Wednesday tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully for the first General Strike in Oakland in 65 years, filled the streets, and shut down the port. People around the world noticed, and many stood in solidarity with the Occupy movement here. Signs appeared in Tahrir Square in Cairo supporting Occupy Oakland! I wasn’t at the port yesterday, but heard the news of the peaceful shutdown with a deep satisfaction – consciousness and dialogue about the deep inequality and unsustainability in our country has been long coming, and I’m thrilled that it’s happening now.
The wheel keeps turning. I was at the Oakland port in April of 2003 when the OPD fired into the crowd, injuring many people, including several longshoremen. I remember the cracking of their guns, the line of motorcycles accelerating into the crowd, and rubber bullets ricocheting off the ground. My friend Sri Louise, an inspiring yogi and teacher, was hit and wounded. Pictures of her wound resurfaced last week after the police violence that critically injured Scott Olsen. Institutions change more slowly than people. Samsara, the vast wheel of suffering and ignorance, rolls on and on.
So I am profoundly relieved that Wednesday was a largely peaceful and festive day. Nonviolence rings so clearly, like a great deep bell, through a world habituated to violence, and the energy and authority it manifests is profound. Even that there were isolated incidents of property damage served to highlight the peaceful intention of the mass of protesters, as the crowd self-organized to limit vandalism and prevent escalation. (And just to say, it takes all kinds of action to bring about real change. Malcolm X spoke to what so many oppressed people know, and any of us who gathered in millions to prevent the Iraq war only to be completely dismissed, remember: that the State can too easily ignore peaceful protest, and that sometimes a stronger fire is necessary. I don’t condemn the actions of the Black Bloc, and don’t consider corporate property damage to be outside the pale of effective activism. I do however choose a different way right now for myself, and very much honor the intent of the organizers and crowd yesterday to walk a Middle Way, averting additional police violence and conscious of the message that will go out.)
In the early Buddhist texts, there’s an Occupy story. The king of a neighboring territory, his mind overtaken by greed, marched with his army toward Magadha, the Buddha’s homeland. On the high road into Magadha, he came across the Buddha sitting in meditation under a spindly tree that gave him no protection from the full glare of the sun. The king asked the Buddha why he was there. The Buddha answered that the people of Magadha loved their land and homes deeply, and like people everywhere, longed for freedom from violence and oppression. The king, seeing the Buddha willing to sit alone under the hot sun, bearing witness to the love of all people for freedom, understood. And he turned his army around and went home.
It’s not always so easy, of course (see above). But the Dharma path is all about waking up, and whatever comes of this current renaissance of class consciousness, it is an awakening of a force in American politics that has been largely dormant since the great Labor struggles of the early 20th century. All those years of MORE – cheaper food, bigger TVs, cars & houses on unsustainable credit – are ending, and people are waking up to what’s really been going on. Remember the Second Noble Truth: that greed – grasping at what we like and resisting what we don’t – is the source of our distress. And that that greed is rooted in a deep, disorienting ignorance. Ignorance of who we really are, and what we aren’t: separate, self-sufficient individuals bound in time, responsible only for our own pleasure. Wake up from that dream – the dream of the isolated self – and help others to do so, and we all step off the crushing wheel.
I’ll end with a tidbit of etymological humor to take to the camps with you. The word “occupy” comes from Latin, with meanings like “to inhabit”, and “to seize by force”. Yeah, ok… Then I find that the word fell out of common use from around 1600 till the 20th century because of this: “to Lie with, or to Occupie a woman” (1648) and “For she will be occupied when others they lay still” (1719). To occupy is to have sex with! No wonder the police state can’t stand it. Occupy Oakland! Occupy your body. Occupy the world. Love her up.