Whenever there is a major event happening in the world, in the United States, or locally, I get a text from my colleague and dear friend, Tripp Hudgins, at ABSW: “Blog?” he asks. Since he came aboard at ABSW almost two years ago, Tripp has been encouraging, nay, urging, nagging, and prodding the faculty and administration at the seminary to get our light out from under its bushel. He wants us to contribute our voices and our unique perspectives to the ongoing conversations that happen via social media, in the twitterverse, through blogs, on the interwebs everywhere and all the time—but especially when major things happen. Protests, mass shootings, bombings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, racist attacks, police brutality, and non-indictments: all of these generate massive dialogue on the internet.
Public theology means that our faith traditions can make meaningful, even radically transformative contributions to civic discourse and public policy at times of crisis as well as calm. The Jesus we seek to follow did not shy away from making his faith publicly significant. He weighed in on taxes, imprisonment, just pay, forgiveness of debt, ethnocentrism (which would be the equivalent of racism today), and the deep value of women and girls. Jesus allowed his life to be ended in a most public and political way when he was crucified by the Roman Empire. His earliest followers stayed true to this public living out of faith through their formation of radical communities with shared property, meals that crossed the boundaries of social status, and offerings distributed to the poor. Other early followers also gave their bodies over to be destroyed by the empire in order to point to a reality of Love and Resistance that will forever be greater than any empire—then and now.
Though there were plenty of times Jesus stepped away from the crowds so that he could rest and pray, once his faith became public at around age 30, it was definitely not in the form of quietism. Jesus was active, engaged, and not afraid of conflict with the politically and religiously powerful people of his time. Quietism, whether or not it ever actually existed as such, is a sort of deeply unflattering caricature of contemplatives who sought unity with God’s Sprit above all else, even to the eradication of their own in-tact selves for the sake of the world. Such self-annihilation is considered heretical inasmuch as it leads to, well, it leads to nothing. As the great Evelyn Underhill wrote: “The self must be surrendered: but it must not be annihilated, as some Quietists have supposed. It only dies that it may live again” (Underhill, Mysticism, 68).
So please don’t get me wrong when I say: It is at times like this that I long with all my heart for quiet. Even though the request comes in for me to say something in the form of a blog, and even though I believe that my Christian faith tradition has much to contribute at times like this—despite this, I know that the last thing I want to do right now is contribute to the cacophony of voices that are clamoring to be heard right now. Some of those voices are prophetic, some are strident; some are beautiful and grace-filled, some are challenging and hard-to-swallow; some are gospel-filled, some are hate-filled; some are war-mongering, some are peacemaking; some are creative, some are cliché; some we desperately need to hear, some not so much. But when I think about being one more voice (a voice perhaps more likely to be cliché or strident than prophetic or grace-filled), I honestly just want to be quiet instead.
“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction. “ ~ President Barack Obama, October 1, 2015
A student sat in my office before class last night and sighed deeply, “Of course, my spirit is just so heavy tonight thinking about the people affected by the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “I feel like I’m at a point where I should be able to know what to say at times like this. I’m going to graduate soon. And people are going to come to me and expect me to have the answers.”
I don’t teach students to have The Answers at times like this. In fact, many of the most stentorian religious voices that come forward with answers after times of tragedy generally make me cringe or want to go crawl under a rock.
It’s also difficult (impossible?) at times like this not to feel as though anything one says is just some script that was written years ago and we are only rehearsing the all-too-familiar lines yet again. President Obama in his address expressed his frustration over just this feeling when he remarked, “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it.” Everything that is being said today has been said already, usually by the same people. It’s hard not to feel like it’s all just shouting in the wind.
Nonetheless, I seek to equip my students with the tools they need to think through complex events; to address violence, oppression, and injustice; and to work with communities in creating plans that lead to liberation.
This week in my Theology as Living Conversation class, we discussed one such tool for analysis that I think can be used effectively for faith leaders and communities as we seek to respond from a theologically sound basis to events like the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Every experience, including high profile, tragic experiences such as this one, occurs as an event (or episode), which is part of a larger situation, that is itself embedded within a broader context. (See the graph included below.)
According to Richard Osmer in his book Practical Theology, an episode is a singular event that happens in a particular place at a particular time. A situation is the pattern of events and circumstances that contribute to the occurrence of that episode. And the context that encompasses each of these refers to the broader, interlocking systems that come together in such a way to give rise to these situations and episodes.
Using this method of analysis, we will want to certainly pay attention to the particular details that apply to why yesterday’s shooter chose to enter Umpqua Community College and slaughter people. It is also gives us a way to talk about what makes our responses to these events so routine, in the President’s word. These constantly scripted and rehearsed responses are part of the pattern of events that comprise episodes of mass shootings.
