New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Occupy Love

December 19, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Current Events, Guest Author, Politics

Lessons in Brutality and Compassion from the Protest at the Port

by Rev. John Helmiere

{Author’s note: As my story continues to be read, may we not forget the exploitation of the port truckers and that the kind of violence I experienced is primarily enacted upon people of color.  I appreciate the energy this piece has generated but acknowledge that my social status allows my voice to be amplified.}

Last Monday evening, I was brutally beaten by my brothers on the Seattle Police force as I stood before an entrance to Pier 18 of the Seattle Port, wearing my clergy garb and bellowing, “Keep the peace! Keep the peace!”

An officer pulled me down from behind and threw me to the asphalt. Between my cries of pain and shouts of “I’m a man of peace!” he pressed a knee to my spine and immobilized my arms behind my back, crushing me against the ground. With the right side of my face pressed to the street, he repeatedly punched the left side. I was cuffed and pulled off the ground by a different officer who seemed genuinely appalled when he saw my bleeding face and my clerical collar. He asked who I was and why I was here, to which I replied, “I’m a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe another world is possible.” He led me shaking to a police van where began a 12-hour journey of incarcerated misery.

How did this happen?

The afternoon of Monday December 12 began with a march from downtown Seattle to the Port in a coordinated attempt by west coast Occupy movements to expose exploitation of workers and interrupt business as usual at major Pacific ports. Upon arrival, the crowd spread out to picket or blockade entrances. I joined a small group of about 40 to picket a side entrance (we did not stop anyone from walking in or out). Several hours later, word came that business had been canceled for the day and our group dispersed in high spirits. My wife, Freddie, and I considered going home after a long, chilly day of standing up for what we believed in, but decided to check other parts of the protest to see if there were important needs we might fill before departing.

As we neared a major entrance, Pier 18, the tension was almost palpable. Hundreds of people had been occupying the blockaded road for hours while police kept their distance. But night was falling, mounted officers arrived on the scene, and the police began to maneuver into position. I began to feel a great fear ballooning in my chest and seriously considered leaving. I worried that the police would be ruthless under the cover of darkness. My Christian convictions call me to nonviolence, but I had only practiced this by intervening in street fights—never in the face of a militarized force that believes they can act with legal and social impunity. But in my spiritual core, the place where conscience prevails over fear and self-interest, I knew that I could not run away when the situation desperately called for disciplined nonviolent voices.

Utterly terrified, I made my way to the line between the occupiers and the police, held my arms out, and began shouting to my brothers and sisters on both sides: “Peaceful protest everyone,” “Keep the peace,” “Do not respond with violence.”  My brothers and sisters on the police force began advancing behind a wall of horses and bicycles. I linked arms with a young man in dark clothing on my left and an old man on my right. We stood still until the officers approached us and began throwing their bikes into our bodies, shoving us toward the sidewalk. I stared into the eyes of the most aggressive officer, who was seething, and shouted above the noise, “Why are you causing violence to peaceful people? Think about your actions! Think about your humanity!”  With an open hand, he rammed my throat. The old man to my left was attacked similarly and prepared a cocked fist, but I yanked him back.

A minute later, an officer threw me to the ground and punched me numerous times. With hands cuffed behind my back, I was led into a police van and caged alone for a half hour. In the dim light and cramped space, I sang “This Little Light of Mine” and recited Psalm 23 to stave off a gnawing fear. Eventually, a few more occupiers joined me and we were transported to a holding facility where they split us into pairs and left us in tiny concrete rooms for several hours. The rooms were voids in every way: windowless, empty (no facilities, no benches), lit with glaring fluorescent bulbs, gray and white. My void-mate was a terrified kid who gave me heart by singing protest songs while I shared some meditation techniques for maintaining self-possession in trying moments. Eventually we were hauled off to the county jail and had our handcuffs removed after four long hours of immobility.

As I walked through the metal detector at the jail, a fellow occupier I hadn’t spoken with yet looked at me in my collar and said, “You’ve just been baptized.” They outfitted us in thin cotton jail uniforms, and proceeded to move us from cell to freezing cold cell for the next eight hours without any clear purpose or explanation. During that time, the adrenaline wore off and my bruises and lacerations began aching intensely. I asked officers and staff at least six times to see a nurse and was consistently denied that, as well as water and food. Finally, during the final hour a nurse took pity on me and found an ice pack for my face. At 5:00am we were released to the street after obligating ourselves to appear before a judge at a future date.

Why was I there in the first place?

