I've been struggling with writing today's post ever since I heard of the police beating of the Rev. John Helmiere last Monday evening at the Port of Seattle protest. This protest began as a solidarity event with Occupy Oakland after the violent crackdown on that encampment. It became an action that sought to highlight the negative impact current shipping practices and policies have on workers and the environment. The unions involved, although in general agreement, did not officially endorse the action. This was why I didn't attend. That said, many workers from the docks honked horns and gave a thumbs-up in support. The union - as an organization - may not have been able to strategically support this action but many of the unionized and non-unionized workers did.
John is a good colleague. We live in the same neighborhood of Seattle. He's a solid theological thinker with a well-nuanced understanding of what is just and unjust. He is gentle spirit who is passionately compassionate. He is a well-rounded leader with a strong, faithful, discerning center. He's starting a church down here (Valley and Mountain Fellowship) that has these values at its core. He decided to participate in the protest because of the issues the protest was focusing on.
The protest had two different foci locations that different protesters chose to support. In and of itself, the part at the main gates was very successful and the port was shut down. There was also a group at one of the less prominent entrances that became, clearly, more confrontational. The police presence at this station was larger and the situation became increasingly tense. Protesters set up a blockade in the middle of the street. The mounted police were called in, to; a sign to many of the protesters, due to previous experiences, that police were preparing to use more physical tactics.
John had initially participated in the first protest group and, since the port was declared "closed," was heading home when he saw and heard the chants of the second group. He walked over to see what was happening and, when he saw how tense the situation was, he decided he was called to try and help keep it peaceful. With his clergy collar on, he stood between the police and the protesters with several others. They linked arms. He was yelling out words of peace and leading chants of peace. Many of the protesters were joining in with their voices.
What happened next is all a blur, as it frequently is in moments like this. Its not exactly clear who did what first. The protesters were getting corralled into a smaller and smaller space and, on the police-side, pepper spray began to fly and at least two concussion grenades were tossed among the protesters. Some protesters threw items that seemed to be near by at the police (some accounts say wood, concrete, flares and rebar). There were also one or two bags of red paint thrown at the police. Again, it's really not completely clear who did what first, here. Each side seemed to be expecting some sort significant confrontation from the other side, so it came. 11 people were arrested.
John was one of them. However, how that took place is one of the most troubling parts of all of this. First, one of the officers he was standing in front of hit him in the throat - a little above his clergy collar - as he was chanting words encouraging peace. As he was recovering from this, an officer grabbed him and threw him to the ground (it's not clear with any of this whether this was all done by the same officer or a different ones). As John was face down on the ground with his arms immobilized, a police officer began to punch him in the face. John wasn't resisting at this point and, again, immobilized. Eventually, he was cuffed, lifted up by an officer who took him to the police van and then - over a period of 12 hours - transported to a holding cell then a county facility. His multiple requests for medical attention were ignored until he was able to get the attention of a nurse who just happened to be walking by.
I wish more of you reading this knew John. It's shocking that this incident happened to somebody. It's a little more shocking that this incident happened to somebody leading chants encouraging everyone to remain peaceful. It's a little more shocking that this incident happened to somebody leading chants encouraging everyone to remain peaceful while he was wearing a clergy collar. And, for those of you who do know John, this isn't just somebody. He's one the kindest people you could ever meet. The fact this happened to John is one of the things that makes this incident the most shocking of all. I’m not saying he’s a saint or anything but, well, he’s definitely got some saintly qualities. Pray for him, if you would and read his account of this, too.
I have been trying to get my head and heart around all of this. I’ve moved from being shocked, to being saddened, to being angry, to being pensive and then, well, back to being angry again.
I’m still probably stuck a bit on angry and some of that second round of anger is with myself because I was, well, shocked in the first place. This is the third incident in less then three months of a clergy colleague in Seattle being the object of some sort of police violence. Two colleagues (in full vestments) were pepper-sprayed in November and, now, this. There have been regular stories from local Occupiers of police over-reaction, violence, harassment and escalation. During the four years I’ve been here, the Seattle Police Department has been accused of brutality several times (including the shooting of a Native American local artist) and is currently being investigated by the Department of Justice. I’ve heard many, many anecdotes from people in my neighborhood – particularly people of color – who have talked about their maltreatment and harassment by police.
Yes, I know that most police officers are good, helpful, respectful and work really, really hard to act appropriately and, in many cases, compassionately. I have had the honor to interact with many more good officers than not. The problem is the dangerous subculture of permissiveness and expediency that seems to protect many violent and intimidating actions by some police officers as a justified privilege of a police officer instead of a rarely utilized responsibility. This is not helped, at all, by the degree to which officers are overworked and under-supported. On top of that, they are being given weapons and tools by the Pentagon that are specifically for use in war against an enemy. This increases a “citizen as the enemy” mentality. Add to that the passing of a law that allows for the indefinite detention of US citizens. Mix all that together and the police subculture of permissiveness and expediency becomes increasingly dangerous. Its police subcultures like this that can be used for the foundation of police states.
None of this is diminished, of course, by the small subculture of protesters who seem to be willing to use violence against the police or others who disagree with them. I understand the anger, there. I’ve felt it, thought it and been tempted by it at different points. Although there may seem to sometimes be short-term effectiveness in such actions, these sorts of actions generally tend to be a long-term failure. Even when violence is used in anti-dictatorial revolutionary movements, the end result is usually a system that is very similar in its dictatorial methods as the outgoing one. Violence used by any one group or persons – instead of being an action that ends further violence – clears a path for more violence to emerge. It actually tends to expand and strengthen overall systems of violence.
Non-violence exposes systems of violence and refuses to give these violent systems and actions more energy and justification for their actions. If John had been a participant in any of the violent aspects of this demonstration, the response by many would have been that the actions of the police were justified regardless of who was perceived to have started the violence. John’s non-violent actions and words expose the violent subculture that exists and – as this story emerges - is making a way to confront remove energy from these systems as opposed to clearing the way for, still, more violence.
As I write this blog, I’m clear how much of what I write are words I need to hear. This self-talk reminds me of my commitments, my responsibilities and my role, as a person of faith and a pastor. Within the United Church of Christ (UCC) Statement of Faith, it says this (addressed to God):
“You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.
You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end…”
In the UCC Statement of Mission it names these points as our responsibility:
“To hear and give voice to creation's cry for justice and peace;
To name and confront the powers of evil within and among us;
To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death;
To preach and teach with the power of the living Word;
To join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation;
To work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life…”
In our baptismal vows we are asked:
“ Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”
There have been times I’ve wondered, on many occasions, whether non-violence is the only and best way to live out these commitments. I’ve read about other more violent movements and talked with folks who have been involved in them. Although I have often been impressed and sometimes inspired by the courage of some of those who chose to take such actions, I’ve yet to be convinced of its long-term effectiveness as a tactic (more recent readings of the brilliant Gene Sharp and the Gospels has only made this clearer). The more I study, the more I pray, and the more I see non-violence lived out, the more deeply I have come to think and believe that non-violence is the most effective and most faithful way to love out that promise to “resist oppression and evil.”
I am still angry. There is plenty to be angry about. In addition to exposing the subculture of systemic violence that showed its face at last Monday’s protest, John’s non-violent action helped expose my infection by these systems as well. May we all be brave enough to seek out healing and live in to a better way. God bless the Rev. John Helmiere for helping clear that path to a better way for us.