I think it also gives us a way out of these scripted responses, as we seek to understand even those responses themselves as being bound up in larger, complex systems that may not only help to bring these scripts about, but likely benefit from them becoming routine. (I couldn’t help but hear echoes of my mother lecturing me as I listened to the President’s clenched-jaw frustration yesterday, “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times!”)
Consider for a moment how the perpetuation of a feeling of futility and impotence is precisely what is needed to maintain the status quo.
I suspect that most of us tend to be able to talk about individual episodes of violence, and we are also good at reciting our scripts about the situations that give rise to these episodes. We fire off facebook posts about gun laws, offer simplistic mental illness diagnoses, or call for more armed security guards. While each of these do point to systemic issues, our public discourse about these things rarely draw out those interlocking systems in fruitful ways. Where we need more attention is precisely in our ability to grasp the systemic issues at play.
We don’t need to have the answers at times such as this. But faith leaders need to be equipped to talk about events like yesterday at all three of these levels in order to help our communities discern an incisive theological response that drives people out of futility and into effective, hope-filled, and just action.
Resources for Further Inquiry
Below are some web-based resources that can help inform your analysis of the context in which mass shootings occur.
Dr. Jennifer Davidson is Associate Professor of Worship & Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Follow her on Twitter: @momentofbeing.
I took a few days to rest up and get ready to head back out to the streets, after being arrested on Monday night, December 8, 2014, on my third night of marching in the Berkeley protests as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement calling for an end to police violence against Black and Brown men and women as well as to an end of the new Jim Crow and mass incarceration.
In those few days, I found myself becoming disheartened and discouraged. The news I was hearing from the usual outlets was making the movement sound increasingly dangerous and violence prone. I kept hearing calls for “A Leader” of the movement—implicit in the calls seemed to be some kind of ultimatum: “I won’t get off my duff until you show me who the Martin Luther King, Jr. of this movement is.” I heard leaders of the movement being interviewed, but more significantly being interrupted in interviews as they tried to get the message out. I heard critiques of the Berkeley protests becoming “about something else”—disconnected from Ferguson, NYC, Cincinnati, and BlackLivesMatter and just about Berkeley itself.
Maybe I was just physically tired from walking a total of 25 miles on three consecutive nights, or from losing a night’s sleep in the Santa Rita jail while more than 200 of us sat on metal bunks in an unheated building with no potable water.
What became clear to me was that the only way to stop feeling discouraged and disheartened was to get back out on the streets; to give my voice and my body over as an ally for the cause of justice; to stop starving my soul with the filter of the news entertainment industry; and to start feeding it with the testimonies of my black sisters and brothers who are leading this movement. I needed to remember that discouragement and distance are feelings I get to indulge in because of my white privilege. I needed to get back into the beauty, the struggle, and the transcendence that is this movement on the ground. I needed to turn off the TV and take the hand of someone beside me.
Meeting with students last night at ABSW for a time of prayer, singing, and conversation, I realized that most of what folks are hearing about the movement is through the filter of the news entertainment industry. Without the reinvigorating energy of the streets, I saw folks feeling more reluctant and discouraged than I’d hoped. Thus the reason for this blog post.
Whether you are feeling called to march with thousands of others, or whether you are seeking to advocate in other deeply meaningful ways, here are some places you can turn to keep informed.
I would say turn off all news entertainment, and stop looking to it for information on what is really happening in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Instead, go to unfiltered, raw-footage reporting to get a sense of things.
Each protest has numerous livestreaming reports going on. Download the Ustream and the livestream apps on your phone, or visit these sites on your laptop. Search for channels on Ustream like #BlackLivesMatter, #blacklivesmatter Bay Area, and Black Liberation and White Anti-Racism. Some of these channels have previous broadcasts archived. On livestream start with the channel called BlacKOut (a livestream account is required to view this channel).
To be aware of the ways ABSW is staying active and involved in the movement, follow Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble @CantBeStill, Dr. Jennifer Davidson @momentofbeing, Dr. LeAnn Snow Flesher @lasnow52, and the seminary account itself @ABSWBerkeley.
These are just starting places. But I hope you find them helpful if you are just beginning to navigate the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Stay tuned here, as well, for an upcoming organization of a GTU collective for centralized and organized action and reflection among the sister schools of the Graduate Theological Union, GTU alum, and area churches.
