Remembering Millard: My Reminiscing About Millard Fuller

Remembering Millard - My Reminiscing About Millard Fuller by Steve Clemens. March 20, 2009

Even the name was memorable; how many of you know a person named “Millard”? Millard Fillmore, an obscure US President, comes to mind. But for those who encountered Millard Fuller, the first name sufficed to know to whom you were referring.

One of my first recollections of Millard Fuller occurred with a double dose of “Millards” – boy, that jury must have been confused, facing not one, but two Millards. Millard Farmer and Millard Fuller teamed up to defend five black teenagers accused of murder in the south Georgia town of Dawson in 1977. Fuller did the jury selection and planned to do the closing argument; Farmer handled the evidentiary part of the trial. It was more than 30 years ago so my memory isn’t exact; I just have broad impressions today.

What I remember of the man from that encounter as well as numerous others over our 34 year friendship was his ability to look you in the eye and challenge you to do more, to be more, certainly to give more. He called you to act on your beliefs, not just sit back in pious contemplation of them. “What good is your faith if it doesn’t have works/deeds to back it up?” is the way the Epistle of James, the reputed brother of Jesus, puts it in the Christian scriptures. It seemed to be the life force of Millard Fuller.

Oh, I’d heard the story of “Millard and Linda” soon after I arrived at Koinonia Partners in the fall of 1975. Millard and Linda Fuller and their kids had already left for Zaire (Congo) in Africa several years before. But the story still lingered in mythological tones: he made a million dollars before he was 30 – and then gave it all away and moved to Koinonia to learn at the feet of his new mentor, Clarence Jordan. Together, these two giant personalities came up with the vision of Partnership Housing “to provide decent, affordable housing for God’s people in need.” In 1968, the first house for Bo and Emma Johnson’s family was under construction and finished just before Clarence’s untimely death in 1969. Little did we know his collaborator in that effort would also succumb to the grave before his three score and twenty.

The Millard Fuller I knew wasn’t perfect; he was over-sized, he was packed full of zeal and energy, but he was fallible and had his foibles. One can concentrate on those weaknesses of the flesh or the abuses of power as a way to dismiss him and his message – but it is often a defense mechanism on our part to try to avoid his clarion call to do more, to be more, to give more. He could have had a celebrated and successful career as a lawyer. His presence in the courtroom was a sight to behold and experience. His gifts of word and presence made him a powerful advocate and a force to be reckoned with. I should know; Millard was directly responsible for getting me out of jail once, long after he had given up his legal practice to concentrate on his Habitat work. But this story is about him, not me.

Both Millards, Farmer and Fuller, persuaded that south Georgia court not only to forgo the death penalty but to drop the fraudulent, racist charges and freed the young men. It was a significant blow to Jim Crow and the rampant racism routinely dominating the “justice” system of south Georgia. With President Jimmy Carter’s home not far away in the next county, this case drew some national attention and Millard could have used that spotlight to further his legal practice. But Millard used his legal practice primarily to pay the bills while he nurtured his fledgling Habitat For Humanity program through its early years.

Millard and Linda had returned to Koinonia after their years in Zaire convinced that this radical idea that houses could be built by volunteers and sold for no profit and with no interest on a mortgage so that the poor could have a simple, decent place to live. The model had continued at Koinonia while they were in Africa. Several dozens of homes were owned by families next to Bo and Emma’s and more were being built as the Fullers moved back into the duplex house owned by this small, Christian community founded in 1942 in rural Georgia amongst the gnats, fire ants, and racists known to populate the region.

Millard’s style of leadership and personality had caused some tension in the intentional community that was trying to re-establish itself after a radical restructuring in 1968. Part of the Fuller’s decision to work in Africa arose from those tensions and their return to Koinonia was with the understanding that this new venture (which didn’t even have the name Habitat yet) would become a separate identity - lest this new project, an expanded housing ministry, completely overtake the community life and work in 1976.

The Fullers used Koinonia’s connections and mailing list (as well as some of it’s present community members) to form its own identity and moved it’s operations into the nearby town of Americus after its first year. Even with the seven-mile distance separating us, Koinonia and Habitat retained a close relationship during those formative years and we saw the Fullers often. We were pleased when they attended our wedding in 1978 and not terribly surprised that they brought along a couple of Habitat volunteers we had never met along with them.

