Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Only Love Can Do That

My strongest memory from the first hours after the attack on 9/11/01 was the eye contact.  I had just moved from Boston to California, leaving behind friends and family scattered up and down the eastern seaboard from Washington D.C., to New York, and I knew almost no one in Berkeley, CA.  But as I walked to a vigil for the victims that had quickly been organized, I had an experience that made me feel more connected to my neighbors than at any other time in my life.  Every one we passed, every single person, looked me right in the eye.  Few words were shared.  Few words were needed.  Whereas mere hours ago we would have found difference in our histories, our clothing, our culture or skin color, suddenly we were all together Americans.

Being attacked will do that to you.  And as I learned that day, it is a powerful thing.  At that moment we were scared, vulnerable, unsure.  It was one of those moments in history when incredible things are possible.  I could feel that potential in the eyes that searched mine.  And I knew they searched for hope, because I searched for it as well.

But instead of hope, our fear was fed by selfish politicians not up to the task of true leadership.  Beyond the disgusting acts of the cowards who perpetrated the horror on 9/11, that is how I will always remember that piece of our collected American history: As a tremendous failure of leadership and as an enormous missed opportunity to recalibrate America's impact on the world.

Do I know who did this or exactly why?  Absolutely not.  But I do know that if we once again strike out in anger we will simply continue this cycle.

I know, this is not a message that feels comforting to hear right now.  At times like this we are supposed to rally around the flag.  At times like this we are supposed to pick a common enemy, hopefully a weak one with oil buried underneath them, and take out our righteous fury upon them with the full capability of our military might.  After all, why bankrupt your social services infrastructure for a generation if not to use the military you built up with the spoils?

But if we follow that script again, we will take yet another step away from the best America we can be and another giant leap towards the stereotype of the fear-mongering bully so many think we are.  And we won't make ourselves one bit more safe or secure.

We certainly have a very different President now than we did then.  But how differently really?  As someone who, despite my best efforts at the time, was unable to stop the inexorable march to war a decade ago, I feel that it is important today, and without delay, for all of us to say out loud that we will not follow a path to hate.  We must, without delay, make it clear to the President that we support a different way forward.

I for one will not once again let this moment of possibility be misappropriated by bad leadership.  I will not once again watch as instead of growing our circle of inclusion wider we are driven farther apart.  I don't know who did this or why, but I do know that I am even more prepared now than I was a dozen years ago to help direct our confused emotions towards gestures of healing and love, and away from fearful acts of ignorant reprisal that only furthers the wedge and ensures the cycle will repeat again. 

If we have learned nothing else from the hundreds of thousands of lives lost this decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, it must be this truth: that violence will never lead to security.  

As Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically spoke:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Please join me in responding to this horrible attack with love and not with more violence. Keep making loving eye contact with strangers, helping your neighbors, giving blood. But do not give in to fear and hate. Another way is possible and fear doesn't have to win. We can not ever be totally secure, but we can control how we act in these moments. Please join me in pledging to respond with love and hope.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Years After My First Time

Ten years ago today (March 20, 2003) I was arrested for my first act of civil disobedience protesting the launch of the Iraq War.  This was after months of peaceful organizing against this possibility and came after much self-reflection.  This is the reflection I wrote ten years ago about the experience.

My First Time:

