Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Sit-in

RantWoman has noted that sometimes when her Friends Meeting reports on seekers of various ages applying for membership, there is a sense of a person having been Quaker for a long time before applying the label. RantWoman has been meditating about whether the zigs and zags of RantWoman's college days as a political activist reflect some threads in this direction, some plain honsest truth moments.

RantWoman acknowledges that this is yet another iteration of reflection generated by the themes of the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference In this context, RantWoman must admit a profound tension: RantWoman is a political activist out of faith, out of love and concern. As RantWoman has grown decidedly middle-aged, RantWoman finds herself less and less able to take many kinds of actions without really steady high maintenance attention to her spiritual life, to staying grounded and centered and focused on hope and faith.

But to say "God made me do it" makes RantWoman really, really nervous on both exclusion and religious fanaticism grounds. Still, RantWoman is a product of her past and the question of how to share this with younger people and fresher seekers, both in Meeting and who like RantWoman might be Quakers and not know it yet but who have way more energy and enthusiasm than RantWoman looms large.

RantWoman supposes one option is to meditate about the needs of this target audience in terms of the joys and discipline of silent worship and Business Meeting as mystical experience, but RantWoman is still trying to get out of college for this post. Equally important, and timely to certain graduation anniversaries, is the question of attention, spiritually walking with countries and issues over time and great political changes.

From: Martha Paxson Grundy, Tall Poppies: Supporting Gifts of Ministry and Eldering in the Monthly Meeting, p. 27, Pendle Hill Publications. “Many Friends today are crying out for spiritual mentors, for ministers and elders who are lovingly steeped in our tradition. Some Friends hunger for a deeper relationship with God, for a connection with a divine power that heals and empowers. We long for wise and loving role models and examples.”

RantWoman promises by the end of this post at least to have made links with the "walk with me" part of a longtime friendship with a Friend who worked in the library at RantWoman's alma mater and who now shares with RantWoman occasional exchanges of real hold-in-hands letters full of piquant observations about our respective Yearly Meetings. But first, RantWoman will speak to collegiate activism about South Africa, the privileges and presumptions of young collegiate activists, and graduation season.

A Friend who gave RantWoman a ride home after Meeting recently was complaining about her son's seeming lack of direction during time off from college. RantWoman blurted out that, well, RantWoman had spent her own time off selling the nuclear freeze door-to-door, going to a lot of protests and working as a phone interviewer to keep body and soul together. To RantWoman's surprise, the Friend said, "well at least you were doing something principled." RantWoman thinks this Friend should hear the tale of RantWoman's college graduation and then say that to RantMom.

RantMom's first and only visit to RantWoman's alma mater occurred in connection with graduation. Some people's parents get to go to things like Phi Beta Kappa receptions and presentations of prestigious awards. On RantMom's first daughter-chaperoned tour of campus, RantMom got to meet one of the campus security officers who had helped arrest RantWoman at a famous sit-in; she even got to make chit-chat about whether RantWoman was going to take all the summonses to disciplinary hearings home to her housemates or let the police officer deliver them. RantMom also got dispatched to freelance tourism the morning of RantWoman's disciplinary hearing. RantMom got to find RantWoman and all her housemates in our graduation regalia wearing red armbands and carrying black balloons in support of university divestment from firms doing business in South Africa. RantMom even survived, but RantWoman is getting ahead of herself.

RantWoman was in college in the 1980's. RantWoman should probably meditate elsewhere about how among the rich assortment of candidate causes the apartheid regime in South Africa made the college student protest hit parade, but it definitely did. At RantWoman's alma mater, there was history of large-scale student mobilizations calling for the university to divest from firms that do business in South Africa and sit-ins every few years. There had been a big sit-in a couple years before RantWoman arrived on campus.

There was an all-night "study-in" at the library RantWoman's freshman year. RantWoman knew several people who participated and thought briefly of participating but opted not to. Readers may be amused that there was no great principle involved: RantWoman just is no good at either slumber parties or all-nighters.

Typically student work in support of divestment involved lots of education and frequently presenting something for the Board of Trustees. The Board motion would invariably get voted down and the movement would try again. Senior year, the student mobilization was especially broad-based: the campaign gathered signatures of large majorities of both undergraduate and graduate students and sponsored campus visits by many speakers including alumni experienced in earlier sit-ins preaching the "Take over a building" message.