Of course, if you knew Millard, the phase, “You’all come now, you hear?” fit him to a T. Millard was always inviting more to come. It was certainly fitting to have Tony Campolo give the sermon/eulogy at the Memorial Service for Millard held in Atlanta last week. Tony always talks about how the Kingdom of God is a party! – and no one better exudes that spirit quite like Millard. He was always inviting more people to join in, much to the chagrin of any staffers or community members who were responsible for the planning of meals, bed-space, or other logistics. Millard truly understood the concept of God’s abundance and he did his best to incarnate that in his life and activities.

I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of speeches Millard must have given in his 74 years – especially during those last 33 years of Habitat For Humanity and The Fuller Center For Housing. He seemed indefatigable, bounding with his loping steps to a podium or into a room of people gathered to be engaged by his warmth, enthusiasm, and energy. I imagine his tall, lanky frame to be similar to our national hero, Abe Lincoln, unless you were still holding on to the dreams of the Confederacy.

Millard was born in the South and lived virtually his whole life in the Deep South but he was no son of the Confederacy. Millard always tried to find ways to include everybody. Although a deeply committed Christian, he made it clear that his “theology of the hammer” meant that everyone was to be enlisted – no matter your race, color, creed, gender, or nationality - no one was excused from the call to justice and compassion. His own faith drove him in his work but you didn’t have to share it to join him. And his enthusiasm was contagious.

President Jimmy Carter understood how infectious that energy was and he jokingly said at the Memorial service that probably all of us in that crowded Ebeneezer Baptist Church sanctuary had a hard time resisting Millard’s call to join him. Carter laughed as he recounted his initial meeting with Millard and Linda; Jimmy said he and Rosslyn had decided ahead of time that they would politely listen to Millard’s pitch and then nicely turn him down because they already had too much on their plates after his failure to be re-elected to a second term. “Millard came with a list of 32 items he wanted me to do, all written up on one of his yellow, legal pads. And before he left, I had agreed to all 32 of them”, Carter said. We all laughed because we too had had been challenged and cajoled by Millard Fuller, many of us not just one time!

Some of the past years have been bittersweet. Millard and Linda battled with the increasing corporatization of Habitat and its new leadership. It led to a messy public parting of the ways with Millard refusing to go quietly into retirement. Certainly he had earned a quiet retirement from all the millions of miles traveled in a ministry that had housed close to 1 ½ million people.

But Millard refused to quit. He and Linda started the Fuller Center For Housing to try to ensure the early principles of no-profit, no-interest remained at the heart of their work. It’s not that Millard didn’t take or seek corporate money and help – he just didn’t want the mentality of “the suits” to take it over. He knew down deep that the social and economic systems that caused the housing crisis in the first place couldn’t be trusted to solve the problem. He knew it would have to take a radical new approach that some would mislabel and confuse with “communism” or “socialism” -- no-profit and no-interest when it comes to relationship with “the poor”. This wasn’t out of some dreamed up ideology but because it was what God wanted/demanded in the Christian scriptures that Millard read and frequently quoted.

For me, the genius of Habitat was in getting the staff and volunteers to work alongside the families and developing a personal relationship with poor folk. Those personal relationships, in turn, would change us as we began to see poor folk as no longer “the other” but instead recognize our common humanity. As Habitat and its affiliates grew bigger and bigger, it became harder to keep a bureaucratic structure from overwhelming the original “Personalism”. In my own work with a Habitat affiliate, I longed for the days of that smaller, personal encounter with the volunteers and the families working together.

Part of the problem – and not just a small part- was Millard’s insistence of housing more and more families; when you set a goal of “eliminating poverty housing”, more and bigger sometimes gets into the way of relational styles. Efficiencies and economies of scale often trump what I call the Catholic Worker style of Personalism. But again, that is more my agenda than Millard’s. He was focused on the mission, the need. He left many of the details of how to do it to those he had inspired. Yet, often he didn’t. I remember hearing staffers at Habitat complain about “Millard’s meddling” in some of the everyday operations instead of just being “the visionary”.

