Moving Beyond Occupation into Presence: Decolonizing our Minds, Hearts, and Spirits

(Published in Tikkun Magazine)

The heartbeat of a large painted drum and the sound of voices chanting in languages indigenous to the land beneath the concrete met me as I joined the crowd gathered at the edge of Oscar Grant Plaza that day.  This had once been the stronghold of Occupy Oakland, until a series of brutal, fastidiously planned attacks by police had brought the days of the encampment to a close.

Many of us were returning to the General Assembly for the first time in weeks.  We had closed down the Oakland Port with a march of over 10,000 people, built a mini-city of shared food and cooperative work, and found ways to offer medical care and housing people affected by impact of the recession on our local community. But then it had all been taken away, and our unity was torn apart by internal conflict, confusion, and the heavy scars that follow police brutality.

The chill of winter pierced the famously-warm Bay Area autumn air as the sun dipped down behind the tall arches of City Hal.  At least two or three hundred people had gathered – people of many different colors, ages, and backgrounds – apparently pulled back to the General Assembly by the call of the First Nation’s people drumming and chanting in the center of the plaza.

Even though the decision before us —  a proposal brought forth by Ohlone, Pomo, and other Native American activists and allies to change the name of our encampment from “Occupy Oakland” to “Decolonize Oakland” — was highly controversial, I was struck by the beautiful energy of the scene before me.  Even in the midst of in-fighting and ideological debates that seemed irresolvable, or perhaps beneath it, was a yearning to be together again and to find the next step we might take together.

In some ways, the thing that lit the heartfires of those of us involved in Occupy Oakland and brought the fractionalized city together was the communal experience of belonging to a certain piece of land and sharing village life.  It struck me, watching these Ohlone and Pomo men and women beating drums and singing in haunting voices from within the larger crowd, that these were people who had never lost that – at least, not to the same degree that many of us have.

In that moment, I looked up and the reality that I usually live in – one of iron-boned skyscrapers, fiberglass coated cars, tangerine-colored streetlights, and cheap consumer goods —shimmered in front of my eyes, as if it were coarse wool rippling atop bare skin, hinting at unseen beauty lying beneath.  It lasted only a breath, but in that moment I had a glimpse of something deeply authentic that is hidden by the hologram of consumerism, capitalism, and colonialism that constantly, nearly omnipotently, dominates the psyche of those of us born and raised in heavily industrialized societies.

In that moment, I had my first real sense of what this movement can achieve if it reaches its fullest potential, why its so threatening to the powers-that-be that relentlessly and violently try to repress it, and why it sometimes seems at its most powerful when it is undefined, unnamed, and without demands.

Occupy’s magical ability to make the invisible visible is one of the reasons it grew from a hot and heavy end-of-the summer activist fling into a global movement.  Sharing stories of the real-life impact of economic policies that favor the extremely wealthy at the expense of just about everyone else, we have broken the silence that once surrounded and veiled a system of compounding class, racial, and gender oppression. In doing so, the American people not only came to understand that these personal stories of hardship and desperation were not, as many had believed, shameful instances of personal failure – they also began to connect the dots between jobless college graduates wrestling with crippling student loan debt, families evicted from their homes due to bank foreclosures and predatory lending policies, elderly folks and children needlessly suffering because they lack access to affordable medical care and, perhaps above all, the corporate greed and government complicity that fuels these inequities and that for so long have gone unchallengened.

In dis-spelling the rhetoric of “the American Dream” and the widespread hopelessness (misdiagnosed as apathy — especially in young adults) the Occupy movement has dis-illusioned many people around the world in profound, catalyzing ways.  In occupying parks, city squares, and vacant houses, and transforming them into the commons where we share food, housing, allopathic and alternative healthcare, and the responsibility of shared decision-making, we are creating the “Beloved Community” that Martin Luther King said was key to realizing his dream on earth. We are helping to bring forth the prophesy of the Shambhala Warriors oft quoted by engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy by honing the two essential gifts that she says those of us committed to healing our world must have: compassion and understanding the radical interdependence of all things.

Pancho Ramos Stierle is probably further up the road of Shambhala warriorhood than anyone else I know.  Last autumn, he was arrested while sitting in silent meditation during a police raid at Oscar Grant Plaza.  Pictures of him in the pre-dawn light, his eyes closed and a sweet smile on his lips, surrounded by riot cops, immediately went viral – and when the Alameda Sherrif’s Department turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the entire community mobilized in his defense.  Pancho was treated as a maximum risk prisoner at the ICE Detention Center, kept continuously shacked and locked in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

“We were in shackles and we were in handcuffs,” he told reporters in a conference call after his release, “but the officers, they were in handcuffs and shackles in their soul.  So we were just providing keys to them. So we said, ‘You know, you don’t need to be doing this.’”

Pancho was arrested in front of the Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland, which is organized by a group of local religious leaders that have been repeatedly threatened with police action and undermined by City Council politics.  They were cited last December, even though they had exchanged their tent for a large beach umbrella in an attempt to comply with a law that prohibits erecting permanent structures in public spaces.

In many versions of reality, the most dire threat that a group of rabbis, pastors, and yogis gathering under a beach umbrella could possibly pose is as the first line of a bad joke.  But for the powers-that-be, they, like Pancho, represent something very frightening to those that are materially invested in maintaining the hologram that many of us walk around in every day, suspecting something is wrong but not knowing how to name it, and sometimes falling for the lie that we just need to buy the newest technological toy, shed a couple of pounds, or rid ourselves of some undesirable element of society in order to feel better.

There is a a growing understanding that the power structures that we are fighting against are not only dissolving our right livelihoods, repressing our voices, making us sick, and polluting the planet — they are also intentionally obstructing our ability to be fully alive and realize our deepest potential as humans.  If our collective delusion of individualism and disconnection from the earth were shattered on a global level — and the moment that I experienced that day, listening to the drums and the warbly ancestral voices of the land, reflected the shared reality we all lived in — power structures rooted in inequity and domination would have no place here on earth.  That thought is absolutely terrifying to those that have poured their lives, their ambitions, and their sense of security into them – especially those within the most elite echelons.

Although Oakland did not adopt the proposal that day, in the past several months other groups have moved away from the word Occupy because of its connotations of militarism and its legacy of bloodshed, and are beginning to use words like “Liberate,” “Activate,” “Unsettle,” and “Decolonize.”  For those of us within the Occupy movement being called to whatever is beyond the veil of internalized industrialization and assembly-line living, we are no longer simply talking about a revolution that frees us from the corporate powers that have taken our homes and jobs but also conscious, collective evolution away from consumerism’s false promises and the tyranny of colonialism that affects us all.  As that shift occurs, we dance with new names and seek ways to describe something ineffable that we know is our birthright and suspect is our future.

We aren’t merely calling for a paradigm shift, but an unsettling of the constant haze of distraction, dissatisfaction and depression in our hearts and minds that denigrates our relationships with one another, the earth, and our most authentic selves.

We understand that there is a difference between occupying and being present, and that being present means that we must be liberated, activated, and connected.

And in the beautiful spring days opening before us, as the earth burgeons with rebirth and new possibility, we feel a stirring inside of us as our ancestral memories, deepest desires, and highest aspirations come into alignment with our work in the world– no matter what words we use to describe this, and what languages we use to sing of the sacred.