Protesting is not the problem

The past two nights, I’ve attended rallies in Oakland and San Francisco marching against police terror and violence. I chose to march to unify, to be a body in a sea of protesters, to bring attention and to call on Oakland City Council to reform our corrupt police department. I attended in solidarity, but I was also there to learn, to LISTEN HARD, to give space to ideas some may find uncomfortable.

A few of my white friends said “thank you” to me as they noticed I was marching. I get it, but I don’t want to be thanked. I don’t want to have to stand in front of City Hall, shedding tears as a mother wailed over the deaths of her sons. When you said “thank you,” I understood your sentiment. I think you want to do something but don’t know how? Instead of thanks, I’d rather if you’d join me at a rally exercising your protected right to assemble peacefully and demand justice together. We can listen, find new ways to engage. We can raise our fists together in defiance and anger, shaking them with fierce agitation against violence.

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Oscar Grant Plaza, Oakland Ca

Some of you may say, you call this peaceful? How can your anger bring peace? Why would you shut down streets and freeways and inconvenience others? This is no way to make allies, your angering and annoying others. Or maybe you think some of the speeches from the movement have a negative tone or sound scary, or incite violence. It might freak  you out out to hear ideas like ending the police, revolution, black self-determination, anti-capitalism and that’s a good thing. It should freak you out to learn that we have an unjust system!

I get why this all sounds too much, but we just had another really frightening week of violence in the US and I’m at a point where I want to shake things up, I want to something. I figure a little anger and outrage is due and this is why I marched on the streets of my city. Luckily a friend reached out on Facebook when she noticed I was interested and a protest buddy was exactly the last little push I needed to get off my butt. Like many, I have held back my actions because felt confused, maybe even a little complacent and cynical. This is about black lives. Not privileged Asian-American lives. Do I have a right to speak out, or to hold up my fist? Am I’m co-opting a movement? Am I’m just trying to attend a march to feel good, or assuage my guilt or sing “We Shall Overcome?”

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Oscar Grant Plaza, Oakland

Some of this may be true, and I’ve struggled with many conflicting thoughts the past few nights, rallying and marching in Oakland and San Francisco. And to those of us who have guilt in any form, what is the point of feeling badly it if we don’t act? Why would I sit home giving in to my pathetic guilt. The very least I can do is show up in solidarity, not expect thank you’s and stand with humility when facing my privilege. These have not been easy events, and I’m still coming to terms with what I can do. But like I said, I went to listen and learn. And I learned that the mostly young activists are pouring out their hearts, they’re tearing their souls open asking all of us, to feel outraged, to get out of our safe little houses hiding behind social media and act now. I also learned real quick that these protests are not about feel good messages that only serve to make you feel warm and fuzzy but don’t address inequality, racism, and injustice. You can’t fight for change in a corrupted and ugly system and hope it stays positive, especially when the negative is so grave. Of course, Martin Luther King Jr, said it best:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

You may worry that protesting and demanding change, revolution, pointing out the rigged system during this election cycle is not so convenient. It would be better for us if we could share positive vibes, so we don’t upturn the apple cart. I’ve also heard the argument that protestors are fomenting Donald Trump’s supporters. I recognize this tactic as means to keep voices muted. And furthermore, I feel strongly that if we don’t protest, if we don’t speak truth to power RIGHT NOW, we are obediently allowing his narrative to take hold. I recognize what is at stake, and the train has already left the station, we have the potential as a Nation to elect a very dangerous man to the highest office in the land. This threat is exactly why mobilization is utterly essential, now more than ever. The finger has ALWAYS been pointed at protestors, because of course, those in charge (the media, politicians, government, police) want quiet obedience.

Civil disobedience, as I put it to the audience, was not the problem, despite the warnings of some that it threatened social stability, that it led to anarchy. The greatest danger, I argued, was civil obedience, the submission of individual conscience to governmental authority. Such obedience led to the horrors we saw in totalitarian states, and in liberal states it led to the public’s acceptance of war whenever the so-called democratic government decided on it…

In such a world, the rule of law maintains things as they are. Therefore, to begin the process of change, to stop a war, to establish justice, it may be necessary to break the law, to commit acts of civil disobedience, as Southern black did, as antiwar protesters did.― Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

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San Francisco City Hall

 