Millard wasn’t an easy man to work with. His boundless energy, while initially empowering, also came with high expectations. Many staffers felt like they had “married Habitat” in that the commitment of time and energy expended and expected often conflicted with home and community life outside of Habitat. Some people felt consumed in the process; others could engage for several years and then had to pull back, lest they too be consumed. Did Millard ever really have much “down time”? Could he ever turn off that same drive that made him a millionaire but was now re-directed not toward making money and accumulating worldly goods but rather in service to others?

One thing that sticks in my mind from the moving Memorial Service last week: I never even knew Millard had a brother –or if I knew, I had forgotten. Doyle, Millard’s brother was close to a dozen years younger and doesn’t look too much like his older brother. But he movingly told how Millard was his “hero” while growing up. How Millard had carried him up a hill when Doyle’s legs were crippled. How he was such a graceful yet powerful baseball pitcher. How he made his million dollars. Hero. Hero. Hero.

But when he decided to “give it all away”, “I thought he was crazy”, Doyle continued. And then he announces he’s going to house the world! Crazy!. Doyle reminded us that Millard had his flaws. But he continued, “You don’t have to be perfect to do perfect things”. All of us in the room knew what Millard (and those he inspired) had accomplished in his life. All those families living in decent, affordable shelter around the world experienced that “perfect work”. And for that life, that witness, that modeling, I’m eternally grateful for my friendship with Millard Fuller.
Conversion in My Life -Jubilee Partners devotions – March 16,2009. Steve Clemens

With the passing of my friend, Millard Fuller, someone who embraced a radical change of direction in his own life, I thought I’d share a couple of my own “conversions”.

I have two older brothers. Both are conservative, Republican evangelicals who have never lived in a different town than my parents. I am the odd duck, the black sheep, the Prodigal Son. Why?

Clarence Jordan tells us John the Baptizer said: “Change your whole way of thinking ‘cause the power of God’s new movement in impinging upon ya”.

How are we converted? Someone said it is easier to act into a new way of thinking than to think one’s way into a new kind of acting. For me, conversion has been impacted by The power of personal encounter and modeling.

I’d like to talk about two areas of conversion for me:

I. Becoming a Conscientious Objector and the journey to resistance: from my 9th grade debate to becoming a convicted criminal
My Dad used to take me and my brothers hunting. Even though my Dad was in WWII and had brought home two German Mauser rifles complete with Nazi swastikas on the bayonets, he never talked about his war experiences with us. What he did say to us was: never, ever point your gun at a human being. Never ever aim at something you don’t wish to kill. And eat what you kill.

In Sunday School I learned Jesus said to love your enemies. But even though my Dad wouldn’t let us play “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and Indians”, we never talked about what Jesus might have meant in that specific area.

In 8th or 9th grade, 1962 or 63, we had a debate in Junior High over Vietnam. I was chosen to debate a brainy but wimpy Quaker kid. I came armed with facts and figures about how the Communists were killing Christian missionaries in Vietnam. We had to defend the faith against these godless hoards. I got my facts and figures from US News and World Report. I “won” the debate according to the poll of my classmates.

However, I went to a College Prep school for High School. All my 40 classmates were headed to college so there wasn’t any talk that I was aware of at school about the War. I graduated in 1968 - which was the height of the war as far as the number of US troops there. The war wasn’t even on my radar so I must have overlooked the fact that the College I chose had compulsory Army ROTC for all male students. I was issued a gun and a uniform when I registered for classes.

However, on my way to Wheaton College, my parents stopped to visit my Aunt and cousins in Indiana. My cousin, Jon Brandenburger was a couple of years older than me and had decided to register as a Conscientious Objector and was about to leave for Alternative Service at a hospital. This was important for me – in that he modeled another possibility. I personally knew someone – from my own family! – who was a CO.

So, when I started to question what I would do when 2 months later my 18th birthday arrived and I had to register for the military draft, I had some options. When I was on the firing range in my ROTC uniform, I began to realize that the circles on the target mysteriously morphed into human figures- they became Viet Cong. And then the words of my Dad came to mind: “Don’t ever aim at a human” and Jesus: “Love Your Enemy”.

