Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The agony of America's guns

Like many of those reading this post, I am very opposed to the current lax regulation of guns, though I come to my gun opposition from a somewhat different route than most of the people I know.  Because my father was afflicted with a number of problems, including the problem of considering himself a "country boy" despite living well within the limits of a major midwestern city, we had quite a few guns in our home.  At the age of 12 I already owned a bb gun, a 22-caliber rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun.  My father, meanwhile, owned a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol along with other weapons I'm forgetting now.  The stock of my father's shotgun was made of a special kind of wood -- tiger tail maple -- that he sought out and fetishized.  My father would clean his guns while watching television... somehow he found this relaxing.  He would take me skeet shooting -- a ridiculous waste of time -- and my performance at shooting skeet was so miserable that my father was (yet again) profoundly embarrassed by me.

Despite my ineptitude at the absurd practice of skeet shooting, I liked guns well enough as a youngster.  After my early triumphs blowing up ant nests with fire crackers and "mating" angry bees with docile slugs, I graduated to shooting pigeons and squirrels in our densely populated neighborhood.  The people living behind us once had their dinner interrupted by several of my shots going through their windows, and the spinster living in the mock Tudor house beside ours once ran hysterically out of her screened porch to stop me from finishing off a pigeon that had fallen into her yard.  I was simply amazed at how many bb shots a pigeon could take to its head without dying.  Not many years before, that same spinster had told me out of the blue that I had beautiful eyes... a compliment that left my young mind aghast with confusion.  What did she think of my eyes as I used them to aim pellet after pellet into the head of that dazed, harmless pigeon she was defending?

Fast forward to the present and my intense loathing for guns.  I would never own a gun, and cannot imagine what goes through the minds of gun advocates on an emotional level to defend gun ownership so fanatically.  My father died many years ago at a comparatively young age, leaving me quite free to develop my loathing of guns and my appetite for so many things he would have disdained or hated.  Where in the world are my father's beloved guns, and where are my own weapons, today?  As for my mother, she does not even recall the plethora of guns we had in our home in the good old days and dared to suggest in a recent conversation that more guns rather than fewer of them might solve our problems in this country.  When my mother said that I knew that she really has given her mind and identity over completely to the conservative media that provides her with the "news" and entertainment she prefers to imbibe.  Like the spinster's intimate compliment so long ago, my mother's state of mind -- her political values and viewpoints -- leave me aghast with confusion.

I believe our country's problem with guns is largely a by product of a toxic culture that promotes passivity, worships overconsumption, adores violence and encourages paranoia together with a host of other pathologies.  The bizarrely tenacious historical legacy of the United States as a "frontier nation" and, worse, as a "Christian nation" provides one emotional underpinning to our country's love of weapons and violence.  The other emotional foundation of our gun culture is an amalgam of primitive ideas, such as the idea that a man with a gun is somehow more of a man... or the idea that "individual rights and individual responsibility" trump our collective responsibility to one another.  I believe our country is sick and guns, more than anything else, are a symptom of that sickness.

And yet, as unshakable as the gun culture seems to be, there is something even more powerful and that is our money culture.  Money culture is the true root of all our problems, but once in a while the golden worm turns ever so slightly and today (18 December 2012) that worm actually turned:  private equity giant Cerberus Capital will sell its huge gun subsidiary, "Freedom Group," which takes in over $1 billion a year marketing exactly the type of weapon used to kill 26 people in Sandy Hook, CT.  Freedom Group...don't you just love how people who make and do vile things give those things a superficially pretty name?

Cerberus, which eagerly assembled a variety of gun and ammunition makers to create "Freedom Group," is only taking this action because a large public pension fund, the California State Teachers Retirement System, said it would be reviewing its investment in Cerberus given the prominence of lethal weaponry in Cerberus's investment portfolio.  So here's the point... if you participate as the beneficiary of a large pension fund then you can insist that your pension fund divest its stake in all weapons manufacturers.  Divesting large sums of money out of weapons manufacturers is far and away the quickest route to taming gun violence in the USA because Americans love money even more than they love guns.

If owning gun companies were to become radioactive to investment companies, then the value of gun companies would plummet, depriving them of capital and of legitimacy.  That, in turn, would hurt the gun merchants quite a lot.  Of course, this would be the financial equivalent of pumping pellets into the head of a wounded pigeon in that it will take quite a few of those financial "pellets" to finish off the gun industry, but if we all pressure our pension funds to divest it should have quite a beneficial impact.

