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.

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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.

Occupy For the Long Haul

A friend just sent me an article by Paul K. Chappel in which he reflects on the ways that violence, if it takes hold in enough sites, has a good chance of destroying the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s something iI wrote about, less eloquently, a few weeks ago, before the violence in Oakland and before the original OWS began to segregate itself between those open to violence and those who oppose it, whether morally or strategically.

Morally, I oppose violence against people. Strategically, I oppose violence against property. Emotionally, I understand the frustration in those who feel like it’s time to take things to another level. I hope they’ll pause and reflect on the ways we all get caught in the seductions of instant gratification. Nothing as large as the changes we need will happen in a matter of months, and some of it won’t happen until we’ve put in many years of agitation, protest, occupation and other (nonviolent) means of putting some kind of wrench in the works.

Chappel writes, “Although there are many ways to discredit and damage a social movement, in the modern world the greatest danger to any movement is from within. The more frustrated people in the Occupy Movement become, the more likely they will be to use violence. This is cause for concern, because some protestors in the movement may not realize what they are getting into. This is not going to be like Egypt, where a ruthless dictator was toppled in a few weeks. In many ways the struggle in Egypt is just beginning, because much of its oppressive infrastructure is still in place.

To better understand the challenges ahead, we should study and draw inspiration from the struggles for civil and women’s rights, and every other social movement in history. It may take some years before significant progress is made on the issues we are confronting today. Rosa Parks was a committed activist for twelve years prior to her famous arrest incident, and King believed that the dangerous forces we are up against now are going to make the supporters of segregation look like amateurs in comparison.

If protestors aren’t mentally prepared for the challenges ahead and are expecting immediate results, their frustration will swell and the cries for violence will become more potent. Someone in the movement will say, “We’ve been doing this nonviolence thing for eight months and no significant change has happened. I am starting to get impatient. If we want change, we must resort to violence.” There are certainly people in the Occupy Movement who have this mindset now, but as frustration and impatience increase within the movement their violent rhetoric will gain more traction.

Social movements are long-distance marathons, not sprints, and they all involve a series of victories and setbacks. The better we understand this, the less frustrated we will become, the less likely we will be to lose hope due to disappointment, and the less prone we will be to becoming violent and destroying the movement from within. To be effective in any struggle for peace and justice we must balance urgency with patience, and we must be disciplined, strategic, and well trained.”

Chappel’s website is http://www.willwareverend.com. To his comments above, and the longer, extremely thoughtful essay from which it’s drawn, I can only say: Amen.

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.

When Hate Walks Into the Sanctuary

Within many different faiths, people name our halls of worship as “sanctuaries”. The word carries ancient connotations of safety, peace and contemplation – the qualities we hope to nurture when we turn our attention to prayer and devotion.

Last Sunday there was no sanctuary for those of my own faith gathered for worship in the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee. Instead, as 200 members and guests watched their children begin a musical performance, a stranger walked in and opened fire with a shotgun. Two people were killed, and five more were seriously injured.

The gunman, Jim D. Adkisson, told police that he targeted the church “because of its liberal leanings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country”. Adkisson was particularly disturbed by the inclusive nature of the congregation and of Unitarian Universalism itself, which welcomes people from all religious backgrounds and explicitly affirms equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

My own congregation is hundreds of miles from Knoxville, yet the ripples of shock and grief touch us deeply. Like the Knoxville church, our congregation is proudly public about our liberal religion and the social justice commitments to which it leads us. We have openly affirmed our commitment to equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, and our members are involved in many progressive peace and justice issues.

So along with our compassion for the victims and families in our sister congregation, we are vulnerable to the anxious question that arises from any hate crime: could something like this happen to us?

The simplest answer is ‘yes, it could’. Whenever people stand up for justice and equality there are others who react with anger, and sometimes the reaction becomes violent. But there is a better question to ask, one that tips us away from our anxiety and fear and back toward strength: what does our faith offer us, when hatred walks into our sanctuary?

Both the Unitarian and Universalist strands of our modern religion are rooted in a Christianity that has been at odds with the mainstream for centuries. Our ancestors studied scripture carefully and critically, and the conclusions they drew were sometimes radical. In Jesus, they found a spiritual teacher whose life was more important than his death: who consistently walked with the poor, the outcast and the reviled, and who insisted that we do likewise. They found a God who was not merely liberal but profligate in the love He promised: a love so universal that there could be no room for hell. They found a creation that was inherently good, laden with diversity and mystery that was there to be embraced and understood, not feared or rejected.

This is the large-hearted faith in which we are grounded, and it can sustain us even in the face of murderous violence. Our faith reminds us of the deep well of human goodness, evident in the outpouring of compassion and support for the Knoxville congregation from people of all religions. It insists on the challenge to cultivate compassion rather than anger toward the killer, recognizing in him a heart filled not only with hatred, but with profound pain and despair. And our faith calls us to courage rather than fear, reminding us that through the centuries of our history, many thousands of men and women before us have been steadfast in their religious and political convictions despite the threat of even mortal violence. They believed to their core in the healing power of love and justice. So must we.