Public Stories

Yesterday’s post about speaking out against injustice generated some interesting discussion on the unofficial Facebook page of my yearly meeting.  As I said, I tend to agree that protests that just involve carrying signs aren’t useful for a number of reasons.

I agree that any public witness should be grounded in a spiritual calling. I remember the first time I went to a peace vigil.  I was working with (Quaker) Don Laughlin in his medical electronics lab at the University of Iowa Hospitals the summer of 1969, just before my senior year at Scattergood Friends School.  When he invited me to join him at the weekly peace vigil, I was intimidated by the idea of standing in the middle of downtown Iowa City. But I knew of Don’s stance as a draft resister, and that he served time in prison as a result. I knew the depth of his commitment to peace. I was struggling with my own decision about the draft and was facing the time when I was required to register on my 18th birthday that coming November.  So I went, and found the vigil to be like meeting for worship. After that first time, I looked forward to going each week.

Many years later, when I started attending North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, I joined the weekly peace vigil with Gilbert Kuhn, from North Meadow, and Debbie. It was usually just the three of us. It became apparent that that small number was actually an advantage, making people feel more comfortable about approaching us. Almost every week someone would stop and either ask what we were doing, or tell us what they thought about the message of one of our signs. It is that engagement, the sharing of our stories, that I believe is the goal. The basic tenant of nonviolence is not to defeat an enemy, but rather this very type of exchange, of really listening to others, and learn from what they say. And it is that openness and attitude that can remove barriers, and provide the space for other people to also listen to you.

I love this quote from Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017), Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada

ALL THAT WE ARE IS STORY. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time.

Being there consistently is also important. People notice, and realize your commitment. For example, I was walking through the Central Library to get to the vigil one day when a librarian asked me if that was where I was going, saying she saw us each week and appreciated us being there.

Another thing I learned is you can bring your concern for things other than war and peace to this public space. As I got deeply involve in the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, I hesitantly brought a sign related to that to the vigil, not being sure what the others would think about changing the message. We did indeed have discussions about that over the next several weeks, but we all became comfortable with it.  Larry actually made a much larger and clearer sign for me, that I used during the year or so it took for President Obama’s administration to finally decided to reject the pipeline proposal.

The Keystone Pledge of Resistance was the first time I was involved in a nationwide social justice campaign. Because the threats to our environment from burning fossil fuels occur on so many fronts, it was difficult to find a way to try to get people to stop burning fossil fuels.  My own witness of living without a car didn’t seem to be having any real effect (although I was often surprised when people I hadn’t even talked to about that would ask me if I rode my bike to work that day, etc.)

But environmental groups saw the opportunity to have an impact with the Keystone pipeline decision, because it was up to the president alone to decide. This gave us a well defined objective, and a specific target to apply pressure.  So the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), CREDO, and the Other 98% created the Keystone Pledge of Resistance. People were invited to sign the Pledge: “I pledge, if necessary, to join others in my community, and engage in acts of dignified, peaceful civil disobedience that could result in my arrest in order to send the message to President Obama and his administration that they must reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”  On that web page, people’s contact information was gathered so organizers could communicate with them. The page also had a place to indicate if you would be willing to be a local Action Leader, and I did. RAN trained us to create a local action for civil disobedience, and to train people in the art of nonviolent civil disobedience.  Organizers then let President Obama know there would be nation wide acts of civil disobedience by thousands of people if he approved the pipeline permit.

Then after Michael Brown’s killing and the ongoing killings of unarmed people of color, I changed my message again. I was very unsure of how that sign would be received by people of any race, but felt called to do it. It was especially uncomfortable the second time I was carrying it downtown, and I had to walk through a crowd of thousands of people, having forgotten it was the Black Expo weekend. But people either ignored me, or gave positive responses.

One day a car circled the block and then parked in front of us. A Black man got out of the car and came up to me with a serious expression and asked my why I was doing that. I told him I thought it was important for white people to acknowledge they knew black lives mattered. Who else was the message for? He thought about that for a moment, then shook my hand, saying “Alright. That’s a brave thing to do.”  (I’m a little embarrassed to write that, but wanted to show how others see what we try to do.) Also, many times a car of people of color would honk, and people smile and cheer and wave their hands. And many times take photos with their phones.

Also related to Black Lives Matter was this decal Jenny Cisar created, and the sign Kathy Hall brought to Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), shown here with the Peace and Social Concerns Committee.

The Keystone Pledge of Resistance was important for the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle, because there was a pool of trained Action Leaders that could and did (at least in Indianapolis) join the DAPL movement, helping with their organizing skills.

The thing I really love about the DAPL experience was how grounded that was in the Spirit.  It was significant that we referred to ourselves as water protectors, instead of resisters or protestors. We were very fortunate to have a number of Native Americans join our public events, where prayers were said, sage burned, and speakers talked to the group, not necessarily to the public.  One event was related to defunding the banks involved with the pipeline, which in Indianapolis were the Chase and PNC banks. After prayers we went to those two banks in downtown Indianapolis. As the crowd stood in silence outside each bank, those with accounts went in to close them.  $110,000 was withdrawn that day!

I wasn’t ready to close my account that day, since I needed to change direct deposit, etc.  I wrote quite a bit about my experiences when I did close my account.   Basically I returned to the bank after closing my account about a week later and spoke to the same bank officer, who told me she and her husband had talked about our visit.

North Meadow Friends also closed their Chase bank account.

My favorite experience related to DAPL was the final gathering that was for those of us who had worked together that year. We gathered in a large circle on the grounds of the State Capitol building in silent prayer, and a couple of speakers.

This entry was posted in #NDAPL, Black Lives, civil disobedience, Indigenous, peace, Quaker Meetings, race, spiritual seekers, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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