Please bear in mind that the ultra-extremist National Rifle Association derives much of its money from weapons manufacturers.  So divesting weapons manufacturers from pension funds could help to dry up the torrent of blood money being recycled from gun manufacturers into one of the worst organizations ever devised by humankind.

I have just one last point to make on guns -- a statistical exercise.  As reported in the Guardian (see the link below), there are 270 million civilian firearms in the U.S., equating to 89 guns for every 100 people in our country.  This makes the U.S. the scariest place, by far, on the planet, but this awful statistic greatly understates our gun problem.  Here is how I would calculate the actual number of guns per adult in the United States:

     2010 population:  308.8 million... minus
     2010 population under 10 years old:  40.5 million
            equals an "adult" population of 268.3 million
     Of 268.3 million people, assume 50% own at least one gun (based on Gallup Poll -- see link below)
     ...so 134 million people in the USA own guns -- this is the denominator of our ratio

The Guardian's tally of 270 million firearms doesn't capture them all, not by a long shot (no pun intended).  If we conservatively assume 20% of guns are not reported because they are illegal, this raises the number of civilian firearms in the United States from 270 million to 338 million.

And now for the really exciting conclusion:  If we divide 338 million guns by 134 million citizens 10 years old or older we get a ratio of 2.7 guns per adult in the United States, which is triple the rate reported by the Guardian.  This number of 2.7 guns per adult is five times as high as the next worst country, Yemen.  Beating Yemen that badly in terms of guns per capita is a pretty appalling result for the United States and really underscores the deeply pathological nature of our violence-ridden country.

The wonder of it isn't that tragedies like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School take place.  Rather, when we consider how completely unhinged and well armed our fellow citizens are, we can feel grateful that atrocities like the one at Sandy Hook happen as infrequently as they do.

The Guardian's gun map... very interesting although quite simplistic:

Here is a link to a Gallup poll on guns... also very interesting and quite sad:

Monday, September 17, 2012

One Year of Occupy Wall Street

One Year of Occupy Wall Street

This day marking the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street started quite differently for me than did September 17, 2011.  On this same day a year ago, the Village Zendo held a Zazenkai (a full day of meditation practice) featuring a dharma talk by Ryotan Sensei.  So last year I spent the 17th of September in an outwardly very quiet and law abiding manner in a beautiful loft on Broadway, whereas this year I spent the day in a very noisy, chaotic and supposedly lawless manner one mile south on Broadway.

Today's festivities began early -- though not so very early by Zen standards -- with the members of Occupy Faith convening at Liberty Plaza at 6:45am.  By coincidence, this was the time of day my tyrannical Wall Street boss demanded I report to work as a stock research analyst back in 1996.  But instead of sitting nervously in a cramped office as I did 16 years ago wondering if I might be screamed at by my supervisor, today I was merely an ex-Wall Streeter shuffling sleepily out of the Fulton Street subway station.  I was there to swell the numbers of those incurable malcontents who have a beef with the established order of things.

What is the established order of things?  Gross inequality of social, educational and economic opportunity (from which I have personally benefited); racism (endemic in our culture and especially in our so-called criminal justice system); a love of violence, weapons and war; corporate “personhood” accompanied by endless corporate welfare and corporate-government cronyism; and an unsustainable mode of living based on endless consumption, mountainous debt and a torrent of waste.  America seems entirely divorced from the just, balanced and sustainable society enshrined in its mythology and toward which we collectively seem unable to move so much as an inch.

What responsibility do I bear, personally, for the mess we find ourselves in?  I’ll say that my burden of responsibility for the dreadful state of things is above average, based on the simple calculus that all the privileges enjoyed, all the success derived, from a bad system serves as an indictment of the person who was privileged and successful.   Put another way, those who profit most from dysfunction are most guilty for dysfunction regardless of how innocuous their intentions or behavior might actually be.  Because I have derived a fair amount of privilege and success during my lifetime from our increasingly warped, dysfunctional society I am, in fact, the enemy.  Thus, I went downtown today to march against myself.

Does my protesting today “make up for” my past transgressions against the responsible social order I now advocate?  That is a question I am not competent to answer.  Moreover, whether I am sitting in an office waiting to be abused by a megalomaniacal boss, or meditating, or sculpting a vase, or meekly protesting on the street, what is the ultimate difference?  As the years roll on -- artificial and meaningless demarcations to which we attach so much importance -- I understand less and less how it all fits together.  Better still, I need less and less to find a way that it might all fit together.  I cannot make sense of my life and feel no great urgency to do so.