I marched again last night in Berkeley with my protest partner Sharon Fennema and over 1000 other committed, passionate, and almost entirely nonviolent people. It was astounding to see that there were more people gathered on December 7, 2014 than there had been the night before when protesters were violently attacked by police. As can happen, but doesn’t always, in response to state-sponsored attacks, a movement galvanized and grew; it did not weaken.
Protesters’ commitment to nonviolence and peaceful protest grew stronger as well. The first skirmish broke out among protesters while we were gathered in an intersection in downtown Berkeley. The argument was between white men — some of whom wanted to foment violence, some of whom wanted to hold the commitment to peaceful protest.
As soon as the skirmish began, the mass of protesters turned and faced the men and chanted over and over “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!” Until the shouts of the argument subsided, and an organizer with a bullhorn called us to start moving again. Movement forward, I have learned these past couple nights, is a nonviolent action that cultivates nonviolent response.
Oh, not coincidentally, as soon as the skirmish began, television camera lights came on and hungrily descended on the fighting white men. The bloodlust of television entertainment news is insatiable.
Other isolated incidents of violence broke out at various times before I departed the protest around 11:00 last night. Windows were smashed at another Radio Shack in Berkeley. Again, protesters shouted “Peaceful protest!” while other courageous protesters placed their bodies in harm’s way to protect the business. One looter threw items out the store window. Other protesters picked them up and tossed them back inside.
The mass of protesters didn’t stop marching when the violence began, but wave after wave of protesters continued the chant as they passed by and kept the energy moving forward. We were evacuating the power of the crowd from the violence of a few.
As the white men who had perpetrated the violence caught back up through the crowd, I heard one of them shouting in rage. “How can you shout “No justice! No peace! And then shout peaceful protest! It makes no sense!” (There were a few other words in there as well, which helped to convey his anger.)
The question was genuine, I could tell. And the response I thought of is — it depends on your definition of peace. Over a thousand protesters walking randomly and unpredictably through city streets and into freeways does not make for a peaceful night. Causing enough disturbance to require multiple police helicopters to light our path for us across a nine-mile hike does not make for a peaceful night. Protesters chanting “Out of your houses! Into the Streets!” up at the curious onlookers who stand backlit in the warmth of their homes does not make for a peaceful night.
Night after night of these disturbances, night after night in city after city–from Anchorage, AK to Berkeley, CA to Boise, ID to Portland, ME to New York City, NY to Philadelphia, PA to Ferguson, MO, to Miami, FL does not make for a peaceful country. This is holy disruption!
In my tweets last night (@momentofbeing), I tried to report on the peaceful and restorative actions of protesters as much as possible. I engaged @berkeleyside (an excellent grassroots local news site) when they reported that a dozen protesters had destroyed two police cars. Because I was also standing very close to those police cars when the first window was smashed, I tweeted back, “Just remember over 1000 protesters NOT destroying police cars.” They responded, “Yes, there are lots of peaceful people but they are overshadowed by those who are not. Basic fact.”
The violence and destruction got much worse in Berkeley last night after I had gone home. And Berkeleyside was right. The news entertainment stories are pretty much entirely about that violence. And those of us, let me be clear, those 1000+ of us who were nonviolent are expressing frustration that the focus on violence has made it The Story, because it is only a distraction from The Message.
But here is the distinction we have to make. Violence has always been The Story in American history. Violence is at the very heart of our narratives of origin. Violence is celebrated in our country’s telling of its own story. Violence is glamorized and uncritically embraced. Violence is the key organizing point around how history is taught in our classrooms from K-12 and beyond. Our children are weaned from breast to violence. Violence is how our country continues to try to solve its problems. When we feel ourselves threatened or when we are in/directly attacked, the war cry goes up.
Our country meets violence with escalated violence.
Even more destructive than that, violence is the the story left untold: the violence of displacement and genocide of the indigenous people who once inhabited this land; the violence of the middle passage, slave auctions, and disgusting dehumanization of slavery; the violence of rape and the destruction of black families separated and sold into slavery when the middle passage was shut down; the violence of lynching performed on Sundays afternoons for the good white church folk who had their picnics around the strange fruit hanging from the trees; the violence of welfare reform and underfunded schools and decimated social services; the violence of bailed out banks and sold out poor people with predatory loans across their backs; the violence that kills gay, lesbian, and transgendered people; the violence of the new Jim Crow.
Violence is not a distraction from the story. It is The Story we crave like a fiend craves heroin.
The fact that some protesters can find no other way to embody resistance other than through violent means is not their failing alone. It is also ours.
