You asked me how I decided to risk arrest for the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). I have asked myself how I could not risk arrest for the PPC.
Before I was tall enough to see over the pews in worship service, the theological tradition I grew up in, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), planted in me a seed of activism . Dr. William Barber, who, along with Pastor Liz Theoharris, reinvigorated MLK’s PPC, also grew up in the Disciples tradition. The church taught us: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his site.” I learned to appreciate all religious traditions, even atheism.
I learned about peace, justice and love in church. The poor are blessed, but the idea of rich people going to heaven is as absurd as a hairy beast passing through the eye of a needle. When we look to wealth and power over others for satisfaction, we are never satisfied. Sell your stuff and follow me, said Jesus, who lived as a migrant in strappy sandals and got pissed when rich men used the temple as a bank.
When I read a profile of Barber on Mother’s Day, I wanted to re-connect with the radical Christian tradition I grew up in. As a (laid-off) professor of Women’s Studies, I have taught intersectionality for a decade. I immediately recognized the powerful intersectionality of the PPC. I don’t think any of my students are surprised to see me putting myself on the line–they are probably wondering what took me so long (now that I’m laid off, I have less to lose). I know how powerful education is–how important it is to study and learn together, but I also know that words are not enough.
And if words are not enough, then the only method I know of to topple regimes and change the world is nonviolent direct action. In the United States nonviolent direct action has entailed civil disobedience. So, with the support of the PPC, I put myself at risk of arrest because that is the work of peace and justice.
But it is the PPC, with Barber and Theoharris’s solid moral commitment and leadership, that makes me confident in risking arrest. I am not alone. I read Dr. Barber’s memoir, The Third Reconstruction. When we get together, something powerful can happen. Even when there is no reasonable expectation of political success, moral dissent is necessary. When building a movement, we think long-term.
The theological and social motivation for risking arrest are clear, but I have also looked inward. Am I trying to “get attention?” (Well, yes– that’s the point.) Am I trying to prove something about myself? That I’m worthy of love and acceptance? Maybe, but getting arrested carries a stigma and it’s humiliating, so if I’m looking for acceptance, I’d be better off engaging in more socially acceptable activism, like taking on more volunteer work at the food pantry that has been unable to keep up with need. I’ll keep stocking shelves at the food pantry, but I also want to work towards an economy that does not rely on food pantries! The PPC envisions an economy by the people and for the people.
I’m hoping to inspire you, my readers. I would love you to join me in putting yourself on the line for the world we believe in. Our moral power rests in our willingness to suffer. When I meditate, I practice tolerating discomfort-because if my hands are locked behind me, I won’t to able to scratch an itch or wipe my nose. I’m middle-aged, so my shoulders and wrists will probably get stiff and sore. I imagine having to sit on a hard bench when I’d rather be curled up on the couch with a book.
I have not seen examples of police mistreating activists in the PPC (in fact, Illinois police have stood by as we break the law: arrests would generate bad publicity for Governor Rauner), but I have seen law enforcement unleash violence on protesters at Standing Rock. The risks of engaging in nonviolent direct action are real.
When I trained in nonviolent direct action, the leader asked us how we were feeling. I said nervous, because of the stigma. The leader responded that she’s been arrested just for being black, just for showing up. If your skin is black or brown, you can get arrested even when you aren’t committing a crime. Yesterday, police didn’t arrest our line of light-skinned folks that were very clearly violating traffic laws for over an hour. As we say in the PPC rallies, “That ain’t right.”