Open Letter to St. Paul's Mayor and Police Chief After Arrests on Interstate 94

July 12, 2016
Mayor Chris Coleman
Police Chief Todd Axtell
City of St. Paul
St. Paul, MN 55406-1322

Dear Mayor Coleman and Chief Axtell,

I wish I was able to have been in the streets on Saturday night with some of my friends, standing in solidarity as a white ally to Black Lives Matter – alas, I couldn’t risk arrest because of a recent blood clot requires medicine twice a day for the next three months and I couldn’t take the risk of being unable to take that medicine. I, like many of those friends, have taken training in “militant nonviolence” as a way of working for social change which I think you also must recognize must happen quickly  - especially in the wake of the killing of Philando Castille – if we are to avoid even greater social disorder and disruption.

I think you’ve made a terrible mistake in judgment in “overcharging” most of those arrested on Interstate 94 with Third-degree Riot. Did you notice that most of those who were so-charged were white, middle-class activist-types who have been the bedrock of our communities for years? [Please note: the “overcharging” refers to a peaceful, nonviolent gathering –with the notable exception of some outsiders not affiliated with Black Lives Matter and/or Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) activists – rather than the fact that most were “white” or middle-class.]

Many of those arrested went there precisely for that purpose: to commit public civil disobedience as an act of solidarity with people of color to stay to them: as a white ally, I feel your pain, hurt, and suffering. I, too, want to end the silence in our state about the system of white silence which allows the continuation of policies of white supremacy to infect our police departments. [I say this with a deep sadness as someone who deeply loves and cares for my brother-in-law in western Pennsylvania who is both a retired Chief of Police and a retired Mayor of his hometown, the small city of New Kensington. While he an I have our friendly disagreements about the use and tactic of civil disobedience, I know he, like you, is fair-minded and full of distress at the racial chasm we have allowed to fester in our nation.]

I am one of the 25 white allies arrested for blocking the Light Rail tracks on the afternoon of the Twins Opener this April and will be in court to face those charges next week. I am ready and willing to go to jail as an act of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis for it. I‘m grateful to hear that you, Chief Axtell, publicly stated yesterday that you will continue to work with the Black Lives Matter movement as Chief. I was present and grateful to first encounter you several weeks ago before your appointment as Chief of Police when you came to the event at a mosque/Islamic Center in Frogtown on Islamaphobia and stood side-by-side with the Imam and said how necessary it is to work together to better our community. I was there as a white Christian ally to show my Muslim brothers and sisters that they are a valued part of our community.

If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion to both of you for the next time such a confrontation occurs: give the mandated 3 warnings and then make the requisite arrests without the smoke bombs and pepper spray. Yes, keep your officers safe – I, too, like most of my friends absolutely denounce the handful of self-proclaimed “anarchists” who hide in the crowd and throw stones and invectives while covering their faces and their shameful acts. Just arrest those who are there who want to be arrested as an act of solidarity and want to be able to stand in Court to denounce our white supremist system which so devalues the lives of others – both Black Lives as well as Blue Lives. Those self-proclaimed “anarchists” want nothing more than a police over-reaction and the chaos it produces and gives many of my true anarchist friends who are committed to a thoroughgoing nonviolence a bad name.

I can say with certain assurance that my friend and neighbor, Linda Clare Breitag, along with her daughter Sophia Breitag, who were charged with “third-degree riot” and held in your jail for two nights acted with the best of intentions as white allies and their treatment and jailing brings disgrace and shame to your great city. Yes, I expect both of you to take a stand defending your police – especially when they are under physical attack – while not falling into the trap of those who seek more chaos into our seething racial cauldron.

I, too, question some of the tactics of some of the young leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement – especially in blocking interstate highways – but it is obvious (at least to me) that our previous nonviolent tactics have so far not brought about the justice and brotherhood (and sisterhood) that Dr. King died for almost 50 years ago. I am willing to suspend my own preferences of tactical style to allow this new generation of leadership to emerge as long as they continue to embrace nonviolence. We need to find a way to separate out those few actors (in both the ranks of the police as well as “protesters”) who seek violent confrontation rather than threat de-escalation.

I don’t covet your difficult jobs – but surely both of you could do better. Please, at the very least, drop the scurrilous charge of “riot” while leaving at appropriate change of “failure to obey a lawful order” or “impeding traffic on a highway” and recognize the important role that civil disobedience has always played in social change in our nation.