Fortunately, once again I had a personal encounter to help me in this “conversion”. The Resident Assistant on my Dorm floor was a college senior who was a Mennonite. He knew I was turning 18 and offered to pray and do some Bible study with me as I made this decision.

However, becoming a Conscientious Objector hadn’t changed my conservative politics. The next summer I chose to live in the inner-city of Philadelphia to work with street gangs because I had my racism challenged a few months before at a Black Power Symposium. At Teen Haven, in Philly, I was mentored by this big, white Conservative Baptist minister who graduated from Toccoa Bible Institute just a long stone’s throw from here. This white, Southern boy, however, helped me navigate the streets and was calm as a cucumber when a Black Panther pointed his handgun at us. That summer I watched the moon landing while in a tenement slum apartment and my politics began to change. Conversion because of modeling and personal encounter.

Back at Wheaton College that fall, I started to march on the local Draft Board under the leadership of Father Tom, a priest who taught at the nearby Maryknoll Seminary. He taught me not to hide “my light under a bushel” by being public in my anti-war position.

After college, I entered Voluntary Service with the Mennonites. I met Ladon Sheats at my orientation and he became another mentor into going deeper in my commitment to practice nonviolence. While in Voluntary Service, I joined a Bible Study group led by Phil Berrigan and Liz Macalester. Again, the power of personal encounter and modeling. Ladon’s mentoring me in jail was especially helpful during my first extended stay as “a guest of the state. “

While engaged in public witness against the Nuclear “White Train”, I had the examples of Jim and Shelly Douglass as well as the accompaniment of Don, Robbie, Ryan, and Terry from Jubilee and Gail and Edwin from Koinonia.

Today the question is: how deep do I want to go? Once you begin to understand the nature of the Empire, where does your resistance begin? End? There is always room for conversion (again).

My second example of conversion:

II. Becoming more open and welcoming of “The Other”

There are four areas within this on-going conversion experience: with Catholics, people of color, people who are sexual minorities, and those of other faiths and religions.

1. Catholics – I secretly cheered at the death of President Kennedy. I was raised to believe that “Catholics worshipped Mary” and were going to hell. My parents told me “Don’t ever date a Catholic girl – you might fall in love and the Bible says “Don’t be unequally yoked together with unbelievers”.

At Wheaton, we in the evangelical movement knew who was “saved” and who wasn’t. Catholics and Jews weren’t.

But then I encountered Fr. Tom , the Maryknoll priest leading the protests against the war at the Draft Board. As I spent time with him, his passion for justice and peace was contagious. He suggested I take a couple of his courses at the Catholic Seminary, especially the one on the “Mission of the Church”. It was a course designed to explain the changes of Vatican II to other Catholics. I was the only Protestant in the class. It was exciting! I was amazed at how my own faith journey was lining up with what Fr. Tom has to say.

Then my Bible Study with Liz Macalester and Phil Berrigan. Except for my housemate who had introduced me too the group, all the others were Catholic. We met at the Community for Creative Nonviolence so I got to know the well-known homeless activist, Mitch Snyder, as well.

When I finally got to Koinonia, I discovered that living with others across denominational lines continued to force me to be “converted” about who was part of this “Kingdom of God Movement”. The Fousts, who some of you met yesterday, helped me in accepting Catholics as my brothers and sisters.

2. People of Color –challenging my racism

My upbringing in rural southeast Pennsylvania exposed me to very few “people of color”: “Eye-talians” and “Pollacks” provided the “diversity”. It wasn’t until Prep School that I finally had classmates of color and I experienced having an Asian-American as my roommate my junior year. However, Sun Bin Lee had been pretty “Americanized” by the time we shared a room.

It was in college, after I became a CO and a “student dissident” that I started hanging out with the other “rebels” on campus – the “student government leaders” and the few students of color. My junior year my roommate, Ron Potter, was the de facto leader of the Black students on campus and I spent a lot of time with a Puerto Rican friend, Aric Carillo. I saw an entirely different world than other Wheaton students had experienced! The Black Power symposium I had attended the end of my freshman year had catapulted me from being a conservative Republican to a political “radical”. I never stopped at that “liberal” stage.