            It’s nothing unique for me to remark in hindsight that my first time was nothing like I had expected it to be.  I know this to be true for many people.  It’s impossible to know what you are getting involved in until the deed is done, and you have had some time to reflect on the entire experience, from start to finish.
            My first time came on March 20th, 2003, and I will certainly never forget a moment of it.  How our eyes first met from across the street, and I knew, instantly, whether I was ready or not, that the dance had begun.  The first thing I remember feeling was sadness, which was a very surprising emotion, considering how long I had anticipated this event.  But I was sad, because I knew I was using this person for my own purposes, and was not taking into account their feelings at all.  And really, now that I was actually in the moment, I realized how important their involvement was to what I was doing.
            Then he smiled at me.  It was not a smile of friendship, but rather a smile of mutual recognition of the dance we were now committed to.  I would not go out of my way to force his hand, but we both knew he would soon arrest me.  And with good reason.  I was one of a few thousand people, some alone like myself, but the vast majority participating in organized affinity groups, that had shown up on Market St. in San Francisco’s Financial District on the first official day of our new War in the Gulf, to show their strong disagreement with the current administration’s foreign policy.  Of the five-thousand or so who showed up, 1400 would eventually be arrested for acts of Civil Disobedience, and processed through a makeshift police station at Pier 27 rented by the city that day for this very purpose.
            There are a lot of stories I could share from this experience.  Like the fact that after spending hours in a holding cell, I found out I was officially  charged with J-walking, or what it is like to have your hands bound behind your back for three and a half hours, much tighter than you think you can endure, or of the friendships made on the Muni bus I was loaded onto along with another 50 arrestee’s, or best of all the sounds and smells of pier 27 bursting to the seems with people who found arrest to be the last option for voicing their dissent.  But it was that initial dance with my arresting officer, and the relationship we had for the few minutes it took him to cuff me and walk me to my awaiting bus to pier 27, that stuck out in my mind, and will never leave me.
            Legally, once you initiate a crime, you are responsible for all that occurs thereafter.  For instance, in the case of a bank robber, if a cop is killed during the robbery by bullets from another cops gun who is attempting to end the stand off, the robber can be charged with his murder, even though it actually was committed by another police officer.  In my case, I knew that once I had initiated that dance, I was responsible, not just legally, but morally, for everything that followed.  This was what made me sad.  The realization that I was using this cop, and putting him in a situation that I can only imagine he had no desire to be a part of.  It was something that I was theoretically prepared for.  I have taken part in countless non-violence and civil disobedience workshops over the years.  Yes, I had heard this sort of thing discussed, dissected and explained, but in practice, I found it entirely more intense than I had ever imagined.
            As much as I was fully prepared to make the arrest as easy on him as possible, it took every ounce of self-control I had to not suddenly buy into the part of the wronged.  Lets face it, no matter how you end up there, being cuffed feels like an injustice.  You are being bound, and are losing control of your movement, with the knowledge that the situation will continue, and perhaps grow more confining, in the time to come.  So, even though I was arrested because I wanted to be, I had to fight hard against the impulse to resist, to struggle, to fight back.  And fighting back is exactly what I knew I needed not to do.  Not just for myself, but again, because it was just not the right way to treat this human who I had already forced into an uncomfortable position.
            I should also describe the scene around us.  Mobs of well meaning people who knew that the police officers of San Francisco were not their enemy, yet who desperately, out of their personal feelings of impotence, needed a reachable target.  Suddenly the men and women in blue, wielding weapons because we had forced them into a defensive posture on purpose, now looked like that target.  Mob mentality is a scary thing.  Strength in numbers, especially when fueled by perceived righteousness, can spin out of control in a hurry.  I have no doubt that, removed from the present circumstances, most of the protestors assembled there would give very sane descriptions of what they would do in that theoretical situation.  But the situation was not theoretical at all.  The people chained to each other across Market St. were every bit as real as the fears of the police who had encircled them, and who were themselves encircled by a much larger mob of people they could only perceive as unpredictable.
            As I was being led through these many circles, I was seen as a momentary hero by the other protestors.  They saw me as one who had been wronged by our new, false, enemy.  Many things were loudly shouted in my direction.  “Way to go!”  “Keep your chin up.”  “screw the police!” “Be proud.”  I felt an urge to mug for the cameras that were snapping the photo of the young man with long hair in the ‘Peaceful American Patriot’ shirt being lead in cuffs by a police officer.  I was that guy.  I was suddenly, and momentarily, a symbol of many things.  Too many things.  I was unexpectedly confused.  Was this a moment of victory, or shame?  Was I supposed to be proud of the fact that my country is so messed up that I felt moved to get arrested in protest?  Even in my confused state, I knew the answer was a definitive ‘no.’
            As I was frisked, catalogued, and loaded onto the bus that would be my home for the next several hours, I finally found the peace and space to begin contemplating what had just happened.  I knew immediately that I had done the right thing, had comported myself well.  But it still felt empty.  It did not feel like the definitive next step that I sensed the movement needed.  I was acting out of desperation, no longer concerned with the consequences, hoping just to signal to others in the world community that there were Americans horrified by their countries foreign policy.  But to make this struggle work, to make it sustainable, this was not the best course.  So then, what next?
            As I look back, roughly two weeks later, I still don’t know exactly what that next step is.  But it is starting to come into focus.  I find myself thinking about Gandhi a lot.   What would he have thought of the actions taken on Market St. that day?  What would he do now?  What is our salt boycott?  And I think he might just smile if he knew the ideas coming together in my head.  I won’t divulge them here, but stay tuned; this was my first time, not my last.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupied: You Are Invited

For me, it all began with jury duty.