Returning to the topic of today’s Occupy Wall Street protests, what was the essence of those?  Was it the smaller numbers of protestors on the streets compared with the peak of the movement back in October 2011?  Was it the 125+ people who were arrested today for no reason other than the established order’s reflexive reliance on arbitrary, overwhelming police power to suppress people raising legitimate grievances in the public square?  Was it the barricades surrounding every access point to Wall Street, or the one percenter with outrageously bad posture declaring his sympathy with the 99 percent, or the roving brass band carrying mock tombstones, or the tourists gaping quizzically at crudely drawn signs decrying corporate greed, banksters and crooked politicians?  Or was it the dog with the bandaged leg I saw lazing on a sidewalk hours later in the West Village?  It is no easier to make sense of my impressions of Occupy Wall Street – to make things fit together there – than it is to make sense of my own life.

As usual, the police did not cover themselves with glory today.  They offered a very disproportionate response to the “threat” posed by the protesters and were confused and heavy handed in their tactics.  For example, while walking peacefully north on Broadway, the Occupy Faith crew was suddenly ordered by the police to turn around and head south.  For reasons best known to themselves, New York’s finest had drawn an invisible line in the street and most of our group was not permitted to cross that line.  But a few people in the front of our group had already crossed the invisible line so abruptly drawn by the police, and those few were summarily arrested -- arrested without any warning at all, simply for walking down the sidewalk.  Had I been a mere 15 feet farther north at the time I would have been arrested as well.

Then, those of us who had not been arbitrarily arrested were loudly ordered by the cops to turn south.  We promptly obeyed and had not walked more than 20 feet south when we were loudly ordered by another group of cops to turn north.  So there we were, trapped, with dueling groups of police telling us to walk both north and south.  It seemed there was no way out of this dilemma above ground, so we descended into a subway entrance and convened a meeting underground.  As we debated the best way to deal with the police and avoid more arbitrary arrests, we were ordered by yet another police officer to leave the subway so as to not block pedestrian traffic.

When we emerged above ground, we were allowed to cross to the west side of Broadway and then we regrouped on a small side street.  After we had spent about 10 minutes in this seemingly unobtrusive location, we attracted the attention of an entirely different clutch of police who ordered us to disperse or be arrested for blocking pedestrian traffic.  Thus, in a span of no more than 20 minutes a very small group of clergy and their followers were ordered by police to move four times within a one-block radius.  The basis for all of these orders was the urgent need to keep streets, sidewalks and subways free of extraneous people.

The deep and abiding concern of Mayor Bloomberg and his police about the free movement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in New York City is truly a wonder for the ages.  If our municipal authorities were half as worried about protecting our petty constitutional rights (such as the equal protection clause, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech) as they are about protecting traffic, New York City would be a beacon of liberty and justice unto the world.  But alas, our plutocratic mayor tears the constitution to shreds on the thinnest of pretexts and with zero accountability.

While our experiences with the authorities today were not at all comforting, it was good to know that our presence downtown was a serious thorn in their sides and a real wake up call to anyone who thinks our current system is fair or acceptable.  It was good to taste the confusion, anger, humor and creativity that the protesters brought to our lively day in the street.  It was good to taste my own confusion and culpability vis-à-vis the system.  Most of all, it was good yet again to Occupy Wall Street.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

[Are We] Creating Evolution?

Scientists recently announced some interesting news concerning Paleolithic paintings inside caves at El Castillo, Spain (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310).  These paintings, which were re-discovered a few years after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark work, “On the Origin of the Species,” are now estimated to have been made up to 40,800 years ago.  This is 15,000 years earlier than the prior estimate, and it exceeds in antiquity the paintings inside the Chauvet cave, which have been dated to between 32,000 and 37,000 years ago.  Meanwhile, the world’s earliest known representational sculpture, found in Hohle Fels cave in Germany in 2008, is thought to have been carved anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/05/oldestsculpture/).

It’s exciting that scientists keep making discoveries that redefine the origins of human aesthetics, human consciousness and life itself, pushing them back farther into the past, but apparently millions of people are willfully blind to these breakthroughs.  Evidence of this mass blindness came on 1 June when the Gallup Organization reported the results of its most recent poll on American attitudes toward the theory of evolution and its alternatives, creationism and “intelligent design.”  Gallup reported that 46% of the 1,012 Americans polled believe that God created people “pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  An additional 32% of those surveyed believe that humans evolved from less advanced life forms with God guiding the evolutionary process.  Just 15% of respondents opined that humans evolved over millions of years with God taking no part in the process of evolution.  These percentages have not changed meaningfully during Gallup’s 30 years of polling on this particular subject.  The poll’s latest findings and its historical results can be viewed here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx

Can you accept the notion that our earliest ancestors were all created in their present form (homo sapiens) at one fell swoop by a supernatural deity?  If you accept that idea, are you at all perturbed by the fact that scientists have found ancient artifacts that were made by humans millennia before the time at which you say humans were created by God?

