For What It’s Worth

The news this week has been heartbreaking: the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal over the weekend, leaving more than 4,300 people dead.

Baltimore: April 27, 2015 (AP)
Baltimore: April 27, 2015 (AP)

Then, Baltimore yesterday. I’m not sure if heartbreaking is the right word for what I felt, or gut-wrenching either – but it was painful to watch the footage on CNN. What I experienced was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It was almost like a repeat of the same footage I watched 23 years ago, practically to the day. The L.A. riots that followed the acquittal of police officers on trial for the savage beating of a black man named Rodney King began April 29, 1992.

The big difference between the L.A. riots and last night’s Baltimore riots after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of a severe spinal cord injury after police arrested him, is that the violence, burning, and looting in 1992 was taking place right outside my door, or rather just miles from my door.

I’ll never forget going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, on the following morning and gazing at all the fires still burning across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

It’s senseless. The police blame it on “outside agitators” but they’ve been saying that as long as I can remember. I think clearly there were folks involved who were interested in civil disobedience for the hell of it. I don’t like to see cops injure suspects. I don’t like to see cops get injured themselves. It’s like Stephen Stills wrote in For What It’s Worth, about the 1966 Sunset Strip riots: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

I shared this original poem once before on the blog, also at the end of April, and the end of National Poetry Month. Unfortunately, it seems an apropos time to share it again.

in the city of angels

Los Angeles: April 29, 1992
Los Angeles: April 29, 1992

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley


“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

monks-ferguson2bYesterday, monks from the Drepung Monastery, here in the U.S. as part of the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour 2014, traveled from one of their first stops on the tour, St. Louis, to nearby Ferguson, Mo to stand in solidarity with the townspeople there in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer.

Antonio French, President of the North Campus organization, posted this short video clip of the monks.

Drepung Monastery is one of the most respected monasteries and centers of learning in Tibetan Buddhism. It is part of the Gelug school, of which the Dalai Lama is the head, founded in 1416 by one of Tsongkhapa’s main disciples, Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449). At one time it housed as many as 10,000 monks.

During the 1950s, the monastery was under the iron heel of the Chinese security services. Depung, along with the sister monasteries, Ganden and Sera, reestablished themselves in exile in the Karnataka state of south India.

After violence escalated during monk-led protests in March 2008, and shops and vehicles were looted and torched, trucks full of troops surrounded Drepung in Lhasa and the nearby Sera monastery. Chinese authorities expelled hundreds of Deprung monks, many residences were closed down and sealed, and severe restrictions imposed.

Watching the events in Ferguson unfold this week has been painful, troubling. While it is a complex issue, one thing seems very clear to me.

In America, there should be no mistrust of police. Yet, as President Obama pointed out yesterday, “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement.”

Here is an example of why that is the case: Last night on CNN, Capt. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, a central figure in the Ferguson situation, said that police could not risk their lives. But that is precisely what they are supposed to do. When a man or woman puts on a police uniform, it is like a contract between them and the public, they pledge to risk their lives to protect the lives of all citizens, innocent bystander, victim, perpetrator alike. Too often, however, police act as though they were in a Western movie. They shoot first and ask questions later. Until that attitude changes, the cycle of mistrust will keep repeating.

Sadly, Ferguson puts me in mind of this poem composed by the poet laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, some 63 years ago:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


The Dharma of Civil Disobedience

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and others have described his act of revealing facts about sweeping U.S. Government surveillance programs as “civil disobedience.” Whether you consider Snowden a hero or a traitor, one thing you cannot say about him is that he is a civil disobedient, at least not the traditional definition of that term.

Merriam-Webster defines civil disobedience as the “refusal to obey government demands or commands and nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment.” While whistle-blowing doesn’t strictly fit the definition, it is the last part that I think is significant: “nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment.” That means you don’t go on the lam.

Not that I blame Snowden. I wouldn’t want to be arrested and tried as a traitor either. And yet, the willingness to be arrested, is exactly what makes civil disobedience so powerful.

I’m afraid that Snowden has diluted his own act of protest. As David Corn said on MSNBC’s Hardball Monday,

He said I want to start a debate. I wanted to get people thinking about this in the public and on Capitol Hill, but yet because of all the drama in the last few days of his flight and the human interest story he’s created himself now . . . He has now made the story more about him than about these great issues . . .”

The greatest proponent of civil disobedience in modern times was Mahatma Gandhi, whose Satyagraha or “truth force” movement, employed during the Indian struggle for independence, helped inspire the freedom movements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the U.S. and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Vinit Haksar, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an Honorary Fellow, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, in his paper “The Right to Civil Disobedience,”* notes that “Gandhi . . . thought that civil disobedients succeed by courting punishment, not by avoiding it.” He also states that “The ordinary criminal tries to run away from punishment, while the civil disobedient breaks the law in an open and civil way. The latter co-operates with the authorities both at the stage of committing the crime and in jail.” Cooperating with authorities before or during the commission of act of civil disobedience may not always be the case, but in general the civil disobedient does cooperate with the punishment. After all, it is not only an act of protect, but also one of sacrifice.

Haksar reminds us,

Total toleration of civil disobedience in general would lead to its death as it would mean that civil disobedients would not be able to demonstrate their sincerity through their willingness to undergo punishment.”

It is perhaps a small point, a bit of nit-picking, but as the discussion of  Snowden’s leak, his flight, and his motives continue in the weeks to come, it seems like an important point to keep in mind.

