For the last few years I have had the good fortune of having regular walks with Nichola Torbett. I accompanied her, in conversation, through a process of resigning from her last job and founding this organization. Hers is the courage that takes people into confronting their deepest fears and opening up to life.
Over the course of Saturday’s event we were asked to do just that. I was most struck by what happened in the first part of the afternoon, as part of continuing to digest what has happened in Oakland since Oscar Grant was killed. Sujatha Baliga from Communityworks invited us to share in a circle our response to the following question: “How are you implicated in police brutality and the criminal injustice system?”
There were about 22 of us in the room. The object that was held by each speaker kept moving through the room. As each of us spoke, I felt a growing sense of honesty, a bond of truth between us. Everyone present contributed to a growing tapestry of clarity about what keeps it all in place. One by one we shared stories, small and large, of moments in which we had opportunities to stand up, to make a difference, and to show our humanity, and didn’t because of fear.
By the time it was my turn, I was deeply grateful, profoundly grief-stricken, and in awe. I was so grateful to have this experience of so much honesty, so much willingness to expose the ways we didn’t act on our highest truths and values. I was grief-stricken, because I saw how all of us were caring human beings whose lack of action was based in fear. How were we going to create change if we have so much fear that blocks us? I was in awe, because despite it all what shone to me more than anything was the infinite dignity of everyone in the room, no matter how much we didn’t show up fully. The dignity of owning the truth made us human and dear to me.
My Own Complicity
I want to honor the trust that others who were in the room placed in me by speaking only about what I shared in the circle. I identified three ways that I was implicated. The first was immense fear that I have in relation to the police. I shared the memory of a time, about 10 years ago, when I was witness to a police officer taking a young black man away who was accused of stealing from a store. I had enough courage to come out of my house into the street. I had enough courage to stand and look, relatively close. I even had enough courage to talk to the young man from time to time. I had absolutely no courage to face the police, to say anything to the officer, to try to do something to make things easier for the young man instead of just saying what I hoped were encouraging words. I stood there and felt the fear. I don’t think I knew it so fully until that afternoon.
The second was my inability to love the police fully. It’s so clear to me that to the extent that I keep myself separate from the police in this way, I participate in the same system, because I am perpetuating separation, the fundamental building block on which violence, brutality, and domination all rest.
Lastly, and the most ironic, I knew and shared that my reticence about my ideas is also based on separation. I am so deeply situated in the framework of nonviolence, that I find it difficult to fully relate to people who are open to use of violent means to achieve their goals. I am reticent because of not trusting that my ideas would be heard, taken seriously, or engaged with by the young people who are in the streets chanting and demanding a longer sentence for Mehserle.
Moving toward Possibility
To round up this description, I want to quote from Dave Belden, Tikkun’s managing editor:
“After we had gone round the circle Sujatha asked the opposite question: in what ways have we each refused to be complicit with police brutality and done something to counter it? She urged us not to set the bar too high, and to celebrate whatever we had been able to do. I sensed that she was trying to turn the emotions and analysis in the room from self-recrimination, self-judgment, guilt, or simply sorrow, towards hope, self-support, possibility.
“It was sad to me that she didn’t tell any of her amazing stories of what happens in the circle process with young offenders. I wanted her to paint the picture of the system she imagines, where every community has circle holders who convene circles like the one she had just led that help people get to know each other deeply, long before any trouble erupts in the community, so that trust is built, and when trouble comes, people will go to the circle before they go to the police. She did describe it briefly. But once that kind of idea gets hold, it becomes clear what we could each do, if we want to, in our neighborhoods and schools, whether we are rich, poor, privileged, unprivileged. We can build the alternative structures, experience and trust, that must be in place before we can reduce the police presence and the punitive justice system. That will start to wither away only in so far as we build the alternative ways to protect people, prevent harm, redress harms done.”
I look at what happened in Egypt and wonder, as I am sure so many others do: what would it take for there to be a truly mass nonviolent movement in this country? What can I do to make that possibility more likely? Whatever else it takes, I wish that I and all of us could trust ourselves completely, without reservations, enough to keep our hearts open to others who may well disagree or even fight against us. I wish for us to come together, with honesty and acceptance, to see where we are complicit and what we can do to recover our strength and our courage to rise to the occasion. It’s never easy; it always demands of us to overcome our fears and live on the basis of our hopes and our faith. I keep walking in that direction.