To square the circle of a human creation story that took place after the earliest human artifacts were created, you either have to flatly disbelieve the archeological evidence or simply be unaware of it.  Gallup only indirectly addressed the question of why people hold creationist views, and the key explanations seem to be education and religiosity.  Specifically, just 25% of respondents with postgraduate educations are creationists, half the 52% rate of people who have only a high school diploma or less.  Meanwhile, 67% of weekly churchgoers are creationists, compared with 25% of those who seldom or never attend church.  I wish that Gallup had probed more deeply by asking creationists about their knowledge of the historical, archeological and paleontological records.  I suspect that Gallup would have found that, although many creationists are not highly educated, a surprisingly large cohort among them is at least vaguely aware that science has refuted their creationist views.  Surely the 25% of creationists holding postgraduate degrees are knowingly rejecting the scientific basis of evolution, and I would like to know how these highly educated creationists explain their own thinking.  Regardless of the explanation, however, this refusal to acknowledge the scientific basis of evolution may well ripple out to encompass the disavowal of other scientific findings such as the key role of human activity in global warming or the poor efficacy of “abstinence only” sex education.  Put another way, the tendency of a large proportion of the U.S. population to dismiss scientific evidence has huge (and to my mind, ominous) implications for our politics and our future as a country.

How is it that in a supposedly advanced nation like the United States nearly half the population can dismiss the many rigorous scientific experiments documenting natural selection, as well as the excavation and analysis of huge quantities of fossil remains showing the process of evolution as it unfolded?  To me, this is a case of faith trumping all else, just as it has for at least as long as the El Castillo paintings themselves have existed.  What is the “all else” that faith has been trumping for as long as humans have existed, whether we define human existence as having begun 5,000 or 5,000,000 years ago?  Dare we call it “truth” or “reality?”  Or is it simply one viewpoint on life – the scientific viewpoint – which, by definition, can never fully explain phenomena and feelings in the “spiritual” realm?  Matter and spirit, knowledge and belief, seem perpetually in opposition to one another.  Matter calls spirit “backwards” or “superstitious;” spirit calls matter “godless” or “soulless.”  Spirit views knowledge with suspicion and fear; knowledge is condescending and dismissive of spirit.  Are these hollow cliches, or do they actually describe the emotional interplay at work here?  When we see that science and religion approach their search for truth from completely different perspectives, using completely different methods, their mutual antagonism becomes quite understandable.  This antagonism ripples through all of our society and creates (no pun intended) very real political problems.

Don’t we need to be rational as a society to solve problems like mass unemployment, the budget deficit, global warming and what has come to be known as “terrorism?”  In this context, “being rational” equates to looking at facts that have been scientifically tested and confirmed to a high standard of confidence, and using those facts to shape an informed course of action.  Our inability to make progress on any of the biggest issues in our society may well stem from the fact that half of the population simply refuses to operate in this way.  But I would ask the most devout creationist:  Even if you believe wholeheartedly in God, have you noticed that He doesn’t seem too interested in ending teenage pregnancy or preserving the Amazon rain forest?  If God won’t solve those problems, then shouldn't we humans take care of them ourselves?  And to take care of these complex problems, don't we need to rely upon good (read:  scientific) information combined with much more social and political cohesion than we’ve had for a long, long time?

We often see the tension between belief and so-called objective reality play out on a very modest scale in everyday life.  For example, we can experience this tension when we walk into an office building and prepare to take an elevator to a higher floor.  We approach the elevator and see people already waiting for it.  We automatically believe that one of those people pushed the elevator call button before we arrived on the scene.  But our belief has no basis in reality – we weren’t there to see someone push the call button.  We just assume someone acted on our behalf, but occasionally it turns out that no one has pushed the button, or it was pushed carelessly without the elevator actually being called.  In this scenario, a large group of people will stand around for quite a while waiting for an elevator that is not coming because it has, in fact, not been called.  Everyone is trapped by belief, with no one willing to take the apparently risky step of performing an action they firmly believe was already performed.

When the stakes are low like waiting a few extra minutes for an elevator, the conflict between belief and "objective reality" is merely an inconvenience.  But when you’re running a society that seems frozen in place by these two seemingly opposing forces, that conflict becomes a much more serious matter.

