Update: new photo, borrowed from another protest-reflection post on the fabulous new blog Kissing In The Dark, made by the Bay Area revolutionary powerhouse chakaZ.
Paramis, or Paramitas, also called the Ten Perfections, are qualities that dhammic practitioners try to cultivate on the path to enlightenment.
I found myself thinking about the Paramis throughout a long Friday night and Saturday, when I was arrested, along with 152 others, for “unlawful assembly”: marching in the streets of Oakland to protest police violence and impunity. I was held in custody for about 20 hours; some people still haven’t been released. (Please consider donating to legal aid for protester defense.)
A concrete detention cell might seem like a strange setting for reflecting on the attributes leading to Buddhahood. A far cry from the bucolic campuses of well-funded meditation centers. On the other hand, many people have famously developed their spiritual practice while incarcerated, or even while being tortured. I’m not saying that every setting is equally optimal for developing every part of dhammic practice. But once you’ve learned some of the basics in a more controlled, safe environment, it’s interesting to see how they can manifest in non-stereotypical situations.
He straps on a second backpack, belonging to his friend, who doesn’t have papers, to afford more mobility for avoiding arrest.
They trade jokes and soggy jail cookies. They offer room for one another on the concrete benches of the cramped holding cell.
Lawyers work for free to get the protesters out of jail. The work can take months, for folks facing trumped-up charges.
And on and on.
From Thich Nhat Hanh: For A Future To Be Possible
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
In jail, they give us plasticized bologna and surprisingly good oranges. Over twelve hours later, they’ve given nothing else. We practice responding to this harm without suffering. We practice fasting. We explore the limits of our basic needs.
In jail, when we ask at 5am how much longer they think we’ll be here, we are told: Ask me how much longer, and I’ll hold you here an extra hour. Ask me again, and I’ll hold you two more hours. We practice responding to this harm without suffering. We practice abiding. We explore the limits of our basic needs.
Knowing the risks, we have nevertheless stood up for what we believe. Some of us are better accustomed to making do in these conditions. All of us are being reminded that we are more than our comforts.
This is a complex one. Can we understand the nature of impermanence, egolessness, and unsatisfactoriness of phenomena? Can we respond to the relative world of material harm, while still practicing diligently on our inner liberation from needless suffering?
As the zip-tie handcuffs cut off circulation and my shoulders begin to ache and tingle, I summon my meditation practice, explore the pain, and try my best to observe the present moment with equanimity. After three hours or so, the handcuffs are cut off.
As we are blocked in by riot police, some with machine guns, on a residential Oakland street, we keep chanting:
WE ARE ALL OSCAR GRANT!
As we are handcuffed and lined up seated on the pavement, we keep chanting:
WE ARE ALL OSCAR GRANT!
As my 20-hour family sits in our women’s holding cell, hour after long hour, we cheer and applaud as each individual is released. The cops try to intimidate us, say they’ll keep us there longer if we keep up the noise. Same for the adjacent women’s cell, where we can hear them yelling. We all keep on celebrating. And together we chant:
WE ARE ALL OSCAR GRANT!
Patience is best when combined with sound strategy. Do I hope to move beyond marches? Yes. Do I want to help grow the movement against police violence, proliferating it in different sectors with the power to disrupt the economy in big ways? Yep. Do I want to simultaneously develop community-based safety systems that are actually accountable, healthy, and responsive to the needs of participants? Hell yes. Will all this take time? You bet. Waiting it out in jail is only one small part of the process.
Bearing witness directly is a wonderful antidote to media spin and misinformation. Contrary to sensationalist reporting, this was not a violent, roaming mob. We were trying to march to the Fruitvale station where Oscar Grant was killed, and menacing riot police hemmed us in at every turn, so we improvised the route. This is not marauding; it is a snake march. Which authorities don’t like very much, because they are not in total control of it.
Again, contrary to reporting, the purpose of our demonstration was not to wreak havoc. The super, super, nearly total majority of people, including every single person I knew, damaged no property. And even those who may have, engaged in no violence that I saw. Property destruction is very different from violence. And even though I don’t support the former in this case, I don’t want it irresponsibly conflated with the latter, the way the mainstream media consistently has in its coverage of the Oscar Grant case.
You know what’s violent? Denying a woman in custody access to her chemotherapy treatment. She was only one of many people I witnessed being denied medical attention — to antidepressants, to necessary medications. And when the woman who was ill from missing her chemo finally got transferred to a cell with a pay phone, called the National Lawyers Guild to tell them what was happening, and half an hour later the cell door rolled open . . . the cops berated her for “costing them a lot of time and money,” and informed her that because of what she’d done, they would delay her release.
Another interesting element around truth: When they had us cornered, just before they arrested us, the police declared a crime scene and instructed everyone from the press to disperse, while still preventing the rest of us (who wanted to go peacefully) from leaving. Nearly all the professional journalists crossed the police line to depart. Kind of chilling, given that the event that catalyzed all this was documentation of an act of police violence against an unresisting, restrained person.
A final truth: From what I saw, and this is only my own personal impression, many of these cops appear to be deeply scarred people. The one who kept me in line on the arrest scene before we boarded the paddy wagons wouldn’t even look me in the eye at first. The internal damage and delusion of a jailer is cyclical: one must already be suffering in order to lock someone up and deny them food or medicine for twelve hours (whether the denial is polite and bureaucratic or spiteful and direct is largely irrelevant). And participating in that process itself produces more delusion, more scarring, more habit patterns.
From Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” . . . Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Much gratitude to all my fellow detainees who made my time in custody human and even fun.
Much gratitude to all who have offered their support from the outside.
Much gratitude to all those who continue to oppose oppression, even when doing so is unpopular.
May all beings be safe. May no human be trapped in a cage. May no human be psychologically conditioned to harm others in an effort to make themselves feel more powerful and secure. May we abolish prisons and end policing as we know it, replacing them with participatory processes that care for people and treat all living beings with dignity.
May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be free.
Way to be a badass bodhisattva! :)
Thanks for sharing and being a strong voice amongst quiet people. I wondered if you were amongst those detained, am belatedly concerned for you and am very happy that you are ok!
Katie, thank you for writing this. Reading it this evening I literally found my breath taken away. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Glad you’re OK and so much love to you :)
Thanks, loves. Mandi, I miss you! And you, MC. I really feel so lucky to have met, and been surrounded by, so many people with strong, caring hearts like yours. I know it sounds cheesy, and I know I’m not the best at showing it because I retreat into my weird little hermit cave a lot and don’t keep in touch, but I really draw so much inspiration from your humor and brilliance and beauty and insights and kindness.
Hope we can have some long, warm, catch-up conversations sometime soon.
. . . Just like I finally had with you tonight, Cat! ;) “The bare necessities” . . .
K8e, as always, I’m so struck by your wisdom and reflectiveness, as well as your willingness to live your ideals and values. Missing you from the Eastern coast, sending love and support via digital space.
*you* are one of my favorite dhamma writers.
K-T what an inspiration this is! You very honestly laid out the real dynamics of what we went through, your writing is beautiful, and the connections you make between dhamma and struggle plant themselves deep in my mind.
One more: Equanimity (Upekkhā pāramī): Once in the tank with 24 other men, I used the bit of equanimity I’ve developed in my meditation practice to react less to feelings of stress, fear, anger, my normal aversion towards intense crowding and endless conversation. Trying to remain equanimous (i.e. not reacting as much to feelings caused by my surroundings and psychology) in that setting was fo sho a big opportunity to cultivate that pāramī!
Thanks again for this, <3.
Lea, missing you right back, thank you for this digital hug. Definitely phone date soon. Can’t wait to hear what you’re thinking and feeling and cooking and (re)potting. :)
kimberly, I don’t even have words for that, except thank you, and I hope we get to keep knowing each other for a long time.
Ryan, I love you. Thanks for sharing that beautiful example of the parami I forgot! And for talking through these things with me on the regular. And for lots more. <3
Thank you for writing this. And for posting the MLK quote, in the context of your post it brought tears to my eyes.
Well said. I appreciated hearing more about your experiences of the march, rally, arrest, and jail, and liked the way you framed it with the paramitas.