Why I Went
My motive and intention in joining Code Pink
this week was to push my own envelope. get out of my comfort zone, take some risks, and LEARN through trial and error what direct action feels like to me. The inner difference between watching (and critiquing) from the sidelines, and being engaged, a participant, an agent of action rather than reaction, has been profound for me. Life changing. I recommend it to all of you! I learned so much about myself, how I react, how I work with others under pressure, where I’m tempted to hold back (and why), different ways that leadership takes form and arises, and how important it is to OFFER the music, not wait to be invited, to trust its power enough to bring it open handed and eagerly, as the gift that it is. It’s not about me- its about the age old power of song- a tool for social change and human empowerment for millenia. I get to be a channel for this timeless and universal language, and I am deeply grateful for that.
Who Were We
We came from Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Arizona, NY, Oregon, and more. We were mostly over 40, tho two of the main staff organizers are DYNAMIC young women in their 20’s. We were almost entirely “white” women. Many left families and jobs behind to come. One brought her infant with her and marched with him in a backpack. We slept 3,4, 5 to a room, and on sofas, and cushions in the basement. We cheerfully cooked, cleaned, made banners and signs, did web research, blogged, wrote chants and songs, and walked and walked and walked as we made our rounds of the capitol.
I’ve never seen a group work so hard and have so much fun. I think the key to Code Pink’s magic is the playful, creative fun that weaves through the planning and the execution of what we do. There was little sleep, no privacy, no down time. It is not sustainable of course for long haul activism, but for a burst of emergency presence at this crucial time of deliberation in Congress over another round of funding, it was great and doable. With all this stress, I heard no harsh words, flare ups etc among the women (could have missed them,
but I wasn’t there for the fireworks if there were any). This in itself is remarkable. It speaks to a level of devotion to the high picture, the absolute necessity of doing everything in our power to influence policy in our government, that subsumes ego and more petty self-centered jockeying.
I saw numerous instances of courage and dedication in the rooms and halls of congress, and on the street. Speaking truth to power, undaunted by the suits, the flags, the oak paneled rooms, the Capitol security guards. I was impressed by the breadth of knowledge and savvy on the part of the seasoned Code Pink organizers as they locked verbal horns with Legislative Aides the likes of Mitch McConnell (minority whip), Dana Rohrabacher (sp) (about as right as you can get), Ike Skelton (he of the “Get those assholes out of here” quote during the Petraeus hearings-see 9/18 posting for more in this).
What is Helping?
Jon Stewart’s dis of Code Pink’s legislative disruptions- “You’re not helping” begs the question- well, Jon, what IS helping (and what risks are you taking to confront this government?). Those who dismiss CP’s tactics (not all of which I support or participate in, as you know) deserves the same response- what better idea do you have? We’ve actively pursued ALL the more conventional approaches (By “we”, I mean the peace movement in general),–We’ve voted (and had those elections blatantly stolen), we’ve petitioned on line and hard copy, protested, committed non violent civil disobedience, gone to jail, hunger struck- lobbied, talked reasonably to congress people…And the death toll mounts, and even the most reasonable of legislative proposals, such as today’s Webb et. al proposal to at least have troops be given as much time on leave as they have spent in Iraq, down to defeat…
So ANY group that engages in something heartfelt, brave, non violent and persistent deserves nothing but applause and gratitude. If you have a better idea, do it!
Most moving moments:
I invited a small group of women to learn and sing some very -peaceful healing songs together. learned three songs (May I Be An Instrument of Peace, An Army of Gray Haired Woman -thanks Kate Munger for these!)- and Circle Round for Freedom (Linda HIrschorn).
Some of the Code Pinkers were dubious about the plan- to sing in the Sam Rayburn atrium, a beautifully acoustic area o f one of the leg office buildings-afraid it would draw police attention (not allowed to sing in halls, only in legislators offices!)-and make them kick us all out before we had finished our visits…But I was convinced that the tone of this would be its one emissary, and would attract interest but not hostility.
So we did it!