Those of you in the congregation that are Facebook friends with me will remember that about a month ago I posted several whiney status updates about having to spend four days down at the Oakland courthouse not being impaneled on a jury. The experience was in itself a microcosm of how I and so many other people feel about our government right now. I went there because I had to, not because I felt my participation in the process would or could make a difference. I certainly believe in the idea of a trial by a jury of my peers, and would want 12 good and caring people to take that job seriously if I were to ever end up on trial.

But at the same time, it took just minutes of being in that courtroom to see the effects of our economy on our legal system. The defendant was a young man from the roughest and poorest part of Oakland who stood accused of murder. His public defender was disheveled and old and sat with his back to us as we entered the courtroom and sat down. The prosecutor was an attractive woman who was well dressed and stood facing us. She made reassuring and confident eye contact with each of us as we entered. I could already see the deck heavily stacked against the poor local kid, innocent or not. And it went on and on from there.

I spent much of my four days of jury service feeling this major disconnect between the ideals this country represents and the realities it currently exhibits, due to the economic climate. It is tough, because I want to love my country. I really believe that the American democratic experiment is one of the most important things this planet has going for it. But when I look around at the reality of the American political system, it doesn't look anything like the democratic ideals that make me proud to be an American. Our once brave idea of representative democracy by the people and for the people has been fully infiltrated and co-opted by financial interests. What once was a tyranny maintained by the crown has become a tyranny maintained through corporate influence. Sitting there for four days gave me plenty of time to stew about these issues, but I in no way was connecting them to Occupy.

Must Protect Bull At All Costs!

At that point, I had heard about the Occupy Wall Street protest and encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York City on the news, and I knew that there was something going on at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland that was related, but that was all. I had heard their language about the 99 percent but I hadn't really connected with their message because I wasn't really sure what it was. At that point if you had asked me my honest perception of the Occupy Wall Street movement I would have said it seemed like an unfocused bunch of campers and not much more.

And then during my second day of Jury duty we had a lunch break and I decided to wander the five or so blocks down to Frank Ogawa Plaza to see what was going on, more as a tourist than anything. And at first what I saw confirmed my assumptions. It was a bunch of college-age kids who had set up tents in the center of the park, and then surrounding their living quarters had built a kitchen, an info tent, a library and a few other amenities. It didn't look too different from summer camp, actually. I walked around for a few minutes, relatively disengaged from the camp, taking some pictures with my iPhone, still in tourist mode.

Early Occupy Oakland felt Like Summer Camp

And then I decided to just sit down and observe for a few minutes. I wanted to see who was there and what they were doing. But I quickly learned that being an observer and tourist at Occupy is not what it is about at all. Before I had much of a chance to do that someone came up to me and asked, "Is that your sign?" I was sitting next to an abandoned protest sign that someone had left propped against the bench I was sitting on. I told him it wasn't, but it quickly became clear that the question had simply been a pretext to begin a conversation. We spent the next 20 minutes or so in the kind of deep and real discussion about our country and how to fix it that you don't just normally casually strike up. But being there, even just on the outskirts of the Occupy Camp gave this guy permission to just walk up to a complete stranger and begin this conversation.

It was more exhilarating then I expected, but then I remembered the coma-inducing reality of Jury duty and so I quickly tempered my excitement and hustled back to the courthouse. For the better part of another week my involvement and thoughts about Occupy stayed there. My interest had been piqued, but certainly nothing had changed my mind or even dared me to consider that anything real was happening down there. I was still convinced this was an unfocused group of campers which just happened to attract some neat conversation to it.

