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.

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.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is right around the corner, and in my small New England town it will be celebrated with a very traditional parade down the middle of Main Street. We will go to it as a family, arriving an hour or so ahead of time at the home of friends who live smack in the middle of the parade route. Each year they host pretty much everyone they know to a huge pot-luck brunch, and when we’ve all eaten our fill and begin to hear the brass band in the distance, we amble out to the front lawn with our folding chairs and wait for the first glimpse of our fellow townsfolk who “march” in the parade (“amble” is more like it).

When my kids were little, this was one of the big thrills of the year, right up there with Christmas and Halloween. The parade has all of the elements that sound so hokey it’s hard to believe they exist, and yet they will be repeated in just this way in thousands of towns across the country, and each one will make the eyes of little children go wide with wonder. There will be people on horseback and elected officials riding in old jalopies (for no apparent reason — nostalgia?). There will be makeshift floats representing groups like the Gardening Club, the Cooperative Nursery and the Girl Scouts, as well as both the Democratic and Republican Town Committees. There will be marching bands from each of the public schools in our two-town system, and we will smile bravely through the sour notes and sincerity of the younger kids and applaud with genuine enthusiasm as the skill set improves with age.

And of course, there will be soldiers. Our town always has a fife and drum group as the first whiff of military remembrance. They march in replica Civil War uniforms and play vigorous old marching tunes from that era. A little later come the veterans of World War II — a sparser group every year — and Korea and Vietnam. Then there will be a few active duty soldiers in current-day uniform, looking sternly ahead as they march (no ambling here); their duty at the end of the parade will be to fire off three rounds of blanks to honor the dead from all of our various wars. And somewhere in the course of this parade, the Air Force will make an appearance as they apparently do at towns all over the country. We’ll hear the jets coming from far off and everyone will look up as they streak past us high in the sky and then –hold your breath, here they come! — loop back around and roar above our Main Street low enough to make the ground shudder beneath our feet.

At the end of the parade the mayor (who we call the First Selectman, though this year it’s a woman) will give a speech about veterans and sacrifice, freedom and its cost. The soldiers will fire their guns in tribute, a prayer will be said by one of the local priests or ministers, and the haunting sound of Taps will come floating from a trumpet on the other side of the Town Green.

I have always been ambivalent about this celebration of Memorial Day. As a parent of young ones, I loved seeing my children’s breathless excitement at every single element of the parade. As a neighbor and friend I am moved by the small town feel of this celebration, the easy companionship of people who in some cases have shared this event through generations. I bask in the mix of sincerity and humor, of self-conscious goofiness and home-town pride. I feel cradled in community because of this little time-out from busy regular lives, to just sit along the Main Street of our town and chat while we watch our kids get a little older each year.

It’s as a citizen and a peace activist that I run into trouble. I feel sorrow and regret for our dead soldiers from every bloody war, and deep respect for the men and women who have donned the uniform to serve their country. But at the Memorial Day parade, it always seems as though these feelings get conflated with support for war: the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the “war on terrorism”. When the jets fly over us and make the earth tremble, it’s the destructive power of their bombs that is really being celebrated. When the soldiers walk past us and we applaud them, how would anyone watching us know that it is not the war they are fighting that we support?

Since the start of our war in Iraq, I have come to the parade with a peace banner. So far, I have been the only one every year, though I know many of my neighbors also oppose this war. Somehow it seems to be seen as a sign of disrespect, this gentle piece of rainbow silk with the single word “PEACE” emblazoned on it. I will feel conspicuous holding it, among the little sea of miniature American flags in everyone else’s hands. I know it will make some people uneasy and others downright incensed. But I can’t bring myself to go to the parade without it. Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering the fallen soldiers of past wars. How dare we forget the ones who are falling each day, in a war made of lies and greed?

4,012 Baby Names

When my youngest daughter was about three years old, she came across a tattered paperback on our bookshelves called, “10,000 Baby Names”. Drawn by the shining face of the baby on the cover, she would bring us this book again and again as though it were one of her story books, and ask us to read through the names. She was surely too young to be able to mull over the complicated thought  that she might have been given some other name than the one by which she knew herself. But there was some inkling or connection there, because whenever she got tired of the name book her concluding ritual was always the same: she wanted to hear the tale of her own naming.

Whatever name you were given, it came with a story of some kind. You were named for a relative (or for more than one), or contrarily named because your parents wanted a clean break from the ones loaded with family history. If you were a first boy and were born to a family that went in for the male lineage tradition, you got to be a Junior or have “III” or even “IV” after your name. If you’re Jewish, you may have been named for a favorite deceased relative but almost certainly not a living one. If your parents longed for a son and you turned out to be a daughter, you might have gotten a female twist on your father’s name. If your parents were traveling in some romantic setting when you were conceived, you may have been named for their favorite Spanish or Italian village. If your parents had heroes or heroines, you might be a Martin or Mandela, and if they were focused on popular culture, you might have been saddled with the name of a movie star or famous musician.