I am what William Jennings Bryan derisively called an “evolutionist” during his testimony at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of July 1925.  I was taught the theory of evolution in my youth, and I believed it to be conclusively proven then as I believe it to be now.  For reasons that I don’t quite understand, it drives me up a wall that huge numbers of people who are permitted to own firearms and vote dismiss evolution as a “hoax” or worse.  And that is precisely where I fall down, really, by getting caught up in my emotional mechanism and raving about what I take to be the lunacy of others.  When I realize that my viewpoint on the lunacy of “others” is merely my own lunacy, then things begin to change a bit.  Rather than merely pointing my finger at creationists who refuse to acknowledge science, I can also look at myself and tend to my own evolution.  I can make sure that that button is pressed or I’ll just stand around like a sheep, stuck in the lobby of my own building.

On the one hand, I stand very much with Clarence Darrow when he says to William Jennings Bryan that creationism “insult[s] every man of science and learning in the world…” and when he further states that “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States…” It is surprising to me that Darrow ever had to say those words, and even more astonishing that Darrow’s words are as relevant today as they were in Tennessee nearly 90 years ago.  But then I look at my own astonishment and understand quite readily how people can hold on to outmoded attitudes across decades and despite constant social, political and technological change.  I can recognize my intimate connection with nearly half of the United States by connecting my brand of insanity to theirs.  The name I give to this insanity, which creationists and evolutionists share, is the need to be "right."

Insanity is rather like breakfast cereal:  Advertising can point out the virtues of this or that brand but all brands of cereal are kept in the same aisle of the supermarket, and all cereal winds up in exactly the same foul-smelling form when we’re done with it.  Yet cereal companies spend about $375 million each year advertising the leading brands of cereal.  Have you ever seen a cereal commercial that showed a toilet?  If cereal commercials were required by law to show cereal in its ultimate form, and in its ultimate destination, the differences between cereal brands would seem much less important and we would see much less cereal advertising on television.  To extend this unfortunate metaphor a bit further, I see evolution as the toilet that creationism doesn’t want to see.  We might not like the idea of toilets but one thing is certain:  There is nothing phony or trumped up about a toilet.  Why do so many people feel this urgent need to dress up the story of where humankind came from, regardless of the evidence?

The perennial argument about evolution goes back to an inescapable chink in the armor of evolution itself:  We call evolution a theory because none of us were there to directly observe the “rise” of humankind to its present state, a state in which people completely disregard their own scientific discoveries.  The tenacity of creationist dogma perpetuates the so-called “controversy” that President Bush alluded to in August 2005 when he advocated the teaching of intelligent design and/or creationism alongside evolution in public schools.  President Bush argued that the “controversy” should be taught, but science says there is no more a legitimate controversy about the basic origin of humankind than there is a legitimate controversy about people being able to freely choose whether they are gay or straight.

It isn’t by chance that I’m drawing a connection between antipathy to the theory of evolution and antipathy toward gay people.  After all, in May 2012 Tennessee’s state legislature very nearly passed a law forbidding public schools from providing “any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”  Apparently the thinking behind the bill was that to discuss something controversial gives the controversial thing (in this case, gayness) legitimacy.  Or perhaps the thinking was that, since being gay is supposedly a choice one can freely make, teaching about homosexuality would lead school-aged children to choose the “homosexual lifestyle.”  Whatever the rationale behind the “don’t say gay” legislation, it reveals quite plainly that in Tennessee “teaching the controversy” about evolution is okay but “teaching the controversy” about human sexuality is not okay.  Why are some controversies more equal than others?

None of us was physically present when an ape-like thing called Australopithecus afarensis became the first hominid to spend the majority of its time walking upright on two legs around 3.2 million years ago. But there is a world of difference between acknowledging that we cannot be absolutely certain about something because we did not witness it ourselves, and denying absolutely that it happened.

If we compare this situation to criminal jurisprudence, a creationist attitude would cause our court system to grind to a halt.  In other words, if ironclad eyewitness testimony were mandatory to obtain a conviction in every criminal case, then our prisons would be largely empty (which might not be as bad as it sounds).  In criminal judicial procedure, we have a standard of reasonable doubt that guides juries in their deliberations.  Why, when the stakes in a trial might be as high as life and death itself, is the burden of proof lower than it apparently is for creationists vis-à-vis the theory of evolution?  Why can someone be sent to the electric chair on the basis of proof insufficient to lay creationism to its long-overdue rest?