Then, on the evening of October 25th, the Oakland Police, supported by more than a dozen local law enforcement agencies, raided the camp in full riot gear, attacking peaceful and unarmed protestors with batons and flashbang grenades, in one instance seriously injuring an Iraqi war veteran.

The shocking images of police brutality quickly went flying around the world. It hit home for many people in the Bay Area as well, and I was one of them. I still was not quite sure what Occupy was all about, but I feel like part of my job as a religious leader is to protect anyone from violence, but especially those who are peacefully trying to exert their first amendment right to free speech.

So I joined thousands of people the next evening at the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa plaza and experienced my first General Assembly.

There is a lot - a whole lot - I could say about my experiences so far with Occupy Oakland and the larger Occupy movement. But in the limited time I have this morning what I want to focus on is the General Assembly, because I think it is the most important part of what this movement represents.

The Tent Has Emerged as a Powerful Symbol of the Occupy Movement

But, first, one quick tangent about tents: The planting of tents that has become the symbol of the movement is not what Occupy is about. But at the same time, symbols are important. As much as I do strongly believe that the regular General Assembly gatherings are the absolute most important part of Occupy, I also know that before those encampments sprang up all over the place, the national conversation was completely focused on how quickly we could cut our country's safety net of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But since those tents went up that conversation has been absolutely flipped on its head and refocused on the immoral and unethical distribution of wealth and the unchecked power of corporations. So I don't think the tents are unimportant; I think the occupation part of Occupy has been essential to getting attention focused on the right issues.

But it is the General Assembly that represents the answer to everyone's questions about what Occupy is and where it could be going. My first General Assembly was literally a revelation. As I wrote on my blog that night after returning home:

What I experienced was something so much deeper and more meaningful than I could have ever expected. For the first time in my life as an American I experienced true democracy. The work had gotten underway about an hour before I arrived. Thousands of people gathered peacefully, centered on a raised area where one person at a time could speak. And since the crowd was far larger than the small speaker system could reach, all the words were repeated by those close enough to hear, and so they radiated out in a slow, gentle echo, a system called "the people's mic." It truly is the sound of people hearing each other.

My First General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

At the beginning of this evening's General Assembly, a proposal had been brought to the assembled group from one of the Occupy Oakland committees. The proposal called for a general strike and walkout in Oakland the following Wednesday, November 2. For the next several hours we debated the proposal, sometimes as a group of three thousand and at other times in small groups of twenty. By 9:30 pm we were ready to vote, so we once again broke into our small groups of twenty, exchanged a few last thoughts, and voted.

Although a few people in my group voted against the proposal, it ended up easily passing the 90 percent threshold we had set and people excitedly expressed their approval for the General Strike we had just called for. It was like nothing I had ever been a part of before. Thousands of us had suddenly pulled back the curtain of illusion that what we do in America is democracy. Suddenly the layers of campaign ads, lobbyists, pork bills, and crooked politicians seemed completely ridiculous and exposed for the corporate lie it is.

It is really not at all my intention to convince any one of you that the Occupy movement is for you. Like many things, it is complicated; probably anything you currently think about Occupy has some truth to it. But what I believe the Occupy movement represents is an opportunity for this country to have a much-needed and long-overdue conversation with itself. It is not true that we have to continue to feel alienated by our government and out-muscled for a say by corporate interests.

Although it is not my intention to convince you that Occupy is for you, it is my intention to strongly encourage you in whatever way I can to attend just one General Assembly to see for yourself. You may or may not walk away feeling as I did, but at least you will know for yourself. Because the other lesson I have re-learned in the past few weeks is that the way the media shapes a story is very much about the interests of corporations and has very little to do with reporting facts. There is no question that people benefitting from the status quo do feel threatened by the Occupy movement and have a real interest in portraying it as an unfocused group of people willing to use violence, which is so far from the reality you will find on the ground.

The reality I have found is that this General Assembly has indeed created a real space and structure for this conversation to take place and that it is attracting hundreds and sometimes thousands of average citizens like you and me who want to once again find a way to participate in a meaningful dialogue about the future of our country. This past Wednesday I invited anyone from the congregation to join me at a GA and a dozen of you showed up with only 24 hours of notice. I certainly plan on making this same offer again.

