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“We’re All We Have”

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 23, 2011
Category: Beyond Classification

I suggested it was time for the 9.5-year-old to make her list for Santa.

She wiggled two fingers on each hand — air quotes – and said, “Santa?”

“Whoa,” I said. “You don’t think there is a Santa?”
 
“You guys.”
 
“What about the cookies that disappeared on Christmas Eve? What about those big black boot prints that led from the fireplace to the coffee table?”
 
“Mommers.”
 
“Your sacred mother? No way!”
 
“Then you.”
 
“Okay, I do lie,” I said. “But only about the quality of books written by my friends.”
 
“Whatev.”
 
Easy for the kid to say — for her, air quotes about Santa also express how much she believes in our little family. No Santa? No worries; Mommers and Daddy O will get it done. She doesn’t see what I do. She’s got a codger of a dad and a mother who’s not 30; it could happen that she’ll survive us in a country that’s hacking away at her safety net.
 
I envy her confidence.  
 
“We’re all we have” — I think that often.  And I suspect that thought comes up often for many people now. The crash of ’08 was the first eye-opener, followed by an understanding that Republicans were committed to not hearing the cries of their constituents and our President was going to spend his first term avoiding direct confrontation with them. And so, very quickly, we transit from “We’re on our own” to “We are the change.” Because we’d better be. If we’re not, change is just not going to happen.
 
But old habits die hard. I say it’s up to me, but I keep looking to others for leadership. After the police assault on seated protesters at the University of California at Davis — that video has now been seen 1.9 million times on YouTube — I blogged on Huffington Post: Dear Mr. President: Will You Please Speak Up About Police Assaulting Protesters On College Campuses? As most of the 900 people who posted a comment noted, I shouldn’t hold my breath.
 
If my blood boiled, there was plenty of provocation. Stupid remarks from the University’s chancellor. Lies from the police. All building to the fear that, coming soon, police would turn passive protesters into corpses.
 
Two events changed my thinking.
 
One occurred at Davis, where the Chancellor had a meeting at a location surrounded by protesters. If there were legitimate reasons to worry about safety, they disappeared when the protesters decided to sit in absolute silence as the Chancellor walked to her car. Almost a million people have viewed the video; if you haven’t seen it, it’s remarkable footage and well worth your time.
 

 

What I took away: admiration for the creativity and discipline of those students. Whatever was in their hearts could easily have animated them to shout out, but they maintained perfect silence as the Chancellor made a walk of shame.
 
I would have left it at that. But I happened on a blog by Kristin Stoneking, the campus minister who walked with the Chancellor. Why did she do that? Because she had been asked to mediate between students and the administration. If I quote her at length, it’s because she’s eloquent and then some:
 
When I arrived, there was a walkway out of the building set up, lined on both sides by about 300 students. The students were organized and peaceful. I was cleared to enter the building along with a student who is a part of CA House and has been part of the Occupy movement on campus since the beginning.  He, too, was reluctant, but not because he had somewhere else to be.  For any student to act as a spokesperson or leader is inconsistent with the ethos the Occupy movement.  He entered as an individual seeking peace and resolution, not as a representative of the students, and was clear that he had called for and would continue to call for Chancellor Katehi’s resignation. 
 
Once inside, and through over an hour of conversation, we learned the following:

  • The Chancellor had made a commitment that police would not be called in this situation
  • Though the message had been received inside the building that students were offering a peaceful exit, there was a concern that not everyone would hold to this commitment
  • The Chancellor had committed to talk with students personally and respond to concerns at the rally on Monday on the quad
  • The student assistants to the Chancellor had organized another forum on Tuesday for the Chancellor to dialogue directly with students
  •  
  • What we felt couldn’t be compromised on was the students’ desire to see and be seen by the Chancellor. Any exit without face to face contact was unacceptable. She was willing to do this. We reached agreement that the students would move to one side of the walkway and sit down as a show of commitment to nonviolence. 
Before we left, the Chancellor was asked to view a video of the student who was with me being pepper sprayed. She immediately agreed. Then he and I witnessed her witnessing eight minutes of the violence that occurred Friday. Like a recurring nightmare, the horrific scene and the cries of “You don’t have to do this!” and students choking and screaming rolled again. The student and I then left the building and using the human mike, students were informed that a request had been made that they move to one side and sit down so that the Chancellor could exit. They immediately complied, though I believe she could have left peacefully even without this concession.
 
I returned to the building and walked with the Chancellor down the human walkway to her car. Students remained silent and seated the entire way.
 
What was clear to me was that once again, the students’ willingness to show restraint kept us from spiraling into a cycle of violence upon violence. There was no credible threat to the Chancellor, only a perceived one. The situation was not hostile. And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human. And the suffering that has been inflicted is real. The pain present as the three of us watched the video of students being pepper sprayed was palpable. A society is only truly free when all persons take responsibility for their actions; it is only upon taking responsibility that healing can come.   
 
Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car? Because I believe in the humanity of all persons. Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek. I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that “just means lead to just ends” and my actions offered dignity not harm.
 
The Chancellor was not trapped in Surge II tonight, but, in a larger sense, we are all in danger of being trapped.  We are trapped when we assent to a culture that for decades, and particularly since 9/11, has allowed law enforcement to have more and more power, which has moved us into an era of hyper-criminalization. We are trapped when we envision no path to reconciliation. And we are trapped when we forget our own power. 
 
“I believe in the humanity of all persons.” That’s a hard one. My heart doesn’t soften easily toward those who proudly declare they have hearts of stone. But I can’t wait to make progress on my resistance when there is such urgent need all around us. So, I decided, I’d start small. Local. Maybe with a food bank that feeds hungry children.
 
And then, on Manhattan User’s Guide, I read about Elisa and Nathan Bond. She’s an actress. He’s a painter and teacher. They have a two-year-old daughter.
 
In February, Nathan was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer.
 
Nine days later, Elisa learned she has stage IV breast cancer.
 
That is a heavy load, made heavier by Elisa’s insurance plan, which won’t approve an MRI for three months after an operation. Yes, but she has a fast-moving cancer. And her doctor wants the test done now. You say, ‘This can’t be.’ Oh, but it can.
 
The Bonds have a web site. A video awaits you — don’t think of looking at it if you don’t have Kleenex handy. (I’m serious — the music is “Lean on Me.”) When you collect your wits, you might do well to read their blog. You might make a contribution so they can get the medical care that insurers don’t think they need. At the very least, you might take a moment to consider these two words: Team Bond.
 
Team Bond. We’re all we have. We are the change. These things connect for me. It’s baby steps, but maybe I am slowly coming to understand that  a small contribution, a modest gift or a kind word matter more now than the zillionth eloquent diatribe about the villains.