Today is an important day for me politically. Eleven years ago, on February 15, 2003 I led my first public anti-war march. It was the day that the world said No! to war. Twelve million people were in the streets that day. Last year on this day, I was sitting in a house with sunshine coming in the south-facing window and an avocado tree in the backyard, thinking about all that has transpired in the last decade. Among other things, I was inspired to begin this blog. This continues to be a space where I articulate what is at my core; a container that holds what swirls in my stomach as I sit in the belly of the beauty-beast.
This Feb 15 anniversary rivals in importance other days of the year that I hold dear: New Years Days (all of them: Gregorian, Rosh Hashanah, Nayruz, Ras-as-Sanah al-Hijriyah, Chinese), birthdays, Easter, and Kwanzaa. Side note on Kwanzaa: I like Kwanzaa in a universal (non-nationalist) sense, and for the way in which it is a family holiday in which you can construct “family” in whatever arrangement of people you want.
On February 15, 2003 I found my voice in the public square at People’s Park, declaring “Not in Our Name!” will any war wage. Because I was wearing a t-shirt from the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the COO at that time came up to me afterwards, told me she was impressed, and asked me to call her. I did. That was the beginning of my relationship with the King Center and it continues today. Just last month I assisted behind the scenes with the January King Holiday Observance, and crafted the current 100 days of nonviolence. It was a fun, demanding, and instructive time.
So today, when a wonderful activist who I admire asked me to participate in a reader’s theater about the pressing environmental and social issues of our time, I checked my calendar. Though my calendar is basically scheduled solid through August, I found I am available for one of the practices and the performance date. I am moved by the effort, Project Unspeakable. It is a collective that has cropped up around the issues related to the assassinations of John F Kennedy, MLK, Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X. It is a time to consider again the nagging questions about the assassinations of these four leaders, and to be reminded again of their inspiring visions.
Through the use of grassroots live theater, this political project is going viral and reaching diverse audiences. It is providing a lens through which, playwright Court Dorsey says, helps us to “better understand what is happening in this country today.” The project, he writes
has the potential to bolster current demands for governmental and corporate openness, transparency, and democratic accountability—a likely prerequisite for effectively addressing the multiple social, political, and environmental crises we face.
I know that many people enjoy killing and are okay to be killed violently. But there are many who don’t want to be. And I work with and on behalf of the many who do not want to be in that cycle. We are building deep alternatives mud-brick by mud-brick. We are reaching deep to shift our consciousness and letting that permeate the space around us. We are in the streets, suites, and soup kitchens; explaining, protestifying, serving, and sometimes shouting in resistance to the unharmonious system which destroys ecosystems: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poor and we’re quickly becoming out of reach of one another. The play has also got some great quotes:
James Baldwin: “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. Without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.”
Audre Lorde: “When we speak, we are afraid. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
There is a real difference between contemplative silence and the unspeakable. The former is a clearing of ever expanding space, detachment, and calm. The latter is the suffocation of ever condensing collapsed psychological space, total attachment to what is, and false hope.
Someone else said it once, when you write a book, you should write two. First the book you want to write and then the book you don’t want to write—the book you don’t want to be written by anyone—the book that critiques all of your ideas and asks if the questions you’re asking even matter. But this is the book that will actually sell. (Who told me this?!) I’ve met so many amazing characters in my recent intentional journey through the wilderness…I feel like Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to the World That is to Come.
My character in Project Unspeakable is Tenay. Tenay is the bridge person between the audience and the readers in the reader’s theater play. These are literally the final words in Tenay’s mouth, confirming what I feel has been a reality in my mind since organizing at Spelman in 2003:
(to Narrator 1) “…whatever I’m feeling, it’s better than feeling nothing.”
(to the audience) “I’m glad you’re here.”
(to MLK, JFK, RFK, MX) “I’m old enough to die a good death.”
(to the audience) “May we all have the courage to live a good life.”
Well, I didn’t ask to be reminded of the precariousness of my life-in-the-public today. I was just going through bills (the first bills I’ve ever had in my name…electric and gas, what a puzzle to decipher what all the charges are for exactly). I was sitting here in front of the heater after having done some fabulously strenuous exercise and semi-disorienting grocery shopping. I just arrived back to Chicago yesterday on V-Day (2nd year of Strike! Dance! Rise! to end violence against women!) and spent most of my time so far re-familiarizing myself with my home. It’s the first home I’ve lived in alone, though I am in a building with a lot of cool people. We all speak Spanish. I’ve only been here 13 days since I left for my “40 day wilderness experience” before getting oriented for CPT Executive Director leadership. I’m age 30 and each CPT term is 3 years, so that’s 30-33 and those are my Jesus years, and one shouldn’t play with those years! I have a lot of energy to give to the cause and glory of God via CPT, and I want to be strategic, healthy, grounded, and loving for this term. They do say, if you work for the church, “make sure you look good on wood…” Anyway, I don’t know what will happen at the end of these 3 years of ministry (notice “ministry” is the root word of administration) but I believe in the hope of the resurrection.