Steve Clemens
2912 E. 24th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55406-1322
Dan Berrigan: Mentor and Inspiration by Steve Clemens, May 3, 2016

I don’t think I heard about the draft file burning at Catonsville, MD until a year or two later. After all, our high school baseball team was hoping to win its second straight Ivy Prep League title (we fell one game short with me in the on-deck circle with bases-loaded and two outs) and I was caught up in Senior Weekend and my up-coming graduation. Even Dr. King’s assassination the month before didn’t register in my sheltered life at an all-boys college prep school on Long Island. My life of privilege allowed me to virtually ignore the increasing carnage of the Vietnam War because it was assumed all 41 of our graduating class of 1968 would be attending college and receive “student deferments” as long as we maintained a decent grade-point average.

I do remember thinking that the destruction of property, coupled with the fact that most of the actors of the Catonsville 9 were Roman Catholic, was not an appropriate act of dissent when I became aware of it about a year after the May 17, 1968 occurrence. At the time of their trial, I was wrestling with the momentous decision of registering for the military draft. A month earlier I was issued a rifle and a uniform as part of my registration at Wheaton College; all male students were required to enroll in U.S. Army ROTC unless they had an honorable discharge from military service or a 4-F (physically or morally unfit for service) or 1-O (conscientious objector) status from their draft board. I was scheduled to register for Selective Service on October 16 when I turned 18 years old.

It was not an easy decision; my father had left his Mennonite heritage and entered the U.S. Army when drafted in World War II. He never talked to me (or to my brothers, I assumed) about his experience in France and Germany as a radioman in the infantry as his unit followed General George Patton’s soldiers. Only after his 80th birthday did he share any details with us about this period of his life and then mostly to say he wasn’t proud of the things he had done but he had “promised the Lord that if he got home safely”, he’d return to the church and “follow the Lord.” Even though the Mennonite Church my Dad helped found in 1950 never affiliated with any of the Mennonite conferences and did not stress the traditional “peace witness” expected of Mennonites, I was aware that some of my relatives were pacifist or conscientious objectors even if my parents weren’t.

After prayer, reading scripture, and talking with a Resident Assistant on my college dorm wing, I decided that I must register as a conscientious objector – to all wars, not just the current one in Vietnam. But it was a personal decision – a moral stand as an individual – rather than a social or political decision at that point. I couldn’t in good conscience take up a gun to kill the Vietnamese but I also wasn’t sitting in judgment on those who did go or my government’s “foreign policy”. I knew little about what was happening in “the far East” other than what my parent’s copies of US News and World Report stressed: those “godless Communists” were killing our “Christian missionaries” and wanted to force their atheism on all of southeast Asia.

So Father Daniel Berrigan, his brother Phil Berrigan and the other actors of the drama at the Draft Board office in Catonsville, Maryland didn’t register. A year after becoming a conscientious objector, I started participating in anti-war marches on the Wheaton, Illinois Draft Board, led by “Father Tom”, a Maryknoll order priest from nearby Glen Ellyn. Sometime that fall or early winter I came across Dan’s book about their trial, The Trial of The Catonsville Nine. I was struck by Dan’s poetic description of the draft files – they were cast as “hunting licenses for human beings.” That made me re-think what was really going on. As I spent more time with Father Tom and other “radical Catholics” at anti-war marches or taking courses at the Maryknoll Seminary where he taught, I was struck by their vibrant Christian faith and was jolted from my anti-Catholic upbringing.

That was a good thing as the books of Dan Berrigan fed my soul and spirit in a way that few others did. No Bars to Manhood, The Dark Night of Resistance, Night Flight to Hanoi, They Call Us Dead Men, The Raft is Not the Shore, America is Hard To Find, To Dwell In Peace, We Die Before We Live,  …. The list could go on and on, especially his commentaries on the Psalms (Uncommon Prayer), the Prophets, Lamentations, Exodus, … Again, insight, challenge, humor, conviction. I didn’t understand probably half of his poetry – but what I did understand, wow! Especially “No and Yes and the Whole Damned Thing” that was published in Sojourners Magazine in 1976.

I only met Dan Berrigan a few times – the first being at my first arrest for civil disobedience a month before the Vietnam War ended. He was one of the 62 of us who refused to leave the grounds of the White House in March 1975, demanding that we meet with President Ford to reject the continued funding of the South Vietnamese military and in rejecting what we called his “punitive clemency” program for Vietnam War draft resisters. I was much closer to his brother Phil and his partner in resistance, Liz McAlister, having joined their Bible study group the year before. In 1980 I heard Dan speak at a national Fellowship of Reconciliation gathering at Berea College and then in the mid-1980s Dan came to our Georgia communities gathering at Koinonia Farm to lead a weekend Bible study on the book of Revelations. I saw him again briefly at larger gatherings or demonstrations but his inspiration and challenge to me was much greater than my personal contact with him.

