By Ezra Silk
SAN FRANCISCO — On a warm Sunday in mid-January, I took the 5 downtown to the Rincon Center to catch a meeting of the Occupy San Francisco Long-Term Strategy Working Group. I figured the committee would be convening under the majestic WPA murals — commemorating Lincoln’s assassination, the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike and the founding of the UN, among other events — in the historic annex, but the hall was empty. I returned to the cavernous corporate lobby, where a forty-foot column of water cascaded down — past the glass facades of second and third floor offices — into a collecting pool on the ground floor.
In a dark corner of the first floor food court, five occupiers — none looking any younger than forty — were gathered around two circular tables, three months deep into an effort to draft a mission statement for Occupy SF. They hadn’t made much progress, it was clear. The group was bandying about language that called for economic justice and a repeal of corporate personhood. It was made known that their meetings — all open to the public — had been frequently de-railed by first time attendees who had taken issue with the group’s proposals.
I was captivated by one of the long term strategists, an older woman dressed in clerical garb, who could have been convincingly played by John Cleese. She was quite eloquent, delivering a passionate call for a return to “progressivity” in the federal tax code, in a short speech that would have made Paul Krugman proud. At one point, the woman mentioned that she had worked for the State Department.
I left the meeting early, hoping I would run into this most articulate clergywoman again.
Ten days later, I found her in front of the hulking Bank of America building on California Street, at a press conference announcing the January 20th mass action. She was one of ten diverse J20 supporters — including a young black student from UCSF, an older woman who had been evicted from her home, a veteran, and the former President of the Pacific Stock Exchange — arrayed in front of the local media.
“My name is Vicki Gray,” she announced to the press. “I’m an Episcopal Deacon, and I’m Occupying Wall Street West with the Interfaith Allies of Occupy. I’m here because I believe in that cry, ‘No justice, no peace.’ It’s a plea not just to the mere absence of violence — the silent, complacent peace of the graveyard — but is rather a call, a call to the peace of shalom, that rests on justice and that insists on the shared well-being of the community. For too long now, that justice and that shared well-being has eluded us. We’ve experienced 40 years of endless war, decades of rampant greed that have produced a Great Recession in America that we hardly recognize anymore. As people of faith, we must now speak truth to power, be it on Wall Street, Lafayette Square, or Nob Hill. As people of faith we must stand in solidarity with those in Occupy who seek a more equitable society. As people of faith, we must help shape solutions consistent with our values of justice, equality, and solidarity, and we must not shy away from politics…and how we relate to one another and how we will shape our societies. And good politics, like good religion, seeks to shape a just society. That’s what I seek by being here. Come join us.”
After the press conference wrapped up, I tracked Gray down in front of a row of newspaper stands on the street corner. I reminded her that we had met at the Rincon Center.
“I was telling Maria, you guys make me feel young again,” she told me. “When I got back from Vietnam in 1965, I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and I camped out with Kerry on the Mall, and I marched with Martin Luther King… and when he was killed, my hope was killed. I’ve been sleepwalking the last forty years or so.”
Gray told me that she had participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and two years later had served as an adviser in the Mekong Delta, at the age of 26. During her Vietnam service, Gray ordered a deadly napalm strike — an experience that ultimately radicalized her, she told me.
“What I saw happening there was why I came back opposed to that war,” Gray said. “And there was one incident that still rattles around in my head. I called in an air strike on an island where we were getting some fire, and the napalm exploded in a string down the island, and out of the smoke came this young lady, paddling her sampan toward us, and we called her over, and she reached down, and she held up a black chunk that was still smoking that was her baby. And she just growled, shrieked at us, at the sky, and I still hear that sound.”
I asked Gray if she had any reactions to the announcement of Occupy the Dream — a potential indicator that parts of the Black Church are coalescing around the Occupy movement.