In my Voluntary Service experience, an elderly African-American in the Mississippi Delta, Jake Ayers, a veteran from the Civil Rights battles, was my mentor. At Koinonia, I learned more at the feet of Ethel Dunning, Doris Pope, and especially her father-in-law, Deacon Ludrell Pope. “Miss Gussie” regaled Christine and me with her stories from the civil rights struggle.

This is an area of conversion and growth for me continually. Being part of a Sabbath Economics group in Minneapolis with a Native American pastor has richly blessed us with his perspective and advice. My recent sojourn to Federal Prison helped me better understand the plight of black males in our broken economy and fractured society.

3. Sexual Minorities – My own experience in 6th grade scarred my soul - having been sexually abused by a male teacher repeatedly, this blossomed for me into an unconscious homophobia. Not that anyone in this American culture would need that as an excuse – we’ve always treated minorities abysmally.

At Koinonia, it was predominately an academic/theoretical issue until an old friend, Bill, told Christine and me about his life-long struggle, coming out to himself – and then to us – as a gay man. After his recounting of all the therapy he endured, his self-loathing, his doubts, guilt, fear – it became very clear to us that his sexual orientation was not a “choice” at all. As he became more comfortable with who God had made him, he was determined to see if others could accept him for who he was as well. It was a humbling experience for us to be taken into his confidence and trust. It was only because we knew Bill as a friend and a committed disciple of Jesus before he came out as a gay man that forced us to re-think our previous judgments against homosexuals.

At our present community, The Community of St. Martin, it is a central tenant of our commitment that we be “open and welcoming” to all believers – regardless of sexual orientation. We are also blessed in Minneapolis with a dynamic presence of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities and Michael Bayly, it’s insightful leader.

We now have a number of LGBT friends. I look back and wonder how I could have been so judgmental in the past. My recent week of Bible Study with Ched Myers confirms this journey. Jesus rejection of the Purity Codes of the Pharisees means No one can be excluded because of who they are in their bodies. I’ve brought along a transcript of his session on Mark 7 if any of you are interested.

4. Recently I have been working on inter-religious dialog and learning a deeper appreciation for other religious traditions.
Part of this journey begins with cross-cultural experiences: urban Philadelphia, rural Mississippi & Georgia, Habitat trips to Guatemala, Egypt/Jordan; being part of the Iraq Peace Team, taking Jubilee bus trips with the Ano de Jubileo Program …

Taking some Bible study sessions with Rabbi Art Waskow at Sojourners and Word and World Schools has given me a deep appreciation for Talmudic wisdom and the power of Midrash in Jewish spirituality.

I’ve worked with Sami Rasouli and his Muslim Peacemaker Team in the Twin Cities – learning from his courage and compassion – which he learned and experienced with Tom Fox of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq.

The power of Native spirituality from Bob Two Bulls and Winona Laduke has also challenged me –especially in areas of honoring the creation.

As one begins to turn, to be converted, to have a whole new way of seeing, God reveals so much more to us. Why does it often take the personal encounter for us to change? It is the power of incarnation. When the “otherness” becomes flesh-and-blood, incarnated in bodily form for us, then we can begin to change how we act and how we believe. I certainly don’t need to recount how the experience with immigrants and refugees at Jubilee has changed many of our lives. As we begin to change, so does our perspective and we begin to see things/people we’ve previously over-looked. The old Shaker song reminds us :”Til by turning, turning, we come round right.” Does the turning ever stop? There might be one or two “big conversions” in our lives - but it seems many more will follow once we allow the defensive walls of our hearts (and heads) to be breached.

The Call of the Gospel is to Recognize the “Other” –those marginalized.
So, who is responsible for my “conversion”? Besides those already mentioned, I need to name:

Phil Brasfield and Bob Redd in understanding prisoners and those on Death Row

Many, many women helping me become a feminist – I have the gift of several radical Nuns in my life today.

Ed, Murphy, Tony, Ralph, Lauren and other Open Door folk who’ve opened my eyes to those on the streets

Catholic Workers who embody resistance and acts of mercy.