The distraction comes in when we tell the story of violence without accompanying it with the intentional telling of the rest of the story:
This is a movement of hundreds of thousands of protesters across the United States that both calls for and embodies peaceful protest rooted in love. These peaceful protesters are continuing to engage in holy disruption even when it means they need to take into consideration that they may come home severely injured because of the actions of others. These peaceful protesters bring water to share with one another; link arms with strangers as they shut down freeways; arrange for volunteer medics with supplies to counteract teargas and bandage wounds; walk for miles and miles and miles because the Spirit compels us to; lie down in the streets because others have been killed and left for hours there.
Violence is not a distraction from the story. Nor is it The Story. Let’s please take the time to talk about complex things in the manner they deserve.
Dr. Jennifer Davidson’s detailed account of Saturday evening’s protest can be found here. She is Associate Professor of Worship & Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Follow her on Twitter: @momentofbeing.
The following is my detailed account of my experience at the Occupy Oakland, Ferguson to the Bay protest on Saturday night, December 6, 2014. I am Jennifer Davidson and I am Associate Professor of Worship & Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. I attended this protest with my dear friend and colleague Sharon Fennema, Assistant Professor of Worship at Pacific School of Religion, also a GTU member school. We also walked beside my dean at ABSW, LeAnn Snow Flesher. The details below are as best as I can remember. I can only speak to my own experience, not to others. I believe the only way we can get a sense of the complexities of people’s presence and responses at a massive protest is to be present ourselves.We attended this protest because it was one way to live out our faith with integrity. To see my tweets from the protest go to @momentofbeing on Twitter
I first arrived a little before 5:00 which was when the protest was set to begin. Sharon and I had agreed to meet about a block away from the protest so we would be able to find one another. Because it wasn’t far from my seminary, I parked in my spot and walked from there. I saw my dean’s car in her spot when I got there, so I texted her to let her know I was headed to the protest in case she wanted to meet up with me there. I think she might’ve already been on her way to it, though, so when I got to the site I met up with both her and Sharon.
The crowd was fairly small at the outset and I was hoping the protest wouldn’t be a dud. I’d guess there were maybe fifty or eighty of us from the start. We stood in a circle around a couple folks who were part of the organizers and we chanted and sang for a bit there. Maybe twenty minutes. Maybe not that long.
Then we headed out and started walking straight up Telegraph. The crowd swelled as we walked down the street. We swept between cars that had come to a standstill. We moved through the whole main business section of Telegraph, and then came to a stop in the middle of an intersection. The organizers did a human mic check – something that comes from the Occupy Movement. A person in the center of the circle shouts Mic Check! And the crowd responds Mic Check! Until everyone quiets down. Then an organizer gives an update and proposes a question phrase by phrase as it is repeated by the crowd for the crowd in waves. The question was whether to proceed to Rockridge (which I think might technically be Oakland) or to head to downtown Berkeley. Initially the group seemed to lean toward Rockridge, but there was internal pushback for downtown Berkeley. And then someone shouted “Downtown for Michael Brown!” And the decision was made.
The organizer warned us that if we chose downtown that we would be encountering police, and this seemed to galvanize us further. They instructed us to keep moving if we saw police, calmly and stalwartly.
LeAnn had to peel off at this point, because of a significant foot injury (suffered previously, not at the protest) that prevented her from walking too far. But she texted me shortly after she left us and said that if I were arrested I was to call her for help. I was deeply proud to work for American Baptist Seminary in that moment.
We turned down a small residential street in Berkeley, chanting all the while. Some of it directed toward residents who came out on their porches to either simply observe or to put their hands up in support. Families holding children on their hips, and wide-eyed children. “Wake up, Berkeley!” We shouted. “Take to the Streets!”
“Whose streets? Our streets!”
“No violence! No fear! The people are here!”
“Indict. Convict. Send those racist cops to jail; The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
“Eric Garner! Michael Brown! Shut it down! Shut it down!”
“Every city, every town! Shut it down! Shut it down!”
“No justice! No peace! No racist police!”
“We don’t get no justice; They don’t get no peace!”
“If we remember, they will live!”
It was very difficult to tell what the size of the protest was at this point. Sharon and I were maybe a hundred people back from the front. And when I turned around there was a sea of people behind me.
The protesters were a diverse group of people. More young people than not. More white people than people of color, but maybe not by much. Our leaders were mostly people of color, including an Asian woman with a bullhorn and African American women as well.
We got to Shattuck – the major road that goes through downtown – and made our way to a major intersection where we stopped and gathered in a giant circle again. Again they deployed the human mic, and asked if we wanted to stage a die in or keep marching. The response was very mixed. Then a black woman amended the proposal and said, “We can stage a die in and then continue marching.” And the response was affirmative.
