Praying with our Feet at Occupy Oakland

When my teacher and mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary Abraham Joshua Heschel told me and others that he had been “praying with his feet” when he participated in the Selma Freedom march in 1965, he confirmed for many a way of overcoming the dichotomy between my religious practice and my radical politics. In many ways, the antiwar movements of the 60s and early 70s of the last century felt like that kind of community prayer.

I had that experience again at my various visits to Occupy Oakland, most intensely this past Wednesday, November 2, 2011. It was a strong protest of the class war that has been waged by the most wealthy 1% of the population and their hired guns in the media, the political world, and the educational institutions against the 99% of the population who have suffered both materially and spiritually in the past 4 decades. But it was also and simultaneously a powerful reaffirmation, celebration and manifestation of the life and love energy of the universe that we in the religious community call God, Spirit, Unity of All Being, Source, Creator, Allah, YHVH, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mother, Father, Elohim, Yah, Goddess, and much more.

The tens of thousands of people who streamed through the various parts of the day were there to affirm life, to manifest love, and to challenge the injustice and unrighteousness of our economic and political system. And they did so with remarkable energy, creativity, beauty, and intelligence.

Some of the scenes I liked best:

  • Two pre-teen girls sitting with several pieces of poster board trying to decide which of the many slogans they had created should go their posters and how best to decorate them
  • 200 children plus their parents who staged a children’s march to the Oakland library whose services have been radically cut as a result of the national assault on the public sector
  • Twenty children of color who performed a series of dances to songs articulating the visions of a just and caring world.
  • Thousands of people marching to the downtown main branches of Bank of America and Wells Fargo and other banks that benefitted from our tax money. They held signs saying “You got bailed out–”we got thrown out” (a reference to the banks opposition to lowering interest rates on home mortgages).
  • A crowning moment, when what seemed to grow to over ten thousand people marched to the Port of Oakland and the management of the Port announced that it had been shut down.
  • Our Jewish contingent and our Interfaith Clergy both set up tents and provided quiet space, prayer, meditation, and teachings from our traditions to hundreds of people who wanted that energy as well as the more overt protest energy.

And, like the 60s, there were also problems:

  • In the name of “inclusion” and “non-judgmentalism” the vast majority of non-violence oriented people felt unable to stop the 50-60 self-described anarchists from breaking windows and introducing a feel of violence that gave the corporate media their pretext for making “violence” the center of the story they reported to the world.
  • In a spirit of anti-leadership parading other the misleading banner that “we are all leaders and have no leaders” it has become impossible to develop a coherent vision of what we are for (full revelation: I’ve been pushing for the Occupy movement to call for 1. a New New Deal providing full employment rebuilding the US infrastructure and repairing the environment  2. A freeze on home expulsions for anyone who owns only one home and whose mortgage rates are now higher than originally contracted and a mandatory return to those lower rates for everyone 3. A single payer national health plan for all  4. Free college or university education for all  5. A Global Marshall Plan 6. Banning all money from elections except that provided by the government and requiring free and equal time to all major candidates from the media 7. An environmental and social responsibility Amendment ot the U.S. Constitution.
  • A fetishization of the occupied spaces, as though that were the center of what we are about, rather than about seeking justice for the 99% and rejecting the ethos of materialism and selfishness of global capitalism and replacing it with an ethos of love, kindness, generosity and environmental responsibility (in short, “the Caring Society–”Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Earth”).

Ok, no movement is perfect, and we have our problems and distortions. But the key is to have compassion for our distortions, compassion for everyone including those who right now don’t support us, and use this moment to thank the universe for the opportunity to overcome cynicism and fight for the world most people really want but don’t yet realize that they are not alone, and that their highest vision may be utopian, but utopian plans are far more “realistic” than the mush being generated by the realists in the media and in Washington, D.C.