Are We Too Tolerant of the Intolerant?

On Reading Infidel – Does Multiculturalism Threaten Us or is it Religion? By Steve Clemens. 12/1/08

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful and disturbing autobiography, Infidel stirred up conflicting emotions for me. For at least a year I refused to read what I perceived to be a screed by a recent convert against her old religious beliefs. Islam as a religion has been roundly bashed in some circles – especially since the events of September 11, 2001 – and such critiques play into the xenophobic stereotypes of “the other” by right-wing forces intent on protecting white privilege, Western cultural imperialism and patriarchal domination.

On the recommendation of a close friend who teaches English as a second (or third) language to immigrant students, I got a copy of the book from the library. Ali writes in a personal and engaging style and captures well her experience growing up in Somalia, fleeing to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, back to Somalia and finally to Kenya. Because her father was involved in trying to replace the corrupt Siad Barre government, he was in jail or exile for most of Ayaan’s childhood. It was when he decided to compel his daughter into a forced marriage that she decided to flee to the Netherlands. She renounces her Islamic faith and becomes a Member of Parliament. After a friend is assassinated and she faces constant threats against her own life, she ends up in the U.S.

While the personal story is compelling, what struck me most about this story is Ali’s observations about the tension between multiculturalism and toleration of Dutch society and the fundamentalist conservatism of many of the immigrants from predominately Muslim countries. She observed that even though she had “escaped” the rigidity of the cultural repression she experienced as a woman in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, she saw it re-imposed within the immigrant communities within Holland. Despite the ethic of tolerance and liberation touted by the Dutch society –clearly evidenced by the lack of restrictions on drug use and prostitution in areas of Amsterdam – within the pockets of immigrants from Morocco, Somalia, and other Muslim-dominated countries, the patterns of patriarchy and strict restrictions on the dress and behavior of women were maintained as if one had never left her homeland. Even stories of “kitchen surgeries” to perform male-mandated female genital mutilation were passed through the immigrant neighborhoods and had the effect of keeping others “in line”.

I don’t doubt the accuracy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s stories; I think she recorded them accurately. But on further reflection, it made me wonder if she hasn’t confused her cultural experiences with the predominate religious ideology that was also present in her upbringing. Female genital mutilation (FMG) is NOT a practice prescribed by Islam but rather a tribal tradition in parts of the world where a fundamentalism interpretation of the need for women’s submission dominates. Even though Indonesia is the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, I don’t hear stories of female genital mutilation occurring there. So the practice might not be endemic to Islam but rather parts of Africa that might also coincide with areas that are predominately Muslim.

However, the practice does coincide with a wider practice of mandating girls and women being covered when in public so as not to show exposed skin or accentuate one’s shape – so as not to “tempt” men. Again, while this is predominately mandated by male religious authorities who justify it on the basis of texts from the Quran (Koran), the enforcement of this practice varies widely among predominately Muslim cultures. Prior to the recent US war on Iraq, only a small minority of Iraqi Muslim women dressed in a full burka or even wore a hijab in public; many wore a modest scarf to cover their hair. I experienced a similar practice in both Jordan and Egypt when visiting in those countries.

But whether primarily cultural or mandated by certain religious interpretations and customs, the impact on women in the multicultural bastion of tolerance felt like an imprisonment to Ali. After all, she had fled to the Netherlands to escape the forced marriage arranged by her father. But within the immigrant neighborhoods where she found herself, the power and domination of the clans within Somali society resurfaced in Holland. The enforcement of cultural traditions and taboos had followed her to the west. When the Dutch, in being eager to embrace multiculturalism, allowed the immigrants to establish their own schools, they also helped perpetuate the continuation of practices that forced women into roles and behaviors that didn’t model the freedom and rights given others within Dutch society. Although Dutch law mandated education, in allowing schools which did not embrace the liberal human rights ideology of the larger society to indoctrinate their children within the patriarchal and misogynistic ideology of their African?/Islamic? traditions, the Dutch were inadvertently subverting their own communal values. As the birthrates of the immigrant population continue to greatly outpace that of the European Dutch, some of the proud Dutch traditions of tolerance might be in jeopardy as more immigrants get the right to vote.

It is important that we don’t confuse certain customs/mandates/traditions - like FMG, restrictions on driving (Saudi Arabia), enforced dress restrictions and other practices which fall predominately on women – as religious dogma when it might be primarily cultural, tribal, or societal. However, when the repressive or restrictive mandates are reinforced by religious dogma that encourage or mandate women to be “submissive” or be relegated to only secondary status, what might start as a cultural practice takes on a much heavier repression when coupled with religious sanction.

It is easy within American society post-9/11 to stereotype and project all kinds of malicious accusations on Islam as a religion or on practices associated with predominately Muslim cultures. But the wider practice within many religious traditions which mirror the above problem was made clearer to me recently with the Pope’s decision to excommunicate Fr. Roy Bourgeois for participating in a ceremony ordaining a woman priest as a Roman Catholic. Father Roy is a friend of mine and this recent decision from the Vatican didn’t really surprise me as the Roman Catholic Church, especially under the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, has been consistently rolling back the openness mandated by the Vatican II Council.

Here in the Twin Cities it has reared its ugly head in Archbishop Neinstedt’s persecution of some of the more progressive Catholic parishes – most notably at St. Stephen’s, Francis Cabrini, and St. Joan of Arc. The Catholic Church has taken on a siege mentality and is looking for scapegoats and villains from amongst its own progressives. Much of this repression comes from the same misogynistic, paternalistic, and patriarchal ideology that leads to similar (if less drastic) results of female genital mutilation. Although couched in “scriptural” justification or “tradition”, the all-male system of domination continues to indoctrinate its young within their parochial schools.

The issue we need to confront is when religion or other cultural institutions deny human rights to any group of individuals on the basis of ideology or “scripture” or other promulgations. Whether it is Bob Jones University in South Carolina refusing to admit black students (until very recently), denying rights afforded to heterosexuals to sexual minorities like the present marriage bans, or refusal to allow and respect female ordination to ministry like the Southern Baptist Convention or Roman Catholic hierarchy – all of which take place in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – groups of people are relegated to second-class citizenship and denied rights assumed by others.

What happens to the American values of human rights and dignity, social and political freedoms won after long struggles for civil rights, women’s rights, abolition of slavery, an end to child labor, … when groups within the society want to re-enslave select groups of “others” and do so with the blessing of the state when they form their own school systems or “opt out” of the public system in order to prevent their integration within the “cultural mainstream” of our society?

I am one who for decades has been arguing for myself and others to flee the “cultural mainstream” of American society when it comes to our cultural (and religious?) values of greed, individualism, militarism, competition, racism, and materialism. I want our nation and society to embrace community, cooperation, nonviolence, and justice. But I do want to keep some of the values our nation at least gives lip service to: liberty and equal justice for all, equal opportunity, protection for minorities, human rights and dignity. Ali’s book, Infidel, has raised a lot of provocative questions for me. While I am disturbed that she is labeled an “apostate” and “infidel” for her own rejection of her religious tradition, I am equally concerned about how my religious tradition has also labeled, marginalized, and oppressed others.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to mention the most extreme violence Ayaan Hirsi Ali faced – and continues to face. When she renounced her faith and went on to criticize what she felt was pedophilia behavior of its religious leader, the Prophet Mohammed (who “married” a 9-year old girl and consummated that marriage when she was 12), she was threatened with death. Ever since, she has had to be surrounded by bodyguards and always on the lookout for those who would kill her for her “blasphemy”. In a similar but less drastic way, when Fr. Roy was excommunicated by the Pope, he received a spiritual “death sentence” of sorts. He is denied access to the sacraments of the Church – a Church that teaches such “apostates” are “going to hell”. One tradition supports “honor killings”; another sanctions treating someone who marries outside the faith as “dead to us”; others use threats of eternal damnation, shunning, or other attempts of psychological punishment. All these religions make claims about “the love of God” but, in practice, often use divine sanction to excuse the practice of domination.

Until all religions denounce and renounce all forms of violence – physical, mental/psychological, and spiritual, religion will continue to be a force for repression and oppression around the world, giving excuse to fundamentalist factions within each group to continue to use the name of God for diabolical purposes. May we all work to make our religious traditions life-affirming and enriching for all, not just those in privilege and power.

Why is the Army So Afraid of Dissent?

Why is the Army So Afraid of Dissent? – Making It Difficult to Get Arrested at the SOA by Steve Clemens. November 2008

When the annual “Close the School of the Americas” vigil first began in 1990, there were only 13 people fasting by the main gate to Fort Benning in Columbus, GA. Over the past 18 years, the annual vigil has grown exponentially. The past three years have seen about 20,000 people attend and the crowd has grown increasingly younger. However, something has significantly changed over the years.

In the early ‘90s, the School of Americas Watch saw civil disobedience as a way to grow the movement. Individuals symbolically entered the army base by “crossing the line” – a line painted across the highway leading into the army base- thus demarking a “trespassing” charge for those who refused to leave after being ordered to do so by the Army. From previous experience, the SOAW movement recognized that the local Federal Judge, Robert Elliot, a hard-core racist who held that position for more than 30 years, would likely send “trespassers” to prison. Those civil disobedients, in turn, would use their incarceration to raise the profile of their cause in a way similar to Dr. King’s powerful “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” – speaking from jail/prison has a profound moral credibility and would cause friends and relatives to consider joining the struggle to close the School.

In 1996, 60 people were arrested for “crossing the line” and most were sent to federal prison for 1-6 months, depending on whether they had crossed before and received a “ban and bar letter” from Ft. Benning. Those who had already been barred from the base usually received the maximum 6 month sentence the federal law allowed for criminal trespass. Close to 650 persons crossed the line the next year and were surprised when the base commander fed them all a meal before they were released. The government picked a smaller number of those arrested to prosecute (since it would have been prohibitive to prosecute so many) and they went to prison while the others received ban and bar letters.

In 1998, emboldened by the fact that with increasing numbers of “line crossers” many would not be prosecuted, more than 2,000 committed the act of civil disobedience and, once again, only a handful were prosecuted and shipped off to prison. The fact that 2,319 people were willing to risk 6 months in prison for an act of conscience to close the SOA must have been a sobering wake-up call to the military officers and their civilian Columbus city supporters. The overall crowd gathering for the annual vigil had also swelled to more than 5,000. 1999 saw the crowd approaching 10,000 for the vigil and 4,408 “line-crossers”. 65 of those were “booked” after arrest and 23 prosecuted but the overwhelming majority were told they were under arrest, placed on school busses and driven off base and released!

The movement was indeed growing along with the number of people who decided to take that extra step of civil disobedience. In 2000 it appeared that more than ½ of the 12,000+ attendees were ready to take that risk and when more than 6,000 crossed the line, it took so long to process those arrested that about 2,000 walked back off the base leaving about 4,300 of us to be booked, photographed, finger-printed before being issued a 5-year ban and bar letter. Prior to this, most of the ban and bar letters were for only the period of one year. Clearly the Army was concerned about the growing numbers – thus the massive booking procedure that year. Again, however, the reality of jailing and trying so many people led the decision-makers in the army or the government to try only 22 of the 6,000+. Hopefully, the threat of 6 months in prison might keep at least some from crossing that line!