I am not saying I’m someone’s or some organization’s messiah. I am not thinking about these issues of leadership and assassination from an elevated sense of self-importance. The s/hero mentality is not all that helpful or inclusive. It takes all of us to make this revolutionary world go ‘round. But if I live my life fully and perform my calling it appears I will be asked to be in bridging places, places of leadership, articulation, responsibility, and a target.
Many call me exceptional. But I am not. I am not so savvy, nice, or protected that I will be spared the difficulties many leaders have faced. I may very well be eliminated by the system. Many people are eliminated every day. We don’t know their names but at times I can feel their presence, their encouragement to “pay attention.” If the system can get us to do it to ourselves, the easier it is for them. If they can get us to push out other movement leaders, even better for them. That is why part of my nonviolence commitment is to never fatally eliminate my conversation partner…to always remember that there is no one I cannot learn something from. On the other hand, I am exceptional because I was raised by a group of people who have a high anthropology, demand to live the fullness of life in discipleship of God Incarnate, and are willing to speak the unspeakable.
I wonder who the actual assassin will be to off me, though it will likely be part of a much larger plan. Which one of my close associates may fold? Which one of the people I’ve (unintentionally) pissed off? Which member of my community is on the margins/in opposition enough to be used psychologically to tear me down? Which guy I’m just getting to know will turn on me when I don’t fulfill his wishes? Which car as I walk home down the pedestrian-less street? Which member of a street-organization will shoot me as a matter of a routine task for higher-ups? (And then Chicago will capitalize on the incident to legislate for more money for the cops to fight gangs). Or will it just be an arranged car accident?
It may occur here, it may occur on one of my travels. I think of CPT delegate Tom Fox. He was kidnapped in Baghdad with three others; later he was separated from them. They were released, he was assassinated. Tom was clear going in about the dangers that he faced there. I will quote from a book about him and the emotions of people worldwide at the time of this hostage crisis that reflects on the organization I have been called to lead:
Christian Peacemaker Teams take their identity seriously. Their namesake, after all, was another unarmed troublemaker in an occupied country, who was tortured and then suffered an ignominious public execution. One other phrase that comes to mind is Matthew 10:24, ‘The disciple is not above their master, nor the servant above their Lord.’ Did Tom and others have illusions? Not in CPT. It was a CPT team, after all, that brought the first reports about the abuses at Abu Gharib prison to reporter Seymour Hersh. They had also seen other humanitarian workers kidnapped and some killed.”
The L goes by up above the houses across the street. Every time I hear it I stop to take a deep breath, or at least relax my shoulders and teeth, which are often a bit tense due to all the typing, texting, or even just how I hold my body. What is so bad about not breathing anymore? I ask myself. Death by bullet or crash will probably be quick. Poison will take longer. X was poisoned in Egypt at one point. I guess all of these experiences will involve new sensations that I have not felt yet. I am open to everything. People will mourn and vigil, and hopefully new inspirations and partnerships will be birthed in the sad wake. Eventually though, as editor Chuck Fager reflects in the book about Tom, even though they will feel a bit guilty, people will move on. Much of this interplay of life and death is about money in the end, and any focus on me will only refract back how many thousands more people are being kidnapped, “held, tortured, and some killed, by factions from all sides, amid a bloody confusion of agendas.” As long as I am alive today doing work that I believe in, together with others who seek to guide our life-forces toward compassionate understanding that re-members our original state of wellness, I am happy. Each day is full of newness and potential.
“Keep yo’ dome up,” a frienemy of mine often says.
What if I do not get assassinated? Well, I am happy to grow up and over one hill after another. I certainly do not want to die of a preventable health condition early. I do not want to live with migraines, kidney problems, anxiety, sugar-processing issues, hormonal imbalances or menstrual problems. I am so glad that feminist author-activist Eve Ensler defeated the cancer in her womb. That is really great. I know other leaders who suffer health problems accelerated by their work in the Movement. And how can we not be touched by that which we care most deeply? Especially when making an impact demands that all cylinders are firing for at times hours/days/weeks/months on end? The practice of Sabbath is important, I’ve got that structured in. But there is also something mentally that demands regular recalibration, something related to attachment, suffering, and integrated healing…shout out to all the acupuncturists out there who help keep the circulation going strong.