What stands out most vividly was his claim that our [Christian] baptism is an embracing of the life and crucifixion of Jesus, and, when we are raised out of the water, our resurrection to new life means that there is nothing the state can do to threaten us if we’ve already chosen to “die with Christ”. The state has no power over us since it’s most harsh sanction, death, has already been embraced in our choosing to follow Jesus. The state can jail us – but we’ve already “died to Christ.” They Call Us Dead Men – if we can excuse the pre-feminist exclusionary language – was Dan’s call to me to act out of my faith rather than my fears. Dan didn’t just write about faith and resistance, he embodied it. He incarnated his faith by standing in the street, hammering warheads, ministering to other fellow prisoners, and sharing the Eucharist with all who gathered.

Dan, I love you, I thank you, I miss you. But I know your spirit is still with us every time we gather to say “No” and “Yes” – not too soon, not too quickly, not too easily, not too cheaply. Until our “No” is swallowed up in [Christ’s] “Yes”. We are called to continue on the path you trod for the past 50+ years.

No and yes and the whole damn thing … A poem by Daniel Berrigan. 1976

   What is the point in saying no,
What is the point in not saying no?
   The questions make sense as long as there is a point toward which the questions are moving.
   If I say no, and there is a point at distance, at which someone is saying yes, then it makes sense to say no; for my no is transfigured, hastening into that yes.
   If I do not say no, and there is a point at distance at which someone is saying yes, then my not saying no also makes sense, as long as I am attentive to that yes, and want my not naysaying to echo and be included in that yes.
   I may however say no in a void, just as I may refuse to say no, in a void. In which case my no saying and my non no saying are lost in a void.
   We look for land marks, we look for sea marks.
   “When we are seated in a moving vessel and our eyes are fixed upon an object on the same vessel, we do not notice that we are moving. But if we look further, upon something that is not moving along with us, for instance upon the coast, we notice immediately that we are moving. It is the same with life. When the whole world lives wrongly we fail to notice it, but should only one person awake spiritually, the life of all others becomes immediately apparent. And the others always persecute those who do not live like them.”
   We must come from somewhere if we are to go somewhere.
   We must go somewhere if we are to remember that we come from somewhere.
   There is only one word in all creation. ‘Jesus is the YES of God.’ (Paul)
   We however dwell on the other side of that yes; the grave side, the dark side, the death side, the underside.
   So it is important not to say yes too soon, too easily, too often, too cheaply. This would be to debase the currency of life itself which is not a money, but the blood of our brothers and sisters, the blood of Christ.
   Just as it is important not to say no in a void. This would be to join our voices to the despairing wail of the damned.
   It is important to say no in view of, in the direction of, a yes which is forever distant, forever nearing.
   Because we are hungry for fullness, for non death, for life, for non suffering.
   Because we cannot merely stand by  or bystand or spectate or grandstand or freeload or grimace.
   Because a because joins us, life to lifeline, to the cause of goodness, of love, of truth in deed.
   Because the distance between the no we insist on and the yes that insists on us, is constantly narrowing, reaching, almost touching.
   Therefore our word to all systems of this world, right, left, center, imperial, colonial, fascist, racist, capitalist, Marxist, maoist, castroist, reformist, is
   Not yet, not enough, not quite, not at all, not by a half, not by a long shot.
   Ours being an ethic of the promise, implying that we keep our promise; to say no until the day when our no is swallowed in His yes; until then we await and press forward and trust to His keeping of the promise which is to say a payment no power or form or arrangement of this world can estimate or hand over to mint or hoard or bribe us with
a war payment but more
a blood sacrifice and more
a livid stigma and more
   His payment coming due on His day; nothing less than the substance of his promise which is our rising from the ‘body of this death’
Life unimaginable
to the degree that our misery, our moral stagnation, our spiritual and corporal and social plague, is beyond healing
any healing but one; maranatha, come Lord Jesus.

Embodied Solidarity

Embodied Solidarity by Steve Clemens. April 13, 2016

To the casual observer, the sight might have been striking to a proponent of “American exceptionalism”: 25 activists who appeared to be white according to our nation’s obsession with racial identity, arms linked together, taking instructions and directions from a group of black women. Blocking the tracks of the Light Rail transit system as well as two adjacent streets, this action shut down the traffic outside Target Field for the Minnesota Twins home opener.

