Practicing Generosity at the Oakland General Strike
One of the many things I love about the Occupy movement (also known as the Decolonize movement or (un)Occupy movement, both of which I support) is the vast array of artistic, cultural, philosophical, educational, and practical contributions coming from so many people and communities. I’m seeing so many folks who are really showing up, and masses of people who are acting like it’s possible to create the world we want to live in, acting like liberation is within reach. We’re exploring how to be together, how to make decisions together, how to disagree and stay united, how to take responsibility and hold each other accountable. It’s as though we, as Eihei Dogen suggested to his Zen students back in the 13th century, are practicing like our hair is on fire, and the only thing that can save us is practice. Only now, it’s our world that’s on fire. And we are realizing that our only hope for survival is going to the heart of the matter, both internally and externally. We are fed up and will settle for NOTHING LESS than the real thing.
For the day of the Oakland General Strike, a bunch of us from my queer sangha (spiritual community) formed an “affinity group” of sorts, to participate in the strike together. A few days beforehand, we met to plan our actions. One thing we planned was to find a large bank and do sitting and walking meditation outside. Later that night, one of our group lay awake in the wee hours, and was suddenly struck with a brilliant inspiration! S~he envisioned an expansion of our bank action — practicing generosity by giving away money in front of the bank. The polar opposite of what banks are doing.
The morning of the strike, we gathered early at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza, many of us sporting our queerest, most colorful outfits, armed with a few signs and our personal collections of $1 bills. Around 10 of us showed up. Some of us danced in the flash mob, then we all took off with the big march down Broadway. A few blocks into the march, our affinity group split off from the march and headed for the large branch of Chase Bank.
In front of the bank, we lined up not far from the front door and the ATM. There was a security guard at the front door, clearly on alert, checking us out, and unlocking the door only to let in one customer at a time. We went about our business, a motley group of rainbow and frills. Some of us wanted to do sitting meditation, one wanted to hand out felt hearts she’d made with words like “compassion,” “generosity,” and “kindness,” and some, myself included, wanted to hand out money. Folks in the group passed me their $1 bills, and between us we came up with around $40 total. We’d been saving our ones for the occasion.
As I reached out with one $1 bill at a time, I experimented with different ways to offer it, and how to say to passersby what we were doing. I remained seated on the back of my scooter, as disarming as possible in a muumuu with a rainbow zebra print, simply holding out my hand. With the helpful feedback of my comrades, my words evolved into something like this, “Would you like to take this dollar and give it to someone who needs it? Or keep it for yourself? We’re practicing generosity.” If they simply kept walking, I’d add, “We’re giving away money.” Sometimes that would be the phrase that got their attention.
The array of responses I received was fascinating to me. Some folks absolutely didn’t want to engage at all and just kept walking. Some would engage after a minute. Some needed the money for themselves and said so. Some loved the idea of participating in our action with us by taking a dollar, and letting me know they intended to give away. Some seemed thrilled at the total surprise of being offered money. The bank security guard, who kept coming out of the bank and going back in, seemed pleasantly surprised at the completely non-threatening protest. One of the bank tellers came out of the locked bank and offered to go into the bank for us and get us change if we needed it. Excited by her gesture of appreciation, someone gave her a $20, and sure enough, a few minutes later she came back out with twenty ones. Along similar lines, some passersby loved it so much that they took a dollar, then reached into their own pockets and gave me all their $1 bills so I would have more to give away. So many people gave me money that I ended up giving away over $200 in the hour and a half we were there.
Some of my favorite interactions happened when a group of other protestors showed up with a much different mood and different tactics, shouting angry chants at the bank and blocking the door of the bank. They seemed unsure what to make of our calm and happy group. Then I started offering some of them money, with the same words and gestures I’d offered to everyone else. Every single protestor I engaged with was ready to engage back. I watched so many expressions change, from righteous anger to surprise and then amusement or excitement. From where I sat, it was with the protestors that our generosity action was most infectious — some of them started giving away money, too, living into those words with their own voices and outstretched hands, inviting strangers to take their money because they were practicing generosity.
I watched my own experience change, too, as the act of generosity moved from something I was enacting to something I was embodying. Some people I’d offered money would ask for more, and I noticed there was no resistance inside me, no questions to be asked, no clinging, no other possible answer but “yes, of course you can have more,” just the simple outflow of sharing what I had. We are all connected. All that I have is yours.
Our affinity group hasn’t had a chance to really debrief yet and share all of our experiences and interpretations of the event. Other folks in our group gave away money, and we each had a different approach and experience. One in our group actually walked with people as she tried to give them money, in contrast to my more passive, seated position that required people to come to me. Some of us gave away coins. A man of color in our group experienced some people thinking he was a panhandler. I look forward to hearing more of my comrades’ experiences with our action, exploring what came up for each of us, and discussing what we want to do next.
There’s a lot of talk right now about the movement’s “diversity of tactics,” and the discussion is often centered around violence and nonviolence. There is a lot of complexity to that conversation, and I am learning so much. It occurs to me now that I also want us to pay attention to how the tactics we employ affect our ways of being in the world, and what impact they have on the culture. With every word and action, we are planting seeds (whether we want to or not). Not just our mass actions, but every action. Our group’s little generosity action was one small creative experiment, which we are planning to continue, and perhaps to expand. I invite everyone to try similar experiments, to share the results, and to share ideas about ways to highlight and transform our ways of being in the world. May we all be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.
[author] [author_info]Max Airborne devotes her creative energy to social justice, community building, and exploring how to create the conditions necessary for authentic diversity and liberation for all beings. She is a member of the Leadership Sangha (board) of Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center. Contact her at her WordPress blog [/author_info] [/author]