First, I participated in the port occupation at the behest of some of the most exploited and underpaid laborers in our city—the men and women who truck containers in and out of the port. Over the past nine months, the spiritual community that I convene, Valley & Mountain, has stood in solidarity with these workers in their struggle for dignity in the workplace. We have listened to the truckers’ stories, held a focused study of the issues, attended a Port Commissioners meeting to demand justice from elected officials, and participated in a major rally in support of the workers’ simple requests for access to bathrooms, less toxic trucks, and basic workplace protections (to learn more about their plight, read their open letter in support of the port occupation). I participated in the protest in order to stand alongside them.

Second, I participated because I have witnessed overwhelming evidence that the economic and political systems of my country stand against those people who the God I worship stands for. My conception of God, inadequate as it may be, is better described as the Love that generates creativity and community than as a super-man judging us from some heavenly skybox. Such a Love contrasts with everything that reserves power, dignity, wealth, or the status of full humanity for some while denying these things to others. My commitment to Love requires me to challenge the increasing consolidation of all these good things in the hands of a few, and to collaborate for the creation of something that Love would recognize as kin.

A call to transformation

Here is what I am asking of anyone who will hear it:

  • Listen deeply
  • Get upset
  • Generate love

By listening deeply, I mean the kind of listening that allows the experiences of others to alter your own worldview. It may mean allowing the stories of exploited people, like the port truckers, to challenge your assumptions about the American narrative of equal opportunity. It might mean allowing my story to challenge assumptions you may have about the reliability of police discipline or the impartiality of mainstream media impartiality (reports of the protest didn’t match what I saw or experienced). Whatever it means, it will require humility and proactive encounters with people you might usually avoid.

By getting upset, I mean being appalled at the dehumanizing forces operating in our world—forces unveiled by deep listening. Nothing changes just because you become aware that port truckers have to defecate in plastic bags because they’re barred from using the employee bathrooms. Nothing changes just because you know that some cities have police cultures that encourage brutality, particularly against people of color. We must have the tenderness of heart to become upset when the rights of human beings are violated and oppressed.

By generating love, I mean channeling that passion into creative and liberating action. There are so many excuses to avoid it. But as the great preacher and activist William Sloane Coffin once said, “Not taking sides is effectively to weigh in on the side of the stronger.” As finite creatures, we cannot fight every worthy battle. But refusing to participate in any struggle for a more loving world is a nihilistic rejection of even our very finite power. Right now I am praying for the courage to transform the molecules of my anger and the raw material of my frustration into the greatest, most indestructible, most transformative power on earth: unconditional love in action.

Reverend John Helmiere is a commissioned minister in the United Methodist Church and serves as the convener and Minister of Listening at Valley & Mountain. He is active with BikeWorks, Poverty Action Network, Earth Ministry, Faith Task Force for Worker Justice, and other organizations. A longer version of this article originally appeared on the Valley & Mountain website, and this adapted version is reprinted here by permission of the author.

0 Comments to “Occupy Love”

  1. Thank you, Rev. Helmiere, for sharing your story, and for being there to bear witness to the protests. I agree that our protests must be fueled by love, tempered by a deep ethical awareness of what we are fighting for and how important it is.
    Yours in struggle,

  2. This story reveals clearly that protesters must take account of the fact that the police do not see us as brothers nor sisters in peace. The police, in the main, have persuaded themselves that all protesters are attackers of property and persons, and have to be taught a lesson. They do not see us as we see them. They are not interested in our messages. We are troublemakers and have to be beaten.
    It is necessary for us to work out the group psychology of the police forces. It is essential that we work out how to get them, first, to patrol peacefully; and second, to join the protests against exploitation and social abuse.
    Until we can do that, we must not demonstrate in isolation, but always in large numbers, arm in arm.

    go to……..chapter on Communities in Conflict.

  3. For more info, see this follow-up from Rev. Helmiere:

  4. Because Our U.S. Federal Gov’t Is A Monopoly Of Our Currency And They Regulate Our Free Market, They Control 100% Of Our U.S. Economy!

    Unfortunately the only way to make OWS successful is to direct it toward our U.S. gov’t. Keep the dozen or so honest members and terminate the rest of the U.S. congress and replace them with honest citizens who must sign a contract stipulating they will be fired if they ever vote on ANYTHING without consent of at least 90% of their constituents. Reinstitute civics lessons to children so they fully understand their role and the importance of them actively engaging in their gov’t. Mandate two year term limits, PERIOD! This is the only way for We The People to gain 100% control of our U.S. gov’t and stop the transition of America as a member of the New World Order!


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