The terrorist attacks of 2001 changed the nature of the annual vigil dramatically. The School of Americas Watch had to go to court to even gain permission to gather outside the main entrance at Ft. Benning. Many of us were planning on gathering there anyway, risking arrest without even entering the base. But the fear and hysteria surrounding 9/11 was clearly felt on the military base as well. No longer could we merely walk on to the base to commit our civil disobedience- there was now a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire installed across the entrance! With this new wrinkle, 31 people were arrested for sitting in the street. But our protest wasn’t against the City of Columbus but rather the training of foreign troops to oppress their own people. So in 2002, 96 protesters went over or under the fence, were arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

In 2003, a second chain-link fence was installed along with a brightly painted line on the road just on the Columbus city side of the new fence. Thousands of people stepped over that line to place their crosses, flowers, and other symbols on the new fence. For 29 others, this wasn’t sufficient and they climbed over or under the fence and were arrested. They were prosecuted and went off to federal prison. By now over 170 persons had gone to prison as part of their witness for nonviolence and against the SOA. They were joined by 15 more in 2004, and I was one of the 37 prosecuted and jailed in 2005. By then a third fence was in place for this weekend of protest (but all were removed for the rest of the year) and we crawled under the fence in order to have the “privilege” of going to jail for justice. The fence was stretched tighter in 2006 so the 16 who chose to commit civil disobedience cut a hole in the outside fence in order to enter on to the military property. Almost all who went over or under the fence since 9/11/2001 got prison time for their efforts with only a few getting sentenced to a fine and probation.

Even with the (almost) certain knowledge that one would get a prison sentence for entering the base, the Army was flummoxed about how to keep these principled activists out. Whether it was a decision by the Columbus government or the military, in 2007 and 2008, new chain-link fences were installed along the sides of the road leading to the base entrance –thus preventing potential civil disobedients from walking along the perimeter a ways before trying to climb up and over or scamper under it. It seems the Army and the city government is scared to death of massive civil disobedience making it almost impossible to get arrested the weekend of the protest. In 2007 only 11 were able to get on to the base (and thus to prison) and this year the 6 who decided to cross had to drive to a different entrance –away from the protest- to enter. It seems one has to go to get effort to get arrested!

Why is the Army so afraid? It appears that prison sentences have been effective not in keeping people away but rather has had the effect of growing the movement. The more than 280 who have gone to prison for reasons of conscience related to the School of the Americas has resulted in more than 20,000 people gathering for the annual protest each of the past three years. If prison hasn’t served as an effective deterrent, maybe one of the few options left is for them to hide behind all their fences –hoping we will get distracted and go away. That, or maybe they can question why are so many of their fellow citizens outraged about what is going on behind those fences. Does the Army have as much courage to look at itself as those who are protesting against the notorious School of the Americas? Maybe a new President and a new Congress will finally close down this relic of the Cold War and our present obsession with empire. May it be so!

Regrets? I Have a Few

Regrets? I Have a Few by Steve Clemens. November 16, 2008

It is now almost two weeks since the landmark political tsunami of the Obama election occurred. I think the fact that my working as an election judge until past 11PM on Election Day might be one reason for my obtuseness. I didn’t get to see the images on the widescreen TV from Chicago where a quarter-million or more had gathered in Grant Park to await their hero/leader, the President-elect. I missed the iconic image of Jesse Jackson standing near the platform with tears running down his face. It was the same Jesse who stood over the body of his slain mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., forty years before. Was this at least a partial vindication of Martin’s dream?

I didn’t see that image live –I saw it replayed the next day or two along with the video of Oprah standing in the crowd, her head buried for a time on the shoulder of a man she never met before - a billionaire, standing among the “hoi polloi”, the common folk, awaiting the appearance of Barack, Michelle, and the Obama children.

I should have known. After all, his best-selling Autobiography was entitled The Audacity of Hope. This hope that garnered nearly 63 million votes on November 4, 2008 was audacious all right! Some people merely wanted a change after being tired of fear, isolation, and a culture of greed gone bankrupt. But others voted with HOPE, an audacious hope that America might regain some of the “innocence” lost or squandered over the past eight years.

The HOPE of still others -who never were distracted by the fairy tales of the culture which spun such naïve claims of “innocence” for a nation whose history reeked from the stench of genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of others, wars of conquest and aggression against Spanish-speaking neighbors and those in islands across the Pacific – was more historically grounded. It remembered the country responsible for war-time internment and later the use of the nuclear bomb against those of Asian ancestry. The list of offenses that any empire leaves in its wake could fill this page. But, despite knowing this shameful past, some still went to the polls the first Tuesday in November thinking “I’m gonna vote for HOPE”.

For some, Obama was the embodiment of the change. His multiracial and multicultural past was a central part of that symbolism. For others, Obama was primarily an imperfect vessel who might be a figurehead for a movement which was clearly more progressive than he was willing to be as a candidate. At least in Obama, a fresh face on the political scene, there could be a politician who might listen and practice a politics of humility and inclusiveness.

It took me several days and experiences before recognizing the powerful explosion of HOPE that erupted all over the world at 10 PM CST when the TV commentators declared Barack Obama as America’s 44th President-elect. Demonstrations happened worldwide. People danced in the streets. Parents named newborns after the electoral winner. Having arrived home too late to watch the returns, and, working so hard that day that I decided to sleep in the next morning rather than attend the weekly Alliant Tech vigil, I processed most of the election results privately.

My first inkling of the HOPE revolution came with our Minnesota Peace Team meeting on Thursday. It was confirmed at the gathering at St. Joan of Arc Church on Sunday to hear John Dear and again that evening with my own faith community, the Community of St. Martin. Everyone wanted to celebrate and talk about what a hopeful moment this was! Same thing happened at my Sabbath Economics group circle on Monday evening and at the Vets for Peace gathering for the Armistice Day remembrance a week after the election. It seemed everyone was expressing their hope and optimism – even though it was still “guarded optimism” from some. The Alliant Tech vigil a week after the election results continued this theme. Here were some hard-core activists, some I knew shared my skepticism about Obama’s campaign positions, especially on military spending, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, the death penalty, … the list could go on. But still, the over-all atmosphere of HOPE.

Thursday evening I attended an anti-racism lecture by Victor Lewis. He positively glowed as he danced, pranced, and sang at the beginning of the talk –celebrating the incredible events of the past week. Over and over people said, “I never believed I would see this in my lifetime! I knew it would happen eventually, but so soon?” So soon? We’ve been in the wilderness the past 40 years after our cultural prophet was slain. And Barack is no Martin.

What is audacious to me is thinking that this change might happen with somebody so middle-of-the-road politically as Barack Obama. I was expecting and dreaming of a prophetic voice like that of Dr. King to move the masses. Yet I heard African-American fathers talk about how they could now honestly tell their sons and daughters, “You can aspire to any position you want!” Somehow, by not talking about race, not talking about class, discrimination, and other injustices, people have HOPE for CHANGE. Obama may not be the embodiment but at least he is the messenger.

I’m saddened that I failed to see the depth of the political symbolism of HOPE the Obama campaign obviously engendered. Oh, I saw the importance of the symbolism worldwide of a multicultural person as the titular head of government – so often referred to as “the most powerful person in the world”. The U.S. President may be –in that he nominally controls the deadliest arsenal of military weapons. But, as the world so clearly sees now, our lame-duck emperor has no clothes and very little political or persuasive power. Even John McCain shied away from his embrace during his campaign.

Who is “the most powerful person in the world” today? It might be Obama in that he has captured the imaginations around the globe of new possibilities. It might be Nelson Mandela or the Dali Lama. Military power is only one type of power; the power to stir the imagination and mobilize people is clearly another. Fear is a powerful motivator – but has it met its match with HOPE?

Two weeks ago I thought the symbolism of my vote for a Lebanese-American, Ralph Nader, also could send a powerful message of supporting a person of Middle-East descent as my President. I didn’t have any illusions that he could win the election but felt that his positions most clearly meshed with mine. But I failed to fully comprehend the wellspring of HOPE that Obama’s election would generate. Oh, there is plenty of work to do – we must pressure Obama to do the right thing in many areas. I don’t have the illusion that he is even a progressive – despite the McCain mantra that “Obama is the most liberal person in the Senate”. If true, we are really in trouble. But “HOPE springs eternal”.

May the HOPE engendered in this election be embodied in both “our physical bodies and the body politic” as my friend Ched Myers describes the call of the nonviolent, activist Jesus. When Jesus healed individuals, he also addressed the politic/social injustice that oppressed them as well. May it be that kind of HOPE that we embrace.

My Letter to the Pope

Dear Pope Benedict,

I write to you as a fellow Christian from the Anabaptist tradition who has numerous Roman Catholic friends and colleagues. I also write as a personal friend and admirer of Father Roy Bourgeois who I've known since 1983.

I strongly urge you and others in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to reconsider the threat made to Father Roy to excommunicate him because of his principled opposition to the continued second-class status of women in the church. I can't make a better argument for their full inclusion than Roy has already done so in his letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on November 7. I can report to you my own personal observation: If Father Roy is excommunicated as threatened, many other faithful Catholics will join him in leaving the Church. (A close friend already left several months ago after she tired of the "abuse" she has felt from Church hierarchy.)

I write this out of love for the Body of Christ. While I have many differences with the Roman Catholic expression of that Body, (and, frankly don't know where I stand from your perspective after your confusing and condemning words reportedly said by you about other Christian denominations shortly after you were elected to your position as Bishop of Rome), it is crucial that Christians send out a message to the entire world that the embrace of Christ is for all- equally- and that there is no clear double-standard for women that many of us perceive in the practice of Islam in many cultures.

Only when women, created in God's image, are valued and treated equally with men in all respects by the Church will we experience the full power of the Spirit in our midst.

In sadness and Christian love,

Steve Clemens

You Can Blame Me: My Vote in 2008

You Can Blame Me: My Vote in 2008 by Steve Clemens. Election Day +2, 2008

If Al Franken fails to surpass Norm Coleman in votes after the state-mandated recount in the next several weeks and Norm is sworn in for another 6-year term, I guess you can “blame me”. I just couldn’t justify filling in the oval before his name on the ballot. No, I didn’t completely lose my mind or my conscience and vote for Norm Coleman! Nor did I succumb to the tempting “a pox on both your houses” for such a plethora of disgusting negative adds by the Franken and Coleman camps by supporting the libertarian ideas embodied by Independent candidate Dean Barkley.

I don’t like voting against others. When given a choice, I prefer to vote for what I want - rather than against others. So I wrote in Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer for Senate. None of the candidates whose names appeared on the final ballot have laid out policies and ideas that take seriously the environmental and economic crisis that awaits us if we fail to rapidly address climate change challenges that Jack’s campaign chose to tackle head-on. None of the other candidates addressed the need to drastically cut military spending by significant amounts (50%, for starters) if we wish to reject American exceptionalism and imperial claims.

This Senate vote was an easier one for me despite the projected closeness of the race due to the personal nastiness of the Franken campaign during the DFL caucus and endorsement process. My vote for President, however, caused me much more anguish. During the primaries and most of the general election campaign (after Kucinich and Edwards dropped out), I wanted Obama to prevail over the policies and record of Senator Clinton – but I was clear that Ralph Nader would once again get my vote as in 2000 and 2004.

