“If I Used My Voice This Time”: Bearing Witness at a Protest Against Police Gun Violence
A Reflection by Áine McCarthy, Buddhist Peace Fellowship member and Co-Director of Upaya’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. Reposted with permission, and with gratitude.
What does it mean to be defenseless?
This question, a koan for me of practicing with the precepts of non-harming, loomed in front of me Saturday as we set out from Robinson Park in Albuquerque, marching toward Embassy Suites, the hotel hosting the NRA’s National Police Shooting Championship. “Hands up!” someone shouted through a megaphone. “Don’t shoot!” we chanted in response. Armed only with banners proclaiming, We are not game! the organizers from unOccupy Albuquerque reminded us that we were headed into a large group of armed police. We did so in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, to honor the lives that had been lost to police shootings around the country and specifically in Albuquerque, a police department that has killed 28 people in the past five years, a fatality rate eight times that of the NYPD.
Walking by the vacant city buildings through the streets of downtown, the sense of grief for those lives was palpable. Under my rakusu, I wore a T-shirt from the Red & Black Café, the bookstore on my college campus at Wesleyan University where my friend and classmate Johanna Justin-Jinich was murdered in 2009 by a man who had been sexually harassing her and stalking her. She and the man who killed her had been in my dream the night before. The sign my partner and fellow Upaya practitioner Sam Senko Watts had made for this event read, “Guns ≠ Public Safety.”
Floating above our party of about sixty activists, ghost-like, was a giant puppet, made in the likeness of Victor Villalpando, a sixteen year old boy who died at the hands of police in Española last summer. Among our group were one of Victor’s moms, Mary Shoemaker and his younger sister, Corrina, “Tenten” Shoemaker-Shure.
We learned that one of the winners of last year’s Shooting Championship was APD officer Lt. Greg Brachle, who is now being sued by his fellow officer Jacob Grant for shooting him nine times in a botched drug bust earlier this year. Trying to calm my crying enough to contribute my voice to the chanting as we walked, I wondered, can’t the common ground of our grief be enough to bring an end to this kind of violence?
Our planned action as I understood it was to read the names of the victims of police violence in the lobby of the hotel, lighting candles for each of these snuffed-out lives. When we arrived at Embassy Suites, we were greeted by at least half a dozen uniformed police amidst the hotel guests, many of whom were presumably off-duty police taking part in the shooting contest. At this time, the guests were enjoying a cocktail hour and those we encountered appeared, by and large, to be intoxicated. An audacious few among our group made it as far as the entryway or the lobby before they were dragged and pushed back outside. The rest of us were barred from entry by the officers and their bicycles, as well as hotel staff; in an aggressive confrontation loud with yelling from many on both sides, the glass hotel doors were closed and locked in front of us, some apparently partially broken in the process by our bodies. See videos here (via unOccupy ABQ on Facebook).
This left the police on the other side of the glass, standing watchfully through it as we tried futilely to light the candles outside. With the protection from the wind of our cardboard signs we got a few lit before one of the more hostile hotel-goers stomped on them. After a few more heated exchanges of this sort with those patrons being escorted by the police through the locked doors inside, Victor’s sister Tenten stepped forward.
She requested that a police officer come out just to have a conversation with her. She asked us to promise that if they did, nothing bad would happen. One of the more tactically fierce activists, who’d been willing to risk arrest to make it inside the hotel, honored her request by stating that she couldn’t make that promise and so she would remove herself from the situation. By this time, most of the officers that had locked us out had retreated to the hotel lobby where they stood in a circle, visibly but inaudibly chatting and laughing. Tenten stood in front of us in near-silence for about 20 minutes, facing the doors. A hush fell over our group as we waited.
At this point, Senko and I sat on the sidewalk in meditation. We were thinking of our friends from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the action they’d shared with us, in which they’d formed a blockade of seated meditators in front of the doors of a Marriott hotel in Oakland, preventing foot traffic from entering during Urban Shield, “a weapons expo and militarized training site for police” hosted inside the hotel. Check out video of this action here. They succeeded in moving Urban Shield out of Oakland though another city is now hosting it. “Not here, not anywhere!” was part of our message to Albuquerque in regard to the city warmly welcoming the National Police Shooting Championship, which they’ve done for almost a decade now. Although I’d joked with friends during the march about creating Buddhist chants of protest slogan variety, i.e. “Just sit!” I now thought and wondered more seriously about how our sitting practice in itself can be an effective tactic of nonviolent direct action, at once pacifist while not as passive as it is often perceived to be. (We’d explored this in our Compassionate Confrontation workshop with Dawn Haney and Katie Loncke of BPF when they came here in August as part of our program Marking the 70th Anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki.)
Phrases of metta (lovingkindness) flowed easily for the victims of police brutality and their families as I sat. I also offered metta to the participants in the championship inside that they might be safe and happy, free from the suffering of greed, hate, and delusion. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh’s words as told to and recounted by Cheri Maples, “Who else would we want to carry a gun besides somebody who will do it mindfully?” (Read Cheri’s reflection, in Lion’s Roar today, “A Buddhist Cop’s approach to justice.”) I extended the practice of metta to the police in our line of sight, a couple of whom, insofar as their facial expressions could be read, seemed pained and conflicted about kicking us out of the hotel, perhaps even sympathetic, respectful certainly. What does it mean to bear witness to all sides of the situation? Another koan in the practice of making peace, articulated by Roshi Bernie Glassman in the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: Not Knowing, first, giving up fixed ideas and answers; Bearing Witness, becoming one with the situation and entering into a nondual relationship with all perspectives within it; and then seeing what comes up, taking Loving or Compassionate Action as it arises from the process of Bearing Witness.
A delegation of police came over to tell Tenten that her request had been denied: they would not have a conversation with her (they spoke and then quickly walked away, not listening long enough for her to say anything). After this, with tears streaming down her face, Tenten addressed our group. You can watch a video of her speaking here. I have also transcribed the better part of her words below. It is with my whole heart that I share this with you, as her words spoke directly to my heart. I fear that she walked away that day not feeling heard, not feeling like her voice made a difference. “We’re with you!” I yelled out to her at one point, wanting her to know how honored I felt to follow her, how proud I was that this thirteen-year-old young woman had stepped forward as the leader of and spokesperson for our group.
I was humbled and moved by her bravery, in the sense of what Dr. Brené Brown talks about: “Courage… is from the Latin word cor, meaning heart—and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” As she shared her story, with heart and voice, Tenten’s words struck me as very much in the spirit of Not Knowing, not presuming (as many of our slogans and banners suggested) that we necessarily had all the answers or that we were more important than the police, and with the understanding, as Glassman Roshi often says, that what we say is for each of us just an opinion. (i.e. “The Buddha had Four Noble Opinions.”)
Tears flowed as I sat listening to her, for all women who have been silenced, (as we chant of our matriarchal ancestors, “for all the women honored ones whose names have been forgotten and left unsaid,”) for the thirteen-year-old girl in me who had faced disillusionment and censorship from authority figures and those in power, for Tenten’s voice, for her brother Victor, my friend Johanna, and the other voices we can no longer hear. I invite your comments to her as you read this, and would also encourage and welcome dialogue and different views on the issues surrounding police use of force.
I’m really sorry. I thought they would listen. I thought that I could get them to at least look at us. I was thinking of everyone in history that tried to make a change. That maybe it was my turn to have a dream. That maybe I could have a powerful voice here. I tried to be brave. I tried to be brave but I feel like I’m wasting most of these people’s time. I’m not usually the one to speak. I thought that if I spoke this time maybe something would happen. But nothing seems to ever be happening. What happened was, they locked the doors and walked away.
My voice has always been small. I feel like I never actually had someone listen to me. I know you feel we’re not game. We’re not things we can toy with. I wanted them to see how you guys are feeling. I can’t make that happen, but I can try, and I tried.
So many people die, not only through the hands of police. People respect the police. I know you feel like we don’t need the police, but what we need are police that are responsible. We don’t need to get rid of them, we need to show them how to be responsible, how to actually know their citizens. We don’t need to get rid of them completely. They need to know how racist they are being, how sexist this world can be; they need to know what’s important. We’re important. They’re important. No one is more important than the other.
This is what I believe: everyone is entitled to their own opinion. My voice is a small fraction of everyone else’s. There are kids, teens, adults, and there are humans, people out there… there are people that want to be heard as much as all of you. I know people who want to be heard, but they don’t speak. I was one of those people. I knew that there were really bad things happening in this world, and I didn’t acknowledge it, until my brother died.
Since then, I’ve been to protest after protest with my moms; I’ve tried to speak even when I didn’t want to. I was socially awkward. I want for people to speak up. No matter how young or old. To most people we’re just some random citizens who are holding signs, we’re destructive to people.
And what I’ve learned in life, is that justice and revenge—they’re like twins; you can barely tell them apart. And when my brother died, I thought I wanted justice but I really wanted revenge. I tried to stop thinking about it because I realized what I was doing. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing now. I’m just speaking.
I feel like people are going to look at me and say, she’s a child, someone told her about these things; she’s talking about something she doesn’t know. I know what I’m talking about. We know what we’re talking about. We know what’s happening. I’m sure they [looking back toward police] know what’s happening. Other people should know what’s happening. Other people should speak.
Read more in the Santa Fe New Mexican here.