For Millard Fuller, conversion involved meeting Clarence Jordan. Many others have started on their own conversions after encountering Millard.

Abbott Francis Michael met Mother Theresa. It radically changed his life.

Who has touched your life?

Whose life has been touched and changed by yours?

I’m reminded in all of this of something I learned from Clarence Jordan: Jesus calls us not to Judge Others but rather to be Fruit Inspectors. “By their fruits you shall know them”. I’m so grateful for all the “fruits and nuts” God has sent my way so far.

Is This Thing Working? Is This Thing On?

Is This Thing Working? Is This Thing On? By Steve Clemens. March 11, 2009

In a recent album, Peace Queer, by singer/songwriter Todd Snider, there is a haunting parable delivered first as a spoken word piece and then sung. It is about a schoolyard bully who repeatedly beats up on younger or smaller kids. One kid decides he’s had enough and tells the bully that if he’s going to beat up someone else, he has to beat him up first! Day after day this boy gets beaten and after a while, the bully tires – it has become a burden to him. There is no more joy in his triumph; it has become a job, a duty. The bully’s admirers, followers slowly desert him. The “victim” has exposed the true nature of the bully.

The spoken word begins with tapping the microphone: “Is this thing working? … Is this thing on?” It is the perennial question of public speakers, entertainers. Is my message getting out? Can you hear me? Is anybody listening? We need feedback from our audience to acknowledge we’ve been heard.

“Is this thing working?” can also be asked of whatever efforts we embark upon. Are we being effective? Is change occurring because of what we’re doing? Does anyone care; does anyone notice? In the story above, the bully’s tactics were no longer working: instead of generating fear, he began to generate disgust. Certainly the parable has application to the on-going occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and increasingly the answer to the question comes back in the negative – it’s not working. Or at least the desired result, “Shock and Awe” has come back on the imperial bully with a worldwide sense of shame and disgust.

But, let’s ask the question of our own “work”. This morning 13 of us stood for an hour on the sidewalk in minus 12 degree weather. That’s before you add in the wind chill factor. It was so cold the cops (who are paid by the weapons manufacturer to “monitor” our presence by their driveway entrance) quickly went back to their heated vehicles as soon as our vigil group “circled up”. [Each week, as we have done for the past 13 years, we stand with signs, flags, and banners in front of the corporate headquarters of Alliant Techsystems, Minnesota’s largest war profiteer. We sometimes march on the sidewalk, parade across the driveway entrance, or merely chat amongst ourselves hoping to be “present” to the ATK employees arriving to their workplace. At 7:30 AM, we “circle-up” and, after repeating our “Commitment to Practice Nonviolence”, we go around the circle to share concerns, announcements, or whatever is on the hearts and minds of the viligers.]

As I’ve said, we’ve been doing this for 13 years! Is this thing working? Is this thing on? Are we being heard? Is our “message” being heard? Has anyone quit their job making cluster bombs, landmines, depleted uranium weapons because of our presence? Have large stockholders divested themselves of the spoils of war and conflict? Has ATK become a pariah within the community to the extent that individuals are ashamed to let it be known that they work there? Is this thing [our vigiling] working?

Let’s frame the question another way. What if there was a company in your neighborhood that consistently produced a product that poisoned others, or caused serious injury or death when their product was used or consumed. Would you want people to ignore it and let it continue to operate unmolested? Or would you want at least a few people to occasionally (or regularly) to hold up signs in protest, occasionally sit in the driveway or in front of the company entrances to obstruct “business as usual”? If your kids, or family members, or friends, or neighbors were the victims of this corporate abuse, would you feel comforted knowing that no one cares enough to protest, however meekly?

Some members of our AlliantACTION vigil group want to explore finding ways to sue the company for violating International Law in their profiting from the sale of indiscriminate weapons which have been regularly outlawed by the international community. Others have bought a symbolic share of stock (1 each) in order to attend the annual stockholders meeting – but they’ve been stymied each of the past three years when they have been arrested when they try to attend the shareholders meeting with their written invitations in hand! [When they go to court to face the trespass charge, it is finally dismissed and they don’t even get a chance to be heard in court.]

