Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Response of the interfaith community to police crackdown on Occupy LA

Along with many other leaders and members of the interfaith community, I am appalled by the overreaction of the police here in LA and elsewhere to the Occupy movement. I have signed on to a letter of protest to Mayor Villaraigosa that is being sent to him by the Interfaith Sanctuary group at Occupy LA.

What happened at Occupy LA last night is a little unclear because the religious leaders who were supposed to observe the police behavior were taken aside when the police initially invaded the camp.

This is a report from Shakeel Syed, the Exec Director of the Shura Council of So Ca: a person whose integrity and veracity I can attest to. I should also add that he and I were among the 14 arrested on Oct 7 during an ICUJP action opposing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. At that time, the police behaved appropriately, with professionalism and politeness.

Last night the following religious leaders were present at City Hal: Rabbi Jonathan Klein (Exec Dir  of CLUE); Rev. Peter Laarman (Exec Dir  of Progressive Christians United); Rabbi Yohan, Shakeel Syed, and Stacie Chiaken (a Jewish lay leader). These leaders were not allowed into the camp after almost more than an hour of LAPD's invasion of the camp - contrary to a prior agreement with the Mayor and Chief Beck.

Here are Shakeel's observations:
It's more than obscene to invade a peaceful camp of less than 200 peaceful people with a force 7 times more (1400 by Beck's own admission) armed to teeth in riot & military type gear. Not ONE person resisted arrest. Not ONE person engaged in any verbal or physical abuse of any police officers. Not ONE ounce of any drug or intoxicant was found inside the camp. Not ONE witness - neither reps of National Lawyers Guild nor we the clergy & laity observers were allowed inside the camp at the time of invasion. In fact the LAPD sent a word to us for a conversation with their commander on site (Chief Perez) re: observer rules/ protocols, etc & while we're pulled outside the camp for a meeting with Chief Perez at the base of the LAPD building, the invasion started. We're also guaranteed that "sufficient" notice will be given to us to work with the campers to avoid arrest and "sufficient" notice will also be given to the campers to decide between getting arrested and leaving voluntarily. Both of these commitments were reneged and through deception. So to the extent that we were able to observe from more than 500 feet away in darkness was - extensive use of batons in suppressing the campers, mayhem style breaking down tents, kicking and screaming at the peaceful campers. Even we - the "official & approved" observers were yelled at by several of their officers & at one point I had to get into the face of an officer cautioning them to watch himself who he's talking to. subsequent intervention by their other more sane colleagues calmed this stupid officer down. they were on an obscene display of hyper testasterone  ...

We complained to LAPD that had they given us the time guaranteed earlier - we'd have gotten out many of the campers without arrest. In fact in less than first 10 mins of our getting into the camp - we're able to convince two campers to avoid rest and leave the camp. had we had an hour or two - we're very sure we'd have been a great help to LAPD in avoiding many arrests. one of the campers said "we love you for standing up with us but where were you guys when LAPD raided us?" this tells us that our neutrality and integrity was compromised because of LAPD's deceptive way of inviting us to a meeting outside the camp and then immediately raiding the camp.

I think the best commentary on the behavior of police towards protesters has come from former Seattle police chief Stamper, who said one of the worst decision he ever made in his life was to unleash the Seattle police on demonstrators during the WTO gathering in Seattle in 2000.
In an interview on MPR, Stamper said:

We dress as if the protesters are the enemy. We are equipped with tools and weaponry that suggest that the protesters are an enemy and that our mission is a military one. And it's very important, obviously, that your police officers be made as safe as they can in terms of their training, their equipment and so forth. But it's also vitally important to remember that they are dealing with fellow Americans and, particularly in the case of the Occupy movement, you know, I don't know any police officer who's part of the one percent. These are issues that are vital to the entire country, and certainly to the middle class and those who have been marginalized, especially by poverty or by discrimination. And I think police officers, on one level, really get that. But they find themselves lined up as the enemy."

The protesters made it clear they did not regard the police as  the enemy--indeed, I saw signs supporting the police--but clearly the 1% and elected officials who represent them are treating the protesters as if they are the enemy.

That's why it's important for the religious community to be a witness to what is happening and to speak the truth to those in power.

