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July 25, 2012 | Greg Yost
The history, theory, and practice of nonviolent direct action were on the agenda in an April training convened for Asheville, NC area residents by BPFNA partner congregation Circle of Mercy (COM). The event was one of thousands that month sponsored by a national coalition of progressive organizations calling itself "The 99% Spring." Trainees learned about the long struggle for economic justice in the United States and about how their own stories and experiences qualify them to enter that struggle.
Charlotte, NC-based Bank of America (BoA), described memorably by Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi as a "giant, raging hurricane of theft and fraud,” represents the very worst sort of anti-democratic, corporate greed. COM members Chris Berg, Mark Siler, and I were able to practice our new direct action skills in early May when we joined a spirited protest at a Charlotte BoA shareholder meeting.
Mark and I arrived in Charlotte the day previous to the shareholder meeting to plan and train with a diverse group of activists from across the nation. Since none of the three feeder marches nor the final rally point in front of the BoA meeting had permits from the city, much of the advance planning focused upon how to peacefully take and hold space.
This was a particularly important consideration for a mammoth street theater prop which Mark and I volunteered to help bring to life. Shackled to and dragging the 11-foot diameter "Ball and Chain of Debt" to the Bank of America building would inevitably mean abandoning narrow sidewalks in favor of traffic filled streets, an arrestable offence. Our hope, however, was that carefully timing our arrival from our staging area into the controlled chaos of a thousand marchers would minimize the chance that the Charlotte police would stop us too soon.
Despite a few nervous moments, that's exactly what happened. Chanting "Debt for the many, profits for the few, Bank of America, we're coming for you!” three lines of marchers converged upon the center of uptown Charlotte to occupy an intersection in front of the shareholder meeting. Hundreds of police and brown-shirted, hired mercenaries from G4S, the world's largest private security firm, surrounded the marchers outside. Inside, however, 80 of our number holding shares in the bank had successfully been admitted to the meeting and waited their turn to speak.
Unfortunately, Johnny Rosa of Framingham, MA was not one of them. Johnny's house is in foreclosure now for payments he missed when he lost his job and his wife began having medical issues. Johnny wanted a chance to confront bank management with his anger and frustration for all the five hour or more phone calls in which he'd been endlessly transferred or kept on hold, as well as for the multiple times he had been told that the bank "lost" hundreds of pages of information, and he was instructed to fax them in so that he might have a chance to renegotiate the terms of his loan.
G4S wouldn't allow Johnny to join the shareholders in line at the side door, so he courageously decided to try to join the meeting as a stakeholder through the front door. Three others and I accompanied Johnny to support him. With the crowd chanting "Let Johnny in! Let Johnny in!" behind us, the five of us attempted to enter the meeting by crossing a metal barricade through police lines and were arrested.
Although the adrenaline of the training, the march, and then the arrest was soon replaced by the tedium of jail, I did appreciate the time to reflect on what I'd seen and why I was there. Mark and I were largely motivated to go to Charlotte because of BoA's unrestrained support for the coal industry and profiteering from coal at every level ranging from mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia to power generation (burning) all across the nation to new, planned coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. The latter will allow ruinous, climate-destroying shiploads of the black stuff to be sent to Asia and burned there.
But sharing paddy wagon and cell space with Johnny underlined for me how closely related all our fights are. No matter whether our battle is for a livable climate and environment, for an economic system not rigged in favor of elites, or for a government that is transparent and democratic, we have common opponents and common allies. This has ever been the case, but rarely has it been so apparent as now. Democratic struggles from around the world found widespread expression here in the United States last fall in the form of the Occupy movement. This spring and summer that struggle is being renewed. The relatively few people I met in Charlotte showed me how many others there are across the country dreaming of radical change and making it happen. The faces, banners, slogans, and causes may seem to differ, but the energy and the dream are largely the same.
I believe our challenge as Baptist peacemakers and as Christians is to join them. Mark Siler often says that our calling today is no different than Jesus' charge to the disciples at Gethsemane: just stay awake. In a country like ours so prone to distraction, that's not easy to do. (Hats off to Mark, though, for literally following his own advice and working tirelessly until 4am the next day to get us all out!)
Circle of Mercy continues to live with a Peace Church statement it adopted two years ago. I've thought a lot about the things it says and the commitments we, in my church community, are making to each other and to God in affirming it. Read one way, the statement is daunting. For anyone who is awake now with eyes to see, there is little that is hypothetical in it. It is a document which implies action. I confess I am too often intimidated by what needs to be done to live out its call to discipleship.
But read another way, the document, like the Good News to which it bears witness, gracefully supplies that which it demands. Community and solidarity are the twin antidotes to our fear of acting in isolation. Circle of Mercy is the community which continues to shape who I am. Its clear stance on peacemaking and social transformation emboldens those timid parts of me longing to be less resigned to ecological chaos and the destruction of everything I care about.
I appreciated the chance to offer that same sort of care and community to Johnny Rosa in Charlotte even as I in turn appreciated the concrete expressions of support I received from others while in custody. The experience was quickening and made me newly aware of the responsibility I share not just for the 99% alive and disenfranchised today, but for the 100% of future generations who will live with the planet we bequeath them. It's why I'm not finished yet.