On the other side of this publicly funded stadium, another group of Catholic Workers and local faith community leaders were being led by another group of women of color in blocking a different intersection as some dropped a large “Justice 4 Jamar” banner from the over-looking parking ramp by the main entrance to the ball park. Inside, as the National Anthem was being sung, two additional activists hung banners over the large black wall in centerfield. They read, “ Re-open Jamar’s Case” and “Target Field: End Your Slave Labor.”

Back outside, signs reading “White Silence = Violence”, “White Silence Kills”, and “White Silence Killed Jamar” were directed at the predominately white-looking crowd attempting to enter the stadium. Some shouted encouragement, others angrily “flipped us the bird” or yelled for us to “Get a Job!” We sang, and chanted, led by our cadre of brave black women until the police issued their third warning to leave under threat of imminent arrest for trespass. Our leaders from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Black Liberation Project moved to the sidewalk with the others who had served as marshals as the police started to handcuff those of us remaining who were blocking the train and the street.

Less than two weeks before, my wife Christine and I were invited to be part of a walk along the Minnesota River led by Ojibwa elder, Sharon Day. The women carried a bucket of water drawn from the source of the river in west central Minnesota to be poured back into the river at its confluence with the Mississippi at a place called Bdote by the Dakota people. I was honored to carry the eagle staff behind the woman carrying the copper pail. We prayed for the river, thanked her for her gift of life to the land. We offered tobacco at ceremonies at the beginning and ending of each day of the walk with a moving ceremony at the conclusion of the walk on Friday near the repressive reminder of Ft. Snelling and it’s 1862-63 concentration camp for Dakota women and children. On Wednesday of the walk, we passed the memorial where 38 Dakota warriors were hung by the US Government in 1862 and while the tears and sadness of the memories from our past lingered as we walked, the river, fighting the pollution caused by industrial agriculture run-off, kept calling us to continue our prayerful journey. As the young Native girls threw an offering of corn, berries, wild rice, tobacco and other traditional symbols tied in a red cloth into the river at the end, two eagles circled overhead. I remembered a Native friend who told me that “eagles circling” are carrying our prayers to the Great Spirit.
In another two months, Christine and I will join some Muslim friends at an Iftar – the meal to break the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan at a local mosque. We have done so for the past several years as a way for Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others gather to help break down the stereotypes and walls that often divide Americans. I remember how pleased my Iraqi friends were when our delegation visited the Holy Shrines in Karbala and Najaf, Iraq several years ago.

“Embodied solidarity” is a term used by a Wheaton College professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, as she donned an hijab during the weeks of Advent as many Muslims were being vilified in the media at the instigation of some Presidential candidates as well as religious “leaders”. She wanted to show with her body her oneness and connectedness to those often seen as “the other”. It cost her her job at the college, my alma mater after a storm of protest arose from the broader “evangelical” community. I already had many of my own reasons for distancing myself from Wheaton so this merely added to my list of grievances. But I am thankful for her witness and example. I, too, want to place my body in alliance with peoples pushed to the margins in our society, culture, and nation. 

Part of the time outside the Twins stadium I stood arm-in-arm with my dear friend, Kathy Kelly. She had told me in the past,  “Where you stand determines what you see.” I would add to that, “With whom you stand can also change your perspective.” Following the leadership of Lena Gardner and Candace Montgomery of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, the inspiration of Rev. Osagyefo Sekou of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the love and compassion for the water evidenced by Sharon Day of the Indigenous People’s Task Force, the passion of the action coordinators from the Black Liberation Project, and the insights and observations of my numerous Muslim friends has helped give this 65 year-old male who has for decades identified himself as “white” a window into a world of exciting and challenging diversity. Thank you!

As our signs read, “White silence kills.” Let’s break the silence among those who identify in our culture as “white” and recognize that racism against black people hurts me and you. Failure to include queer and transgender people diminishes all of us. We have much to learn (and repent for) from our indigenous neighbors. Muslims need to hear you embody a message of “welcome!” I don’t want to live in the mythical American “melting pot”. We don’t all need to blend together into some unidentifiable porridge; rather let’s embrace our diversity as we embrace one another and determine to reject the cancer of white supremacy which has poisoned our world. And, as Rev. Sekou beautifully and forcefully remind us in our training for “militant nonviolence”, we do this work out of “deep abiding love” and filled with “joy”.