Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Civil Disobedience: A Personal Account

You know, the best thing about watching brushes and rollers go back and forth on walls all day long is letting yourself fall into the rather Zen-like nature of it all. When the office ninnies aren’t distracting you with their near-constant chatter born from boredom and you let the bullshit of your own life slip away, it’s like getting paid to meditate. Okay, okay, that state is rare but when it hits you, it hits you hard. And it hit me hard today.

I went softly into that space today while pondering the actions of civil disobedience over the last couple of weeks that I had the pleasure to be a part of. And notice I said, “be a part of,” because, contrary to the dopey rumors, I didn’t lead anything. Let’s be clear: I followed – very, very willingly.

But my mind kept getting hung up on the intense disconnect between what I experienced at these sit-ins at Congressman Peter Welch’s and Senator Bernie Sanders’ offices and what I read about them in the newspapers and – yes – blogosphere. Frankly, what I read had next to nothing to do with what I experienced. And that’s a shame.

First, what I read had to do with unlawful behavior, police, handcuffs, arrests, tension between the office staff and the protesters, and – sadly – about “unrealistic” radicals “not understanding the process” and, well, wasting our time.

But what I experienced was enormous camaraderie, laughter, solidarity, hope and an amazing commingling of people who really had never commingled before. We were there because we were frustrated and felt rather helpless in our urgent desire to end this unjust war, and – in coming together and taking these collective actions – we were united in cleansing our need to stop whining and wondering and start acting and being heard. We were, after all, just practicing democracy. More importantly, we were practicing democracy peacefully.

So, as I put one layer after another on the office walls of some rather anonymous state office building today, it hit me that everyone who wasn’t there has no idea about what a rich and rewarding experience it was. It was social. It was cathartic. It was rejuvenating. And, most importantly, it was about believing in the very system that the war-promoters claim to be “exporting” to Iraq.

You didn’t read anything in the media, for example, about the diversity of the people in those rooms who took those actions. Sure, the media told you about the wide ranges in ages – 9 months to 87 years old (significant, for sure) – but they didn’t say a word about the varying backgrounds of those people. So I will.

In my random attempts to canvas the group, I encountered nuns, farmers, students, full-time parents, lawyers, the unemployed, horse loggers, professors, painters, health officials, landscapers, writers, Iraq veterans, Vietnam veterans, filmmakers and poets. It was, quite obviously, an amazingly diverse group. And there were no “leaders” – only willing and enthusiastic participants.

We shared food. We shared stories. We read the names of some of those killed in this war – both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens. We expressed our opinions. We asked to be heard. And we clearly stated that we wanted answers from our elected officials.

Oh yeah, and did I mention that we laughed? We did. Not out of disrespect, but – for me – out of a deep sense of relief that we weren’t alone and a rather natural attempt to bring levity to an otherwise somber event and cause. It’s human nature. It breaks the ice. It soothes the soul and calms the mind in trying times. And it did.

And there were the police. It might surprise you to hear me say that the police were wonderful. But they were. Several, in fact, gave awkward looks over their heads to see if anyone else could hear them as they professed their support for our actions. “I hope this works,” one of them said, “because I’ve got two friends serving there now and they want to come home to their families.”

The police treated us with respect and we did the same to them. We all understood that our little dance with democracy had led us to what could have been an uncomfortable confrontation but there was absolutely nothing uncomfortable about any of it. We stuck to our stated principles – a pledged vote against more war funding or we weren’t leaving willingly – and they did their job of explaining our rights, the process and then attaching handcuffs and walking us out of the buildings. There’s a reason, you know, that it’s called an act of “civil” disobedience.

And so, as I painted the day away and thought about what I lived and what I read, I felt frustrated that so many people will read about our actions and think it was all about angry confrontation and disrespect. Because it wasn’t. Instead, it was about standing up, speaking out, being counted and – most importantly – upping the ante in what should be the primary issue on all our minds.

While we have the luxury of time in this battle – as long as your conscience can be somehow soothed – the people fighting this battle on both sides do not have that same luxury. Bullets are flying. Bombs are dropping. Limbs are being lost. Lives are being wasted. And every month that we allow it to continue, thousands more will have their lives changed – or ended – forever.

Our message has been clear: Time is up. The charade is over. And this war must end – NOW. And by partaking in the time honored traditions of civil disobedience, it is our hope that more people will be moved to do more to end this war now and not in two more blood-stained years.

We believe in democracy. We believe we have the power. And we believe that if enough people lead, our elected officials will follow.

It’s all about hope. And I thank my new friends and colleagues in this effort for letting me share in this collective hope. It’s been powerful and empowering.