Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Singing Occupella With The Elders

In November 2011, Elders from the Civil Rights, Labor, Farmworkers and other social change movements fanned out across the country to visit Occupy sites, offering  encouragement and support to the  (mostly) young activists. Here is an account of my night with the Elders in San Francisco:

I’m learning that all plans regarding the occupations must remain fluid and unfixed. Things change in a heartbeat. Police tear down encampments and they relocate somewhere else. A scheduled General Assembly is mysteriously rescheduled right at the time we were planning to have a singing circle.  It is a wonderful practice of letting go and flowing with what is actually happening, not clinging to what I thought was supposed to happen.

So, the Interfaith gathering at the main SF occupation site (Justin Herman Plaza in the Embarcadero area), at which I was to help lead singing, spontaneously moved a block down the street. A group had re-occupied a street area they were evicted from the day before, pitching two tents in the middle of the street. A large crowd gathered, with media, a bullhorn, and speakers from labor, from the occupation, from the clergy, and from the Council of Elders who had come to support and dialogue with the occupiers.

So there we all were-
 The elders and clergy, the assorted occupiers, folks who came to sing with Singing For Peace/Occupella, and the police. The police were in riot gear, a tight boundary line at one end of the circle of 100 or so people, and many other police further away, milling about.

Amongst the speeches, my co-songleader Leslie Hassberg and I  wove in songs that all could sing- We Shall Not be Moved, This Little Light , Down By The Riverside, and more- all with new words for the focus of this movement. 
“No more corporate wealth, we shall not be moved... We’re the 99% we shall not be moved...We’re standing for the students...Banks should pay their taxes...”  

No matter how many times I lead this kind of singing, I am still moved and astonished all over again by the effect it has on a crowd. It has a way of pulling people together, unifying, energizing, calming and focusing—especially as we circled closer around the tents to protect them, and the police moved closer, forming a line at the edge of our circle. I felt a familiar feeling of restless and perhaps nervous energy in the crowd (what will the cops do? Do I want to get arrested tonight? Will I or anyone get hurt? Can I really be non violent under pressure?) But as we sing, we feel the strength of ourselves and each other. We feel the power of the deep roots of these songs, sung through so many movements that changed our society over the last century or more- and there’s a palpable shift in the crowd. Plus, I feel that the police are subtly calmed and reassured by our singing.  A crowd that is singing positive, hopeful, songs isn’t likely to also be throwing bottles, yelling angry taunts, or breaking windows. Singing takes all that energy, anger, fear, hope, determination, and gives it a focus, with breath and heart behind it, the whole body feels a higher truth, a different kind of power, coming through the songs and the singing.

What I want to say to the occupation movement today.

We have to REALLY know they we more powerful than the state – this deep knowing  grounds us, and makes retaliatory violence/acting out less attractive. As one of the Elders said last night, the dignity of non violence comes from a deep inner assurance that your moral stance has a power stronger than institutions and corporations, and their self serving agendas.  It’s not just a tactic, tho it’s a tried and true effective one- but it is a much deeper inner relationship to truth and power.

The question was raised with the Elders about “diversity of tactics”- is property destruction an effective strategy? Can a cohesive movement include both non violent action AND property destruction tactics? This is an unresolved question , even among the elders.

So I’ll throw my 60 year old hat in the ring. As a mother, I know this--children flail and tantrum and break things because they feel powerful emotions inside, but don’t have the physical or intellectual/emotional power to assert their needs and truths into the world. Parents/adults can remain calm in the face of storms and others acting out because of an inner confidence in their own power and authority, derived in part from their role as “older/wiser” (we hope), and in part from a deeper source, where they/we draw on a sense of truth and wisdom that puts ground under our feet. This provides the strength and restraint  to not retaliate or respond in kind. We can feel how responding in kind weakens our innate human authority and dignity. It feeds the disdain and dehumanization the state powers easily direct against us. Remember how you feel when you see an exhausted parent whack a child who has pushed them too far. We are horrified and-hopefully- compassionate. We know instinctively that that adult has, for the moment, lost their true authority and is feeling desperate (I’ve been there, I know!).

Non violent, wise responses come from an inner assurance that one DOES have power, and truth on their side. False powers don’t fool us.  And we begin to see the fear and vulnerability behind the masks and armor of the state.

If the state truly felt powerful, they wouldn’t need to send out large armed masked men and women to beat us down, tear gas us, jail us for non-violent protest..  Look closely at the video of the students at UC Davis being pepper sprayed, and how the police respond when the students, without raising a fist, call them to conscience, (Shame on you!) and actually reassure them in loud unified voices that they can leave the site-the students won’t follow them or harm them. ( You can go, you can go).  It is one of the most moving moments of powerful, compassionate action and speech that I’ve ever seen. These students felt  their innate and limitless power, despite their relative youth and size, and drew on that to back the police off --not by scaring them but by reassuring them, by seeing and speaking to their fear.
The youth are our leaders, we shall not be moved...
The elders walk beside us, we shall not be moved
 Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
 We shall not be moved.


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