What would happen if, instead of 13, we had 130? 1,300? (Normally we average between 20-50 so this weeks numbers were unusually low.) Maybe we all can’t travel to Eden Prairie, MN each week to add our “No!” to Alliant Tech. What if all those with a conscience took it upon themselves to find one corporation or institution in your own community, a place where wars are planned, the poor and vulnerable are crushed, people are routinely marginalized. Places where, for Christians, Jesus is re-crucified on a daily basis. Maybe you can make this your Lenten discipline – it might become a weekly habit.

One certainly does not have to be a Christian to have a conscience! In fact it is refreshing that there are still some who are willing to identify at all with an institution (the Christian Church) which itself has often sponsored or encouraged such marginalization. Our AlliantACTION group includes atheists, pagans, agnostics, Muslims, Christians, Jews. We may differ on theologies but we agree that what goes on behind the closed doors of ATK must be resisted. We take our pledge of nonviolence as a self and group discipline to not let our anger at injustice cloud our judgment and get in the way of calling those workers to live up to acting as humans rather than making inhumane weapons.

Is this thing working? Can you hear us? Do you care? Will you join us – or find your own time and place to reassert your own humanity by saying “no” in a public way?

The Aftermath of the RNC Continues

The Aftermath of the RNC Continues by Steve Clemens. March 8, 2009

It is now a little more than six months since those days of protest and mayhem in the streets of St. Paul before and during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Last week I finally had my “first appearance” at the Ramsey County Courthouse for my civil disobedience arrest as part of the Veterans For Peace March the day before the Convention started.

It was definitely anti-climatic. A Deputy City Attorney addressed the ten or so defendants sitting in the Courtroom for what the written notice promised was to be our “Arraignment”. We were ordered to be present at 9:01 am, the letters screaming in all capital letters: “YOU ARE EXPECTED TO APPEAR AT THE ABOVE TIME AND PLACE FULLY PREPARED. ALL FINES AND FEES ARE PAYABLE AT THE TIME OF SENTENCING.” It was followed with the caveat in three languages, Hmong, Spanish, and English: “IF YOU NEED AN INTERPRETER AT THIS APPEARANCE, PLEASE CALL [phone number].” The top of the notice had my Case Number and the Case Title: The State of Minnesota vs. STEPHEN DOUGLAS CLEMENS. Wow, my name gets all capital letters while the fearsome state government is only deemed worthy of lower case! At the bottom of the notice, again in lower case type, is the charge – “Offense: Trespass – refuse to depart the premises of another".

The Deputy City Attorney explained to us that there was an offer on the table for all of us: If we paid $224. in “court costs”, he would place our cases on a “track for dismissal” and, if we did not commit any “similar offenses” for the next year, our charges would be dismissed and removed from our records. This was certainly an attractive deal for the non-RNC defendants present because they were there for traffic-related charges which could lead to driver’s license revocation, heavy fines, loss of insurance, and even possible jail time due to previous offenses. It was clear this “bribe” was designed to help clear the increasingly crowded docket of Minnesota’s Second District Court.

We had to make our decision then and there and pay the “bribe” (or arrange a payment schedule). If we didn’t have the cash in hand, we could request a future appearance that the Court would arrange. I already knew the drill because I was in the Courtroom the week before when four of my co-defendants were scheduled to appear and were offered the same “deal”. The eight of us (the ninth person arrested with us never gave us any address or contact information and has not been heard from. Will he mysteriously appear at our trial as an undercover witness against us?) may be the only defendants among the 800+ arrestees from the RNC who do not want our charges dismissed. We want to have our “day in court”. We want a jury trial “of our peers”. We want to put the Government and the War on trial. That was the whole point of our civil disobedience.

When my name was called, I explained to the prosecutor that I wanted a “speedy, jury trial” but he responded that he had no way of recording that request – that I had to make that request at an Arraignment date the Clerk would issue me. We assumed the date could be the same as our co-defendants from the week before but not in this bureaucracy! We were told the first date available would be April 2, a week after the others. So, I told the Deputy City Attorney, “If the city wants to pay me $224. For NOT proceeding to my right to a jury trial, I’d consider accepting that.” He laughed and called up the next defendant.

