In Court for Protesting—The New Normal
It’s Friday morning and I’m standing before the Federal Judge in D.C. Superior Court in Washington, D.C., another hearing for my recent protest and arrest during inauguration week.
Another protest, another day in court. This, in the age of Trump, is the new normal.
"With so much at stake, our work of active nonviolence is needed more than ever."
There’s so much to protest, resist and agitate against, and so much to advocate for, so much movement-building to do.
It’s hard for me to keep up with the daily news reports—the President’s plan to build a wall, expel millions of immigrants, register Muslims, increase racism and Islamaphobia, turn away refugees, cut regulations, give corporations free reign, shut down healthcare, cut education funding, deny climate change, abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, drill for oil in our parks, build up our military, start new wars, and possibly use nuclear weapons. I think Cornell West is right—we have entered the Fourth Reich, a new kind of American neo-fascism that threatens us all.
With so much at stake, our work of active nonviolence is needed more than ever.
Sitting back, doing nothing, being depressed, and watching the dreadful TV is not an option. Nonviolent action is the only antidote to despair, violence and fascism. It is our best hope, the best way forward, perhaps the only way to maintain our sanity. It has to become a spiritual practice.
I think we are up against systemic violence, a plague of violence that has taken a turn for the worse, if that were possible. And so, the only response is creative, active nonviolence. Active nonviolence is organized universal love mobilized among the grassroots through creative, strategic, public action in pursuit of disarmament and justice for a new culture of peace. It is a new way of life, a spiritual path, but also a methodology of peaceful resistance and truth-telling for societal transformation, as Gandhi, King and so many others have demonstrated.
I learned this wisdom from the pros—Daniel and Philip Berrigan. They spent their lives in and out of jail and court. I was first arrested in 1984 and have been in and out of court ever since, often with them. After some 80 arrests and nearly a year in jail, nonviolent resistance to the culture of violence and war has become a way of life.
Long ago, Dan Berrigan wrote that nonviolent resistance had to become a permanent way of life among us. In his book, The Dark Night of Resistance, written while he was underground, he proposed what he called “the state of resistance as a state of life itself. Like it or not, this is the shape of things,” he wrote. “We will not again know sweet normalcy in our lifetime.” That was 1970, under Nixon, Kissinger and the Vietnam war. What about now?
The occasion for our particular protest was the 40th anniversary of the modern death penalty era.
It was a cold rainy morning when 18 of us, mainly church folks and anti-death penalty activists, climbed the massive white steps of the Supreme Court and unfurled an enormous banner, the size of a billboard, which read “Stop Executions!” We sang songs, offered prayers and dropped red roses on the ground to commemorate the 1442 people killed over the last forty years. The day after our protest, Virginia executed Ricky Gray. Nearly 3,000 prisoners are currently on death rows in 31 states.
Some of our group included members of “Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation,” people whose loved ones were killed but are against the death penalty. One was Sam Sheppard, whose father was wrongly convicted of killing his mother, who spent ten years in prison before being freed. (His story became the basis for the TV show and Hollywood movies, “The Fugitive.”)
Another friend arrested was Randy Gardner, whose brother was executed in Utah by firing squad. "My Brother Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in 2010 by the same state and by the same method as Gilmore," Gardner stated. "I believed then, and I still believe now, that the death penalty is morally wrong. I never condoned what my brother did, but when the state executes someone, they create yet another family that is damaged and grieving. We don’t have to kill to be safe from dangerous criminals and hold them accountable. It is time to abolish the death penalty."
"Not only does active nonviolence work, as Gandhi and King and thousands of movements have showed, it’s the best way to keep hope alive, to refuse our powerlessness, to reclaim our power and to maintain our humanity."
At the center of our group was Derrick Jamison who spent twenty years on death row. A tall, gentle person, he came close to being executed six times, and 11 years ago was released after DNA proved he was completely innocent. There he was, in handcuffs with the rest of us.
Ours was the largest act of civil disobedience against the death penalty in modern history.
But what good does it all do, you ask? The only way nonviolent social change comes about is through bottom up grassroots movements, especially in times of tyranny and fascism. We have to organize, take to the streets, speak out and mobilize for justice, disarmament and creation. Not only does active nonviolence work, as Gandhi and King and thousands of movements have showed, it’s the best way to keep hope alive, to refuse our powerlessness, to reclaim our power and to maintain our humanity. For me, this grassroots work is part of the spiritual life.
At some point, some people need to cross the line and break the laws which maintain the culture of violence. Historically, the change in every movement—from the Abolitionists to the Suffragists to the Civil Rights movement to the anti-Vietnam war movement to the People Power movements in South Africa, Philippines and Liberia—came about when good people broke bad laws and accepted the consequences.
Gandhi, of course, would go further. He said peace and justice never comes about in the classroom or conference hall or church pulpit. It only comes about in the courtroom, in the jail cell or on the gallows. Like Jesus, he taught that nonviolent social change requires personal risk and sacrifice, the giving of our lives nonviolently in the struggle for justice and peace. In that way, nonviolence becomes contagious and the transformation can strike like lightning.
Many of us have marched and crossed lines in the last two months, from San Francisco to D.C. Many more will to have to cross the line in the months and years ahead. If we can maintain our nonviolence, dignity and sense of humor, serve those in need, take care of ourselves and encourage one another, we can build a movement of nonviolence and resistance that can push back against fascism, protect creation, and maybe even save lives. This is what we have been asked to do in this terrible time.
Meanwhile, the judge has called my name. Time to face the music.