Monday, April 17, 2017

Willing to Listen: Peacebuilding after the Berkeley Clash

Arriving at MLK Civic Center Park in Berkeley minutes after violent clashes are over and most folks have moved on, my first impression is silence. A war zone following the battle. A spacious green field surrounded in orange mesh. Signs of what was enclosing what is. What remains? Part shock, part anger, part confusion, part sorrow. Why am I here, the action seemingly over? Today, Holy Saturday, a day of vigil and of rest, falling this year on the Shabbat during Passover. The Song of Songs is chanted in synagogues worldwide, the story of Exodus retold, a story which also informs a movement, this park named for the vision of Dr. King. I hear him echoing that ancient refrain, "Free at last." I remember his legacy and that of the Free Speech movement. 

Feet and heart lead me forward. I see a lone sign sprawled out on a tree on my left, "Pro-USA, Proud. Strong. Unafraid in Berkeley." I walk past a huge wall on my right proclaiming, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and below this, "Do you think you're what they say you are?" Beside it, on the next wall, angry scrawls. Words popping out: fascism, anti-fascism (takes a while to make this one out as it is crossed out). After reading beside these, "Go Home" "No War. No Nazis." I step out into the street, stepping back long enough to get a wider view of the scene. What is being said here really, I wonder. Just then, I hear a young man shout, "hey." I cross the street and stand beside him and four other fellows, all anglo, white skin contrasting with the black T shirts, hoodies, and jeans. 
The fellow who called out to me is wearing a hipster wool cap. His forehead and nose reveal caked and drying blood, remains from a fist fight by the looks of it. He says in an impassioned voice, "So what do you make of that sign? What do you think of how they feel?" I look at him quizically, assessing why he is asking me this. I pause for a breath and say, "Raw heart, I feel pain, torment. How about you?" He sets in, "You know what's crossed out there? 'Anti-fascism. Fascism will come disguised as anti-fascism. I'm here to protect free speech, first amendment rights. 

He adds, "I came up here from LA." Mindful of a slogan ringing in my inner ear, "Hate speech is not free speech," I want to keep cool while aware of my own views and allegiances while not yet clear what is going on. I thought the Antifa would be wearing black. Is he alt right? white supremacist? What is his angle? I remember the urgency of wanting to understand and wanting to connect. I ask, "what do you see? how do you feel?" He says, "you think this is about Trump? Nah, let me ask you. If I say something and you don't like it, what do you do?" I say, "what?" He continues, "Three things you don't do. Three things not covered by the first amendment: 1. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, shouting, 2. "I'm gonna kill you," and,  3...." He clenches his hand into a fist. I tense up as he moves it in a quick sweeping arc towards his friend's face and holds still right there. "My fist stops at your face." His friend doesn't move. All that comes to me quickly is, "Yeah" then a pause and, "I'm noticing your face. That looks like it really hurts." He unclenches his fist, brushes his open hand by his nose and goes, "this, no big deal. Comes with the territory." "Well, just the same, I'm sorry it's happening." He says, "We have to fight for our rights." As I stand here, I am vigilant. Am I safe? Why are they still here? 

His friends are urging him on as he continues, "The first amendment...." and goes into what feels like something out of a class on constitutional law, except for the tone and what feels to be his hyper-vigilant body motion. 
As I'm attuning to that, I notice an overturned garbage can across the street. I hear him say, "Look, this is about fascism. See how anti-fascism was crossed out?" I say, "I see. I see pain, a whole lot of rage and pain. I see that here with you and it makes me sad, really sad." The tension in his face releases for a moment as he holds out a hand to shake mine. I reach out both my hands and hold his as our eyes meet. I nod my head, "yeah..." I say, "get home safe." He nods and each of them then shakes my hand. I turn and head into the park beside what looks to be a dried up fountain. I go from there to the tree with the big sign and move to the left looking closely at the ceramic tiles on the Peace Wall. 
I walk back to the fountain my eyes slightly downcast and notice two handmade signs, which read, "Radical Willing to Listen" and "A Lefty who Listens." I look up and see a man and woman, their weathered white faces showing an openness, a compassionate presence. I listen as they listen and occasionally respond to those needing to be heard.
Still, I wonder, why mostly white faces here? 

A young man with a full brown beard wearing a MAGA cap and pro Trump T shirt, his tattooed arms crossed, listens also and then laughs. I read his nervousness and talk with him as a few young white men and one older man sporting a worn western hat in the colors and design of an American flag, gather round. They are unsure where I stand. I introduce myself and say I'm wondering how they are doing. I say heard what is going on and came down to see if could help." I ask them why they came and why they are still here." One after another, each offers a different spin. 

A tall and slender fellow sporting a baseball cap that says, "Ben Carson 2016" and a hipsterish beard says, "I'm Canadian and we don't have free speech. We have blasphemy laws. My wife is Indian and my kids were born here. I'm here because I want them to be able to say what they want." I look at him somewhat confused and repeat, "What they want? What do you want? What do you want to be able to say?" He stops and considers. Another young man jumps in, "Listen, I was here on March 4 and I saw what went down. I was punched. And you know what? You have the right to offend me. I have the right to offend you. Like Gay Pride. I've been to Gay Pride and it is about pride, yeah, and it offends a lot of people and you know what, it's part of how it goes. It is supposed to offend to draw attention to the cause and I'll tell you what else. I'm part of the Pink Pistols. Have you heard of that? I nod no. He says, "If you're gay, if you're LGBTQ, you can get a gun and defend yourself. That is your second amendment right." 