And to this you say to me, what does a protest accomplish? You know you’re just pointing out the divide, you’re allowing the other side to use your arguments against you, giving fuel to their agenda. Bruce Hartford, a veteran of the civil rights movement defines “The purpose of Nonviolent Resistance is to affect peoples’ thinking and build political movements for social change.” And using this definition, I’d say that the current protests are achieving this objective. Haven’t you heard more about police shootings against blacks, seen more videos showing injustice, or seen more cops arraigned than ever before? Even if these cops are not getting convicted, we’re at least getting them to face a trial, and convictions will happen in due time. To overturn laws and policies that created a racist criminal justice system will take many years, a lot of protesting, direct action, debate, and re-framing. Part of what is making the change is the long hard work of activists directly engaging in civil disobedience, protests, social media campaigns. Yes, yes yes, it brings out the dark side, it’s angry, ugly, no fun, icky, and uncomfortable. And this is why I marched, why I had to get elbow to elbow with my neighbors and hear the words for myself, out in the open under a foggy sky. I took part to feel some of this;

In some circumstances and for some people, taking part in direct action is a profound expression of defiance and courage, for others it can sometimes be a living rejection of the conformist societal norms that previously governed their lives. In some instances, nonviolent protest can be life-changing affirmation of dignity and self-worth — I AM a Man — and a living experience and expression of human solidarity — I Am Not Alone. And, of course, actively planning and participating in a protest provides a depth of political education that no leaflet, speech, article or manifesto can match. –Bruce Hartford, The Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest

So please, don’t thank me, join with me instead. At this point, I feel I haven’t done enough. If you’re thanking me, I know you have it in you to get on your feet! Marching and rallying is actionable, hopeful and hard (as it should be). If you’re worried or sad about all that is happening you can do something. At least lend support to those on the streets, rather than criticize or believe the inaccurate portrayals of protesters being rabid, angry, frothing, vandals that are out for destruction. You should go out once and see for yourself. I’m here to be a friend, and I’m sure there are others. Ask for a hand and we can face these challenges as a united front against injustice. Staying quiet is no longer an option.

A Turban is a Beacon of Love

 

In the rough and tumble of Oakland, CA, a place where violence can take hold, a grandparent-like Sikh couple walk around my local park and use the free city shuttle almost every morning. They don’t talk to each other; they seem more intent on walking. Based on their simple clothing, the twists of his white cotton turban and the muted caramel brown salwar kameez worn by the woman, I would guess they have not been in the US for long. Their shoes give it away. Black, flat sandals with thick rubber treads, worn-in but built to last. These are not from Target or Macy’s, I have seen them in the bazaars of Punjab.

These two, walk in peace, use the park and transportation available for all. Watching them gives me some comfort. I feel proud of them in a silly way. The man has a somewhat messy white beard, with the crooked gait of old age. His wife drapes her soft chunni properly over her head and shoulders and adjusts it without skipping a beat. I long to say Satsriakal, a traditional Punjabi greeting. I long to hug them. But all I do is amble behind, with a watchful eye, somehow silently securing their safety as they board the shuttle. But they know what they are doing and always seem safe. The world is alright.

Today I heard about the hate crime against Piara Singh, a Sikh man brutally beaten in Fresno, CA and I immediately think of the nameless couple walking around the park. On my morning commute, I’m on high watch. I want to be in the park first thing in the morning to make sure my secretly adopted PapaJi and BeJi can walk safely as they have been. I wish there I could create a clandestine shield and protect them from my emanating fear and track their moves without interrupting their routine. Maybe their children have warned them to stay home. This rational thought fills me with a wave of remorse. It’d be such a loss. I need to see their Sikh spirit, their courageous bravery rise to the occasion. Their morning constitutional in a busy city park, sitting on public transportation a silent protest against hatred and ignorance.

They are grandparents, walking outside temples, finding refuge in a world that can be isolating and they seek to connect to their religion and culture. This recent hate crime and all others that are directed at Sikhs prove we have much further to go in this country to create unity and to accept that the “other” is a neighbor, friend, coworker and classmate. A turban is a symbol of devotion to a spiritual and cultural identity, that of a Punjabi Sikh. This outward difference is where it ends, our souls, hearts, and connection to community and family translate similarly between all citizens. But in this world, we don’t foster this idea very broadly. The media thrives on alienation and propaganda, and their thirst for an enemy creates more innocent victims.

My prayer tonight is that we strive to find connections in the sameness of our internal selves, to look past visual and cultural differences and bond over what we all have in common. Blood and bones, light and dark. The outward vessel is just marker, a slight variation that uses a tiny fraction of DNA.

I will always keep an eye out. But I pay special attention to Sikhs, especially the grandparents, who should be respected as our most tangible connection to the past.

My heart goes out to all affected by hate. I suppose we all share this in common.

I invite you to learn more about Sikhs please visit www.saldef.org/learn-about-sikhs/

Then learn more about everyone.

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