Dear Mayor Villaraigosa:

We, representatives of the faith and labor communities, are writing to follow up on our previous letter to you and meeting with you and Chief Beck, regarding Tuesday night’s forced eviction of the Occupiers at City Hall.

While we are grateful that there were no major physical injuries, we are distressed by the level of violence and brutality witnessed by the members of the clergy who were present at the eviction. After two months of a peaceful occupation it is unacceptable that this level of violence was deployed. Occupiers were pushed and hit and corralled and hunted down by police in a military fashion. The police invaded the park without sufficient warning in a manner that was designed to create the greatest amount of terror and trauma. Despite the media impression that the eviction went off skillfully and without a hitch, in reality there was psychological and spiritual violence in as well as physical violence.

In addition, the interfaith clergy had obtained an agreement from the incident commander that they would be allowed entry to the City Hall grounds as witnesses in order to support the occupiers in their decisions to stay or leave. This agreement was not honored and clergy were not allowed entrance to the park during the crucial period in which they could have been helpful to occupiers who had not previously decided to be arrested.

Finally, it is unacceptable that the arrested occupiers, who are nonviolent and not a flight risk, are being held on $5,000 bail. They must be released on their own recognizance.
This letter is being circulated among religious leaders in LA, and I am pleased that Dan Strickland, the Clerk of Southern California Quarterly Meeting, has signed it. I also support this letter and urge our Mayor to take more seriously our First Amendment right to assemble peacefully to petition our government for a redress of grievances.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanking our Native American brothers and sisters

How can we thank the Native people this Thanksgiving for all they have given us? That's the question I have been asking myself this year. In the past I have deplored the fact that Euro-Americans mythologize and sanitize what happened when the Pilgrims arrived on territory belonging to the Massasoit people. I have contrasted the Pilgrims (whose descendants massacred Native people) with the Quakers, who tried to keep their treaties and never took up arms against the First people. See

But this year I want to stress the positive. I want to thank my Native American brothers and sisters for what they have given to us and the world. Many years ago, I was inspired by Jack Weatherford's marvelous book "Indian Givers" to lead a Methodist worship service in which we thanked the Indians on Native American awareness Sunday. I handed out a list of what the Native people have given us, from avocados to zucchini, including such things as chocolate, beans, tomatos, wild rice, rubber, lima beans, corn, etc. People then expressed gratitude to Native people for items on this list. It was an especially moving service since several Native Americans were present.

This year I am going to include as many Native American foods as possible on our Thanksgiving menu and remind our family to say "thank you" not only to God, but to the Native people who gave us these foods. We will have squash, succotash, corn bread, and of course chocolate--the greatest gift of all!

As I reflect on I owed the native people, including the land on which I live, I think of all the marvelous native people I have met and known, beginning with Jake Swamp, an Iroquois elder who came to Princeton Meeting when I first became a Friend in the early 1980s. Jake conducted a "tree of peace" ceremony at our Meetinghouse, and I later had a chance to visit him and his people at their reservation in Upper New York state during an FGC gathering. I learned about many of the things that the Iroquois Confederacy contributed to our nation, including ideas for our Constitution.

Over the years I have been enriched by the writings and spirituality of Native people--their concern for the land, for their elders, and for the Creator. I could easily write a book on what I have learned from my indigenous brothers and sisters.

This month a Native American elder, Sylvia Salazar, spoke to our Parliament of the World's Religion group and shared something I will never forget. Asked if the Indians celebrate Thanksgiving, she responded, "Our people celebrate Thanksgiving every day. Our prayers are almost always prayers of thanks for what the Creator has given us."

To which I can only say, "This Friend speaks my mind!"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Spiritual sharing circle at Occupy LA

Our first spiritual sharing circle took place yesterday at OLA and was truly awesome. Over 35 people took part, including people of diverse faiths: Jewish, Vedantist, Christian, humanist, etc. Several people from the Parliament of the World's Religion showed up, along with lots of Friends. By the end of our sharing time, we were all friends.

Members of OLA took part and appreciated our presence. The site is very noisy, but our inward silence was deep, the sharing profound, and the messages moving.

Some spoke of social injustices, others of spiritual concerns. Included below is a message combining both concerns, shared by Gene Rothman, a Jewish member of the Parliament of the World's Religions. His words speak to my heart as a Friend. (Full disclosure: Gene was one of the groomsmen at my wedding!)