I started to vacillate after hearing Tom Hayden explain his support for Obama despite many of the positions taken in debates and on the campaign trail. At one point even icons such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn advocated voting for Obama with the proviso of doing so without any illusions about the real nature of his positions and our need to continue to pressure him to change policy once elected. Zinn later recanted and advocated only supporting Obama in close swing states but to support Nader in states where the vote would not likely to be close.

An extra dilemma in this campaign is the dreaded “Bradley effect” – the notion that the public opinion polls won’t accurately reflect the deep-seated racism in some people who won’t admit they won’t ever vote for a person of color but can’t overcome that bias when marking their ballot. Should I cast my ballot for this person of color even if I don’t agree with some of his crucial positions to “correct” for the racial bias in our society?

So, about a week before the election, I had decided to reluctantly vote for Obama – to choose the possibility of “hope” and “change” that might go beyond the limits of a campaign where candidates vie for “centrist” positions. Obama at least might listen and consider progressive positions once elected. At least there is that possibility of hope. But, to assuage my conscience, I felt I also needed to write to him about some of the important areas where we parted ways so he wouldn’t take my vote as a carte-blanch endorsement of his campaign and policies. Here is what I started to write:

Open Letter To Barack Obama: My Vote in 2008 by Steve Clemens

Only twice in the nine Presidential elections of my adult life have I marked my ballot for a candidate of one of the two major political parties. I lived in Massachusetts in 1972 so I voted with the majority when George McGovern carried that state as his only electoral victory. The other time was after eight straight years of “Ronnie the Popular” with wars still raging in Central America; I felt to elect the former head of the CIA who had served as the Vice President during those years was too much. Even though I detested the vacillations and compromises of Michael Dukakis, and thought his ridiculous posing in a tank to show he was not “soft” on national defense was pandering, I voted for him primarily in opposition to his main party opponent. To help assuage my conscience, I also wrote him a letter attempting to clearly spell out to him what my vote was NOT endorsing in his platform and campaign “promises”.

And so, Senator Obama, I feel the need to share with you why I will (with hesitation but also hope) cast my ballot for you to serve as our 44th President. It is not an easy decision for me. While I feel the symbolism of your election would have tremendous benefits for our national reputation and relationships around the world, I’m very concerned that some of the positions you have taken to secure your electoral victory do not signal the changes (or continuations) I wish to see.

I would love to see the titular head of our government represent the growing diversity and multiculturalism of the USA. It is also important that the electorate send a clear message of the wrongness of our on-going war on and occupation of Iraq. Your opposition to the war plans back in 2002 are noted and appreciated by many of us in the peace community. However, your announced desire to increase military personnel in Afghanistan makes me seriously question both your judgment and analysis of the misguided “War on Terror”. There are no military solutions to genuine security and justice concerns throughout the Middle East and particularly Afghanistan. It is not a helpful response to fight terror with terror and the record of killing civilians in Afghanistan by our bombing attacks will continue to be counterproductive.

Your equivocation on the death penalty disturbs me. The entire world looks at our criminal justice system as deeply flawed by the racism evident in its world-record (per capita) prison population. We need clear, principled leadership from all our main branches of government to change these regressive and demoralizing policies that most other governments around the world already have done so.

I am deeply concerned about the nature and design of the massive economic bailout of Wall Street …

I planned to finish writing this on Election Day. But the night before, a friend who is an election judge asked me if I could help him out by working at a polling place with him as a deputy election judge. I felt it was my civic duty and ended up working more than 15 hours, thus failing to have the time to write to/about Obama before he was declared the President-elect.

The specter of past campaigns came to haunt that decision to vote for Obama. I got an email from the Nader campaign that Ralph would be interrupting my plans to hand out goodies to the neighborhood kids on Halloween night by speaking nearby at the University of MN. Although Obama has a book called The Audacity of Hope, it is really practiced by Nader - when his campaign asked for a $10 “donation” ($5 for students) to attend his speech! I guess when you aren’t raising hundreds of millions like Obama, and you aren’t likely to get any donations from Wall Street or corporate tycoons, and you get shut out of the national TV debates, you need to pay the bills somehow.

Ralph Nader doesn’t have the charisma or eloquence of Barack Obama. But he is very clear about his analysis of our present situation and the need for our political leaders to address it honestly without pandering or caving in to the wealthy corporate interest groups. It is more important that my vote reflect my convictions than merely be an expression of “hope” that this politician might change. Is the analogy similar to the woman who marries hoping to “change” her husband down the road? Why not find the right partner who can grow with you rather than always feel the need to change them?

Many observers commented about “fear” as an issue in recent American political campaigns. I decided I couldn’t let fear of a Bradley effect or a McCain win affect my vote any more than “fear” of “terrorists”, “immigrants”, “gay marriage”, or other issues that might affect other voters. Even “fear” of a Sarah Palin presidency should a cancer-ridden John McCain not survive a full term is still a vote out of fear rather than conviction.

That Halloween night, I decided to cast my ballot for the Nader/Gonzales ticket. I say this somewhat confessionally. There are many good reasons why almost all of my close friends voted for Obama (and probably Franken as well). I don’t sit in judgment on them and their reasons to do so. Frankly, the decision was easier for me because it became apparent in the last month of the campaign that Obama would easily carry the electoral votes in Minnesota – thus giving me the “luxury” of favoring my conscience over the expediency of trying to keep McCain out of the White House.

Had I finished my letter to Obama, I would have addressed core issues for me in the political realm: War and “defense”- what makes us more “secure” and what threatens our “security”, Wealth & poverty- care for the marginalized, Healthcare and the need for a single-payer/universal coverage system, Human rights, Environment, …

What I will commit to is to continue to work for creating political space (an opening) for progressive change by doing my day-to-day work of nonviolent direct action, educating myself and my neighbors and fellow citizens about issues confronting us, trying to give a voice to and on behalf of the poor and marginalized. My vote on Election Day is less significant than what I do on behalf of my nation, our citizens, and our world the other 364 days of the year. If we create the political space, maybe courageous politicians will arise to embody our values and convictions. And, someday, maybe we can elect them! In the meantime, we have to continue our work.

A Kosher Ham?

Next Time I’ll Order the Kosher Ham! By Steve Clemens 10/16/2008

I know. Pork is never kosher. But today I had an epiphany.

I attended a breakfast meeting sponsored by Workers Interfaith Network, a faith and labor organization in the Twin Cities of which I am a member. One of the speakers at the event was a local rabbi who has been active for many years in the kosher foods movement. Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights has been promoting kosher eating practices within his Conservative Jewish tradition for years but two years ago began to be concerned about rumors he heard about working conditions at a kosher meat packing plant in Iowa. So he and a fellow Jewish social activist went to the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, IA to check out this kosher meat-producing facility. What they discovered was very disturbing and they came to the realization that morally and ethically they needed to consider more than how the animals were slaughtered - they needed to also recognize how the workers were treated. Since this facility had hired many immigrant workers from Guatemala, it became quickly clear that they were being exploited in the process because they were vulnerable to ICE sweeps and harassment. The company used that vulnerability to keep the workers from organizing as a union to protect their rights and have some collective bargaining power.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the immigration raids that resulted in more than 300 arrested at the Postville plant this Spring. It is not clear (to me) if the company called in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or whether they acted on their own –but the result of which was absolutely catastrophic for many of the families of the workers who were arrested and deported, leaving behind children who are now US citizens. No matter where you stand on our presently broken immigration policy, the way these raids have been carried out are designed for fear and intimidation rather than a seeking of justice and righteousness.

Immigration and union issues aside, it became clear to these principled Jewish leaders that their desire to honor their faith tradition by eating kosher-labeled foods was not sufficient if, in the process, there was no ethical treatment of those who produced it. The workers were not trained for their jobs in their primary language (Spanish – although for many even Spanish was a secondary language to their native Mayan dialect) so most were told to “just watch what the worker next to you is doing and follow them”. Bathroom breaks, time off for pre-natal visits for pregnant workers, and other job-site concerns besides danger and injury on the job were concerns voiced by the workers.

After several plant visits and attempts to speak with the management of the plant on behalf of the workers, this rabbi (and others) have been organizing a movement to go beyond normal kosher labeling to insist that God demands justice for the workers as well. Besides the moral question of one’s relationship with God in relation to how an animal is slaughtered, there is the ethical question of how the workers who produced the food are treated. Are they receiving just and fair wages, are working conditions humane, are vulnerable workers being exploited? The late Abraham Heschel, a noted Jewish scholar and activist (and one of my personal heroes) noted that the idea of kosher has to go beyond just the butcher shop but also include banks, real estate offices, … It wasn’t sufficient to forgo eating an egg that had a blood spot in it (forbidden under kosher rules) if the dollars or lira one carried also had “blood” on it.

My family of origin runs a meat packing plant in southeastern Pennsylvania but it doesn’t plan on marketing a kosher line anytime soon since it processes pork! But I found the concept of labeling food as being ethically produced in relationship to how workers are treated to be a fascinating one and I’m encouraging my relatives to look into finding ways to support the concept. I know these Jewish leaders would probably be skeptical about discussing this with PORK producers (!) and a non-union shop as well – but I think this is an important area for my family to explore. I know my family shares some of these concerns for the workers because it has had a profit-sharing plan in place for its employees for more than 50 years.

This movement is called by it’s Hebrew term – hekhsher tzedek (loosely translated as justice certified) and they encourage evaluation of Kosher Food producers in five areas:
1) wages and benefits
2) Health, safety, and training
3) Company transparency
4) Product development
5) Environmental impact

Maybe ham will never become “kosher” but the way pork, shellfish, or other “forbidden” foods are produced and processed have a multitude of ethical issues surrounding them as well. Maybe we non-Jews need to learn more about justice from our Hebrew brothers and sisters so when we do break bread with one another, we can work to make sure it was baked with justice in mind.

More info about this idea can be found at and

Link to important speech by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer

Living With Denial

Living with Denial by Steve Clemens. October 11, 2008

Why do we Americans lionize Oscar Schindler, The White Rose, the originators of the Kinder train, the villagers of Le Chambon? There were many honorable and courageous acts of conscience and compassion that surfaced in resistance to the attempts of the Third Reich to exterminate the Jews of Europe. We relish the story of Anne Frank and the family who risked much to shelter her from Nazis. Even though ultimately unsuccessful, their heroics give many of us a smug sense of relief that there still remain at least a remnant of ordinary folk who are able to rise to the occasion and be truly human(e). Even while we recognize that most people remained either silent or actively complicit with the unfolding holocaust, somehow the memory of a few resisters continue to give us hope for the rest of “humanity” – in the midst of growing inhumanity evidenced in our global community.

It is always easier to celebrate these triumphs of the human spirit against the brutal crushing machine of repression and oppression in hindsight. We have enough distance and separation from the Nazi movement in western Europe, the wholesale slaughter under communist systems in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China to celebrate those who resisted those injustices. Some Americans have even dared to look beyond political alliances to recognize the “excesses” of US –supported regimes in the Congo (Mobuto), Indonesia (Sukarno), the Philippine Islands (Marcos), Chile (Pinochet), … and the list could go on and on.