And it was perfect! Passsersby stopped and listened, took pictures smiled, the capitol security folks, who were all over us when in the halls and offices en mass, stood by silently. and the singers were ecstatic. You know the calming centering and grounding affect that this kind of singing can have on all who sing, and listen. We were starry eyed and joyful when finished. So I think we’ll do it a gain!
Visiting the office of Mitch McConnell (minority whip), a large meeting room, with his Leg aide (pretty high level I think), about 50 of us crammed in for a relatively long dialogue. I wish you could witness the clarity, heart, passion and truth telling that Medea Benjamin (co-founder of Code Pink) and others bring to these meetings. Respectful (for the most part), and incredibly cogent. Questions and comments from many gathered there showed how well informed and thoughtful we were, representing well the peace movement. At one point Geoff Millard, leader of Iraq Vets against the War spoke up- in a choked voice, saying: “All I want to know is how many more of my brothers are you willing to kill before this thing ends. Just give me a number. I want to track it on m y computer, I want to know what number we’re at- just tell me- how many”.
There was no possible response except the sounds of sobbing in the room, Cynthia, the mother of a boy in Iraq, leapt up, in tears, and spoke passionately (Can’t remember what she said- we were all pretty emotional), she and Medea hugged and wept; that pretty well ended the visit. We presented the Hall of Shame certificate, and it was time for our song. I said to the aid” Usually we sing a funny song at the end but t this is not a funny moment. Let’s sing about who we really are” and led “We are a gentle angry people“. A song I can bet has never been heard in that room, and perhaps those halls. It was such a powerful and tender moment. I was so proud of all of us.
The aid was very calm and present throughout, fielded all questions and comments (that’s his job) and never cracked his veneer (also his job).
I am completely convinced that his heart was touched. He is a human being, and no human being could not have been affected by the voices, the tears and the song. No way to ascertain any tangible effects, but the point is (at least one point)
that we brought our highest and best intentions and actions into the heart of government, and left with a sense of dignity and purpose that leaves all of US stronger.
Protesting at the White House During Bush’s Address To The Nation Following Petraeus Testimony
For me, the evening had its highs and lows. At times the energy veered into the realms of unfocused anger and finger pointing, name calling, and such that I don’t choose to participate in. Not only does it create a general tone of antagonism and potential violence (as the violent tendencies in others gets triggered) but I do feel it weakens our power as a movement, casting us into simple “we’re good- all the rest of you are evil” simplistic dichotomies.The art of peacemaking and “being peace” as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches is not easy matter, but if we are going to this much trouble to put our bodies and personal security and safety a little more on the line, I would want us to really rise to the highest level possible of personal attitude and intention. What this looks like would be different perhaps for each person. For me, I stood in silence, sometimes sending “metta” (lovingkindness practice) to the police, the President, the demonstrators, myself. And I initiated singing together whenever I could either be heard, or the energy felt so volatile that I knew something need to change.
Wonderfully, the music did accomplish a change in energy, over and over. Singing together brought a unity, harmony and groundedness that that I know helped many people (who said so). So the tone would shift for awhile, the power of song claiming us all and evening out our ragged spirits and energies. Then another upswell of shouting and anger, then more song. So I guess all the ways of public speech were covered!
How Would The Buddha Protest
For those of you who are dharma sisters/brothers, or simply interested in how a person reconciles their spiritual principles with vehement and direct action for peace, here are a few reflections. I am learning as I go, and when I found myself questioning an action I participated in DC (was it truly loving in its intention? did it add to divisiveness and anger in the world?) I would remind myself that I went to DC to RISK, to LEARN, and to GROW (as well as to change the world!). So if there were mistakes, they were in the interest of developing more skill and awareness and wisdom about moral and skillful action in an empire running amuck. So I practiced forgiveness toward myself when I felt residual guilt or confusion about how I participated.
The question of “what would Buddha do?” – or in my case, it presented more as “What would Thich Nhat Hanh or Sister Chan Kong do?” haunted me throughout my days and nights with Code Pink. Disrupting the Heritage Foundation panel was probably the hardest and most controversial (in my own mind) action I was part of. Clearly it engendered anger, and increased hostility toward Code Pink (and by extension the Peace movement).