We lay down on the street in the middle of the intersection and continued to chant from there. A helicopter, that had been following us since we were on the side street coming from Telegraph hovered overhead. A black man lit sage in the middle of the intersection, kneeling over it and coaxing the embers and smoke with his breath.
With the human mic, a call went out to “hold the space and hold a moment of silence” for Michael Brown and his family, for Eric Garner, for Tamir Rice, for the Ohlone and indigenous people who died on this land, for the transgendered woman killed by Berkeley police the year before. The last words of a human mic are often “Thank you!” And this was the case now as well. So just before we fell silent, we lay on the street and all called out, “Thank you!” Then the silence came upon us and all was still except for the sound of the helicopter blades above.
After two full minutes, the human mic started to chant again. And soon we were back on our feet, deciding where to go next. To the police station and city hall. We moved past Berkeley High School, and I thought of walking hand-in-hand with Elliot through those same streets eleven years ago when he was five-years-old.
When we arrived there, we were met with a line of police in full riot gear standing in front of the station, protecting it from us. Merely the presence of the police got some folks riled up. And you could feel the tension in the air building dangerously. Some portion of the protestors broke off and started to head up another street. Some lined up to face the police, some shouting at them. There were lots of chants of “Fuck the police!” which I never joined in on. But these chants reached a fever pitch outside the station. One homeless man weaved throughout the crowd, a knapsack and sleeping mat around his back. He would bend over at his waist and shout so that his voice was raw, “Fuck the police!” over and over. Personally, I hate that message. But I couldn’t help but hear the agony in his voice, the instability that was embodied in it, the desperation, the rage. He continued to shout this, weaving in and out of us, for miles and miles.
One group began playing hip hop loudly – and I was thrilled to see that broadcast music from speakers on a bicycle had become 21st century protest music. People had drums, too, which accompanied us through the whole march. A group of women broadcast a hip hop song and performed a choreographed dance. A group of us sat down in front of the police line and sang in a call and response fashion with a young Black woman leading us: “Whose side are you on? Whose side are you one? We’re on freedom side.” Most of the people gathered most closely to the police – including those of us sitting and singing, and those gathered around the dancers – were women.
The call for us to keep moving, keep marching, came. And we started to head toward University – and straight toward a police barricade two blocks away.
More police in riot gear stretched across the street, intending to keep the protest from moving on to University where we could disrupt the most Berkeley traffic. We pressed toward the police, I stood a few people back from the front. The police’s faces were mostly placid, but alert. They avoided eye contact fairly steadfastly.
A hole in the barrier was found along the sidewalk. I later learned from my protest partner Sharon, after we had poured through it, that police are not permitted to prevent us from passing on a sidewalk–though this was the last time they would allow it that night. Calls came to “tighten up” and keep pressing forward so the police would not be able to block off the passageway. We poured through the breach and soon protestors surrounded police on both sides – a decidedly vulnerable position for them.
As people shouted at the police, one of the officers reached out and pushed a much older white man with white hair so that he was hurtled to the ground. This was the first act of violence that night. And police were the ones to escalate it. The response from some of the protestors was immediate and frightening. The cohesiveness of the crowd was strained – the call had been for peaceful, nonviolent protests. But with the first sign of violence, again started by the police not the protestors, had ignited something.
We urged the crowd forward. Sharon and I now near the moving front edge of the protest–trying to help draw the protestors away from the police where the tension was much too high. “Stay together!” A sing-song chant went up. “Keep on marching!”
Eventually the critical mass got the crowd moving again and we reached the intersection of University and Martin Luther King Blvd. When we got to the intersection I turned and looked back toward the police station. Protestors and police were still engaged, and soon smoke began pouring down the blocks. Protestors say it was the first tear gas of the night, and I thought so, too. The wind was blowing away from me, but I could feel a burning in my throat. Police are saying it was protestors who threw smoke bombs. I was too far away to confirm either position.
But I can say that very soon after the smoke began to pour out, we started to hear a deep, almost bellowing crunch. Crates were being lifted up and thrown in the air toward the plate glass windows of Trader Joes. I could see frightened faces inside the store. And I felt the air get sucked out of the space. The Spirit, I felt, had departed from us. This is not the way.
I say it had departed without naming the Spirit’s presence earlier. But it was in the sudden evacuation of the Spirit that I was able to perceive so clearly the Spirit’s presence before. The departure was not permanent either. It was a departure that worked to suck away energy, you see. Not to fuel it. It was a departure intended to gentle.
I joined in a chant going up – hands raised above me in the vulnerable posture of “Hands up! Don’t Shoot” and in the ancient prayerful posture known as the orans. We called out, “Peaceful protest! No more violence! Peaceful protest! No more violence!” Over and over.