The mobilization for months had no interest in a sit-in. RantWoman herself was very impressed by the scale of the signature campaign but was mainly an observer of the series of presentations at Board of Trustees meetings--until after the May board meeting. At the May Board meeting, the divestment resolution as usual got voted down and the president of the university made some statement the campus newspaper reported in terms like "dialogue is closed."

This quote enraged many student activists. Inquiries were made as to whether there was a misquote. The reporter stood by the quote. The President was asked to issue a correction or clarification and would not. The thinking was that if they responded to this item everyone would think all the things they never responded to were true. Well, RantWoman by that time was accustomed enough to the press that RantWoman would not have thought that, but the President assuredly missed the point of how outraged people were: the campaign had done EVERYTHING right and felt completely cut off.

RantWoman actually was surprised how clearly the desire to sit-in coalesced. RantWoman is quite unclear whose bright idea it was to have a sit-in during finals week. The sit-in was set for around the more historic administration building on the main campus rather than the more pedestrian and organizationally sensitive one elsewhere on campus. The sit-in was to blockade all the entries to the building starting early in the morning When business hours came, the people who needed to get in hemmed and hawed and fairly quickly had everyone summarily arrested and hauled off to the city jail or as it's called in NJ, borough hall.

This was no 26 years on Robben Island, a la Nelsom Mandela. Such is the cushiness of student activism in the US that RantWoman herself miraculously made it through a morning sit-in, arrest and processing in time to go home for lunch before a final exam starting at 1pm! Then it was time for another new kind of fun: lawyers to help the students address the criminal charges.

(Here RantWoman must interject that after the sit-in she got a serious scolding from the Friend who worked in the library. Friend just thought the sit-in was completely unnecessary. RantWoman respecfully disagrees, but somehow found herself very grateful for the frank conversation and the long friendship the conversation became a part of.)

The point of civil disobedience is being willing to face legal consequences honestly and with integrity. Well, that's the point, but lawyers just have their ways... Meaning no disrespect to many fine Quaker lawyers RantWoman knows, RantWoman usually tries to avoid generalized characterizations about whole professions, but lawyers tempt her far more readily in such directions than other professions. The sit-in attracted a whole Law and Order cast--long before that show hit the air:

--Famous African-American firm from Harlem. The firm's principals were later disbarred over a certain very sensational case but the student activists basically said "thanks for the offer, we'll get back to you."

--Local talent that offered conflicting opinions in sort of scatological terms about which of the two charges used was more likely to stick.

--A nice woman affiliated with NOW who RantWoman remembers mainly for offering a bargain-basement price per head basically to help students plead guilty, hopefully in a way that would not tarnish the brilliant careers ahead of them.

--Someone whose daughter participated who RantWoman surmised may have called the university and said his last name and the word "lawsuit.")

--The local talent who met with the "Not Guilty Caucus." Guess where RantWoman was, surprisingly clear that it's just dishonest to plead guilty if one does not feel guilty." This local talent wanted to know whether we wanted a procedural sloppiness defense: NO. He also was curious about future lawsuits and the NG caucus said well, it's about South Africa. RantWoman specifically, knowing history of some other lawsuits said she had no desire to spend the next 10 years suing the alma mater and could think of better reasons if she did.

The NG caucus objected to focussing on procedural sloppiness, both on principle and because this would have put some students of color who had previously held jobs with the campus security in awkward spots. The Not-Guilty caucus also articulated concerns about some foreign students we did not want to face visa issues and pointed out that while there were some straight A students among us, it would be unfair to the demands of political activism to make the A students poster children for our project. In other words, we were probably a headache. The lawyer said he had no interest in the case, but RantWoman has wondered whether that meeting is one of the factors that eventually led the University to drop the criminal charges and just subject everyone to an on-campus disciplinary hearing.

RantWoman's sit-in experience is one of those faces in the sea experiences where an individual without a larger sense of grounding, deep love and abiding motivation could easily feel lost, bogged down in boredom-inducing banality. RantWoman has been reflecting about the times when just being a face in the crowd matters a great deal and the times when one absolutely must weave the faces in the crowd in with closer one-on-one experiences!

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