Harder still is the recognition and appreciation for creative resistance to bad policies and inhumane actions taken by essentially “good” or benign governments. For many Americans, we may be open to resistance taken by Israeli citizens on behalf of occupied Palestinians – but less receptive to Palestinians acting on their own behalf. Advocates on behalf of indigenous rights for Aboriginal people in Australia could be recognized – although Aborigines acting on their own would be less welcomed by most Americans because we see the “Aussies” as our allies and too much like us to be criticized. Some of that same scrutiny might be focused on our own policies.

It seems we need the distance of time (and the passing of some of the major protagonists) for widespread recognition of the righteousness of the cause when the resistance is closer to “home”. Enough time has gone by to celebrate the differences of William Penn’s and Roger Williams’ relationship to Native Americans when compared to that of other colonial imperialists. Enough time has gone by to recognize the principled witness of the abolitionist movement and (maybe) even the violent resistance of Nat Turner and John Brown. Even some U.S. history books have been willing to appreciate the courage and conviction embodied by Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce and Sitting Bull –although fewer are willing to extend their salute to the violent resistance of Geronimo and Crazy Horse who also stood up to the violent oppression of their nations.

We feel free to celebrate Susan B. Anthony and the suffragette movement now that they aren’t disrupting our lives since enough time has passed. Some of us are more ambivalent about the passions and actions embodied by Carrie Nation and some of the more “radical” prohibitionists –but even if we might disagree with her cause or tactics, we can have a sense of pride in identifying with her convictions. Even enough time has passed for many to begin to join the chorus for elevating Catholic Worker movement co-founder, Dorothy Day, to sainthood for her work for the poor. Some even are willing to celebrate her refusal to comply with bomb shelter drills at the height of the Cold War scare.

How much time has to pass before we are willing to embrace principled resistance to present injustice? And why do I always want to qualify my admiration and appreciation to “principled” resistance? Isn’t any resistance better than acquiescence? Am I so defensive about my own commitment to nonviolence that I fail to celebrate any and all attempts to resist injustice? How many years of “distance” will we need as a nation and people before we are ready to identify the evils embodied in our present actions and policies? Torture justified at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Baghram, and other black sites. Wars of choice and aggression in clear violation of the UN Charter. Ignoring the cries of the growing numbers of poor and uninsured. Deliberate targeting of “economic immigrants” trying to feed their own families both here and in their economically devastated homelands. Once again, the list could go on and on.

I have much more in common with the black-clad, kerchiefed “Anarchist” who sees the injustice and hypocrisy embedded in our society and “acts out” in anger and rage than those who remain silent and “enjoy” the benefits and privilege that come with complicity. Yet even that description does not do justice to many of the “angry” people in the streets during the Republican National Convention last month in St. Paul. I witnessed not only the “taunting” of riot-geared police but also joy and celebration of resistance. When 3 or 4 girls danced chorus-line style chanting, “You’re hot, you’re cute, take off your riot suits!” to the cops, I laughed and deeply appreciated the humor in a tense situation. Dancing to songs by Rage Against the Machine and other resistance anthems played on portable boom-boxes in the middle of street intersections in front of rows and rows of up-armored cops with tear gas guns and Tasers pointed at them, these (mostly) young resisters weren’t only about anger and confrontation but also wanted to embody an alternative to an “uptight” society that seems to over-react in fear and possessiveness when feeling threatened.

While still clinging to my deep conviction and belief that only creative nonviolence can bring about the ultimate just society we long for, recognizing with Gandhi and King that the means used help determine the end results, I need to remember to embrace any acts of resistance to what Dorothy Day calls “our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” We don’t need to wait 50 years before historians make it safe to look back critically at America in the dying days of its empire. Let’s tap the energy of the young and combine it with the wisdom of our elders and, together, remake our society where we won’t have to look back in shame and wonder at the “silent majority”. Don’t criticize others unless you, too, are out in the streets or working “under the radar” to resist injustice and help build the new world for which we await.

Obama's "Problem" With William Ayers

Obama’s “Problem” with William Ayers. By Steve Clemens. October 11, 2008

Recently the Presidential campaign of 2008 has taken a nasty turn. As the McCain/Palin ticket continues to fall behind to the Democratic team of Obama/Biden, allegations are flying to discredit Obama. Some of this is not new. Even during a spirited Democratic primary campaign, pictures of Obama in traditional Kenyan dress were posted to imply this candidate was Muslim - as if that were automatically a dirty term. Rumors that Obama attended a madrassa for school in Indonesia were floated to further the “smear” that our first bi-racial major party candidate was in league with “terrorists”.

Now, Sarah Palin, on the defensive for her pathetic performance in an interview with CBS’ Katie Couric, has claimed a close relationship between Obama and former Weatherman radical, William Ayers. Even though Ayers is now a respected professor in Chicago, his past leadership in a violent, radical, anti-war group in the 60s has provided new ways to link Obama to “terrorists” because Ayers held a fundraiser for Obama more than 13 years ago!

I don’t wish to defend the political actions used by the Weathermen group that split off from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) over a disagreement with tactics. As the Vietnam War continued on and on with the resulting deaths of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, the Weathermen movement sought to bring some of the costs of the war “home”. They planted bombs in buildings and caused several deaths and much fear in some circles. While Ayers is routinely castigated for actions taken 40 years ago, John McCain is lionized for his.

Do we need to take another, more critical look at this “national hero”? Why was John McCain held as a Prisoner of War for more than five years? What had he been doing before he was “captured”? As a US Navy pilot, McCain flew many bombing raids over the capitol city of North Vietnam, Hanoi. Dropping bombs from an airplane –even if the targets are considered “military” when located in a very populous city – will inevitably kill “civilians” or other “non-combatants”. Although this practice has continued since the end of World War I, aerial bombardment clearly violates International Law of War restrictions on the use of weapons that are “indiscriminate”.

We don’t know if McCain’s planes also dropped napalm or Agent Orange. We do know that he is responsible for much more destruction and death than William Ayers. But because he was wearing a uniform at the time, does that obviate the need for critical analysis? Was the Vietnam War a “just war”? It certainly wasn’t a declared war by the Congress even though most members continued to fund it with young men and money. Even in a so-called “just war”, there clearly are actions that are morally impermissible. Would dropping bombs on a city fail such a test?

Make no mistake; some of the actions John McCain took as a prisoner of war were heroic – even if the circumstances of capture were the result of criminal acts. While he must be held accountable for his own actions, certainly those political and military leaders directing the policy and execution of that war are more complicit. Now that John McCain is a US Senator and a loud proponent of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is more culpable for the bombing of civilians that are happening every week in both those wars – even though the mainstream media refuses to cover it. But the McCain campaign ads slam Barack Obama for criticizing “our troops” when he condemned some of the killing of civilians in Afghanistan.

I don’t know if Ayers has “repented” for some of his anti-war tactics and actions back in the 60s. The neighborhood organizing and other political and community-building work he has done more recently demonstrate at least a change of tactics if not a change of heart. Can we say the same of McCain? Who is the present supporter of “terrorism”?

Anti-War Icon Visits the Twin Cities

Tom Hayden At Metro State. October 8, 2008 by Steve Clemens

Speaking without a microphone, clearly tired from five previous speaking engagements that day, an anti-war icon from the 60’s clearly engaged a predominately college-aged audience in St. Paul. A founder of Students For a Democratic Society (SDS), co-defendant in the classic trial against political dissent, The Chicago 8 (or 7 after the racist Judge, Julius Hoffman, bound and gagged Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, and then removed him from the courtroom), former California state legislator, and author, Tom Hayden is travelling the country helping build a movement to hold our next President accountable.

Hayden clearly supports and expects Barack Obama to be elected as our new President a month from now. But the way he started his address Wednesday evening at Metro State startled me. Having cut his political activist teeth in the deeply segregated South in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Tom Hayden announced that 50-60 years ago we never could have imagined where we are today. Well into the struggle for Civil Rights, it was illegal to even conceive Barack Obama. It was against the law in several states for inter-racial marriage; now we are on the threshold of electing a mixed-race politician to the highest office in the land!

Even though Hayden has endorsed and is working diligently for Obama’s election, he was frank (if understanding) about his differences with the campaign and his candidate’s positions. He scoffed at Obama’s bluster about tracking down Bin Laden by increasing troop strength in Afghanistan and putting military and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. Hayden believes there is no way the U.S. can win militarily in either country as the British learned so graphically over the past two centuries.

Make no mistake, Hayden thinks Al Qaeda is a threat to both the U.S. and Europe – but our present strategy of killing others to try to decapitate their leadership has only increased the number of recruits for that movement. Instead of “treating them [Afghanis, Pakis, Al Qaeda] as evil incarnate”, we need to explore what are their grievances? Yes, the occupation of Palestinian areas by Israel is a factor; so is having U.S. troops in the holy land of Saudi Arabia. But why do so many Afghanis and Pakis hate us? Hayden pointed out that U.S. foreign (non-military) aid is less than one-half the amount today than when JFK was President. In referring to the notorious Bin Laden, Hayden claimed, “You don’t have to be in a cave to plot attacks on the U.S.” and went on to say that such attacks can come from anywhere- even from someone in this auditorium!

Hayden described the Machiavellian tendency of politicians doing “whatever needs to be done” to maintain incumbency (be reelected). He used the analogy of a military commander in battle – if one sees their right flank as being exposed or vulnerable, you move more troops to that side. Obama ran as a clear anti-Iraq War candidate but in running against John McCain, he needs to “shore-up” any vulnerabilities he may have on his right flank. We should not expect Obama to take some of the positions those on the political left want him to with only one month to go until the voting. But what Obama will need after the election is a strong progressive movement to steer him and his policies toward a more progressive agenda.

President Franklin Roosevelt ran as a fiscal conservative but labor unions and other strong voices for change pushed him to make policy changes that became the New Deal. Lincoln did not run on a platform calling for the end of slavery but the abolitionist movement pressured him to change his position. It becomes our task to push, encourage, and demand that Obama reassess his announced strategy of more military troops in Afghanistan. Obama already knows the inherent unfairness and corporate bias of NAFTA and other “Free Trade” agreements – but the progressive forces need to urge President Obama to renegotiate trade agreements so that more than just investor profit is considered – like environmental protection, labor and civil rights, and the will of the people over rapacious global corporations.

Hayden described the collapse of “finance capitalism” that has been manifest in the past several weeks as a huge challenge facing us. We are like dinosaurs, he claimed, looking at the extinction of much of our society if we don’t find creative remedies. We need another New Deal and we will have to democratize these economic discussions. We can’t expect those “experts” who got us into this mess to decide our way out. We will need real oversight of whatever is put into place and find who is qualified to do it? We need to get money flowing again quickly –How can we do that? Hayden suggested an immediate cut by one-half of the Iraq War budget to free up $80 billion and closing of the Bush-created tax loopholes for the rich and corporations to get another $80 billion freed up. Then we use that money to relieve the foreclosure crisis by renegotiating the home mortgages which threaten so many families. Hayden reminded his college-age audience, “This is about the affordability of your future.”