A white woman, young, turned and shouted at me. I paused and leaned over so I could hear her better. She screamed, “It should be violent!” And I shook my head and kept on chanting.
Media reports say there was looting of the store and the stealing of alcohol. I did not personally see any looting at the store. But the windows that were broken were precisely where cases and bottles of alcohol were stacked. So that bottles of wine and liquor broke in the middle of street, filling the air with the sweet and and pungent smell of the alcohol. I thought of the judgment prophecies of Amos and Isaiah – when the prophet condemns us for putting our resources and fields toward the growing of grapes for wine when people are starving. Wine running through the streets seemed right in its own way. Though I do not condone the damage and violence done.
What seemed clear to me, and to others, was that stopping and standing still was not a good idea. If we could keep moving, the violence would dissipate. So a few of us started shouting “To the freeway!” in order to give us a sense of direction again, and clear purpose. “To the freeway!”
The Spirit returned then, and the crowd moved again. Pouring (we were like water when we moved together) through the street and between cars. People stuck in their cars rolled down their windows and put their hands up in support. They honked their horns in encouragement, not frustration. They high-fived passing protestors.
Several blocks away, we heard that bellowing crunching sound again and turned to see anarchists smashing the windows of the Radio Shack. And a few blocks from there, the front windows of Wells Fargo bank.
Dozens and dozens of smaller, independent, ethnically and locally owned businesses remained in tact. People in the restaurants that lined the road also put their hands up in support of the protestors – another action that breathed more energy, more goodwill into the crowd.
The selection of the places that were damaged was not random, in other words. While we progressives love Trader Joe’s – and they are a good corporation – it was clear that it was the major corporations that were being targeted along the way. In part, corporations that would be able to weather and afford the damage. But also specifically, I believe, to send a message to all massive corporations and banks that business as usual must end.
For most of the way down University Avenue toward the freeway, two police officers (not in riot gear) rode ahead of us on their bicycles. Sharon and I had the distinct impression they were moving ahead to shut down intersections for us as we moved along down the street. These two officers were not at all confrontational. In fact, they could have easily gone unnoticed completely by most of the protestors altogether.
When we got to University and Seventh, we could see a full line of riot gear police stretching across the overpass of the freeway, and across the road and sidewalks ahead, preventing our access to the freeway. There was indecision in the crowd at this point. Some folks called for us to veer off and head to Fourth Street, something Sharon and I shouted against for fear of considerable more damage that could potentially be done to this shopping district in the city. (Later I realized that protestors were likely trying to find a breach in the wall of police.) Some of the crowd headed in that direction. Some must have turned around and started back up University (because we would end up reuniting with this larger group again soon), and some of us stayed to go toe-to-toe with the police. We could see the plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts, and Sharon and I reaffirmed our commitment to one another that if it came to it we would willingly be arrested.
The police had blocked off all exit routes except the way we had come. They were down the block on either side of Sixth Street, standing just in the shadows. Experienced protestors around us explained that those police were the ones with pepper spray, and that it would be stupid to head into the shadows with them. Stay in the well lit area, was the advice, where cameras can pick up on what is happening. And the area where we were standing was well lit, indeed, as a police helicopter hovered above us and kept its spotlight on us. “Look around you!” A Latina woman cried out. “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” Other Latinas stood nearby chanting in Spanish.
But it wasn’t too long before we realized the critical mass of the protest had left us – and it seemed unwise to continue to confront the lines of police who now significantly outnumbered us. So we began walking back the way we had just come. An older white woman with white hair walked backwards, addressing the crowd of much younger protestors as she walked: “You are in the right. Stay strong! Take care of one another! Do not lose heart! What you are doing is real! Take care of one another!”
In fact, protestors were taking care of one another. The only time conflict and acrimony rose up among the protestors themselves were when windows were being broken. The rest of the time protestors were kind and gentle with one another. Polite, even. Being careful about personal space. Growing quiet and listening when decision moments were upon us. Several people carried water in sacks or in bicycle baskets and handed it out freely until it was gone. Others had Clif Bars and distributed them to people who needed it. People checked in with one another: “You doing ok? Where are we heading now?” And experienced protestors gave us newbies helpful advice. Reminding us never to run. Warning us of police tactics.
Our smaller group met up with the larger protest around San Pablo where the protest turned again and began taking that street as well. The sense that our movements were fluid and adaptable – and truly intended to avoid confrontation with police but also equally intended to disrupt life-as-usual – felt exactly right to me. This massive body of people was moving like a school of fish moves in the ocean, or a flock of birds in the sky.