On a personal level, I can recognize what is false for me individually without going farther and pretending to define what is true collectively.  At the same time, however, I live in a larger context in which some version of collective truth will determine the practical details of everything from parking rules to industrial regulation to space exploration.  Our future as a society will be intimately shaped by the awkward mingling not just of personal beliefs but beliefs about the role of personal beliefs in public life.  Someone has to be deemed "right" by the majority of voters in order for our government to function effectively.  Yet with so many people prepared to ignore facts they deem personally troublesome no matter the larger cost to society, I’m not especially optimistic about our ability to skillfully navigate the faith versus "objective reality" conundrum.  For empirical evidence to support my personal pessimism, I present without additional comment Exhibit A:  the financial crisis and our government’s response to it.

I believe spiritual and social evolution begin and end with the recognition that each of us knows very little about, or for, ourselves.  It follows quite naturally that each of us knows even less for, or about, other people.  If these simple yet unpopular notions figured prominently in our public life, we might have an easier time solving our collective problems.  Even so, a coherent view has to prevail for public policy to be formulated, for laws to be promulgated and for our educational and criminal justice systems to function properly.  We must act in the public realm, and we must act under a "reasonable doubt" standard -- our government and society cannot be guided by faith that ignores facts, nor can we be paralyzed by an insistence on certain proof when there is nearly nothing that is certain in this world.  But faith without facts is dangerously close to dominating our public life, and that scares the bejeesus out of me.  Which tendency will ultimately prevail, the imperfection of knowledge or the perfection of faith?  While we dither over this critical question, our whole system seems to be going down that metaphorical toilet so many among us refuse to see.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thoughts on a Singing Foreclosure Auction Blockade in Brooklyn

Recently, there has been a lot of news coverage and discussion concerning singing foreclosure auction blockades in New York City.  These protest actions have been going on since at least the fall of 2011, and their beauty and simplicity make them a uniquely compelling form of civil dissent.  It seems hard to believe that a four-line tune any kindergartner could learn is capable of demolishing the cold machinery of the foreclosure process, but that has happened repeatedly in courthouses around our town.  I had to experience this phenomenon for myself, and participated in one such event that occurred in Brooklyn on April 19, 2012.

For those of you who haven’t heard about them, the intention behind these actions is to use the power of people singing together to bring auctions of foreclosed homes to a screeching halt.  Auction blockades humanize what has been so carefully dehumanized, ripping away the mask of “business as usual” to show what we all try so hard to hide and from which there is no escape.  Whether we’re avidly bidding at an auction, averting our eyes from those of a stranger and staring at the subway car floor, or impatiently pushing our way through throngs crowding a sidewalk, our humanity is always hiding in plain sight.  All it takes is a scrap of song to bring that humanity gushing forth.  There is something uniquely vulnerable about a person singing in public, much less dozens of people, and no institution can stand unmoved for long amidst such vulnerability.

Embodying these ideas, and also embodying no idea at all, around 60 people met in an office in downtown Brooklyn on a Thursday afternoon, well in advance of the auction itself.  We "blockaders" were given an overview of the lengthy screening process to get inside the courtroom, as well as a description of the manner in which our protest would unfold.  We were very quickly sensitized to the critical choice that each individual needed to make:  sing and be arrested, or remain silent and therefore stay “free.”  Those remaining silent had an important role to play in the process, because by swelling the number of people seeking admittance to the auction they could bog down the screening process and delay the start of the auction significantly.  Additionally, those who avoided arrest could offer jail support by awaiting the release of those who had been arrested and processed through “the system” as it is called.

I had already made the decision to not be arrested that day.  Nothing that was said or done by anyone involved in the protest made me feel any less a part of the effort because I was unwilling to go to jail.

Glancing around the room and listening to the many questions asked about the upcoming auction action, I noticed a wide diversity of backgrounds, ages and faith traditions represented among those present.  There was a lot of passion and energy in the crowd, and the sense of commitment in the room was reassuring and inspiring to me.  Even so, I found myself wishing that more people of color had been present in our rather large group – especially since communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the foreclosure and eviction crisis.  The predominance of white people in the various manifestations of the Occupy movement has already been much commented upon in media coverage; as a white person myself I could only take note of the issue while contributing to it both voluntarily and involuntarily.