We can’t wait until the third week in January to begin this process, Hayden concluded. “Obama must start planning how to address this crisis on November 5th and sit down with President Bush to have policies in place before the inauguration. And we in the peace and progressive movements will have our work cut out for us in holding that new and necessary vision in front of our new bi-racial President. When questioned about “stolen elections” in Ohio and Florida over the past eight years, Hayden predicted that the most significant problem we’ll face this election is having enough machines and polling places to accommodate the huge numbers of voters who will turn out to support Obama. Then, after the election, we can work to replace the anachronistic Electoral College and other election problems we face. Now is not the time to let up and, although tired, Hayden is ready to continue to contribute to making this a more just and peaceful society.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Parable of the Wicked Tenants - Matthew 21:33-46
CSM Shared Word- October 5, 2008

Matthew 21:33-46 (New International Version). The Parable of the Tenants
33"Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said.
38"But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' 39So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40"Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
41"He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
42Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: " 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?
43"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed."
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

How many of you heard a sermon today (or recently) preached on this text?

Some Bibles give this passage a heading of The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

How many of you heard in the sermon that the landowner who planted the vineyard was God? And the wicked tenants were the Pharisees or other Jews who did not follow Jesus?

Now, how many of you heard that the vineyard owner was George W. Bush – or maybe Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher – and the wicked tenants were the black-clad anarchists “throwing feces” at the cops out in the streets at the RNC?

I suspect the second reading of this parable of Jesus is closer to Jesus’ original meaning than the first. I must admit that most of my speculation about this parable owes much to William Herzog’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Ched Myers – but don’t blame them if I over-step in my own analysis.

I’ve provided some copies of this text. Since many commentators and the lectionary for today pair this parable with the passage from Isaiah, I included that as well- on the other side. Do these two stories really go together?

The Isaiah passage talks about the vineyard producing wild grapes and then allowed to be destroyed by nature – a very different outcome than Jesus’ parable where the tenants rise up to kill the owner’s son. The story in Isaiah is told from the perspective of Yahweh – but is the New Testament story?

Why have so many Biblical teachers and pastors assumed that the “householder” or “lord of the vineyard” is God? The word in Greek for the owner is oikodespotes – or lord of the household. It is no accident that we get the English word despot from the Greek word for lord since that is the way power is often used. At the time of Jesus, to talk about building a vineyard in Galilee would jar the listener. The land was already largely accounted for and the only way one could use the land for an export crop was by taking it from someone else. Only the very wealthy could afford to make an investment that a vineyard required – typically, a vineyard would not produce for the first 4 years while the vines matured and even in the 5th year it would be an unsure harvest.

The “husbandmen” or tenants were likely former farmers who had lost their land through foreclosure on loans they were unable to repay. So, the wealthy landowner would have to pay the tenant farmers those first 4-5 years while the vineyard was being established – so the owner had to have significant wealth for that time. Often, the tenant farmers would plant their vegetables for their own subsistence living between the rows of vines during this start-up period. They needed these vegetables to support their own hungry families.

So one way to understand this story is to recognize what it might mean for the wealthy owner to send his “henchmen” to seize a portion of the vegetables these tenant farmers were growing for their own families while the grape vines were getting established. These peasant farmers had already lost their own land to the rich and had been forced into this sharecropper relationship. They probably thought that they could at least keep what they grew between the rows of vines for their own families but now this rich bastard was demanding his share of that as well.

This story would be readily understood by some of Jesus’ listeners as an example of the kind of injustice Isaiah was talking about. While the lectionary pairs this story with Isaiah 5:1-7, it misses the whole point by not including verse 8. Isaiah’s story about the vineyard was that it was destroyed because the people of Judea practiced oppression rather than justice. How did they do this? Verse 8 says they “added house to house and joined field to field until there was no more room in the land” – exactly how this wealthy landowner did in Jesus’ story.

Do we all need a reminder of the centrality of the Sabbath and Jubilee principles again? The people of God were to guard against falling into debt and the type of slavery typified by these tenant farmers - by cancelling debts and returning fields to their original family ownership rather than letting the wealthy dominate as in Jesus’ parable.

But because we have so lionized the rich, the wealthy, the powerful in our society, we don’t see the glaring discontinuity between justice and oppression in Jesus’ story because we’ve internalized the lens of capitalism when we hear the story and assume the rich landlord is God! Do we want our God to be seizing land from poor people?

But how realistic is this story anyway? Would these tenant farmers really think by killing the heir they could keep the vineyard for themselves? Would an absentee landlord really send his SON to the place where his servants had just been beaten and killed? It is doubtful the tenant farmers could have gotten away with doing it once –let alone several times before the landlord responds with brute force.

What Jesus is trying to do with this story is to expose the spiral of violence as the people of Galilee experienced it during his lifetime. As the famous Archbishop of Recife, Brazil (Dom Helder Camara) has taught us, the spiral of violence starts with the first phase: the everyday oppression and exploitation of the poor by ruling elites. Like the hostile takeover of peasant lands to grow export crops, this type of violence is covert and perfectly “legal”. Like predatory subprime mortgages – followed by foreclosure and loss of one’s homestead. Sound familiar?

But when the poor peasants’ very existence is threatened – after all, they are now on a subsistence level- they will revolt to save themselves and their families. And thus the second phase of this spiral of violence. The tenants beat up and kill the “retainers”, the “servants” sent by the wealthy owner. And how are these revolts or rebellions responded to by the powerful? By the use of overwhelming force which is again, an officially sanctioned use of violence – just like phase one. As Dom Helder remarks, this is done “under the pretext of safeguarding public order or national security”. This is the third phase.

Now can you see the connection between Sheriff Fletcher and the “anarchists” at the RNC? The first spiral is the on-going war –albeit in a distant land so it might not be in the forefront of people’s consciousness on a day-to-day basis. The “anarchists” “strike back” at the repression they feel from the National Security State by busting the Macy’s window or the windshields of some cop cars. What is the response? –an overwhelming display of force by police clad in ninja-turtle-style riot gear, armed with chemical weapons, ready to “bust some heads”.

I know, the analogy isn’t perfect. But isn’t Jesus in using this and other parables trying to expose this spiral of violence that he sees the people experiencing? Jesus asks the rhetorical question: When the lord of the vineyard shall come, what will he do to those husbandmen? Well, Duh! We all know they are gonna get their asses kicked! What is going to happen to those black-clad “anarchists” in the street? Well, Duh! We all know they are gonna get their asses kicked!

Jesus, in these Gospel stories, has just entered Jerusalem in what we now call the “Triumphal Entry”. There are crowds cheering him on – maybe, just maybe, he will be the one to challenge this oppression they all feel from both the Roman occupiers and their collaborators in oppression, the Temple elite. But Jesus realizes that to fight back with violence will only result in the crushing over-reaction by those in power. It is Jesus’ principled nonviolence – his way of subverting the oppressive power through love, sacrifice, story, and community that challenges everything this power is built on. Jesus’ way subverts all of the Domination System and he calls us to follow.

Yes, the chief priests and the Pharisees –these religious leaders heard the parables and “they perceived he spake it against them”. And so they wanted to kill him but “they feared the multitude” – and continued their plotting another day.

I think some of the cops (and their bosses) “feared the multitudes” and were somewhat restrained on the streets by the presence of media cameras and other “witnesses”. Make no mistake; they will continue to “go after” anyone who challenges their hegemony.

Jesus calls us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” when we are sent out as “sheep among the wolves”. Whether the predators are militarists occupying Middle Eastern countries or hedge fund managers, subprime lenders, and Wall Street tycoons – those who in their rapacious greed continue to “add house to house and join field to field” to where there is “no more room in the land” – or no more room in the Federal Budget after a $700 billion bailout for any monies for education, health care, or the poor – we are called to resist them in the way of Jesus: with creative, loving, principled nonviolence.
The naivety of the tenants in vs. 38 sounds to me very closely to the same naivety I sense in some of the self-described “anarchists” who think we can “stand up to the power” and the masses will follow –rather than being crushed. Did some of Jesus’ followers have a false hope of a mass uprising after the Triumphal Entry or was Jesus’ lack of belief in a mass violent revolution what drove Judas to try to “ramp up” the confrontation?
This parable gives us much to chew on. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are called to remember as well, the cost. The gospel story concludes, “They sought to lay hold of him.” Does this sound like a felony charge of “conspiracy to commit riot in furtherance if terrorism” or some other charge the authorities will concoct? Are we ready to put our own selves on the line in trying to break this spiral of violence? It can only be broken by principled nonviolence. That is our challenge today.

My Week on the Streets at the Republican National Convention 2008

The Debut of the Minnesota Peace Team by Steve Clemens. September 2008.

(This is not meant to be a comprehensive report – just my own personal experiences during the week of the RNC.)

“You’re hot, you’re cute, take off your riot suit” was the best chant I heard as demonstrators sitting in the street confronted the “ninja-turtle”-clad riot police who had surrounded the group. I myself got caught up in calling the heavily armored-up police in the black padded costumes that included gas masks, long wooden batons, helmets and clear visors that name from the TV show of the early 90’s. They were everywhere.

Having a retired Chief-of-Police for a brother-in-law, I know first-hand the friendship and value of many of the “men and women in blue”. Virtually all the cops I talked to who were not “turtled-up” in the riot gear were friendly to me as I greeted them in the streets wearing my lime-green vest with Mn Peace Team emblazoned on the front and back. (We also wore bright yellow hats so we could find each other in crowds.) However, when the turtle costumes were donned, many of the cops took on a different demeanor. And when the face shields were lowered, any semblance of their common humanity with us seemed to fade away. Verbal communication with most ceased entirely. Force and intimidation became the tactic de-jour rather than friendly “community policing”.

Our job as newly trained (and very inexperienced) Mn Peace Team members was to remind those we encountered – police, protesters, counter-protesters, and bystanders – of the humanity and inherent worth of each other. It was our goal to attempt to de-escalate situations where others were likely to be physically hurt.

When you put on the Mn Peace Team vest, you are taking on a role as a non-partisan. In that role, we were going to try to protect demonstrator, counter-demonstrator, police, and bystander alike. Normally, training for this type of role should take days –if not weeks- with lots of role-playing and learning to make quick decisions as a team.

Hopefully, trust can be built between members because one’s own safety might depend on them – especially in the chaos and confusion engendered by mass marches with people angry with those in authority.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense knew there would be heated confrontations when the Republican Party decided to hold their national convention in the Twin Cites, a stronghold of Democrats, liberals, and progressives. With the notable exception of Congressman Ron Paul, all the candidates vying for their Party’s nomination supported the on-going war in Iraq and boasted of varying strategies to “win” it. With large numbers of the country now feeling the war was at best a mistake and at worst an illegal act of aggression, the stage was set for massive protests when the start of the convention was scheduled for Labor Day. It seemed only an “act of God” might intervene. (Hurricane Gustav did in fact limit the first day of the convention, giving the President and the Vice-President “cover” for not appearing – to the relief of some of the delegates who wanted an unpopular President to fade from view.)

Initial training

Only 3 months before the start of the Convention, Peter Dougherty, a Catholic Priest and member of the Michigan Peace Team, came to the bi-monthly meeting of the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers – a collective of more than 70 Twin Cities area peace and justice organizations. He described how the Michigan Peace Team over the past 17 years has tried to serve as a non-partisan presence in public situations where conflict might ensue – be it at a Klan rally, a state execution, mass marches or demonstrations where counter-demonstrators were likely to be present, or to protect human and civil rights workers. He appeared to be in his 70’s but with a fire in his eyes and a warm smile on his face. He thought that it would be a good idea for us to consider forming our own team to respond to the needs when the Republican National Convention came to town on Labor Day.