As he finishes, I notice a young man, African American, wearing a flashy red and black superhero-looking suit, with some kind of spiderman design, facial piercing studs, and a long narrow beard. He is looking at his IWatch and remarking about the latest Twitter feeds, and how "we pushed out the Antifa." I am markedly shaken, wondering what is really going on here. 

What is the cause? What are the stakes for these men? He says, "we just have to keep fighting for our rights." I ask him what he means by fighting and he hedges. Suddenly, the tall man with the flag hat who looks oddly out of place in this group, says, "you know what I'd like to see. You know what the problem is? You guys should invite three speakers and they don't speak for long, maybe 10min. You go to the other guys and tell them, invite them and invite them to invite their three speakers and everyone knows about it ahead of time. There are rules." I say, "sounds like you're wanting some kind of dialogue without all the violence." He nods yeah. 

The young men seem to hear the words but don't go there. Instead, they welcome in a young man who just enters the circle, his left forehead showing a fresh and bloodied gash recently stitched up and a smaller one on the top of his head as long straight black hair drapes down his upper back. He clearly is agitated as says, "hey" in greeting. He says just back from the ER.

I ask if he got anything for the pain. I ask how he's doing. He says, "hey, it's all part of it." I say, "It's hard to take all this in but it's good to talk with you. I'm with a group called, Mindful Peacebuilding." I give them the website address. They ask me what that is. I say, "mindfulness is paying attention in a way that shows how to speak and especially listen from the heart, open minded. And peacebuilding comes from that. Brick by brick we build a bridge, we plant a seed, we find a way to grow together, to care for each other. That is what we're doing now, I hope. Trying to understand what happened here today. Take good care and get home safe."

I walk over to another corner of this plaza where a young white woman with long straight brown hair and a crisp blouse and skirt is sitting beside a young man who appears to be Korean-American with blond-dyed hair and wearing some sparkly jewelry and shades. He's looking at his smartphone. I introduce myself and she goes into a lengthy exposition on how she had voted for Trump but now is disappointed in him. She tells me that used to be part of something like Antifa while growing up in Washington D.C. because was anti-globalization. She says she believes in free speech. Then she tells me about a methodist church in San Francisco that is planning to offer a moderated dialogue soon. I wonder what she means by free speech. I wonder again what is going on. I wonder what draws the young man sitting beside her. Even so, I also feel a need to move on. I say that the church's efforts sound well intentioned and let's see. I tell her about Mindful Peacebuilding. She thanks me.

Finally, I walk over to a gathering of two men and one woman, all white. Two are brother and sister, she with long straight blond hair and shades and he with a beard looking a bit hipster-ish. She tells me about the women's march and how good as it was, "it was very white." As she's speaking, as she assumes which "side" I'm on, clearly against "these fascists," as she speaks about a longing to diversify a movement of social change and what serves its best interest; I watch as her brother suddenly says, "I'm going over there to flirt with them, see how they like that." I say I'm concerned for his safety but he continues and walks away as she says, "I've learned to let go of trying to keep him from doing what he does." Just then, a young woman, Latina, who looks shaken, moves a bit closer. I get up and move towards her. She tells me, "I was here" when the violence began. She tells me, "yeah, I saw knives." She pauses, looking off into the distance. She says, "I've been waiting here until all the teens, the youth of color have gone. I want to make sure they don't get hassled." I say, "doesn't look like any one's still here." 

I ask if she is planning to go home. She says with a weary sigh, "I tried but I can't. I'm still so angry." I meet her gaze and nod my head, "yeah." We talk, mostly I listen, and then I introduce her to the man and woman nearby. As I do, I see in the distance two of the men from the group I was talking with on the other side of the plaza approaching. It is the fellow with the western hat and a younger man, who had been standing silently beside me. As they approach, I reach into my bag and say, "I have something to show you all." I tell them about being a new Empowering Clerk with the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy. They all look curious. I say, let's stay in touch so I can issue you all one of these and pull out a Joy Permit. They smile. The flag-hat fellow reads the fine print and laughs. Then, I show them the "Adults Must be Accompanied by Inner Child" poster. 
The formerly silent fellow laughs and says, "yes! We need that. Thanks so much. What you say inspires me." I reply, "what we're doing now is so important. Let's stay in touch." We exchange contact info. We speak of the possibility of hosting some way of engaging folks in this park in coming days. I share a confidence in playfulness as a way of reaching out with courage. "As we are doing right now," I say. And then something remarkable happens. One by one, we hug each other. Even in the midst of embrace, I still am not sure what is happening but I feel a warmth and a quality of joy I cannot quite name. Still, I feel raw. I feel shaken. I feel mildly nauseous and at the same time, open to a flurry of emotion including sorrow and longing. 

I walk away from the park and head to Asha Teahouse nearby for a matcha latte and refuge, space to breathe into all of this. About an hour later, I return to the park, walking on its outskirts. Most everyone has left. I move past skateboarders and look back from a distance. The orange mesh surrounding the grass is now gone. A sign says, "!Attention!" noting that the Farmers Market is closed today while adding, "please support our vendors next Saturday." I cross the street and taking my time, move slowly the remaining blocks to my car. Driving away, I notice that the world seems to be moving a bit slower, a bit brighter with a quality of vibrancy that cannot be attributed to caffeine alone. It is a quickening of a seed watered and slowly but surely growing.