The final truth I want to end on is that I have no idea where all of this is going. My personal hope is that we are building momentum towards a constitutional amendment clearly defining that a corporation is not a person and that money and free speech are two different things. But these General Assemblies are radical little incubators where hundreds of new ideas are being proposed, debated and researched. I have no doubt that a lot is going to come out of this. New people are being motivated and encouraged to participate in our democracy and that can only be a good thing.

Most importantly, we are only a few short months into this movement. Recently I was speaking to the Rev. Phil Lawson, a famous and well-respected elder of the civil rights movement. He heard some discouragement in some of what I was saying at a recent meeting of the interfaith clergy group I am working with at Occupy. He wanted me to understand that the civil rights movement had started the same unfocused way. It was a confusing mess of committees, actions and ideas that took several years to gain the lightning focus that King and a few others helped bring. We only remember those iconic moments of triumph now, but the beginning felt a whole lot like this.

I conclude with these wise words from T.S. Elliot:

What we call a beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

May it be so. Ashe.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Heart the People's Mic

It is not exactly breaking news to declare that America is sharply divided. And this "Red State" versus "Blue State" mentality has been building for decades, but appears to have reached a crescendo of gridlock and apathy just as the bill for our nation's unprecedented chapter of gluttony has come due.

But this entire concept of an evenly divided electorate is yet another false dichotomy sold to us by those that wish to maintain the status quo of the two business party solution. The media loves to show us maps like this, re-enforcing the notion of the false Democrat/Republican divide:

Red State, Blue State

But the truth is that within those red and blue states, hundreds of thousands of people are literally wiped off the map when we talk of "Red State" and "Blue State." As anyone who attempted to dig even a little bit deeper into the numbers after the 2008 election knows, our country really looks a lot more like a sea of purple, more red in some areas and blue in others, but for the most part a full spectrum of political thought, which produces a map that looks like this:

The Spectrum of American Political Allegiance

And from this map a much more accurate picture of America emerges. We are not so much divided as we are diverse, and being diverse is a very different thing than being divided. In a divided system, their are multiple clearly defined opposing truths, and the challenge lies in moving someone from their truth. In a diverse system, there are many similar truths but the challenge lies in decoding differences of culture in order to line up the similarities.

Many groups spend far too much energy solving the wrong problem, and as long as we continue along the false dichotomy of choosing between Republican and Democrat, our American democracy will remain stuck. When we begin to re-frame our problem and see the truth about where we are, the solutions are actually not too hard to find.

From my study of Intercultural Competency, I have come to understand that one of the essential skill sets one must learn in order to navigate diversity is the ability to communicate. Most of us are good at only one half of communicating, and usually it is the talking part. As the old saying goes, we are born with one mouth and two ears and we should probably use them in that ratio as well. But most of us, myself included, are much better at talking than listening. So often, when we do listen, we are merely listening to respond, not to really hear. We are listening for the few words that connect to what we already want to say next, so that we can continue to make the conversation about us, rather than deeply listening to the words of the other simply for their own sake, so that we can help another feel heard.

Hearing each other, truly hearing what we think and feel, is the most important thing we could do right now. I really believe that the more we share our stories in an unmediated way, without allowing the media and its corporate interests to shape them into their narrative first, is the antidote to all that ails this country.

I know that sounds a little overly simplistic- that a country with our economic mess just really needs to hear each other. No doubt it feels a little touchy feely. And of course what we also need is to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizen's United and making it clear that a corporation is not a person and money does not equal free speech. And of course we need to erase the lobby culture in Washington D.C. that ensures the interests of a few are more important than the many. And of course we need to establish an election system that keeps all candidates on equal footing so that we can pick our leaders by their true abilities rather than by their checkbooks. But believe me, if we are going to do any of that, we need to hear each other first.

We need to share our stories, share our hopes and dreams and share our fears too. We need to get real with each other and stop assuming that we are the caricatures of thought and opinion your local news keeps assuring you we all are. And when we do this we will find that we all have more values in common than we think. Because at the end of the day most people want the same thing, the ability to prosper from our own hard work and protection from the interference of those that are bigger than us and have other financial interests.