A couple of the MAP members travelled to Detroit to be trained by the Nonviolent Peaceforce and Michigan Peace Team over a period of several days and then returned to help train local volunteers for four consecutive weekends. The goal was to try to have 100 local people trained before the RNC so we could field numerous affinity groups for the many marches and other activities scheduled for the first week in September. Bright lime-green vests were ordered and we were told in the training that we might want to bring bandanas soaked in vinegar or lemon juice and goggles in case we were in situations where tear gas was used.

We did numerous role-plays and “hassle-lines” during the 10 hours of training. It was stressed that it was not our job to try to prevent civil disobedience or even heated verbal exchanges – just intervene if it appeared someone was in physical danger of being hurt. We discussed our own personal feelings about whether property destruction was “violent” and noted that people’s reaction to property destruction was often highly charged so we must be especially vigilant at those times. Although most of those trained had participated in nonviolent marches or demonstrations in the past, we were especially reminded of our non-partisan function when we donned the vests.

The Weekend Before

We heard word on Saturday morning that police, led by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, had raided the “Convergence Center”, the coordinating place for the “Welcoming Committee” and other anti-war groups on Friday night. Raids continued on Saturday morning and afternoon, this time targeting homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul where 7 or 8 people were arrested and the media claimed they would be charged with “conspiracy to riot”. The sheriff claimed to have found knives, buckets of urine, axes and machetes, bomb-making materials, and maps and anti-war materials which proved these culprits were serious troublemakers. The term anarchist was bandied about –labeling all protestors into this “troubling” term that apparently was designed to invoke concepts of “terrorism”. By calling someone or a group “anarchist”, one could dismiss them as crazy, violent, destructive youth bent on raising hell and threatening “the peace”.

Caught up in one of the raids was a group of journalists so it became clear that the purpose of the raids was primarily to intimidate and send a message rather than to effectively protect the city and its citizens. The journalists targeted happened to be a group that had documented police excesses in New York City during the 2004 RNC that cost the city millions in lawsuits against the police over-reaction to protesters there. Their equipment was seized. The fear and intimidation that spread was palpable.

I got a call on Saturday from two friends from Chicago who said they would probably contact me when they were in town. However, when the call came, it was to ask Christine and me for hospitality since the “Food not Bombs” house they were staying at in Minneapolis had been raided that morning. They had been handcuffed and ordered to lie on the floor for a couple of hours before being released. We told them we’d be glad to have them stay with us since we knew both to be principled activists even though others might label them as “anarchists”. Would our home be raided for merely providing Christian hospitality?

The Day Before the RNC

Before the decision to form the Peace Team, I had already decided I would join my friend from Veterans for Peace, Dr. David Harris, in a solemn march to the site of the Convention on the day before it started - focusing on the victims of the war from both sides. We planned to carry tombstone replicas with photos of Iraqi civilians or US soldiers killed during the war. David also wanted to provide an opportunity for those who might wish to commit civil disobedience to try to carry our message into the Xcel Center itself rather than turn around at the designated area for the march.

As we gathered at the State Capitol prior to the march, I was pleased to see at least two groupings of the bright Mn Peace Team vests with yellow hats. I went over and greeted the Team members for that day and one team leader asked about any plans for civil disobedience so they would know where to place themselves in case it provoked a violent response on the part of police or counter-demonstrators. I told him what I knew and told them I was glad they were present. (I’ve told the story of the arrest in another report.)

Sunday evening after I returned home from worship, I was surprised to discover that we had another 6 houseguests. Four young women and two young men from Bash Back, a queer anarchist group in Chicago and friends of one of our other guests had arrived!

Day One

Monday, Labor Day, was to mark the start of the Republican National Convention and was the date planned more than a year before for a large coalition of anti-war groups to march. March planners hoped for a turnout of 50,000 protesters. Close to 40 people gathered in the basement of a St. Paul Lutheran Church that would serve as the “command post” for the Mn Peace Team. After introductions, we were asked to divide ourselves into groups of 5-6 depending on how willing we were to “risk arrest”. The thinking was that potential arrests were more likely to occur closer to the triangle area near the Xcel Center, the turn-around area designated for the marches. Since it was only several hundred feet from the building where the delegates were meeting, it was assumed that more civil disobedience or other disturbances would more likely occur there.

Some members wanted to be on teams with others they knew. As the groups formed, introductions continued and we discussed health concerns, things that might “trigger” strong reactions within us, our gifts/strengths that we brought to the Team, and other information the affinity group might need to know since we would need to depend on and support one another. We wrote down cell phone numbers for each other, for our Coordinators for the day, for a local lawyer and for the street medics. Some who were experienced with mass protests wrote the legal collective’s phone number on their arm with a marker in the event of an arrest and our phones were taken from us.

We were told that the coalition that organized this large march did not want the Mn Peace Team either in their gathering at the State Capitol or during the march since they had trained their own marshals. So we decided our presence would be on the sidelines, looking for any incidents where we might be needed. Teams were stationed at various areas of the march.

I joined an affinity group with my fellow Pax Christi Board Member, Scott, two friends from the Nonviolent Peaceforce, a Quaker who had previously met Scott, and a volunteer who offered to take pictures of the Peace Team in action. Karen was going to start with our Team and then switch to another later in the day. An affinity group is to make decisions by consensus and we decided to go first to the Capitol grounds where the rally would be held and then walk the march route before it began – looking for any potential bottlenecks or areas where conflict might more readily arise.

In walking the ½ mile march route, we noticed how “caged-in” the last section of the route appeared – especially the triangle-shaped turn around where protesters would be walking in what looked like a 10’ wide cattle chute. Counter protesters would be stationed on one side of the 8’ high metal fences as the marchers were closest to the Convention site. About 15-20 of the counter-protesters had started to gather so we talked with them, explaining our presence as non-partisans. We also made a point of talking to the many police present. Before the march started, there was a mixture of police in their own uniforms and I was able to identify some from Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Edina, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Arlington, VA, and numerous other locations. Almost without exception, we were greeted courteously when the cops were in uniform but those who appeared in the black riot armor (“turtled-up”) rarely would return eye contact or speak to us when their face shields were in place.

Since another affinity group planned to station itself close to the triangle, we decided to be near the area where the march turned on to 7th Street so we could look down both Wabasha St. and West 7th. We would be one block from the beginning of the restricted or “exclusion” zone that formed the security perimeter around the convention area.

We decided to eat our lunch since the actual march wasn’t to begin until 1PM but a phone call from the Team Coordinators for the day told us an “unpermitted march” had begun an hour before the agreed start time and was headed our way. As we scrambled to re-group, we saw groups of the black-clad riot police running towards the east. Because this was likely to be an area of conflict, we hurried as well to monitor what was happening.

Many of the young “anarchists” were also dressed in black but without the riot equipment and padded vests, shin guards, knee protectors, and tasers, guns, or other weapons carried by their “adversaries”, the police. Bandanas over their nose and mouth were more likely to be employed. A young man in his late teens would run into an intersection of the downtown street and shake the bells he had on a stick as the signal to gather. Others came into the intersection from all directions and danced and sang and then taunted the police who came running after this “illegal” “march or demonstration”. As a phalanx of the riot police marched together to seal off one street after another – often donning tear gas masks in case the order was given by the unit commander, the “anarchist” kids would disappear leaving the intersection to the media who was trying to “cover” the action. Then the process would repeat itself a block or two away in a game of cat and mouse.

So, for a full hour prior to the scheduled march, some of the police were otherwise occupied. From my limited position (not seeing all the provocation nor all the response), our team commented to each other a pleasant surprise about how patient and restrained the police response to these provocations was. While saying that, it also appeared to me that the enormous police presence in the downtown march area – especially the increasing numbers of the “ninja turtles” seemed to also send a message of intimidation to any “protesters”. There certainly did not appear to be a welcoming presence for those who wished to exercise their freedom of speech rights with the large police presence and the cage effect of the steel fence barricades.

Soon after 1PM, the first signs of the large anti-war coalition march were evident. Streams of people with signs, banners, T-shirts with slogans, filled the streets. Riot police took up positions which blocked Wabasha Street beyond the intersection with 7th forcing the marchers to stay on route. I can imagine what a frightening sight those up-armored cops must have been for some of the young children or first-time protesters in the march! The Peace Team chatted with bystanders as we watched in both directions for any signs of conflict. About halfway through the march we noticed that the black-clad riot police had sealed off even the sidewalks so that people wishing to leave the march or bystanders could not go further into the downtown area. A number of people complained bitterly and I could see the tension mounting against what appeared to be a heavy-handed police over-reaction.

The march lasted close to two hours and our instructions were to follow the end of it back to the State Capitol. As we followed the crowd up Cedar Street, we noticed the “ninja turtles” marching behind us. As soon as we crossed the bridge over the interstate highway, the riot cops sealed off the bridge and refused to allow anyone back into the downtown area. There was a Labor Day Picnic being held on the far side of downtown with some well-known musicians and other speakers and many march participants were eager to get to the site on Harriet Island. Despite their pleas, the police refused entry toward that site for close to two hours. Even a Minnesota Public Radio journalist was prevented from walking to her studio and office even though it was in sight of the blocked intersection.

A man in a wheelchair who worn a photo id around his neck that said Chaplain on one side and Catholic Charities on the other appeared and was verbally harassing and goading the “liberal” demonstrators. While he was yelling at any “anti-war protestors” who were foolish enough to engage him, another man verbally taunted the cops, claiming that they had illegally seized some of his equipment (it appeared to be his camera) so after yelling at them for more than 30 minutes, he spread his arms wide and told them to “ “shoot me, you mother *&#^%ers”. Our Peace Team had to remain alert, ready to intervene as the tension ratcheted up. Finally, without explanation, the cops lifted their blockade after two hours. Mentally and physically spent, our affinity team called in to the church and requested to be picked up for a ride back to the church.
When we arrived at the church, we were told that while we were prevented from being downtown some of “the anarchist” groups had broken a Macy’s window and several windows in cop cars as the police again chased them through the area. Considering all the destructive power of war that people were protesting, it seemed pretty minor damage compared to the overwhelming police presence. But we also knew that the “mainstream media” would choose to focus on the very few “troublemakers” and ignore the more than 10,000 peaceful protesters.

After a late supper, I went to bed, planning to take the next morning “off” from the Peace Team in order to attend the Peace Island Conference designed to highlight solutions to our global and local problems rather than just protest. I had earlier volunteered to help with the early registration and then I’d attend the morning session, helping with the Peace Team after lunch.

Day Two

At 7AM I received a call from a close friend. She told me her son and 2 nephews went to the big march the day before and had then headed toward the Labor Day picnic at Harriet Island. Because police had shut down the bridge over the river, the three young men (two were high school seniors and the other a little older) went down to Shepherd Road to see if there was another way across to the island. My friend was trying to keep from tears as she said, “the police surrounded them and both of my nephews were arrested and charged with felonies for ‘conspiracy to riot’ because they carried masks in case tear gas was fired.” After I recommended the names of some friends who were lawyers and offers to “see what I could find out”, I learned that more than 100 young people had been swept up and arrested in this incident.

