Above: Dragonfly and Sgt. Michael Wood of the Ferguson police hug after she shared her fear of police brutality with Wood, during a protest at the police station on Oct. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast for AP.
Note: The article below is about a magic moment in Ferguson that reminded me of one of my favorite quotations from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Dr. King was expressing wisdom handed down through the ages, Buddha said “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: Hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”
In the powerful story described below by Tarak Kauff, a board member of Veterans for Peace, describes a moment during the recent Ferguson October protests that brings Dr. King’s quote to life — an embrace between an activist and a Ferguson police officer. Dragonfly explains why she hugged the officer, writing on her Facebook page: “And that’s why I did it. These protests are SACRED WORK towards our collective hu[wo]manity. At the beginning, middle, and end of the day, behind the badges and uniforms — there are human beings, too.”
Earlier in the moment described below, Rev. Billy proclaimed how we all have to change, the police and us, we all need “radical change inside ourselves — we all have to do it with discipline and love . . . these people [gesturing toward the police lined up facing the protesters] need to change their lives, for themselves, their families and their communities, they are on the wrong side of history and they know it . . . we are all going through a change right now, changelujah, changelujah.”
[youtube width=”580″ height=”340″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0au6tkx4NB4[/youtube]
A Transformational Embrace on the Front Lines of Ferguson
I have spent 9 days in Ferguson in two visits. In each I sensed history was being made, a portal was opening that had been closed for a long time. There has been dynamic nonviolent peaceful resistance to bring forward the issue of police abuse and to seek justice for Michael Brown. There have been some magic moments in Ferguson, in this commentary I want to highlight one that seemed transformational to the people involved.
On Monday I witnessed more than 100 people of faith – bishops, rabbis, ministers – marching with arms linked like when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched – along with a crowd of 500 people. We marched from the church where we met that morning to the Ferguson police station. It was amazing; it was raining, pouring, at times a torrential downpour. There was no way to stay dry. We all stood there. The people of faith stood there.
There was a line-up of maybe 30 police, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, some holding their batons ominously, some with helmets with all the gear that has become too common in US policing. I went over to one that I recognized as a veteran, and spoke to him. I said,”I see you are a veteran,” because he was wearing a flag that veterans wear, and I said “I’m a veteran, there are lot of us out here.” He kept a stony face, but nodded.
Then, a little bit later maybe 20 minutes or longer – you lose track of time when you are out there in the rain and we were out there all told for almost five hours – an Iraq veteran, Ryan Holleran, from VFP and IVAW, started speaking to the same cop. This police officer, Sgt. Michael Wood, was obviously somewhat of a tough guy, you could see that from his expression and his build, but his face wasn’t mean. He had on sergeant’s stripes, so he’d obviously been in the police force for a while. Ryan started explaining to him, “Look, I was in Iraq I saw the same kind of oppression in Iraq, the same type of racism against the Iraqi people. We called them ‘sand-niggers’ and they were treated that way, treated as subhuman. The same thing that is happening here.” At that point Sgt. Wood walked away from him. He did not say anything, just walked to a different spot on the line.
People were standing face-to-face with the police officers, mostly people of faith talking directly to the police officers about what is, and what has to be, what has to happen and the change we need to see. Some were asking the police to repent, “Repentance is more than an apology; it’s an earnest change in behavior. Faith leaders are repenting because we have not been there for our children and our faith traditions have let down black youth, but we’re also calling on the Ferguson police department to repent. Repent for the murder of Michael Brown. Humble yourselves. God will forgive you, but you must repent.”
Than an incredible, unplanned thing happened. Sometime after Ryan and I had spoken to Sgt. Wood, unconnected to these conversations, a elegant, tall black woman, Dragonfly, who came from Brooklyn with Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, came up to this same officer. She was holding a sign that said on one side, “YOU ARE KILLING US” and on the other, “DON’T SHOOT.” She approached and attempted to make eye contact. She implored him to look at her, and when their gaze connected, and she was face-to-face pouring out her heart with tears running down her face, she asked: “Why do you hate us so much?” Wood replied, “I don’t hate you, Ma’am.” To which Dragonfly responded “And I don’t want to hate you. I want to love you. I’d rather hug you.” You could see, even in the rain, that the officer’s eyes were starting to mist up. What Dragonfly was saying was not coming from an intellectual place, but directly from her heart without any fear. That could be felt.
The sergeant looked at her and said “Well, then, hug me.” So she did and he hugged her back and it was a real embrace. It must have lasted a good minute. People standing close enough to hear were moved deeply and tears were now running down my own face. When she turned away from the officer, she was sobbing. I remember holding Dragonfly and both of us were just in that space of relief, lost in the moment. Other people who witnessed this were in tears as well. One felt a door had opened that included more than just these two individuals from opposite sides of the spectrum.
Much has to change. The police force in general, and individual police officers also have to change. They can change. There has to be systemic change but individuals have to change as human beings. We can’t just overcome them. They have to change. I’ve seen people who are racists, read about people who were with the Ku Klux Klan, who changed. And this moment was part of that change. It was a direct demand for justice. It was just incredible. People felt like they were witnessing history being made, the like that had not been seen since the days of Dr. King.
Police officers are human beings. When you look into their faces you understand that they are not all racists. OK, some are and some have racism they need to confront inside themselves. However, even if someone is a racist at this time, that sickness, that disease can leave them. We don’t have to look at it as permanent. We don’t have to treat them as enemies. Nonviolence is a powerful transformative force.
When you treat people with respect and offer them truth from the heart with love, it gives them space to change. When I look at the police, I see many and from their faces I can see, regardless of the gun they carry, that at heart they are decent human beings and while police departments nationwide act as a pillar supporting a system of exploitation that protects the powers that be, protects the 1% rather than the people, as individuals we do not need to hate them or even classify them as bad people. We can reach out to that which is human, is good, is noble inside them.
I have been arrested numerous times and my experience, with some exceptions, is that in the main, these are not bad people. Sure there are some who abuse their power greatly and that is unforgivable, and of course as a white, older male, a veteran, I do have privilege that many of my black brothers and sisters do not have, I recognize that, but many of these police are just working people, they have jobs, families, children, many thought they were getting involved in something good, something that would serve people and then sometimes they wake up and realize – “this is not so cool, what we are doing, who we are serving, who we are oppressing, and what I am part of.”
It’s our job as activists to resist, to call out abuse, to demand change, but we can do so in a powerful and disciplined, transformative way, a way that makes allies not permanent enemies.