The Buddhadharma does not point one toward confrontative actions that could be considered harmful to others. So what’s a western female activist to do?
OK, here’s what came to me over time. My spiritual heroes and mentors: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thay and Sister Kong, and the Dalai Llama, provide incredible models of wise and skillful and strategic action in the face of almost unimaginable oppression, violence and power imbalance. Each of them were operating in a particular time and place, a cultural context, and their actions and approaches were coherent with that community and time. They skillfully challenged the predominant system without going so far outside it that they were marginalized and disempowered.
My job- our job as engaged practitioners- is not to completely IMITATE the form of their actions, but to diligently and honestly seek within our OWN cultural context (in my case, not just American empire, but modern feminism and western Buddhism) for what makes sense in this place and time and circumstance. For me, the underlying principles are my true guidelines: is my action/speech motivated by hatred , blame, or any attitude dismissive of another human being? The FORM of the action may not look loving and peaceful, but one cannot always speak truth to power without setting off reactions of anger and hostility. Should one refrain from speaking or acting against injustice because it might engender anger and hostility? Of course not! Is practice always quiet, gentle, serious, non-confrontative? (As I write the monks are marching- and being beaten- in Burma. May they be well and safe!)
Is singing funny, ironic, satirical songs in public, directed at policies and policy makers who are, in their delusion, doing incalculable damage to the planet and her people, is that non-Buddhist? Is not love, joy, fun, fierce compassion, and truth, at the heart of the singing and the actions. In my heart- YES!
How to assess what is skillful? Code Pink can look downright annoying sometimes (Jon Stewart’s unfortunate assessment “You’re not helping” is probably shared by many). But when so many more subdued and conciliatory or diplomatic means seem to get sucked into a vortex of governmental oblivion (from voting to protesting to traditional lobbying- which feels like ineffective business-as-usual forms- so perhaps loud, colorful, humorous, challenging action IS the skillful means needed. Again, my heart guided me to NOT
participate in some disruptions, for example a Senate Judiciary hearing on the FISA wiretapping laws- headed by Rep. Conyers whom I respect, and attended by Jerry Nadler (NY), both of whom gave stinging and cogent short speeches about civil liberties and the need to protect our privacy rights at all costs.
Skillful means, one of the Boddhisatva’s vows, can include a wide array of techniques and approaches, and part of the skill, I’m thinking, is being attuned to the moment and the cultural context (and of course one’s own heart and what feels right). Just as Buddhism takes root in many different cultures and changes in form as it adapts, skillful means looks different in different cultures. Thich Nhat Hanh always taught that we need not put on a brown robe and learn to chant in Pali to be a Buddhist- in fact, he encouraged westerners to find the western form for dharma, a contemporary and culturally coherent expression. Otherwise we are just adopting a museum/preservation approach to the dharma, attaching to a cultural form and mistaking it for the essence. This makes it a religion, an entity with forms and rituals and icons which we preserve and adopt, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a living breathing practice. As the Buddha said “Don’t look at my finger pointing, look at the moon”.
It has been very liberating for me to discover these thoughts and questions. To realize that MY practice need not be an imitation of a Vietnamese male monk, or an African-American male minister. They are invaluable teachers and models, but my responsibility is not to imitate them so much as to re-imagine and re-embody the principles THEY embodied, to fit my body and spirit and condition. I feel stirring inside me the sense of courage and hope that this engenders. I am responsible for creating and living by my best understanding of skillful means, wise speech, wise action.
One further personal reflection- I’m a minister’s daughter, raised to be very “good”, not make waves, not trouble the community. So it is all too easy for me to misinterpret kindness as niceness, peace as passivity, compassion as “don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.” So my experiences in DC with Code Pink really stretched me outside that box and challenged that confusion. I am deeply grateful to have had this opportunity to bring my practice into the hurly burly and see myself act and speak and sing in ways that were not “nice”, but were, to the best of my current ability, rooted in genuine compassion and love for humanity, our planet, and yes, even this country.
You can read my complete DC blog at www.codepinkrose.blogspot.com