Listening to the radio on the way to St. Paul, I found it hard to concentrate on Peace Island and was relieved when I discovered that my help wasn’t needed at registration. I called right away to the Peace Team gathering at the church and asked if they could use me for the morning as well as the afternoon. They assured me that I could join one of the affinity groups about to form. I wanted to try to protect some of the young people from what was more clearly becoming police over-reaction and intimidation of peaceful protest.

I arrived at the church after the day’s orientation had begun. I stated a preference to help with the march the Somali group would begin at noon rather than the Poor People’s March at 4 because I still naively thought I could attend at least the evening sessions of Peace Island. The affinity group I joined hoped to be finished by 5, debriefed by 6 PM and then I’d be free to leave.

When we arrived at the State Capitol grounds where the march was scheduled to begin, there were no Somalis to be seen. “Ripple Effect”, a non-partisan music festival was getting ready to start, a sustainable ecology exhibit was set up on one side and the other side flanking the concert area contained the Quaker-sponsored “Eyes Wide Open” display of empty pairs of combat boots lined in rows by states with the names of the dead US Troops attached. Separately was also a display of empty “civilian” shoes –men, women, and children’s – to mark the untold Iraqi deaths from this war.

Finally, about ½ hour after I thought the march was supposed to begin, I noticed three Somali men so I approached them, introducing myself and my role as a Peace Team member, and asked if they were here for the Somali march. They smiled and said yes. I was told they were waiting for more of their friends who were “on the way” and the march would begin about 1PM. At 1, with only 6 men and one woman, they said we’d wait a little longer. Finally, the one who appeared to be the leader went on the Ripple Effect stage and welcomed anyone else here who wanted to join them in protesting US support for the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia. So few American citizens know about the US role in the politics in the Horn of East Africa but several young people joined making the march about 20-25 people with our five person Peace Team walking alongside them in the event of any threats.

The police presence in the downtown area looked completely different than the day before. It was hard to spot a “ninja turtle”-clad officer. The few cops we saw were in their uniforms with the city name and badge number visible. Downtown was much busier – it being a regular work day rather than the holiday we experienced the day before. The group chanted “We want peace!” “End the genocide in Somalia”. “Ethiopia out of Somalia.” “End US support of warlords!”

When the small marching contingent arrived at the triangular area closest to the Xcel Center, we discovered along with the marchers that not only was there no turn-around like the previous day but the police escort also ended. As marchers tried to return the way they came, they had to dodge cars at the intersections and none of the police gave any directions where to go so the group had to return on the sidewalk along Minnesota Street rather than march against the one-way traffic facing the marchers on Cedar. Up until this point the march was uneventful with 3 of the Peace Team close to the front of the march and the other two by the rear. As we crossed Twelfth Street, a van making a left hand turn barely missed one of our Team members and immediately close to 20-30 police arrived on the scene grabbing two people from the end of the march rather than stopping the driver of the van.

Both people who were grabbed were dressed in typical “anarchist” style and the cops quickly had them in custody. I noticed the commotion and rushed back to the intersection but the police would not let me cross over to the side where the two were being held. One of our Team Members had remained on that side and together all the Team Members carefully watched the cops’ behavior. After we informed the police that these young people had been invited to be part of the march by the Somali group (and, I think because we were watching closely), they released the two after about 15 minutes. We escorted them along with the three “street medic” friends who came by to be sure the cops didn’t follow them until they had returned to the Capitol.

We passed the word to the Team scheduled to be present with the Poor People’s March later in the day that the “return” after the march might not be part of the permit and might be “on your own” –prophetic words indeed. Our Team remained on the Capitol grounds occasionally checking out disturbances when the police would rush in to “search” someone’s backpack. In talking to several police officers who walked by, we discovered most had no idea what the Mn Peace Team was but many expressed gratitude for what we were about.

Several police officers had visceral reactions to the language some of the musicians used from the Ripple Effect stage. Some of the performers practiced a liberal amount of the F-word but what seemed to make some of the cops more nervous was when the word “riot” was thrown out several times. There seemed to be some dissonance between the hip-hop style of some performers and the overwhelmingly white cops. We suspected trouble might ensue when we heard the rumor that Rage Against the Machine, a popular band with the anarchist crowd might show up to play. The rumor also said that if they came, the police planned to shut off the sound – thus provoking a confrontation.
5 o’clock came around and two of the team chose to remain at the Capitol, joining another affinity team continuing its presence there. Three of us rode back to the church and rather than debrief, Katherine chose to quickly orient a new group of volunteer Peace Team members so they could return to the Capitol. I grabbed some supper at a nearby restaurant and just before heading over to Peace Island, I received a phone call informing me that fellow MnPT member, David Harris, had been pepper-sprayed by the police and might need some assistance getting home to Red Wing. I called Sue who was the support person at the church and she said David was OK to drive. Just before the 7PM session of Peace Island was to begin, I got another call that things were indeed heating up at the Capitol. When Rage Against the Machine showed up 15 minutes before the scheduled end of the concert, the police cut off the sound and the crowd was very displeased. If the cops wanted to ramp down a sense of confrontation, a compromise probably could have been reached. But it seemed to some of the Team members that they instead wished to provoke a confrontation.

I asked Chris, one of the day’s coordinators if she’d like me to return to duty and she said yes - if I could get there quickly. I had to return first to the church to get my green vest so other Team members could readily find me in the crowd. By the time I reached the Capitol grounds, virtually the entire crowd had marched downtown with the Poor People’s March that had come by right after the sound was cut off. Even though most of the crowd left, I saw three phalanxes of riot police marching toward the capitol and it appeared they were about to sweep the Capitol grounds. So I phoned in my situation and asked permission to stay and observe. After about 15 tense minutes, the “turtles” started to stand down. Some were removing their helmets and face shields and other were packing up their armored gear. After two of the units left and only one was remaining, I again called in and told the Team coordinators that I would try to join them on the march where once again things were heating up.

With no permitted return route for the Poor People’s March, confrontations were building near the triangle area. I can’t report first-hand what happened there although my frequent calls to Chris gave me some updates. I was physically prevented from joining the other affinity groups by a row of “turtled-up” cops who lined themselves across 7th Street. I could see a lot of commotion by Mickey’s Diner at the corner of 7th and St. Peter but then the cops pushed everyone back to the intersection at Wabasha. I noted that all the cops had put on their gas masks so I warned other bystanders and news crews that they should prepare for the use of tear gas. [An aside: are you aware that the use of tear gas is expressly forbidden by the International Treaty against the use of chemical weapons?]

The critical thing to do when facing tear gas is to try to prevent panic. Many of the people near the intersection didn’t stay around to experience it. Without prior verbal warning, I heard several loud bangs (police percussion bombs), flashes, and then saw a cloud of tear gas headed my way. I had already put on my safety goggles and had a bandana soaked in lemon juice over my nose and mouth. It still burned and my eyes teared up but I was able to help look out for others. Some in the crowd started yelling obscenities at the cops for using the tear gas. If anything, it seemed to harden the resolve of those who remained rather than intimidate them – clearly its purpose. Soon after that first use of tear gas, about 30 St. Paul cops on bikes with gas masks in place rode through the intersection and up Wabasha in what looked like a flanking maneuver. I called to check on my teammates and give them an update.

After the cops had forced any remaining demonstrators, media, Peace Team members, and bystanders behind their lines up St. Peter Street, it seemed they were going to try to box them in and drive them out of downtown through flanking maneuvers. For reasons unclear to me, they let several of us through their lines so I was able to join up with the other remaining Peace Team affinity groups. Even though I may have been in greater danger, I felt relief at being able to re-join them. Rather than being alone, I knew my Peace Teammates would work to protect one another.

Once again, the police started moving up the street with batons in front, gas masks on, yelling, “Move! Move! Move!” The only direction we could go was to the north, towards the bridge over the freeway. By now only about 50 or so remained but others had just come. Several people lived downtown or had cars parked there and their anger was building that there were no streets open to get there. Finally, Chris and Demi, our Team Coordinators approached the front of the turtled-phalanx and asked the police if there was any way these bystanders could get through their blockade. The police responded that until the intersection and street was cleared of everyone, they wouldn’t re-open it. When the Peace Team coordinators told the crowd what the police had said, some left.

After another 15 minutes or so, I noticed a change. Four riot-clad police had removed their helmets, handed off their batons, and slowly started towards us. They pointed at Chris and me with our bright green vests and signaled with their hands for us to approach. They told me, “Look, we’re all tired and we’d like to leave. But we can’t leave until this intersection is cleared. If you clear this intersection, our men will disburse and the street can be re-opened.”

I responded that it was not our role to tell people what to do but we would certainly convey their message to those remaining. I thanked them for their clear communication because it seemed to me one of the biggest frustrations was the lack of clear instructions that might lessen the tension and conflict. In a loud voice so as to be heard, I told the bystanders and remaining others, “We don’t work for the cops. But this is what they said.” And then I went on to tell them and then said it is your choice to stay or go across that bridge. If you stay, there may be other consequences. Several in the crowd felt the need to yell at the cops as they turned to go but clearly the crowd was emotionally spent and physically tired, as were the police. We walked off with the remaining crowd and the cops stood down.

It appeared to me that finally the cops realized the role our Team could play in de-escalating the conflict. However, if the police had arrested folk for refusing to leave rather than try to intimidate through the use of the chemical weapons, I believe it could have been resolved much earlier. It was at this point that I came to the conclusion that the preferred method was intimidation rather than law enforcement. That has left a bitter taste in my mouth (and caused my eyes to water).

At the debriefing at the church, Peter, the one with the most experience with this work, having co-founded the Michigan Peace Team, exclaimed, “We did some good work today. I think we saved lives or at least helped protect others from serious injury. I’m really proud of the work you’ve done here with so little training.” Despite what we did right, there were also plenty of suggestions of what we might have done differently. I missed having David, Katherine, and Don at the debriefing – two were at home recovering from pepper spray and tear gas and the other had just gotten out of the decontamination unit at the hospital –she had been pepper sprayed while trying to protect a bystander wearing a McCain for President button.

Because many members of the Team did not get back to the church for debriefing until after 10PM, we decided to wait until 10AM the next two days before starting to form our affinity groups for those days. Arriving home at 11:30 PM, I needed some time to decompress from the day and take a shower to wash the tear gas from my hair before climbing into bed.

Day Three

I took Wednesday off in order to attend Peace Island. It was a welcome change of pace listening to Ray McGovern, Mel Duncan, Coleen Rowley, Kathy Kelly, Sami Rasouli, Ann Wright, and Doug Johnson. Despite the wonderful input, I felt stressed knowing that the Peace Team was in the field. I decided I needed to rest that evening to prepare for the “final” day on Thursday so I skipped the evening speakers to have decompression time.

Day Four

The final day of the RNC promised to be the most challenging because of the nature of the last of the permitted marches. The Anti-War Committee and some other local groups decided to call the scheduled 4PM-9PM rally and March “No Peace To For the Warmakers!” It was widely bandied about that this was the time for disrupting traffic, closing down bridges and streets, some expressions of “direct action” and other forms of civil (and maybe some not-so-civil) disobedience. It was the night when John McCain would accept his party’s nomination for President.