General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

Anyone who has been to a General Assembly at one of the Occupy encampments that has sprung up around the country probably knows where I am going with this. Because there happens to be an amazing place to work on just these listening skills, and it is a GA near you.

Most of the General Assemblies I have attended at Occupy Oakland have started slow. The online schedule claims that GA's begin at 6 PM every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, but like my congregation, things tend to be a lot more fluid. I usually arrive early, as punctuality is a big part of my rhythm, and often when I show up it looks doubtful that what I see will become a GA. Because even by about ten minutes of 6 PM the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa Plaza is mostly empty, with at best a few dozen people standing around in small groups talking. But then, without fail, we always easily reach the required minimum for a quorum of 100 by a few minutes after six. And, like the sun rising, it is always impossible to pin point the moment it goes from black to gray to light, I never see a large crowd of people arrive, but within thirty minutes we usually have hundreds in attendance and by 7 PM it is not rare to be over a thousand.

And because of this rolling start, I have noticed another common pattern. Often the General Assembly will spend the first hour or so using the People's Mic before switching to the electric PA/Sound system later that uses a noisy generator. Every time we make the switch, the entire energy of the assembly changes. Nothing holds the group together better than the People's Mic. It is why I say that I heart the People's Mic. I truly love it and I am starting to believe it is the sound of people hearing each other for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the Peoples Mic it is a process a crowd can use to ensure everyone hears the speaker when they do not have an electric amplification system. Basically the main speaker changes their speech pattern to shorter sentences and pauses after speaking each distinct sentence so that it can be repeated by everyone that is close and can hear, which is then in turn heard by the next furthest group and repeated and so on until it reaches those furthest from the speaker.

I love it for many reasons, and if you have never heard it in action, the sound is worth a GA attendance all by itself. If you stand a little distance from the GA you hear a slow gentle wave of thought that begins in the middle and slowly rolls out to the sides. Here is a video that captures it pretty well:

A Great Example of "The People's Mic"

But the main reason that I heart the People's Mic is because it really forces us to listen to what some else is saying. The magic comes from the process of repeating each others words. It forces everyone to listen deeply in order to be able to repeat, and then because you say another person's words with your own voice, you own them in a different way. You are forced to engage with them actively and even though only one person is talking, it is immediately a dialogue. And when you speak another person's words you are more likely to consider their position, something that our current climate makes difficult, if not impossible.

It has already become popular to push the false narrative that the Occupy movement lacks a focus. It is important to note that even in its anti-propaganda the media misses the entire point of the movement. Because it is in the process of gathering and talking to each other that Occupy will best contribute to a better future for democracy in America and beyond. We may very well push this country to accomplish some specific and quantifiable changes like overturning Citizens United, but these little incubators of democracy, that echo with the sound of people hearing each other for the first time, will be Occupy's greatest legacy.

So please, step up to the Peoples Mic and add your voice to the conversation.


Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why I was arrested at Occupy Oakland

By now you have likely seen pictures and videos, read articles from professionals who were far away, and the few bloggers and members of the media brave enough to join us at the Occupy Oakland encampment. But now it is my turn to tell you why I was a part of this story.

To begin with, this arrest is far from an end-in-itself, but rather is a small piece of a larger strategy. To this point, the interfaith clergy group I am working with in Oakland has been very much on the periphery of the Occupy camp both physically and intellectually. That is to say, our tent presence existed on the outskirts of the camp, and we sought to be a support of what was, rather than a force to help create what could be. We thought it best to let the movement indicate to us what it needed, rather than to dictate the terms of our involvement, which would begin and end with a commitment to non-violence. We sought this advisory rather than leadership role out of good intentions, but I am now convinced we were wrong, and our actions on Sunday night/Monday morning were the beginning of this correction.

As you have heard, the number of arrests was very low - only 32. There had been between five and eight hundred at the camp with us when the raid began, but the police masterfully corralled the vast majority out of the camp and onto a main thoroughfare, where they were able to push them right out of downtown without needing to arrest them. It was a brilliant strategy that greatly reduced the numbers of arrests. Most of those still there intended to register their anger through their arrest, and the police found a way to deny them that possibility.