Even Obama is afraid to be assassinated. Project Unspeakable noted his recent response to a progressive reporter who asked him about why he isn’t making some of the changes he said he would. He replied, “don’t you remember what happened to Martin Luther King?” So, the President may be afraid of the CIA. He’s got two daughters and he doesn’t want to get killed.
Maybe kids will make me selfish, and make me want to stay alive in a way that will make me less courageous. Or, maybe “my” children will be a gift to the world to continue the legacy of radical discipleship and service once I’m gone. Children are not a guarantee of anything. I was just talking with some of my good friends in LA about children over a surprise V-Day dinner. Community is key.
Community is a great antidote to thinking too much about these things. I wish to think about them neither too little nor too much. Writing it down documents my thinking, and as my fave feminist professor used to say, “you write to learn what you know.” The Israel/Palestine issue is propelling closer and closer to the surface each day. As they say colloquially, “the shit is about to hit the fan.” One of my colleagues in her work with JVP has already felt the threats (a WANTED poster, people in vans or cars sitting outside her house, the crazy-making stress of false friends, etc.).
And it’s so much easier to watch people these days. Everything is on the internet, and is accessible to the NSA. Good thing I have nothing to hide. There are certainly some embarrassing stories out there that could blow back in my face. OAuth and the ever increasing miles-deep pile of data available are kinda creepy and frustrating. And we’re all so longing for fame, community, convenience and acknowledgement that we’re willingly putting it out there.
Many times I find it exhilarating to be a bridge person. I live for connecting people and communities together, especially across lines of difference. I know the drawbacks are that you get walked on, or as the case in Mostar, you can get bombed. But riseup.net noted this about bridge people:
Even in really large campaigns, there are often only a handful of people who are the connectors. Without them communication, coalition, coordination, and solidarity will break down. With the NSA spying program, they can easily see who the bridge people are, and who they need to target. Sound paranoid? Or are we at a point where nothing sounds paranoid anymore?
So, one real question is, how do I organize and use my time well if I want to make the most impact and I know that I have limited time? How do I live my life with a knowing that I may not live a long life? One answer is one word: Fully and consistently. I seek to be consistent…ethics and beliefs in alignment.
And, given the way that I live my life, it is not likely that assassination will be what takes me out. I mean, I do other activities that are kind of precarious. I do feel like I take my life in my own hands when I get out on these US streets to bicycle. And driving and riding in cars can be a major liability too. So, I always wear my helmet, and my seatbelt, and just hope to be lucky. I have been lucky so far.
Also, in death, people can be made martyrs and put on a pedestal. While that is attractive to the ego that wants to be an inspiration even beyond one’s lifetime, it can also be harmful to the cause. In the end it is not about who killed the four men featured in Project Unspeakable, but about why they were killed. Because, as they play says, “if you answer the why, you will understand the same things are still happening. Until we address that, we’re all in trouble.
I can understand that life in this part of reality is hard. Some can’t or just don’t want to face the consequences (pleasant or demoralizing). The play notes this dynamic:
Better to hand over the job of thinking and doing and setting moral standards to those who are surely “in the know.” Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends—and if it never ends, at least we’ll have suffered a little less, developed a useful dullness, protected ourselves as much as we could with a little indifference, a little repression, a little deliberate blindness, and a large dose of self-anesthetics.
I used to not believe that this was true. I used to think everyone was living their lives waiting for someone to come and cut through the layers of myth with the searing truth, and personally invite them into the revolution. Then I’d thought they’d drop everything and joyfully and diligently orient their lives—through meaningful work—around the practices of transformation. I got this belief pounded out of me in Jerusalem (and by traveling throughout Israel proper and in occupied Palestine). It took a lot of emotional pounding to dislodge it, but I was finally able to accept that what many people truly want is an easy life. There I also saw the impact of having different sets of facts, internalized the fungibility of truth, and was nourished by the labyrinthical layers of Abrahamic religious stories.
President John F. Kennedy said, “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.
One reason I’d be bummed to be assassinated is that I likely would no longer be able to eat ripe avocados and mangoes anymore. They are really delicious!
And so are you. Thanks for reading all the way to the end. My life is better because you are in it.
P.S. As Joanna Macy said last weekend at the People of Color cohort for the Work that Reconnects, we are alive at this moment because of the intelligence of the universe, the accident of my life, the movements for holistic social change, and the well wishes of many surrounding us. Let us give gratitude, honor our pain, see with new eyes, and go forth.