clear that beneath the profoundly egalitarian, participatory nature of this action, there is a foundation of disciplined nonviolence. All around the square there are reminders of this commitment. Everyone there has been educated in the practices of nonviolent resistance, and among the consensus statements reiterated in flyers and on the website is the repetition of zero tolerance for any level of physical violence.

So when the postponed confrontation finally comes, if it results in one of those iconic images of protester violence I’ll be among the skeptical. The government use of provocateurs has a long and well-documented history in our country. If we see violence, my bet is that it won’t arise from Occupy Wall Street, but from those who want to deflect attention from the compelling message at the heart of the protest. May we hold to that message — of the culpability of corporate greed and the need for fundamental, nonviolent change — no matter what provocations arise.

Occupying Wall Street

I’ve been a little slow to really focus in on the demonstrations against Wall Street in New York — which have now begun to spread to other US cities. September is a busy month under normal circumstances, and it was easy to be doubly distracted by taking one kid off to college and helping another one launch into her last year of high school.

I’m chagrined that it took me a few weeks, but I have begun paying more attention, and next week I plan to spend a day with the protesters myself. I know that the whole idea of occupying Wall Street might seem the perfect example of tilting at windmills, an analogy that is supported by some of the earnest, idealistic rhetoric coming out of the protesters. But I’m actually in the mood for some earnest idealism, and I’m also in the mood to join my own voice to others who are venting their outrage at the appallingly skewed system we’ve been living with docilely for far too long. And idealistic or not, I am quite certain of one thing: Wall Street is precisely the right target.

Do you remember the massive protests that were held all over the world in February 2003? An effort to prevent the disastrous Iraq War, they involved many millions of people in over 800 cities globally. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most massive protest in human history. I joined it in New York City, along with my mother and oldest daughter, and in frigid temperatures we walked until the crowd became so utterly massive that it couldn’t move: we filled the streets for dozens of blocks and by sheer numbers rather than intent, brought the city to a halt. I remember city buses and taxi cabs simply abandoned in intersections: they couldn’t move. In all my years of activism I had never experienced anything close to the size of that crowd, and our knowledge that similar crowds had gathered around the globe, passionately speaking out for peace, made it feel possible that our voices would actually carry the day.

Remember what happened next? We went to war, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and still counting all of these years later.

When the war began I remember thinking with fierce sorrow that if we could have brought those same crowds to New York on a weekday rather than a weekend, we would have paralyzed Wall Street. And paralyzing Wall Street might have kept the war from happening.

Whatever is beginning right now, Wall Street has not yet been occupied, at least not to any degree that forces the attention of the powers that be. But maybe we’ll get there, this time. At least it’s starting in the right place.

The Wrong, Wretched Death Penalty

Like so many others, I was part of the long-distance emotional roller coaster surrounding the pending execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.  I signed petitions, wrote e-mails and made phone calls urging the powers that be to institute a stay of execution. I breathed a sigh of relief when the appointed hour came and then passed and he was still alive. And then I watched with both despair and disbelief as the last minute appeal to the Supreme Court failed last night and Troy Davis was executed by the state.

The Washington Post began their story by writing, “After a day of last-minute appeals, including one made to the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis was executed at 11:08 p.m. Davis convinced hundreds of thousands of people, but not the justice system, of his innocence in the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989.” This is an absurd statement. The tens of thousands of people who opposed Davis’s execution did not do so because we were convinced he was innocent; we are not in a position to make that judgement.

We opposed his execution because there were so many contradictions in this case that Davis’s innocence was a distinct possibility: seven out of nine key witnesses recanted key elements of testimony, and there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. We opposed his execution because our judicial system is weighted so heavily against black men, a bias starkly evident in the application of the death penalty. We opposed his execution because in states across the country, the Innocence Project has now exonerated more than a score of men — that is, absolutely proven their innocence — who, like Davis, were facing execution.

We opposed the killing of Troy Davis because the death penalty is a barbaric practice that costs our society an intolerable price. We pay for it in the moral contradiction between opposing murder while sanctioning state execution. We pay in the reprehensible fact of its racial bias. We pay through the financial burden of the many years of legal appeals that would not be pursued if the punishment were life imprisonment. We pay in the isolation of being the only western nation that still sanctions execution. And we pay through the soul-deadening willingness to enact vengeance: putting even an inarguably guilty person to death does not bring back the murdered loved one, nor does it make society safer. It just lodges us in the ancient violence of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I am deeply saddened. And I am more than ever determined to bring an end to the death penalty.

Primitive Theology

News began to filter out of Haiti Wednesday morning and through the day, revealing to the rest of the world the full and catastrophic dimensions left in the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake. By today there is still no clear understanding of how many are dead and dying, but the numbers will surely reach into the tens of thousands. If international aid on an enormous and sustained scale is not organized and delivered soon, the toll will go on rising for months.

That’s how it works among the poorest of the poor. Catastrophe strikes dramatically in the form of earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, and for a few weeks or months your town or country hits the headlines, your suffering eyes look back at us from the photos, and people who live elsewhere, who live in the unimaginable comfort of running water and supermarkets, scramble to find the best place to send their twenty dollars. And then it all fades out of the world’s consciousness as the next disaster bumps yours off the front pages.

But for you, living in Haiti or Nicaragua or Darfur, the crisis never ends. You were at the rock bottom to begin with, already suffering what is for you an almost normal level of calamity. Now you’re living about as close to a definition of hell as any person could conjure, and you know — because in one form or another you’ve seen it before — that “recovery” will almost certainly mean a new plateau, a new “stability” in which daily suffering is even more profound than what you were living out before the earthquake.

Into the unspeakable injustice of this reality steps televangelist Pat Robertson. On his Wednesday television show he said, “…something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.  They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Set aside for the moment that Robertson is not obligated, unfortunately, to cite his sources for this extraordinary declaration. Think instead about Robertson’s notion of God. It is a primitive theology that imagines a Devil with whom one can make a pact: “Okay, it’s a deal!” It is a cruel, senseless theology that posits a God who routinely (eternally?) punishes any single person — much less generation after generation of people — by sending natural disasters to ravage their nation. The Christian Broadcasting Network should be ashamed to have such manifestly un-Christian poison spewed over its airwaves, but Pat Robertson is well-known for this kind of venom. Shame at the cruelty of his own statements or on the part of those who send it out into the world appears to be beyond their moral powers.

So it falls to the rest of us to lift up not only the voice of compassion but a sustained attention to the literally unimaginable suffering that now unfolds in Haiti. It falls to the rest of us to name the Holiness that can move through us, putting our compassion into action. It falls to people of any faith who put connection ahead of blame to not turn away this time, once the media has lost interest, and to sustain our commitment in the weeks and months ahead so that Haitians might not live perpetually in the hell that is created not by Robertson’s “Devil” but by the insidious and far more banal devils of colonialism, racism, corruption and poverty.

Today the New York Times described a scene from last night in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of people camped outside a wrecked clinic afraid to sleep inside any building because of the aftershocks. “With no electricity, stars offered the only illumination in the city, which, with its suburbs, is home to nearly 3 million people…Then the singing began. Those gathered outside in tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”