The day’s events were to begin with a called student strike where students were encouraged to walk out of classes and school at noon and gather at the State Capitol grounds with a permitted march at 2 PM. The coordinating group, Youth Against War and Racism, has been active for several years in the high schools and colleges in the area. The Mn Peace Team was concerned about the permits not having a return route and what to do about angry students left to fend for themselves downtown. Someone in the group came up with a creative solution: might we not encourage the group’s leaders to lead all the marchers across the Wabasha Bridge and join the Peace Island picnic at Harriet Island? That way they would be out of downtown, be able to get a free meal, and have other, older mentors who have been working for peace for decades to relate to.
Colleen Rowley, the planner of the picnic readily agreed to invite the young people to join her, the YAWR leaders thought it was a good idea, and finally the police agreed to change the march route to accommodate it. It appeared to be a win-win-win solution.

Our affinity team for the day decided we would accompany the youth through downtown and be sure they were on the bridge before returning to the Capitol. With the next march to begin at 4, we wanted to be in place ahead of time because this might be the last chance for some to express themselves while the Republican politicians were still in town.

Our team stopped for a water break outside the downtown Presbyterian Church that had remained open from 8-8 every day for prayer and meditation during the RNC. As we rested, one of the team members approached a Sergeant from the St. Paul Police to ask her to clarify the march plans. Rumors were flying about that it was to start at 3 instead of 4. The Sergeant told us that the official permit was from 3-5 and everything had to be “done” by 5 because the streets would be closed at that point. Many local businesses and downtown offices were closing early so their workers could leave.

When we called into the Team Coordinators, we knew different messages were being given. They had been told the march just had to begin before 5 PM. In talking to other police around the Capitol grounds, we were told all permits had been pulled and no permitted march would be allowed. A couple of Peace Team members talked with the March organizers, asking them to announce from the stage what was happening so folks could decide to risk arrest and/or tear gassing by marching. Instead, what was announced from the stage was that “as long as we start by 5, we can march on the sidewalks. This was a different message than what we had received from some of the police.

Tensions were already high when police rushed into the crowd to detain two people they claimed were wanted for breaking windows downtown on Monday. As the police dragged the two away, the crowd surged after them yelling, “Let them go!” Quickly a phalanx of St. Paul Police on bicycles arrived to block the crowd. Then the horse-mounted squad arrived- with gas masks in place. Peace Team members tried to place themselves between the crowd and the horses, warning the crowd that tear gas might be used. After a few minutes standoff, Phil and Demi, our Peace Team coordinators for the day, approached and asked who was in charge. After they talked with the commander of the horse unit, the horses and their riders left and the crowd disbursed to listen to the speakers and musicians up on the stage.

Peace Team members gathered as the time approached the 5 PM deadline and it was decided that we should at least warn those in the crowd that the police had announced to us that there was no permit to march and that arrest and/or tear gassing was likely. Since the crowd was several hundred –mostly young people- we especially didn’t want panic to set in and have people trampled. I especially sought out several people in the crowd who I knew and trusted to make sure they had what information we had so they could spread the word. I knew some would march anyway because of their strong feeling about the war and the repression of free speech. It was clear to me that some would march and that “permits” were just another way authorities tried to squelch their rights.

A few minutes before 5, the crowd headed down the hill toward the bridges leading to downtown. Phalanxes of riot police were seemingly on all sides and one unit had blocked access to the Cedar St. Bridge and also the Wabasha Bridge. So the crowd surged up 12th Street and began marching down the John Ireland Bridge with police in pursuit.

One member of our affinity group of six had told us that she wasn’t willing to risk arrest because she had plans that couldn’t be changed for the end of the week. We told her we’d respect that choice and try to place her in a less vulnerable position. She chose to leave and go to a safer place about ½ hour later. This was certainly a challenging assignment for someone’s first time in this role and I respected her decision and appreciated her honesty.

For the next hour, we stayed on the edges of the main protest group, attempting to communicate with the growing crowd of bystanders and supporters as the main group was blockaded on the John Ireland Bridge with snow plows in place to keep protesters from getting too close to the Xcel Center where McCain was to speak. Other members of our team joined other affinity teams at the front of the main group –interposing themselves between the police and the group. After a standoff during which police gave several orders to disburse (or so we were told since we heard no clear commands from any cops other than people could leave “to the north (toward the State Capitol) or to the west (towards Sears)”, it appeared that the cops did not plan on arresting the protesters.

After a while, the main group of protesters rushed off the bridge and across the Capitol grounds towards the Cedar St. bridge which was blocked by police. About 20-30 of the group sat down and were arrested. Many others remained there and were not arrested. Again, a standoff there lasted for some time and again orders were given to disburse or “non lethal chemical agents will be used”. This order we did hear from the police and the crowd disbursed. It seemed protesters were leaving in several directions and what was left of our affinity group decided to call it a day since it was getting dark and now after 8PM.

We walked to the Sears parking lot to get a ride back to the church with members of another affinity group that was leaving. We knew at least one or two affinity groups planned to stay longer in the area. Just before getting into the car for the ride back, we saw cops, horses, and squad cars racing down Marion Street toward the bridge across the Interstate. We heard and saw percussion grenades, tear gas, and other “crowd control [sic]” devices in the distance. Since the other teams were in the vicinity, we decided not to stay and returned to the church. Later we heard the police arrested everyone they had herded on to the bridge – over 400, including journalists, legal observers, bystanders, and protesters. Was it because it was now dark that they decided now to arrest folk?

Concluding observations:

The militarizing of the police was quite evident. These were no longer “Public Safety Officers” or even “Law Enforcement Personnel”. Will we ever be able to return to “community policing”? Will those who experienced the “ninja Turtle” effect ever go to the cops when they feel they need help? This experience gave me new insights into how many in the black community often experience the police – as a threat rather than an asset.

This is a small taste of what it might feel like to be on the “receiving” end of empire. I kept coming back to visions of Roman cohorts and phalanxes when the cops moved in unison as units. I asked myself the question: What did Jesus think when he saw the Roman soldiers in his country? Maybe this was as close as Americans will get to remembering viscerally that we are at war.

The most disturbing aspect was when the cops “armored-up” there was no visible badge, no city ID, no personal accountability. (In debriefing on the second night, Team members told of witnesses at Mickey’s Diner telling them they had captured pictures of what appeared to be a Minneapolis cop repeatedly tasering and kicking in the head a guy already down on the street. To the witnesses, it was a clear case of brutality but other cops hustled off the cop before he could be identified.

The concept of Free Speech was lost to intimidation. The Free Speech area touted by the St. Paul Mayor as a symbol of openness to protesters was a joke – it was located within the highly militarized zone and anyone who feared they might be tear gassed studiously avoided the area. A friend of mine had reserved a 45-minute spot at 12:30 PM Wednesday noon. He gave his talk to an audience of 1!

It appeared that the media and “street medics” were lumped with “the enemy” (“anarchists”) – fit to be gassed, pepper-sprayed, and arrested unless they were “embedded” with the police. (Again, just like in Iraq – use the military model rather than a public safety model). “If you are not with us, you are against us” mentality. They must have learned this well from the “Commander-in-Chief”.

What happens to nonviolent civil disobedience if cops won’t arrest you but rather choose tear gas, pepper spray and brute force? Many times it seemed the cops went out of their way NOT to arrest folk who clearly wished to do civil disobedience. Was the decision to use mace/tear gas and pepper spray a determination NOT to arrest people because so many of the police were from out of town and/or out of state and it would be too costly to have them return to testify at trials?

No one on the Team saw anyone throwing feces or urine at the cops –despite the reports from the “mainstream media” and the Sheriff that it was one of the reasons for the actions of the police. Later, in one debrief, I heard someone say they saw a demonstrator pick up some “road apples” dropped in the street by police horses and he rubbed it on a police squad car as a form of his “political speech”.

Why are delegates kept in a bubble from what is happening on the outside? With the mainstream media’s failure to cover most of what happened on the streets (except for reports of “anarchists breaking windows and throwing urine and feces”), the delegates were kept in the dark about the large presence of people opposed to the war and their party’s policies.

What we experienced was the demonization of dissent -if you can label some as “anarchists”, you can dismiss them. Many self-identified anarchists are committed to principled nonviolence. There is a small group of predominately younger people who do seem to have little regard for the rights of others and seem to me to be fairly nihilist in their attitude towards themselves and others. How much of this is brought about by the present war and the fact that we are leaving the next generation with a huge national debt, an environment under dire ecological crisis, and a political system that is fully controlled by moneyed interests – I can’t say. But if I were younger, the anger at the way my generation has squandered the world’s resources on greed and war might find me looking for other stronger ways to dissent. That said, I find that many of the young anarchists seem to be very politically naïve about the way property violence plays into the political strategies of the war-making political parties. What appears to some to be revolutionary merely is playing into the schemes of the reactionaries. And the masses of people between are alienated rather than motivated to join the anti-war cause.

Throughout the week, it was rare when we heard any clear commands from the police. If demands to disburse or warnings about the imminent use of tear gas were clearly announced, many people who wanted to avoid this might have been able to leave. Was the sense of chaos and confusion deliberate? When peaceful dissent is thwarted, it is inevitable that other tactics will be used by some.

On the other hand: Most cops –even ninja turtles – showed remarkable restraint and patience after being taunted for hours- although some later beat up one young man involved in the earlier taunting. Some cops readily understood role of MnPT and thanked us for what we were trying to do.

Questions about the Peace Team

Does the Peace Team try to tamp down conflict or just prevent violence? (ML King said we don’t create the violence- it is already there. We allow it to surface so it can be dealt with.) Can we take the violence on ourselves and try to protect the more vulnerable? Does the violence expose the real nature of EMPIRE? Do we try to lessen conflict to the point of squelching dissent?

Is the Peace Team another form of privilege? (in wearing the distinctive vests, are we trying to not be mistaken for “poor people” or “anarchists”).

Some activists saw the Peace Team as “peace police”. Some eschew any conversation or communication with the cops. I think it is a political mistake to automatically assume the cops are on “on the other side”. When David Harris was arrested the day before the RNC started, most of the arresting officers treated him with respect because he, like many of them, was a veteran. Although the police are charged with protecting the property of the privileged class, we should not assume that is necessarily their political choice.

Diversity training is needed for some of the Peace Team members – especially in regards to those the media pejoratively labels as “anarchists”. One older team member kept referring to them as “troublemakers” – a term I found as not very helpful. But, since this was a first experience for many of them, I want to be gentle in my criticism.

We also need to discuss flexibility in affinity team make-up – how do you decide to break up into smaller units? How do you deal realistically with the fears of fellow team members and help them grow while it might place –limits on where that team can venture. Several times I held back from “entering the fray” and remained on the periphery because I had “partnered” with a team member who was less comfortable with the possible “costs” for being closer to the front. Yet where we ended up also served a valuable, if less dramatic, role in being present to bystanders.

This week proved to continually challenge my commitment to nonviolence (in good ways), gave me new appreciation of the challenges police face, and furthered my feelings that our nation needs a radical reawakening before we lose our democracy. I hope we can all learn and grow from this experience.

[I’d encourage those who only saw “mainstream” coverage to be sure to check out what I found to be the best local coverage of the events on the street of the week of the RNC at (go to the dates 8/31 to 9/5) and . (Much of the video here is “raw”, unedited but it captures people speaking for themselves rather than mediated by “the media”. One very important video is at ]