Those who were determined to sing and face arrest were organized into groups that would sing in sequence in an attempt to maximize the length of the auction blockade.  People were encouraged to take their time getting up when ordered to do so by court officers so as to prolong our intended disruption.  We are also given the message that court officers had been, thus far, reasonably courteous toward and even occasionally supportive of the demonstrators, and so we were counseled not to bring attitudes of hostility and resentment to bear on our interactions with officers.  I thought that message was very healing and necessary since an attitude of “us” versus “them” – of “victims” versus “oppressors” – is all too easy to adopt.

Simple categorizations of people into opposing blocs gets us nowhere near the truth of our society and our lives.  How could anything so complex and unfathomable as our grotesque economic and political system be neatly bisected with a clear, bright line?  When I look carefully, I see a victim in the oppressor and an oppressor in the victim; their interdependence, dysfunctional as it might seem, is obvious.  In the sadomasochism that defines our materialistic culture, it can be rather hard to tell who is the sadist and who is the masochist.  Banks can easily be seen as sadistic and cruel, but they do need a willing borrower to exercise their unsavory function in our commercial system.  The borrower – or one might say the “bottom” in this scenario – actually has a surprising amount of power relative to the lender (or “top”) but often fails to recognize or use that power.  The auction blockade would be an interesting opportunity to turn things around and expose the more nuanced interchange between groups that usually identify themselves as separate from, and opposed to, one another.  The “bottoms” and “tops,” often restrictively categorized in their own minds, would have the opportunity to become more truly “versatile.”

Alas, one very real power held by borrowers that would not be revealed on that day is the power to reduce consumption so as to borrow as little as possible.  When we slowly walked to the Brooklyn Supreme Court building at 360 Adams Street by way of the Fulton Street Mall, this latent form of consumer power was very much on my mind.  The endless parade of stores, some with hawkers outside loudly beckoning passersby, vividly underscored the root of the problem we were about to call attention to in our protest.  Consumption, and the borrowing that enables it, is more often a choice than a necessity for many people.  It is fair to say that our society's enshrinement of bright shiny things creates a lot of consumer indebtedness and, with or without the debt, a lot of personal suffering.

When we arrived at the limestone-clad courthouse building, there was a long line at the main entrance.  The sun was shining brightly and a sea of lavender tulips at their peak lent charm to the scene.  Some of our compatriots unfurled a large banner in front of the courthouse, with their children lending a hand in holding the banner aloft.  The rest of us shuffled into the building where we passed through a metal detector and had our bags searched.  My two harmonicas attracted the officers’ curiosity but were left alone; however, my reusable metal silverware set was considered problematic and had to be checked before I could get on line to enter the courtroom where the auction would take place.

During this initial screening process, I admittedly went a little overboard in the level of courtesy and appreciation I showed the court officers but felt it was critical to connect with them and demonstrate that I understood their role and responsibilities.  From the moment I stepped into the courthouse, I focused my attention keenly on not turning the authorities there into an “other.”

After we got past the initial checkpoint we joined a second screening line to access the courtroom itself.  We were repeatedly informed as we waited that any electronic devices would have to be checked prior to our entering the courtroom.  The authorities did not want us videotaping the disruption and arrests to come, as had occurred in some prior instances.  Someone behind me wistfully noted that electronic devices were freely permitted at the auctions prior to the advent of these blockades, and that there formerly had been no lengthy additional screening after one entered the courthouse building.

But the additional screening that had been put in place after the protests began and the long waiting time it occasioned was all to our advantage in our effort to disrupt the auction.  The long delay caused by protesters in the screening line provoked muffled complaints from two men who were waiting on line to bid on the properties to be auctioned.  They were clearly frustrated by their inability to get inside the courtroom, but they carefully avoided making inflammatory criticisms of the Occupy folks that surrounded them.  The numerous protesters and scattered “investors” mingled peaceably together in that single line, filing past the courthouse candy shop and news stand run by Carmine Cataldo III.  Candy, like debt, is bad for us but helps to make our lives somewhat more bearable.  This connection eluded those present; no one on line protested the candy and sugary beverages sold with inspiring humility by the blind man who had made his living in that manner, and in that place, for over 16 years.

I was among the last people admitted to the courtroom just before the auction began.  The starting time had been scheduled for 2:30pm but it had been substantially delayed while the many people seeking access checked their phones and were scanned yet again with a hand-held metal detector.  I took my seat at 3:05pm and the auction process began about two minutes later.  Security was heavy; only the center section of the large courtroom was opened for visitors and, consequently, the pew-like benches were crowded with people.  Ten court officers with an abundance of white plastic handcuffs at the ready restlessly paced to and fro along the aisles; meanwhile, a stern announcement was made that any attempt to disrupt the auction would lead to arrest with a charge of disorderly conduct.  It was perfectly obvious to nearly everyone present that this was a warning that would go unheeded at the earliest possible moment.