People of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds spoke and offered prayers. Many passersby stopped to observe and recognized the sacredness of what we were about.

We agreed to have another sharing circle next Sunday at 2 PM. Some expressed the hope there would be daily worship opportunities.

We were blessed to have access to a large and comfortable tent owned by Carlos Marrroquin, who has a concern about foreclosure prevention. See
We Quakers formed an affinity group to explore how we can continue to have sharing circles like this. We felt we needed a large and sturdy tent like the Carlos' for our interfaith worship and peacemaking workshops in a more quiet location, preferably the north end of the encampment--the people's university area. We raised $101 for this purpose. We would like to cooperate with the Interfaith Sanctuary and hope that other religious groups will raise an additional $600 so we can all have a decent-sized and quality tent for our interfaith activities.

A Methodist pastor named Paige Eaves provided several bags of wonderful bread, which was much appreciated by the Occupiers and became our informal communion loaf.

Here is the message shared by Gene Rothman:

Peace, Shalom, Salaam, Shanti:

My name is Gene and I am a Jewish member of the Southern California Committee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

I want to say something about two kinds of silence.

I want to note that the same letters are in the world “silent” and the word “listen.”

Holy silence is when we listen each other, when we listen to that small, still voice within, and when we allow ourselves to hear the sweet sounds of nature.

Unholy silence is being silent and staying at home in the face of injustice. You [members of Occupy L.A]. prayed with your feet, as Rabbi A.J. Heschel said, in coming here.

A Japanese-American poet, Mitsuye Yamada, wrote about silence after listening to her father tell her that silence would keep her safe. But she and her family were still taken to a Japanese internment camp. She ends her poem, Warning, by saying: “My silences had not protected me.”

I want to conclude by thanking you all for raising your voices and putting your bodies on the line. It allowed others to find the courage to break their unholy silence and this has already changed the country. I feel especially grateful and blessed to be with you accompanied by my interfaith sisters and brothers, including those who may be secular, agnostic, or atheist: for they, too, have kept the faith in their own way.

With your claim of the public square, you have reminded our sleeping citizens and the bought-and-paid for political class that we will not be silent while democracy is buried by bankers and billionaires. My prayer is that our blessed, non-violent unrest will continue to multiply until justice rolls down like a mighty stream.

Please repeat after me:

Baruch A-ta Adonai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha’olam, m’sha-neh ha-b ri-ot

Blessed be the Eternal, our G-d, Ruler of space and time, Who makes every people and every person unique

Friday, November 11, 2011

Keeping hope alive at OLA, with some help from interfaith friends

Jesse Jackson came to Occupy LA this week and I caught the end of this speech as I walked over to the encampment from my parking spot. His passionate refrain “Keep hope alive” echoed for blocks.

Hope is a very elusive thing. Emily Dickinson says “hope is a thing with feathers that perches on the soul.” On my car there’s a bumper sticker that says “Got hope?’ but the bumper sticker along with the feelings that inspired it has largely faded. The Occupy movement has revived my hopes, and the hopes of many other progressive people. But this “thing with feathers” is very precariously perched.

Ever since I attended meeting for worship at Occupy Philadelphia last week, I have been convinced that God is nudging us religious folk to become more deeply involved with Occupy LA. It isn’t helpful simply to sit on the sidelines and study and criticize their performance. If we want to keep hope alive, we need to go to their encampment and be in dialogue with them. The Occupiers have been at City Hall for nearly 40 days, individual religious people have shown up, but so far the interfaith peace movement has not been actively supportive.

This weekend I got the support of Southern California Quakers and the local chapter of the Parliament of the World’s Religions to establish an interfaith presence at OLA.

While I was doing this, others in the interfaith movement were following their leading to become involved with OLA.

On Wednesday, a group of religious leaders came to OLA:  Sandie Richards (Methodist Minister at LA United Methodist Church), Peter Laarman (exec dir of Progressive Christians Uniting), Shakeel Syed (exec dir of the Islamic Shura Council of So Cal), and Rabbi Jonathan Klein (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice). They met with Scott Shuster, one of the OLA “facilitators,” listened to his concerns and came up with some plans to provide a religious presence at OLA.