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Osgoode Hall Law, 2003


Out in the Streets

Look what’s happening out in the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
got a revolution got to revolution

Jefferson Airplane

Marking two months of protests, Thursday was declared a “Day of Action” by the Occupy Wall Street movement with demonstrations across major cities nationwide remonstrating against financial greed and corruption. In Southern California, the LA Times reported: “In what police called an ‘orchestrated series of arrests,’ nearly 100 police in riot gear moved in to arrest 23 protesters who locked arms around tents in the middle of Figueroa Street . . .”

Meditator arrested in Oakland

“Orchestrated series of arrests” is another way to say “civil disobedience.” More about that below, but first, the city of Oakland, California has taken a hard line against the protesters. There has been violence and then Monday, police forcibly evicted demonstrators from their camp in the downtown area. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Oakland police arrested [Pancho] Ramos Stierle before dawn on Monday as riot police were clearing out the Occupy encampment at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. He and two other activists had been meditating for hours in the plaza’s amphitheater as police surrounded the camp and ordered everyone to disperse.”

Criminal charges against Stierle have been dropped, but because he is an immigrant, the cops turned him over to ICE. As of Thursday he has either been released or will be released pending a hearing before a judge. In either case, he is facing deportation. His case has become a bit of a cause célèbre (Free Pancho).

I don’t know if Stierle is connected with any particular spiritual group or whether he’s just a guy who wants to meditate for peace. It doesn really matter to me, and I certainly support his aim and his actions as far as the protest goes. I am not, however, all that sympathetic to his status as an immigrant. Apparently Stierle’s visa expired in 2008, which, as far as I understand things, makes him illegal. I know this is an unpopular view, but frankly I’m not convinced that people who are in this country illegally should enjoy the same rights as citizens and legal immigrants.

That aside, when you engage in civil disobedience you have to expect some consequences. The authorities do not like civil disobedience. That’s an eternal truth. I wish Stierle the best, but I assume that he is an intelligent person and knew what he was getting into.

At the same time, I do wonder if everyone really understands what civil disobedience is all about.

Civil disobedience is the time-honored act of the “professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.” (Wikipedia) In this current movement, we’re talking about multinational powers.

I think it is safe to say that a good majority of acts of civil disobedience are designed to provoke an “orchestrated” arrest. At the very least, those who engage in such actions should be cognizant of the possibility of arrest and/or persecution by the authorities. To put it in Buddhist terms, civil disobedience is Bodhisattva action. It invites suffering for the purpose of making a statement against suffering.

Gandhi, whom we can look to as sort of an expert on civil disobedience, called his revolution ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (truth). His brand of protest was grounded in spirituality, and marked with the force of compassion and acceptance of resulting suffering. Gandhi wrote,

Complete civil disobedience is rebellion without the element of violence in it. An out- and-out civil resister simply ignores the authority of the State. He never uses force and never resists force when it is used against him. In Fact, he invites imprisonment and other uses of force against himself . . .

Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing.”

Nearly a hundred years earlier, Henry David Thoreau, in his 1849 essay, On Civil Disobedience, put it bluntly:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.”

Gandhi behind bars

Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay what he believed was an unjust tax. Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and in 1942. All together, he spent 7 years in prison. In the early days of Gandhi’s activism, in South Africa, he tried to organize resistance against the Registration Act. On September 11, 1906, at a mass meeting with some 3000 Indians, Gandhi warned the assembled to expect repercussions: imprisonment, beatings, fines, and even, deportation. He also told them,

I can declare with certainty that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”

Goldman Sachs on trial


The OWS is calling their movement an “American Revolution.” Chris Hedges is an American journalist who has specialized in writing about the Middle East and is now involved with OWS. Last Thursday, Hedges, Cornel West and others held a mock trial of Goldman Sachs in Zuccotti Park. Hedges was arrested. Tuesday, he wrote on Truthdig,

Welcome to the revolution. Our elites have exposed their hand. They have nothing to offer. They can destroy but they cannot build. They can repress but they cannot lead. They can steal but they cannot share. They can talk but they cannot speak. They are as dead and useless to us as the water-soaked books, tents, sleeping bags, suitcases, food boxes and clothes that were tossed by sanitation workers Tuesday morning into garbage trucks in New York City. They have no ideas, no plans and no vision for the future.

I support the Occupy Wall Street movement. I only hope everyone understands what it really takes to engage in civil disobedience, what it means to be a revolutionary. I hope the mistake that was made in the 1960’s is not made again. The Anti-War movement disintegrated after the Kent State massacre in 1970. All of the sudden protest kids realized, “Hey, you can get killed doing this!” I think in our collective unconscious we decided it might be better to just stay home with Sweet Jane.

Both Thoreau and Gandhi would no doubt subscribe to the notion that it is every person’s duty to protest injustice. That also belongs to the eternal, ultimate truth. But in the conventional world, let’s face it, not everyone is going to join in, and perhaps some should not join on the front lines. Those who have a lot to lose by catching the attention of law enforcement maybe should think twice about putting themselves at risk as Stierle did. I would imagine there are numerous ways that someone can support OWS, and in the future, if the movement comes together and gains a measure of organization, some of the most important roles will be played behind the scenes.

The iconic revolutionary

But if you are going to take center stage, man the barricades, stand on the front lines, then you’d better know that, as CSN&Y sang, to find the cost of freedom, you must “lay your body down.”

Revolution is serious business. Che Guevara once said,

In a revolution, one wins or one dies.”

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down

– Crosby, Still, Nash and Young


Street photo:
Stierle photo:
Hedges/West photo: