David lives in west Oakland, Calif., just across from the BART station. On the night of Nov. 2, he was one of 92 people arrested in protests in downtown Oakland.
When he called the next night, he said, “Mom, I just wanted to let you know I’m OK.” Clueless, I wondered aloud, “Why wouldn’t you be alright?” I was kind of glad not to have known that he’d spent the night in an Oakland jail. His dad and I are proud of his commitment to his ideals, understanding of his desire to be in the thick of it, and at the same time concerned for his safety.
Over Thanksgiving weekend at mom and dad’s house, we had cereal and politics for breakfast. The television is on and the newspapers are front and center every morning. The Tucson newspaper reported that—in spite of her lack of compassion for actual Arizona residents—Governor Jan Brewer has a 42 percent approval rating in the state. I’m surprised at that number; even my relatively conservative parents think she’s a nutcase. In his Sunday morning column, David Fitzsimmons, the cartoonist for the paper, called Brewer “Sarah Palin with split ends,” a nod to her penchant for personal celebrity over all else.
Like Brewer, ultra-conservatives on the national front have gotten results with extreme stances and rhetoric: when the more left-leaning members of the U.S. Congress budget Supercommittee agreed to concessions during an attempt at budget reconciliation, the right-leaning members moved farther to the right.
Driving by the Occupy Tucson encampment (appropriately enough on Congress Street), I saw young and old alike, holding signs indicating their frustration with the status quo, where they don’t feel heard or seen. These folks are not holding out for entitlements; instead they seek opportunity and justice.
The Occupiers in city centers suffer derision, insults, discomfort and even physical violence, all for the sake of making a statement. Like those who lean to the far right, rather than retreating they’re yelling louder, taking a stand, and refusing to be made invisible.
Radicalism thrives when people don’t feel heard.
Government is founded on ideals, and yet compromise and balance are requisite from day to day. Sometimes we get it wrong, but with continued discourse, we have a chance to get it right in the long run.
We’re certain we have all the answers. But can we listen without judgment? Can we change our minds when faced with new information, or is that too academic for most of us? If we allow the process to be hijacked by extremists from either side, are we simply rewarding bad behavior?
When the process breaks down, we ask, “Who is to blame?” But the real question is, “Who suffers?”
A few days ago, David sent me a narrative about his arrest, and asked me if I’d read it and make suggestions. He has written a powerful story about his experience of the Oakland General Strike, the peaceful example he tried to set that night, and what he witnessed before and after he was arrested. In the introduction he writes:
“Someone who I was locked in the cell with said, ‘It feels really good to be arrested when you know you are right.’ It’s true. Being arrested for some petty reason that was … a bad decision on your part is shameful, but when you are locked up for standing for an ideal … being arrested becomes a badge of honor …”
David also wrote about why he led others in the group to sit peacefully, cross-legged, in front of the police line:
“[FALA, where he attended high school] … places a great value on leadership … What I have taken from that is that no matter how small an action … being the first to take a hard path makes it easier for others to follow.”
As they sat facing the police, David pulled the protective bandana off his face, and urged his companions to do the same, to “show the officers we’re human, just like they are.”
Compassion and compromise have gone missing from the current political discourse. The middle ground is messy and full of quicksand, and few are willing to risk it; it seems safer to stand on the shores of extremism, the only solid ground available.