“I think that the Occupy movement — it’s not just the 99 percent, it’s 99 + 1,” she said. “It has to include everybody, if we’re gonna have the sort of society where we all share in the common well-being. I was very glad to be standing next to Vivian, whose home was foreclosed on in Bayview, and next to the former president of the Pacific Stock Exchange. That’s the 99 + 1. And I’m glad to see Occupy the Hood rising up here in San Francisco, as well as the other groups like Interfaith Allies.”
Gray was ready to go. I asked her to quickly elaborate on why Occupy had restored her sense of hope.
“This is giving me hope again because it has spoken what hadn’t been spoken before Sept. 17th, but everybody knew,” she said. “The system we have now is unfair, and the inequality is raging. It’s opened up space for the conversation, and the conversation as a result has changed. Particularly in the last week or so, I’ve become very encouraged by how the mainstream media is catching on and talking about the inequality in ways that it didn’t before.”
“We’re not going away,” she added. “We’re growing. We’re growing.”
UPDATE: After doing a little internet research, I’ve found that Gray appears to be a former diplomat. Here is her full statement in support of Occupy that she wrote in late October:
“No justice! No peace!” “No justice! No peace!” We have heard the cry at countless demonstrations. It is a plea not for the mere absence of violence, the silent, complacent peace of the graveyard. It is, rather, a call to the peace of Shalom that rests on justice and that encompasses a shared sense of well-being in the community.
For too long now that sense of justice and shared well-being has eluded us. We have experienced 40 years of endless war – overlapping, futile, and, for the most part, unworthy wars … wars that have left us mired in Afghanistan and facing perceived enemies on every continent. We are suffering the consequence of decades of rampant greed and reckless risk-taking that have produced a Great Recession in an America we hardly recognize any more.
And the powers-that-be of this world stand athwart the need for change – banks that gambled with our savings and took our homes, corporations that export our jobs, politicians who spout focus-group tested one-liners and fiddle while a nation burns, a corporate media that would distract us from the fire with daily offerings of circus-like distraction. The results are an income inequality not seen since 1928, in which 40 percent of the nation’s wealth is held by one percent of our people; real unemployment near 16 percent; an increasingly less progressive tax system unworthy of a civilized society; rampant cuts in programs for the suffering among us; a people on its knees.
No wonder, at this moment of crisis, that the national mood is one of fear, the worst fear being that we might not be up to the task – an “uneasy feeling,” a “sinking feeling,” as Bob Herbert put it, “that important opportunities are slipping from the nation’s grasp.” We are, he said, “squandering a golden opportunity to build a better society,” adding, “If America can’t change, then the current state of decline is bound to continue.”
Indeed it will… if we don’t change. But we have had our cold shower. Our eyes are wide open. We are poised to act. Our hour has come. We dare not squander this opportunity to build a better society. As people of faith and as Americans, we are a people of hope. We must give voice to our longings and aspirations. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said about a war, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come again in America. We are at another moment when silence is betrayal. Our old ways of doing things no longer work. We must find new ways… new ways that reflect our faith in God and our concern for one another.
As people of faith we must now speak truth to power – in Wall Street and Washington – and stand in solidarity with those in the Occupy movement who seek a more equitable society. We are mindful that we are called, in the words of Micah “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” and strengthened in the struggle by the promise of Jesus that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Mindful also, as Walter Rauschenbusch said, that such righteousness is “not a matter of getting of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven,” we must insist that “the highest type of goodness is that which puts freely at the service of the community all that man is and can be” and that conversely, “the highest type of badness is that which uses up the wealth and happiness and virtue of the community to please self.”
As people of faith, we must seek a seat at the table and help shape solutions consistent with our values of justice, equality, charity, and solidarity with our fellow human beings. We must not shy from the political fray, for both politics and religion concern themselves with social relationships, how we relate to one another, how we will shape our societies. And good politics, like good religion, seeks to shape a just society.
Finally, we must be diligent in the effort and impatient with those who would temporize. In the words of Dr. King, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”
Only when we redeem that promise will we enjoy the true peace of Shalom.