Except the police were fully mobilized at this point. And they were good at what they were doing. They had barricade after barricade in place, and as the crowd would round an intersection, they would move their line in and cut us off from one another over and over. So that our numbers kept dwindling, communication was cut off, confusion was running through the crowd. We were corralled into smaller and smaller streets. Through residential streets and away from main thoroughfares. Some protestors overturned trash and recycling bins and threw them into the street. Other protestors collected the trash and moved the bins back to the curbs.
We turned one corner, and then the next, until finally we were blocked in completely. No way to turn around. No way to move forward. The police were forcing a confrontation.
The only possible route of escape was through a fenced-off parking lot. Protestors grabbed a hold of the wire fence and started pushing, swaying with their full weight, back and forth trying to tear the fence down. Eventually a breach was formed and we were on the move again. Two women stood on top of the collapsed fence, to keep it from catapulting back into place. They reached their hands up to help each of us down a two or three foot jump into the lot. Two-by-two we moved and dashed through the lot to the other end where we had to scale the chest-high fence on the other side to get back to University Avenue, which felt like a victory.
I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury for some months now, and knew I would pay dearly for climbing the fence. I used to be good at that when I was ten-years-old. Not so good at 45. A white man stood on the other side, younger than me by far. He reached over to help me up, and as I reached the top, I heard an explosive, low pop. I felt alarm and even more urgency ripple through the crowd. “Don’t panic!” Protestors called to one another. “Don’t let them frighten you.”
I later learned the sound I’d heard was a canister being shot into the crowd. It hit an African American man on the leg, causing him to collapse as soon as he reached the sidewalk by University Avenue. Cries for a medic went up. Someone stuck in their car on University jumped out and ran to assist the fallen man.
Sharon and I moved toward the intersection of University and Acton where the crowd was gathering – again confronted with a line of police. I glanced behind me and saw another line of police – a long, thick line of police – take several steps up University and toward us. I’d learned by this time that this was how they would cut us off from one another. And people were still climbing and clamoring over the fences to join the rest of us.
I called out to Sharon and said, “Come back here! They are going to cut us off again! Don’t let them cut us off!”
The two of us moved out so we were just beyond the point where the fence breach was and stood facing the police – now about 100 yards away – with our hands raised above our heads.
We kept hearing more cries for help and for more medics. Another person was down on the ground near the edge of the parking lot. Every now and then, the line of police would take several more steps toward us. Sharon and I stood stock still, intending not to move an inch until all the protestors were reunited. Holding the space.
A young white man walked near Sharon and I and said, “He needs ice. I need to get him ice. I think I can get it from that bar over there, but it’s near the police line. I’m afraid they will shoot me if I go near them.”
“You can do it!” Sharon called.
“Just move slowly!” I cried. “Be careful. Put your hands up so they can see them!”
Soon, a wave of riot police came sweeping around the parking lot corner forming a line two or three deep to our right. They were now even with the injured man (the man they had injured) who was lying on the sidewalk. They refused to assist him.
Pretty much simultaneously the line of police across University moved swiftly toward us until they stood less than a foot away from Sharon and me and now a full line of protestors who stood beside us. It was at this point that I thought arrests were about to begin. And I stood calmly, ready for what was next, whatever it was. A young white man beside me got down on his knees and held his hands up. Holding fast.
The police that I saw in that line were all white. They were also all fairly young. They were also Oakland police, not Berkeley police. And they were also, with the exception of one person, male. It was the female officer who began poking me in the arm to try to force me back. It was a male officer who began poking Sharon in the sternum to push her back. A young white woman stood beside me. I later learned that she was also from the GTU, a student at PSR. I was proud that we were three people on the front line. There because we felt called to be there. There because our theologies mandate it of us. There because as followers of Christ we were supposed to be there. There because as baptized people of faith we had nothing to fear, not because we wouldn’t be injured. But because we have already died in the waters of baptism. And all that is before us is life. Even in death.
The captain addressed me and said, “Is there an injured man over there on the sidewalk?” “Yes,” I replied. He said, “Well we’re going to need you to cooperate and back up so we can get an ambulance to him. I understand you are peacefully protesting. But we need you to help us out here. Can you move back?”
I looked in his eyes, but couldn’t tell much that way. I knew I’d heard a protestor, another woman, on the phone earlier calling for an ambulance. And I had wondered how an ambulance would get through. So I called out around me, “They need to get an ambulance through!”
The line of police moved forward again.