They are calling themselves the “Interfaith Sanctuary.” Their goal is to help coordinate a religious community response. They have established an interfaith tent, using a Sukka that Jewish supporters of  OLA had put up. And they have hoisted a banner that says “Interfaith Sanctuary”

They also have a blog:  as well as a facebook page and google listserv.

There will be another planning meeting for religious folk next Wednesday morning at 10 am.

Why is there a need for the religious community to be involved?

Anyone who reads OLA's "Declaration of Occupation" or has been following the Occupy movement knows that the grievances they express are those that the Progressive religious has been articulating for many years: opposition to corporate greed, the war machine, environmental destruction, etc.

What OLA needs are the following:

Food and other supplies. Many of the Occupiers are unemployed, some are homeless, they need all the help we can provide.

Pastoral care/compassionate listening. Most of the Occupiers are wonderful, intelligent and idealistic, but some have serious emotional and psychological issues.

Witness in case of police crack down. So far, the LA police have been benign, especially compared to places like Oakland, but this could change. And if it does, it is important that there are credible witnesses to describe what happens.

Inspiration and support. Living in tents, exposed to the elements and to some of the most desperate people in the city, can be very demoralizing. The Occupiers have inspired us with their courage and faithfulness. We in the religious community need to do likewise and show that we care and are with them (even if we don't live in tents).

Conflict resolution, mediation, consensus decision-making. The Occupiers are making a valiant effort to deal with conflicts that arise and to engage in participatory democracy, but they are feeling overwhelmed by the extent of the problems they are encountering. More will be said later.

Education. Many of the Occupiers are young and want to learn from seasoned political activists how to effect the changes they yearn for.

There is a huge problem with drugs, crime, etc. That’s because the OLA is essentially a lawless zone, where the police have been told not to intervene. Homeless and mentally ill people, and drug dealers and users, are being drawn to this place where they know they will not be hassled. The vast majority of Occupiers who are sane and don't use drugs are being overwhelmed. There is even the feeling that the benign neglect on the part of the police may be intentional:   “Give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves.” The Occupiers are asking for help from those with skills and knowledge in how to deal with those who have chemical abuse and other problems.

Despite these problems, OLA and the Occupy movement have accomplished a great deal. They are moving the political debate away from blaming the government and cutting programs that help the people, and focusing on the problem: predatory bankers and capitalists that have ripped off the middle class and poor.

The Occupiers have been big supporters of the Moveyourmoneyproject, which has inspired tends of thousands of Americans (myself included) to move our money out of predatory commercial banks into credit unions and socially responsible local banks.

Amy Goodman today had a wonderful segment about how Occupiers are supporting the anti-foreclosure movement.

Many of us are rallying in support of Richard Alarcon’s measure for Responsible Banking. Come to City Hall on Monday, Nov 21, at 1 PM to show your support for this measure.

What is the big picture? What is the future of this movement? How can it become long-term and sustainable? Will this movement help to jumpstart a movement that will transform (not simply reform) the System, as Chris Hedges and David Swanson are arguing?

These are questions that the interfaith religious community needs to take seriously. More to follow.....

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy LA: crying out for Quakers and people of faith who can model and teach nonviolent resistance

Last night the mood at Occupy LA was tense. Thousands of protesters had converged in Oakland, closed down the harbor, and wrecked havoc at an building that had once sheltered homeless people, but now was shut down due to budget cuts. LA Occupiers staged a peaceful but edgy solidarity protest in front of the Police Station across from City Hall. Several hundred young people were there, along with a sizable contingent of police, mostly dressed in shorts and trying to look friendly. Cop cars lined the street, their lights flashing, adding a festive or ominous air, depending on your attitude towards the police. It was the Dias de los muertos, the day of the dead, and many young people were in costume, looking spectral and ghoulish. Young men with bull horns orated for an hour or more, and then the crowd dispersed back to the encampment in front of City Hall.

As I wandered about, I had flashbacks to the 1960s. Long-haired, bearded young men and lovely young women camping out, talking earnestly, and the occasional scent of pot. A potpouri of LA’s amazing diversity: diverse races, ethnicities and social backgrounds getting together for an all-night party that was both social and political, and never boring.

The General Assembly was cancelled because of the rally. In its place a group of ukulele players gathered and played lively Mexico music while a man did a rhythmic foot-stomping dance on a small wooden platform. A little Anglo girl with blond hair danced joyously. A group of African-Americans were having a political discussion nearby.