What’s in a name? Always, there is a story. In the congregation I serve as minister, during the time of prayer and meditation in Sunday’s worship we read aloud the names of the US soldiers killed in Iraq that week. We’ve been following this practice for three years now, as a way to make visible just one part of the brutal cost of what is unfolding so very far away from us. On some Sundays, the list has been so unbearably long that I have stopped at twenty, or twenty-five, saving the rest for the following Sunday in the hope that the week to come would be less brutal. One Sunday last month — the only one since we began this practice — there was only one name on the list.

One name, or dozens — each Saturday night in preparation for the next day’s worship, I take a deep breath and then go to the website that tracks the dead, icasualties.org. I read the names out loud, alone in my study, and I wonder about the stories held in them. I imagine these soldiers as the babies they were eighteen years ago, or twenty-five, or thirty-seven, held in someone’s arms at a baptism or a naming ceremony. I imagine the proud relatives gathered around as the name was formally bestowed, everyone beaming as the baby cooed or wailed or fidgeted because at these joyous ceremonies, no one really cares what the baby does, only that he or she is alive and among us. There is so much hope and wonder and gladness and pride in that moment of naming. And never, not once in any of the 4,012 ceremonies, did anyone imagine that the road this baby walked would end in a mix of blood and dust halfway around the world in Iraq.

As part of our protest of the war on March 19th in Hartford, we built a cairn of stones that each person had brought, on which we’d written the name of a dead Iraqi civilian. You can find those names online too, at Iraqbodycount.org. Instead of 4,012 and counting, that list of dead is well over 80,000 now, and it increases with numbing speed. I wanted to bring a rock for the cairn, but I was paralyzed by the numbers of the dead. How do you choose one name from so many thousands, to symbolize so much carnage, so much loss? I finally settled on bringing three stones, which I chose carefully from the woods near my home, and on them I wrote the names of three children, each of whom died on the birthdays  of one of my own three children.

And I wondered about the names. Always, there is a story. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 stories now, and counting.

Lamentation and Protest

This past Wednesday there was a cold, driving rain in Hartford, but several hundred people turned out anyway to bear witness to the fifth anniversary of the start of the war against Iraq. We gathered in front of Center Church, where twenty-nine sets of military boots sat on the steps, each one bearing the name of a Connecticut soldier who has died. We built a cairn of stones marked with the names of dead Iraqi civilians. There were so terribly many names to choose from, I settled on bringing three stones, each one bearing the name of someone killed on the date one of my three children was born.

We walked to United Technology Corporation, one of the many companies reaping huge profits off this war. And we ended at the Federal Building, where five of us poured blood on the courtyard, led the group in a litany of lamentation and protest, and then sat in front of the doors until we were arrested.

Of course it was not really the fifth anniversary of the war. There is no easily named date that marks its beginning, since it seeped out of the first Gulf War little by little in the form of routine bombings, deadly sanctions and clandestine raids. But March 19 was the start of “shock and awe” — so arrogant a term for such a bloody assault — and so we think of it now as the “start” because it was certainly the beginning of a new level of violence that has since been unremitting.

As the war staggers on into its sixth year, our government — with the collusion of the media — has been astonishingly successful at shielding us from images that might force American citizens to grapple with what is being done in our names. Of the four thousand American soldiers who have returned home dead, we have seen almost no images of their coffins, neatly packaged in our flag, nor of their grieving families. Of the scores of thousands of Iraqi dead, we have seen very few images of anguished mothers or fathers as they hold the bodies of their children. We hear that there are millions displaced and living in refugee camps, but I have never yet seen an image of even one of these camps.

What shall we do to try to end this relentless and bloody war? It’s a question we have to ask, because action is called for. We have to ask it because we are, so many of us, activists. But if we are also people of faith; if we believe our faith has some word to speak into the suffering and conflict of these days; if we want to sink our roots deeper than the shallow soil of our outrage and anger, then we have to ask another question as well. We have to ask not only, “What shall we do?” but also, “Who shall we be?”

I hope we can be people so grounded in our own spiritual practices that we see the war within, as well as without — the ways in which our own rage, fear and reactivity can lead us to speech and action that breed violence. I hope we can hold firmly to the integrity that will not allow us to fade into our comforting, innocuous routines unmindful of the violence done daily in our names. I hope we can be those who refuse to go away or to look away, who bear witness to the insanity of war even when we have no certainty that our witness will make a difference. I hope we can live by the words of a prophet against an earlier war, Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Others have considered history from the point of view of power, judging its course in terms of victory and defeat, of wealth and success. But the prophets look at history from the point of view of justice, judging its course in terms of righteousness and corruption, of compassion and violence…They proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene.” Amen.