Which left the clergy alone in camp, literally holding the spiritual center of our village.
And now it is time for us to lead from this same place. Now, do not get me wrong. I understand that this is a leaderless movement, and we certainly do not want to change that. But the faith voice, and our history of non-violent resistance needs to be a louder and more assertive aspect of this conversation, and it is our responsibility to make sure that happens.

And that is what the Occupy movement truly is, a conversation, and that is why I was willing to offer my body to be arrested. I strongly believe that this conversation must happen and that the public square of every city, town and village of this country and planet needs to be involved. And this is no small thing, this conversation, that is, unless you are happy with the status quo. This conversation represents our best hope of change, because once we are united, we are unstoppable.

The symbol of this movement is the tent, but let us not get our symbols confused with our strategy and intentions. This movement is at its essence an idea. And that idea is that we are only powerless so long as we are disconnected. But as we gather and share our stories before the media has a chance to shape and re-shape them, we recognize our common humanity and let go of our fears. Connected, we are powerful and can move mountains.
But many people remain on the sidelines, and for this to succeed it is essential that this changes. I think one thing that has kept many people from getting involved is that they are not sure what this movement is, what it stands for, and where it is going. From my personal experience, this cannot be explained, only experienced. This movement is open source. It is freely available to any who wish to engage with it. But you must take the first step.

I know so many of us have been disenfranchised. We believe even our right to vote for those that represent us is meaningless. Well, Occupy is the antidote to that feeling of impotence. Here is your platform. It is the General Assembly near you. Unlike most things in modern American life, it cannot be consumed from the comfort of your couch. It will not come sterilized and pre-packaged like the meat you buy in the grocery store. It is not safe, and neutered and stripped of meaning like a sound bite on TV. It is real and raw and very much still being formed and focused. And it desperately needs your voice.

Please go to a General Assembly near you and hear and see for yourself, I promise you will be transformed by your efforts.

Peace - Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Friday, November 4, 2011

Flip the violence narrative

As a clergy person who has spent many days down at Occupy Oakland over the past three weeks, I am so saddened to see the true peaceful nature of this movement ignored and minimized and the continued focus on the small and regrettable acts of violence from an unaffiliated group of a few dozen people.

For so long, we have all been mindlessly complicit in the violence the system we participate in necessitates. And now, just as we are making real progress with the Occupy movement on unifying our voices and trying to change the system that allows this, we are being told that the real problem is this one spasm of violence from this tiny group of unaffiliated vandals.

I ask you this: Where is the violence really coming from?

The idea that Occupy Oakland, or the Occupy movement itself, is the source of the violence is ridiculous. But please do let me tell you about the violence we all are very much responsible for, so long as we continue to allow it in our name and on our dime:

I am talking about the violence of war, in Iraq and Afghanistan and the permanent war machine we continue to feed an obscene percentage of our tax money.

I am talking about the violence of poverty that has been done by Wells Fargo and Bank of America when they illegally foreclosed on the very people who paid for their bailout and golden parachutes.

I am talking about the violence of environmental abuse that has been done to the Gulf of Mexico and countless other natural treasures by BP, Exxon, Shell and Mobil to feed our cheap fossil fuels addiction.

And it is this violence that the Occupy movement is trying to address.

And now, just as we are beginning to wake up to our power and our ability to stop this insanity, we are being sold the false narrative that the violence is coming from the Occupy movement. Because we must be kept divided. Because they are starting to take notice of this movement as a threat.

But the idea that the violence is coming from Occupy would only be laughable if the stakes were not so high. Because this is our moment. And these moments do not come along all the time. But right now that once-in-a-generation window is open, the entire people of the earth are suddenly and powerfully becoming reunited with each other. We are waking up to the truth that we are not on an unstoppable road to division and destruction. It's actually quite the opposite. We can change the narrative. This spring we witnessed one Arab country after another removing their longstanding dictators in an unprecedented struggle for freedom. This sudden change was made possible by our new technological powers of democratized social media. And as more and more of the worlds' 99% are united by this new technology and the illusion of the power maintained by the few over the many is exposed for the lie it is, their power can fall just as quickly

And we must begin by reversing the narrative that is being told about this movement. This movement is not creating the violence, just as Martin Luther King Jr. taught through his non-violent work: as more tension is created, the underlying violence of the system is brought to the surface. And it is ugly. And those in power, those threatened by the upset of the status quo will call the movement that is causing this stress to the system all kinds of ugly names. They will slur us and blame us for the system's violence. Because the few benefiting from our division are desperate and finally feeling their unrealistic grip on power slipping. But we must remember, it is their violence. And it must be surfaced to the healing power of the light of day.

