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Dr. King, Satyagraha, & Occupy Oakland

 “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

 “I’m willing to put myself in harms way for my human & constitutional rights & those of others, but not for those that would condone violence.” – Spencer Mills (OakFoSho, citizen journalist, from his Twitter feed)

Dr. King, as we all know, was a champion of non-violent civil disobedience, social justice, the support of worker’s rights, and increasingly before his assassination, the end to war. The greatness of Dr. King rests not with his prodigious mind, his powerful oration, his ability to organize, or his charisma. The greatness of Dr. King rests in what Gandhi called satyagraha: the marriage of truth with the power of the soul to uphold that truth. It is sometimes translated as the insistence that the means bring about the ends, so it speaks to a consistency that must well up from within the individual to permeate society. If the person is acting from hatred or violence, this will permeate her soul, and permeate her actions, which in turn, permeate both the means and the outcome.

This is a hard lesson, because it requires of us a scrupulous attention not only to our hearts, minds, and souls, but to the ripple effect of our actions. What is the logical end to the means of our tactics? What effects do our tactics have, first on our selves and then on our social movement? We see the effects of greed and tacit violence all around us: suicidal iPad factory workers, families living in indentured servitude, poisoned water, clear-felled mountains. The means are clearly reflected in these ends. There is no satyagraha at work, no self-examination and insistence upon the soul’s truth has caused those who orchestrate these systems to recognize the way their choices in the boardroom affect everything that follows.

In Occupy Oakland, there is disagreement over “diversity of tactics”, a phrase that means each person or autonomous group within the larger whole can decide its best course of action, including property destruction or throwing projectiles from the back of the crowd, toward the lines of police. This is causing dissension, so much so that citizen journalist OakFoSho, en route to “Occupy Congress” was wandering the streets of New York last night sending out bleak tweets about his love for #OO and his despair at the fact that he did not know if he belonged there anymore. Why? Because he consistently speaks for non-violence and has apparently been severely criticized by other members of the movement.

I also speak for non-violence, and yet have at times argued that property destruction is not necessarily a violent tactic, or one that undermines satyagraha. I have Christian friends who are Plowshares activists. I honor the local legacy of the Black Panther Party. I have even spoken up for Black Bloc in the past. I point out that a smashed window is not to be put in the same class as smashed communities and lives. Yet I myself have had to shift my own tactics over the years in order to follow the call of satyagraha. Even shouting of slogans began to undermine the power of the truth in my soul. I took to other means to support justice: organizing meditation at large actions, feeding people every week, providing porta-potties to Occupy campers, offering free training to activists, marching when it feels necessary. None of these are grand actions, but everyone has a small part to play in bringing about a world in which love and consideration hold sway, sowing justice.

Along with the question of “does smashing windows or throwing projectiles bring us closer to satyagraha?” I also have to ask, when are these tactics effective? When Jose’ Bove’ dismantled a McDonald’s restaurant, he did so to call the world’s attention to the plight of French small farmers. He knew something needed to be done, and organized his community to help. This act of property destruction was not the act of a man high on adrenaline, overtaken by strong emotions and a need to act out. It was a clearly thought out strategy that involved people from all facets of the community. It was a strategy whose power was witnessed globally, providing inspiration and galvanization for people in far flung places.

Occupy has also provided inspiration. As long as Occupy Activists continue to choose smart tactics that bring communities together to demand a more just society, it will continue to be a success and we can continue to work in various ways to build a society based on mutual respect, creativity, love, and justice. As long as some Occupy Activists continue to choose to smash windows, light fires, and hurl bottles in small skirmishes with police on the streets after dark, the movement runs the risk of alienating the rest of the community that brought out 10,000 people to shut down the Port of Oakland in November.

By changing discourse in the US to put the problems of gross inequity at the forefront, Occupy has already accomplished a huge thing. There has been a great awakening. On the other hand, without a commitment to non-violence, the parents I saw New Years Day who brought their children out on scooters and in baby strollers to the Oscar Grant memorial march, or the workers who blockaded the port and shut down banks, are likely to drift away, crippling any further actions on the part of this great social movement.

The legacy of the Black Panthers in the Bay Area comes from the amazing work they did making sure children were getting fed, medical care was provided, and people received a radical education not offered anywhere else. That is what has lasted. While I, raised a working class white person, cannot begin to criticize their insistence on having guns for self-protection, I also know that it was not violence that made the Panthers effective. It was the deep love they had for the people they were serving. Service, based in love – including a great anger that arises because those that you love are being hurt – is part of satyagraha. That is what changes culture in the long run.

On this day in which we honor Dr. King’s birth, I give thanks to all the activists who came before me so that I can even have the privilege to ponder these lessons.

May we continue to strive to not only speak truth to power, but to live powerfully from our truth.

Please take 23 minutes to listen to Dr. Kings’ speech on his opposition to the war in Vietnam. It is important.

Photo taken by me, of our signs at the Oscar Grant memorial march in Oakland, CA New Year’s Day.

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