I’ve been in this Courthouse before – at the beginning of this endless, tiresome war. I had a sit-in at Senator Norm Coleman’s office, refusing to leave when it closed at 5PM. I was on a liquid-only fast (which I continued for 35 days until President Bush announced the lifting of the economic sanctions against Iraq, a week before declaring “Mission Accomplished”) and sat in Norm’s office every weekday for an hour during that period with my Muslim prayer beads and photos of Iraqis I met there in December 2002. As I expected, I was charged with criminal trespass and had to show up four times at that same courthouse before I was told that my charges had been “dropped”. I had no say in the matter. My friend and co-defendant (this time), Betty once had to appear ten times before charges were dropped against her. So, while it’s not what we hope for, it is most likely what will happen once again after a lot of mindless hassle. Given the fact that taxpayers shelled out $50 million for the fancy riot gear and other trappings of an empire under siege for the RNC, at least there should be some trials where we “criminals” are found guilty and given our “deserved punishment”. Meanwhile, we wait and dutifully show up for the next day in court.

But having the possibility of up to 90 days in jail ahead of me isn’t the only “aftermath” of the RNC. I still have the occasional “flashback” when I travel downtown St. Paul near 5th and St. Peter. I still have a visceral reaction when I see a police squad car or a cop in uniform. Not all the time – but enough to recognize that there are vestiges of PTSD from that week on the streets in September. My personal lingering harbingers are minor in scope when contrasted to the much deeper fear and/or disgust with “law enforcement” among many who witnessed or experienced the intimidation of “the Empire Strikes Back”. Was it only a coincidence that the riot-clad police resembled Darth Vader in their black-clad, helmeted gear? Their riot stick batons were shorter than the laser swords of Star Wars but still were eerily similar.

Every week or so the news comes dribbling out that more RNC-related cases have been dropped, a mistrial has been declared in a felony case where the government informer was accused of being a provocateur. Some first appearances of the RNC 8 in court have begun. But, for the most part, the media has moved on. All that is yesterday’s news. Who actually won the US Senate race or the latest unemployment rates and this weeks lay-offs need to be covered. The war, of course, continues. But unless you have a friend or family member in military uniform and deployed over there, it won’t make the front page of the ever marginalized and shrinking newspaper.

A lot of people came to St. Paul last fall to protest the war – and the politicians who presided and profited over it. But the demonizing of dissent and the actions taken by “law enforcement” made the focus more on them than the war. I was going to write “police” but stopped myself when I flashed on the fact that many of the real villains were wearing “Ramsey County Sheriff” uniforms. Some had FBI in bold letters on the backs of their windbreakers. One of the officers at my arrest wore a DNR uniform. Secret Service, National Guard. It wasn’t just “police” and it clearly was designed much more for intimidation than “law enforcement”. So people who came to protest the war ended up protesting the police.

How did we get so distracted? Or, is one merely a vestige of the other? In an imperial state, the power to wage war is sometimes focused inward, sometimes outward. Sometimes they are simultaneous.

A friend of mine and fellow Minnesota Peace Team Member is a professor at St. Thomas in the Justice and Peace Studies Department. He is presently teaching a class in Conflict Resolution and asked me to join a panel to discuss what should we do in the aftermath of the RNC events? He wants to explore: How do we address the damage done and help in the healing of the community? Should we form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Or do we encourage circle-discussion groups in the community? What is the process that can help repair the community and ourselves? Who needs to be in the room participating?

Some are advocating lawsuits and filing counter-charges. Some just want to feel there is some transparency about who decided what - maybe to hold them accountable, certainly to learn from before the next time. The national election is over and most people have “moved on”. But the scars and scabs, the fears and resentments remain –sometimes on the surface, sometimes down in the gut. Probably also lurking in the subconscious. I’m reminded of the words of the Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah: “You have covered over the wounds of my people lightly. You cry ‘Peace, Peace’ when there is no peace.”

We need an accounting. A public disclosure of who decided what. How was the decision carried out? Who/what was damaged in the process. Can restitution help in the needed reconciliation? If we “move on”, are we just damning another group of people to repeat the same mistakes? Was it a “mistake”? Or was the result the intended one?