Later, I realized there was no ambulance. The tactic, which I heard the captain call out to his men, was to push us to the crosswalk of the intersection where we would be “given to Berkeley.” In other words, they wanted us back in Berkeley’s jurisdiction fully. And they used the unattended injured man as leverage toward that end.
The same officer came to me a few minutes later, as I stood on the crosswalk, and said, “I need you to help me. Are you willing to help?”
“What do you need?” I asked him. He pointed to a belligerent protestor, a white man, shouting at the officers about ten feet away from me. “Will you go and try to calm him down?”
I didn’t know the man. And I am not trained in conflict management. I felt the police officer was asking me to do something dangerous, and thought he was being irresponsible in doing so. I shook my head and said, “No.”
“We’re asking you to police yourselves,” he said to me, his voice edgy. “We’re asking for your help. You don’t want to help us? You don’t want to cooperate with us? Are you refusing to cooperate?”
I just shook my head no, and said nothing else to him. I was out of my league. I was afraid of being coopted.
A white woman came then and stood between Sharon and me. She identified herself by name to the officer and told him she was a lawyer. He initially rebuffed her, then began to listen. I couldn’t hear what she said, but very soon thereafter an officer got on the bullhorn and declared this an illegal assembly. Sharon suggested later that the lawyer may have been the one to instruct the officer that they must do that before any arrests could be made.
By this time our critical mass had been severely weakened. We could see some of our group holding signs but caught behind the line of police. Another large group of protestors had already moved back up University. It was clear that momentum had shifted. And it seemed pointless to stand there and be arrested when the protest had perhaps ended. The crowd dispersed.
We’d been at it for about four hours at that point. And Sharon and I were hungry and thirsty. We decided to walk back to downtown Berkeley to a restaurant and support local business on a tense night when business had been perhaps especially poor.
We ended up talking with a young woman who had come in to the restaurant to wait until things calmed down before heading back home from work. She regretted that she’d not yet been able to join in any protests because she has to work every night. But she talked about how effective that night’s protest had been in terms of helping to raise awareness. “A lot of people were asking me at work tonight, ‘What are they protesting?'” We talked about the possible longevity of this movement. And our hopes for a unified, organized action for the month of February. And that maybe the persistent protests will cause enough of a burden on this “guilty as hell system” that it will eventually make more sense to actually reform it than to keep on doing things as they’ve always been done. We talked about the major progress in police training in the City of Richmond, and the hope we feel in that movement. We talked about the incomplete work of the Civil Rights Movement, and the need for more radical change. We talked of our hope that this would happen. That energy will build. That the Spirit will breathe.
I took a cab back from downtown Berkeley to my car which was parked in the lot at American Baptist Seminary of the West. (We had walked nearly eight miles by that time.) But I checked my Twitter feed while I was in the cab, and saw that the protest had moved back to Telegraph near Blake. (Just three blocks from the seminary.) I advised my cabby and told him to drop me short of there so he wouldn’t get stuck in any stoppages. I didn’t want him to lose a night’s worth of business because I was trying to get to my car.
I climbed out of the cab and immediately felt the sting of teargas in my throat. I pulled my bandana up over my nose and mouth to help filter the air a bit. And I rejoined the protestors as we marched back up Telegraph, stopping at Channing at yet another police line, this one with a massive armored vehicle behind it. Again, lines of police stood on the side streets, just in the shadows. Away from TV cameras and too dark for livestream cameras to pick them up.
It didn’t feel right to leave. But by this time I’d lost my accountability partner. And I was getting texts from my husband and son begging me to return home. The news reports had been filing in at home, and they were worried about me. My son told Doug that he was both proud of me and angry at me for being there.
I wavered a bit. The feel of the protest had changed. I was hearing reports of police violence and military-grade teargas being deployed on Ashby by the BART station. I knew the protest was far from over, and that things were going to continue to get worse. It didn’t feel right to turn and walk back to my car, leaving people behind. But I did.
When I got to my car, there was trash strewn across the lot from our dumpster at the seminary. So I stooped down and cleaned up all that I could before climbing into my car, texting my family that I was on my way, and driving home.
This was my experience with the Berkeley Protest last night. I can only speak from my own experience of it. I saw hundreds and hundreds of peaceful protestors. I saw maybe a couple dozen violent protestors. I saw hundreds of calm policemen and one relatively calm, though confrontational policewoman. I saw hundreds of police corralling protestors and forcing a confrontation. I saw police push men with white hair so that they hurtled to the ground. I saw a man lying injured by a canister shot by police. I saw this man attended to by protestors and left to lie there by the police who had injured him. I saw lots of support by onlookers in cars and restaurants. I saw wide-eyed children taking it in.