That moment was not long in coming.  Almost immediately after we had all been instructed to be quiet and obedient so as to grease the wheels of foreclosure commerce, Judson Memorial Church Community Minister C.B. Stewart stood up and boldly spoke out against the unjust nature of the seizure of homes.  She was promptly hustled outside the courtroom, and then the singing itself began.  For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the tune that is sung at foreclosure auction blockades, it goes a little something like this:

Listen auctioneer….
All the people here
Are asking you to hold all the sales right now;
We’re going to survive but we don’t know how….
[repeat loudly until arrested]

I neglected to ask those in charge of our protest the origin of this song, and cannot now find the answer to this question online.  It may be a folk song with no known origin, a fact that would make it even more appropriate for our shared purpose than a song with known authorship.  Or it may have been written by Organizing for Occupation (http://www.o4onyc.org/about_o4o/) especially for these actions.

Group by group, singers raised their voices loudly in song as had been planned; they were quickly ordered to stand up, were swiftly handcuffed with white plastic ties, and then were escorted out by court officers.  As this distressing and heartwarming scene unfolded, an officer carefully videotaped the goings on, a privilege we members of the public were being denied.

I was surprised by how quickly the whole thing unfolded.  The arrests seemed to happen with dizzying speed – it was so rapid I couldn’t even count the number of people who were being led away.  The closing of white plastic handcuffs around the protesters’ wrists made a menacing sound – it was reminiscent of the buzzing from a swarm of angry cicadas on a hot summer afternoon.  The court officers were brusque and impatient, but with few exceptions they appeared to conduct themselves professionally enough under the circumstances.

As I later learned, a total of 38 people were arrested in just nine minutes.  For a short interval afterwards, all of those who had been detained were held together in the small antechamber just outside the courtroom.  Each time the doors to the courtroom opened their singing became markedly louder, making things harder for the officials who were attempting to recommence the auction proceedings that had been disrupted.  The singing, alternately clear and muffled as the doors opened and closed, was stronger and more beautiful than it had been inside the courtroom itself.

By 3:16pm the auction had resumed despite the continued singing of those waiting to be taken away.  The first property was sold at 3:19pm while court officers continually scanned the much smaller crowd for anyone who might have an inclination to be disruptive.  A few more people raised their voices in song and they were hauled out of court to join the others; the videotaping of the courtroom by one of the court officers continued.  By 3:23pm the singing outside the courtroom had ceased, presumably because all of the protestors had been taken elsewhere in the building for booking.  Even so, five officers remained on high alert and the atmosphere in court was tense to say the least.

During the arrests I sat quietly, watching the goings on and taking notes.  I was highly conscious of the fact that I would be immediately arrested if I made the slightest move to disrupt the auction.  Perched uneasily on the hard bench in my red tee shirt advertising Pat Barrett’s Transmissions, Inc., I was a glaring security risk; the court officers kept a wary eye on my every move.  It was an eerie feeling to reflect on how very little it would have taken for me to fall into the clutches of law enforcement, and my sympathy for the officers was severely taxed by the paranoia their vigilance triggered deep inside me.  The choice I had made to not sing, to not be arrested, felt very burdensome because it took a lot of self control to maintain my freedom.  Freedom maintained in such a way does not feel very free at all; that was a very palpable lesson I took away from my experience on that afternoon.  In fact, I would have felt much more free if I had pulled out my harmonica and begun to play “Listen Auctioneer” as I had taught myself to do while waiting on line in front of the courthouse.

After the singing outside the courtroom had ceased, I wondered how long I should remain at the auction.  There seemed little point to lingering, but quite spontaneously the strange thought arose in my mind that I might actually bid on a property.  What an outrageously transgressive move that would be… and yet how very seductive!  For better or worse, however, the auction itself seemed highly mysterious to me and raised a host of questions in my mind.  What were these properties actually like?  Who had owned them previously, and what was their current condition?  Were these buyers getting bargains or not?  What were the economics of the transactions, and had the investors conducted scenario analyses to stress test their baseline assumptions against a worst-case scenario?

As these rather bizarre thoughts from a former existence flitted through my head, my eyes at last focused on the far wall of the courtroom, behind where a judge would normally sit.  There, engraved in the beige wood paneling were the words “The place of Justice is a Hallowed Place.”  How poignant and tender, the collision of that ideal with the messy reality unfolding in my own mind and in the room around me.  I held back tears as I finally left the courtroom.