As I wondered around, I encountered Communists, socialists, vegetarians, hippies, seekers, and an earnest young Evangelical Christian who called out from his tent and asked passersby if they believed in God. When I responded “Yes,” he asked me if Jesus was my Lord and Savior. I bent down, looked him in the eye and replied, smiling, “Jesus is my Friend, my guide and my Savior.” The young man seemed relieved.

I kept thinking of the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 23 about how we are to respect the Law, but not those who profess the Law without practicing it. Jesus says: “Call no one your teacher, or father, or leader, for we are all brothers and sisters and only Christ/God is our leader.”

The Occupies get the “no-leader” part of Jesus’ teaching. They realize that you can’t trust the authorities; they are mostly liars and hypocrites. But many of the Occupiers haven’t yet connected with or submitted to their Inward Teacher. They have learned to resist unjust authority, but haven’t learned the spiritual discipline (and the inward peace) that comes from Holy Obedience. In the signs and art and conversations I sensed a deep yearning for a spiritual as well as political transformation.

I didn't see a religious presence at Occupy LA, like the interfaith tent I saw at Occupy Philadelphia, but there is openness to the idea of having such a tent, as I discovered when I spoke to some of the Occupiers. [It turns out there was a sukka, and a Hindu meditation tent, and a sacred indigenous space. As of Nov 11, there is an interfaith tent.]

My guide was a young Quaker from Orange Grove Meeting named Sergei whom I ran into by “chance.” Sergei is in his early 30s and has a long, anarchic beard, a jovial, bear-like appearance and a thick accent. He is articulate and thoughtful, and has been coming to Occupy LA on a regular basis for several weeks. (In case you're wondering, he has a job: he is self-employed and fixes restaurant equipment). Sergei sees his mission as helping to calm down people who are agitated. Some are mentally ill. Others are simply enraged by the system. Some are both, like the Mexican man named Juan who used to be a school teacher, and then lost everything, including his wits. Juan wanders around shirtless, making loud and sometimes inappropriate political commentary. Sergei treat him and others like him with great kindness. Sergei explained that he is part of a group of Occupies inspired by Gandhi’s Shanti Seva (Peace Army).

Sergei introduced me to several of the young people who are helping to bring some measure of order to this colorful, vibrant but somewhat chaotic group. A young Latino named Anthony and an Anglo named Casey who help to convene the People’s Assembly (an unstructured alternative to the General Assembly) were very pleased that a Quaker had arrived.

“We need the Quakers!” they told me.

Casey had heard about the Quakers through Tolstoy’s book “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” He sensed that the Occupy movement needed Tolstoyan and Quaker wisdom.

Others I spoke to acknowledged the need for people who can teach and model nonviolent resistance and conflict resolution skills. When I spoke to them about ICUJP, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and the interfaith community, they were eager for us to come down and share our experience and insights with them.

One of the important elements of Occupy LA is educational. On the north side of City Hall there is a “people’s university” where informal classes and workshops are being offered. On Saturday and Sunday this week, there will be a teach-in with notables such as Robert Reich, Kent Wong, William Black and David DeGraw.

Those I spoke to were also very receptive to the idea of having an interfaith tent, and an interfaith worship service like the one I attended at Occupy Philadelphia. Such a service, I suggested, could be held in the manner of Friends, with silence and opportunities for everyone to share messages and listen deeply. Such a service could include people of all faiths, as well as humanists and atheists.

Those I spoke to loved this idea. There is a deep need for opportunities to become "centered."

I am proposing that we try to have such a gathering on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 13. I’d like to invite people from UDC, ICUJP, the Parliament, the Westside Interfaith Alliance and other interfaith groups to come and be a friendly presence. The important thing is to be open to listening.

It is also important to spend time at Occupy LA and get to know the people there. The more interaction we have with them and vice versa, the more likely it is that we will grow into a movement that can bring about the kind of change many of us dreamed about when Obama was elected.

Jesus was right: you should not expect our leaders to be our saviors. We have to be re-build our fallen society from the ground up, guided by the Spirit and committed to peace, justice, and egalitarianism. This is the only way to stop the war machine and the Domination System.

You can see LA Occupy with live feeds at