The Occupier in the Collar

Before I ever went to visit Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan for the first time, I heard about a group called The Protest Chaplains. They existed first in Boston, and later spread to New York and other cities. I was intrigued, but I needed to see OWS for myself. I had no idea what was true about what I was hearing and what wasn’t. I had no idea if the movement would resonate with me or seem ridiculous.

On the evening of October 17th my husband and I went to Zuccotti Park to see for ourselves. We arrived in the middle of a GA (General Assembly), the central decision-making method used by OWS. I had only recently learned about the hand signals used in the process – twinkle fingers, point of information triangle, the block, etc. and the GA process was kind of a mystery to me. The park was crazy, chaotic, and confusing. It wasn’t that easy to navigate at night – and this was before it was completely overcrowded, before the police gave up on the no tent rule, back when people were sleeping huddled under tarps and space blankets. But the place was full of energy and lots and lots of different people. And then I heard, for the first time in person, the people’s mic in use. The people’s mic is a process of repeating what a single speaker is saying so that others far away can hear it. In large assemblies it can happen in two or even three waves. I was completely blown away. Here were hundreds of people giving individuals the respect of repeating their every word so that others could hear. I had never experienced anything like it.

Truth be told, the people’s mic gets frustrating after a while, and is a very very slow way to get anything done. But something about it sold me on OWS. I was pretty sure that something important was happening if people in this big, anonymous city had found a way to be heard even while being prevented from using amplified sound.

We stayed for the celebration of the one month anniversary of the occupation, and 1000 candles (for the people who had been arrested up to that point) lit up sheet cakes donated for the occasion. It was, as is often said of these sorts of things, a heady moment.

Shortly thereafter I began showing up in the park in my clergy collar. I chose to start working with a group of Union Theological Seminary students who had formed the Protest Chaplains-NYC. These students were determined to provide one-on-one pastoral care to the occupiers. I thought their ongoing commitment was very important. There has been a lot of clergy who have gone to Zuccotti once or twice; it makes for great stories or a sermon illustration, or maybe some good “street ministry cred.” I don’t know. What I do know is that these students had decided to become an ongoing presence at the occupation. They have put together an organized group, have a set of ethics and best practices, and a structured orientation system. This is not work for lone rangers. They have been working hard, day and night, with little recognition. Gradually others from outside Union – people like me – are joining the group. The PC-NYC have earned a rapport with the occupiers and have begun to be requested before they might be needed – for example, we’ve already been notified about the possibility of the need for chaplaincy coverage with the jail support team a number of days from now.

Protest chaplaincy, it turns out, is harder in different ways than hospital chaplaincy. As a protest chaplain you’re dealing with the same things the protesters are – the weather, the police, the physical environment, fatigue, the search for restrooms, tourists, the press, and the general chaos of the situation.

When I used to go to Zuccotti before it was raided, I never knew what I would find. I discussed everything and anything with all sorts of people, listened to fascinating stories, helped people access resources, helped settle disputes, led housewives from affluent Westchester County from their double-parked SUVs through the encampment to the comfort tent to drop off donations, talked to friendly press and hostile press, hung out at the onsite Sukkah, listened to occupiers complain about religion, sung along with protest songs I never bothered to learn before now, had my photo taken with two gorgeous pet parrots on my shoulders, pedaled a stationary bike to charge batteries, and heard more real conversations about real issues than I’ve ever heard in NYC outside of seminary and CPE.

I loved Zuccotti when it was occupied, and I came to care deeply about the people who slept there every night. I worried about them in the rain, snow, and cold. I worried about the legions of police that surrounded them at all times. I worried about the increasing amount of time they were spending dealing with the homeless and the mentally ill and people there to make trouble – and how unprepared they were initially to handle these demands. And always, always I worried about the day the mayor and the property owners would decided to shut the whole thing down.

I never imagined I would care so much about these people or their movement. I have never really been an activist. I’ve been a pastoral care provider. I’ve been a non-profit worker, a charity organizer. I like to teach, counsel, reassure. I love liturgy, meaning, deep conversation. I prefer to change the world one person at a time; I generally can’t wrap my head around larger numbers. I don’t come from an activist family; I really come from the keep your head down, do nice things, stay out of trouble kind of people. There is nothing about being involved in OWS that is natural for me.

But there is a part of me that is too blunt, too real, to honest for the niceties of many churches. I’m not really into being diplomatic or vague about what’s really going on. I have a gift for naming the subtext, for saying what everyone is thinking but nobody wants to say. It’s always gotten me into trouble.

And right now, I am convinced that OWS is telling the truths, naming the subtext, doing and saying those things the church should be doing and saying but isn’t. I found something of church in Zuccotti Park. I met amazing, hard working, gifted people who dared to give up everything for a dream that wasn’t just about them but was for everyone. I’m pretty sure Jesus would have hung out in Zuccotti Park, singing protest songs, eating vegan take out, leading teach-ins, and maybe helping out at the medical tent. Perhaps he would have even stood on the nearby steps of Trinity Wall Street and denounced their unrepentant alignment with the rich and powerful.

Does this mean I agree with everything they do or say? Of course not. I am not an anarchist or a communist or an atheist, and various strains of those do exist among the occupiers. Some of their issues are of no interest to me, others I find absolutely critical and compelling. Some of their slogans I shout enthusiastically, others not so much. Sometimes I think they’re too naive, too trusting in human nature that I see as intrinsically flawed – and other times I amazed by their creativity and the things they manage to make happen, their lack of violence in the face of militarized police brutality (don’t trust the mainstream media on this – it is very rare for occupiers to go after the police, and when it does happen it’s usually problematic elements that aren’t representative of the movement) and their shrewdness.

Becoming part of OWS has meant losing some of what turns out to be my own naivete. I thought I’d pretty much been around the block; hospital chaplaincy doesn’t leave much room for innocence. But until OWS I had never been worried about what the police might do to me – sure, I knew that people with darker skin worry about that all the time, but I’d never experienced it firsthand. I was also skeptical of the mainstream media in the past, but never so much as I am now – now that I hear what sound like completely biased and fabricated reports about events I witnessed in person, often standing not far from the reporters who later make a BS report about what happened. I also don’t know that I had ever had to face the realities of money and power and inequality like I have since OWS, or the reality of how hard Americans may have to fight for their constitutional rights in this post-9/11 world where everyone and everything is suspect. I have sometimes wondered – how long before somebody calls the occupiers terrorists? How long before someone uses that catch-all insult/threat to describe me?

Regardless, I began to feel, and still do, that my ordination vows and my baptismal vows forbid me to walk away from the chance to be involved in this moment in history. For once I am in the right place at the right time, and it is absolutely imperative that I not ignore the call to support these people, to give their work and their dreams and their voices the added blessing of having clergy stand with them.

Zuccotti Park was raided at 1:30 AM on November 15th, just two weeks ago. It feels like ages and ages ago. I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime since that night, since that fateful moment when my husband got the emergency text that the raid was under way, and I got notice that all available protest chaplains were on their way downtown. I will confess that going was not an easy decision. I really wanted to stay home and go to bed. I was very nervous about my own safety and insisted that my husband come with me (in all honesty, I don’t think I could have kept him home if I’d tried.)

We did things before we left the apartment that I never imagined I’d have a reason to do – prep for the possibility of tear gas or pepper spray (bandanas soaked in lemon juice – we didn’t have vinegar) and the use of LRAD (earplugs). We packed water and a first aid kit. And we wrote the legal assistance # on our arms in sharpie marker – essential in the event of an arrest. I wore my clergy collar along with a large celtic cross. The common wisdom in social justice circles is that the presence of clergy in a tense situation can lead to better behavior by all parties, especially police, but I wasn’t all that sure how I felt about the burden of being that person in a volatile situation.

I have been to many large events – marches, parades, concerts, sporting events – and never, ever seen a police presence like I saw in lower Manhattan that night. It was terrifying, and frankly very disillusioning as far as what it means about the direction this country is headed in. We couldn’t get anywhere near the park and eventually we wound up in Foley Sq., where many of the occupiers came to regroup. We spent the night there, just talking to people, sitting or standing on the cold concrete. We watched the sunrise. We watched the police form a circle around our shell-shocked, ragtag group. We listened to reports coming in by cell phone and monitored the twitter feeds. We knew that people were trapped behind police barricades nearby, and that people had been beaten, pepper sprayed, and arrested in the park, and that their belongings along with the library, the kitchen, the medical tent, the sacred space under a tree, the empathy table, the welcome and peace flags, the women’s tent, and on and on and on had been destroyed – and there was nothing we could do about it. And we wondered what would happen next.

One indelible memory from that morning, not long after sunrise, is this: one of the occupiers somehow managed to sneak into the park while it was being cleared and take the American flag that was flown there. He brought it to Foley Square and stood up high on top of the fountain that had been drained for the winter and waved the stars and stripes over the crowd.

That highlights something absolutely critical here – these people are patriots. They are not followers or lemmings. They are people who believe that things have gotten so out of hand that working through the traditional channels is pointless – why just try to vote people out when the lobbyists own elected officials, or when money spent on unjust wars is more important in the budget than the suffering of the poor? Why trust a system who bails out the banks while ignoring people dying without health insurance? Why obey public officials who cynically funnel the homeless, mentally ill, and recently incarcerated to Zuccotti Park as part of the plan to smash a movement when those same officials could be focusing on finding ways to help those same vulnerable individuals?

OWS is asking all of these questions – with good reason. Right now they’re still working out how things are going to go now that the occupation of Zuccotti is over. I feel the loss – and I never even slept there. Others feel the loss more acutely, while at the same time knowing this is a chance for new strategies and new plans. Hundreds of people are working hard to figure out what’s next.

I’m tired of hearing that people don’t understand OWS. I’m tired of hearing that their demands aren’t clear enough. I’m tired of hearing how they’ve got too many trouble makers, or that they’re disorganized, or that they’ve made their point and they should just sit down and shut up already. I’m tired of hearing they inconvenience people (welcome to how civil disobedience works!) or that they’re a bunch of dirty hippies or whatever random catch-all phrase people want to throw at them.

You know what? This has been coming for a really long time. It needed to happen, and as I’ve said before, OWS is doing much of the Church’s work, work we should have been doing while we were too busy arguing over what color white to paint our sanctuaries and wringing our hands over the reality that sexual love between two adults of the same sex can be beautiful and sacred and shockingly normal – boring even.

So rather than complaining about OWS, or buying every parroted government press release about them read on the evening news, we need to support them. We need to tell the world that the occupiers are telling the truth and have, for the most part, taken the moral high ground.

On November 17th, after a day on my feet in the ICU, I put on alb and stole and joined 32,000 people in a march that started in Foley Sq. and went over the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a festive atmosphere despite a phalanx of mounted police, riot control units, paddy wagons, and police helicopters. Chants echoed off the court buildings surrounding the square. People sang and danced and carried signs and played musical instruments and waved tiny battery-powered lights as we walked up onto the bridge’s pedestrian walkway. Cars on either side slowed down and honked in support. We cheered and jumped up and down in response.

And on the blank, imposing side of the Verizon building, for all to see, suddenly huge words projected from somewhere – “Another world is possible!” “This is the beginning!” “Occupy…” followed by names of the thousands of cities with occupy groups, flashing faster and faster. Then “Occupy Earth! ” “Love! Love!” And the famous OWS “bat symbol” 99%. And so on.

Will this movement save us? No. My personal theology does not include the belief that any human action or leader or movement or organization can once and for all surmount the basic brokenness of human nature. But I also believe that we cannot sit back and let the world go by. We are called to act, to help, to intervene, to be on the side of God and the good and what’s right and true.

Glimpses of the reign of God show up in the most unexpected places and in the most unusual times. Sometimes they appear in a park nobody had ever heard of in lower Manhattan. Sometimes in a stunt involving an apartment in the projects and a giant LCD projector. Sometimes in the kindness of a young man with a red duct tape cross on his jacket sleeve pouring water on a friend’s pepper-sprayed face at 4 AM in the middle of a square steps from the barricaded streets. Sometimes in veterans of the civil rights movements – of the police dogs and fire hoses – sitting down and offering encouragement and mentoring to 20 something activists. And sometimes in an inexperienced group of chaplains discussing the themes of Advent with inexperienced activists in an apartment in the parish house of a little-known church in a “bad” neighborhood.

Deciding to become an occupier in a collar has meant witnessing all of these moments.


~ by Sophia on November 29, 2011.

One Response to “The Occupier in the Collar”

  1. This is a powerful post. Thank you!

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