And we must start telling this truth, that this violence is not directly caused by Occupy. It is merely bringing it to the surface so that it may finally be dealt with. So that we can build a system grounded on the principles of justice rather than this false promise we have been enabling like an abusive codependent relationship for too long. It is time to finally live up to the promise of our greatest values; that we truly are all created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights and that amongst these are the freedom to pursue a life of liberty and happiness, a dream that has become an impossible one for far too many.

So please, join me in flipping the violence narrative. The next time you hear someone say that the Occupy movement is creating violence, remind them where that violence is really coming from. And then invite them to join you in believing in a better way.

Peace - Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Update: This is the kind of violence in Oakland we need to be worried about: 2nd Vet beaten by Oakland Police.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy: The Next Step is You!

Since the incredible events of yesterday's successful general strike in Oakland, many have asked me and others what the next step is. And in keeping with the core values of this leaderless movement, the best answer that I or anyone else can give you is this: The next step is you.

The next step is you: organizing, joining your local Occupy general assembly, thinking and talking with your friends and neighbors, giving yourself permission to stop believing in your powerlessness. It is you: Turning off the horrible reality TV that glamorizes the pornography of fake celebrity marriage and joining a movement that stands on the side of love, wherever and whenever it is needed. It is you: Moving your checking and savings account from the big (and yes, I know convenient!) bank and putting your money in a local credit union. It is you: Supporting organized labor, because however imperfect, they are the most organized mouthpiece of the 99%. It is you: Getting involved in whatever way you can, because once our voices are all united, we are truly unstoppable.
Today, I awoke with a big and very satisfied smile on my face, because I was at Occupy Oakland for 12 hours yesterday and every single moment of it was profound, unifying and peaceful. I helped organize and run an Interfaith Tent with programming all day. We led meditations, prayers, interfaith worship services, conversations, and had lots of music. We served the spiritual needs of thousands who were grateful for our presence.

And we were surrounded by the most diverse and peaceful group of people you have ever imagined. The Teamsters were there, and so was Code Pink. The camp has a section called "the intifada" which is full of young and proud American Muslim's eager to be a part of this moment. There was a free store and kitchen with enough water, fresh veggies, pasta and fruit for the masses, asking nothing in return. One union set up a barbecue and served free hot dogs, hamburgers, beans and potato salad to thousands. There was an incredible "kids zone" with books, thousands of Lego pieces, blocks and games. And of course many a liberal arts degree was put to good use (about the only way in this economy!) on the plethora of witty signs and banners that decorated our liberated plaza.
But then that smile that I awoke with quickly disappeared when I tuned into my local NPR station to hear this morning's Forum with Michael Krasny. It was then that I learned that late at night, hours after the day of peace and unity that culminated in a completely non-violent shut down of the 5th largest port in the world, a few dozen vandals had created a situation that inevitably turned into a violent confrontation with the police. And now that was the story that the media, even the supposedly progressive KQED, was choosing to focus on.

So, I followed my own advice, and I got involved. I picked up my phone and called the show and asked to speak with Michael on the air. And, it is amazing what happens when you stop thinking about what is possible and what is not. The next thing I knew I was indeed talking to Michael on air (link to audio here) I come in at the 13:30 mark. And I shared with him my deep disappointment that this was the focus he had chosen for his show. I told him about what I had seen, this day of unity and peace, and that I was sure this was the important story: the actions of the masses, not this disorderly few. He politely thanked me for my call, ended it, and then proceeded to wash his hands of blame.

But the truth is that every one of us is responsible for our sphere of influence. Some have bigger microphones, but all of us can help shape this narrative going forward. Will you choose to stand on the side of apathy and the status quo? Or will you wake up and realize that this is the moment that so many have been crying and praying for? If you need me to make it more clear I will: The revolution has begun, and the next step is you!

Spread the word, be the word. Peace.

- Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel