Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Back to the prison gates and a growing sense of hopelessness ...
I'm not sure when it happened, but I found myself in a new place today ... perhaps heralded by the awful news of those trapped miners far below the earth; maybe by images on the news of nearby families suffering the storm-driven rising waters of the Russian and Napa rivers; continuing pictures of the devastation of New Orleans and of the many newly homeless newly deserted black families still wandering rootlessly in the wake of bureaucratic abuse of astounding proportions. For whatever reason, I found myself speechless today as the cameras and the microphones moved about as unobtrusively as possible during the vigil.
Paul Sawyer, Michael Delacorte, Joe Macdonald, and the others -- some whom I've met here before -- arrived at the agreed-upon hour, formed our prayer circle in the chill of a newly-gathering storm. Added to the mix was Fred Jackson, an old friend from North Richmond and a man who visited with Stan "Tookie" Williams in his last hours. He would speak of that at one point. It was cold. Raindrops pelted my face as I walked from my car on the narrow road to the prison gates. The sky was dark and grey and my spirits reflected the mood of the weather. There was little wind, only the occasional gust that was bone-chilling as it invaded every exposed part of my body that was unprotected against this untypical typical California winter series of storms. Even with the cameras watching, I found myself wiping my nose on the sleeve of my trenchcoat more than once. I didn't care. Our seasons are like our political and social climates; unpredictable -- ever-changing. Tomorrow could as well bring a springlike day with little hint that today ever happened. But today the weather was threatening and set the mood for an hour's worth of feelings I'd rather not have experienced.
The ritual was as always; about 18 stalwart protesters against the death penalty with assorted media people creeping around with their microphones and cameras. Two of the major television channels were present but there were no familiar faces among them.
A San Francisco poet who had been a part of the political Left (now "Progressive") Berkeley/San Francisco group to which both Paul Sawyer and perennial Berkeley city council candidate, Michael Delacorte, belonged had joined with us. He had come to read from the published writings of Clarence Ray Allen, the next candidate for execution. The works had been published in Italy and were read in both English and Italian. It was impressive poetry. I'm not at all sure what I expected, but surely not this lyrical and quite beautiful work. Ray Allen is otherwise known as "Running Bear." He is reported to be Native American, I believe, though didn't appear so in photos I've seen.
A Quaker woman in our circle spoke of "...the God in each of us that must be protected at all costs," and of how "... this redemptive spirit can be accessed by each ...". Her words sounded naive; out of step with the severity of the moment. I thought of Stan Williams and found myself wondering if, Allen, this legally blind and disabled man had found the same redemption in his prison life? Wondered if he, too, had experienced the isolation of solitary confinement and if his poetry was a reflection of the experience? I don't even know what he did to have been convicted -- a fact that had escaped me until that moment. Strange. I still don't know. Only the fact of capital punishment done in my name is of consequence, and the fact that I know that we are all diminished as we allow it to go on.
We must separate out for all time those who would do us harm. Life without the possibility of parole. That I know. That killing in order to deter killing simply makes no sense to me. That I protest against, and it is that which brought me to stand in the cold gray harshness of San Quentin this day.
But as I listened to each -- after Paul Sawyer opened the proceedings in his eloquent pulpit style -- and after Joe had sung his song taken from something he'd found having to do with chain gangs -- only when those around the circle began to testify did I discover that I'd lost something along the way. Normally I would have been listening with a part of myself while pulling together the words that I might share. I usually waited until many have spoken so that I would speak only if my thoughts had not been expressed by someone else. Today it was different. I listened intently. I felt no urge to speak. It was as though I were coming from another place and that I'd lost the sense of relevance. Was it the experience of Stan's execution so recently lived through? What had that done to my resolve?
I said nothing. Absolutely nothing. Was this coming from a sense of hopelessness? Will I spring out of this into some new level of understanding? Had I finally given up? Have I finally lost my sense of relevance? Is this then what getting old feels like?
The drive home was uneventful except for a continuing sense of nothingness ... a deadness.
Then it hit me as I descended from the Richmond-San Rafael bridge -- and drove alongside the huge Chevron refinery on Richmond's shoreline. It was that my frame of reference was so long -- attenuated by the years -- that I see that monstrosity of a prison as having every prisoner of every cell on death row predetermined into the system. I see the places where the Ship of State might have been turned around from this path of self-destruction now buried so far into the past -- that we can no longer see those relationships that might have made us sensitive to the little tributaries, the coves, the safe harbors that would have permitted the space and time to make the adjustments -- the fine-tuning in our course -- that would have allowed us to save ourselves as a nation, and as the hope of the world.
Just as I see Oliver North and the other Iran-Contra co-conspirators as the co-creators of the Crips and the Bloods, I see the inevitability of our young men of color having to become a part of a leaderless revolution misnamed "crime in the streets" for their own survival. I see an entire industry born of the drug wars and the dependency of so many professionals in law enforcement now thoroughly enmeshed in the trials, convictions, and warehousing of those now caught in an underground drug economy that cannot be denied. The profits are too great.
It felt today as if we were dealing with symptoms and that those entrapped in this death ritual will never escape because there is no logic to appeal to.
Today it feels as if we've lost this battle, or, that the outcome will have to be achieved by others. I no longer have any sense of control over a system gone mad -- it was an illusion that I ever could have effected change. I knew that, of course, but knowing didn't prevent the need to act as one of the responsibilities of being human.
There was a familiarity about the feelings. I felt this dispair at least once before -- standing beside the road leading to the Port Chicago Weapons Station. I'd joined the small band of Quakers who were protesting the loading of ammunition being shipped to the Vietnam war front. I knew no one on that line. Had decided the night before to join them after reading of their protest in the local newspaper.
It was a horrifying experience! As otherwise ordinary white suburban families drove by us in their station wagons, grinning parents jabbing middle fingers toward us while driving as close to the protesters as possible -- without actually hitting us. They'd yell obscenities and laugh as they taunted us, and all to the delight of their laughing children. I was terrified! I firmly believed in the constitutional right to protest and/or to engage in civil disobedience -- always expecting to pay the consequences of my actions. This, I was to later learn, was the highest form of ethical behavior according to the Kohlberg Harvard study. In those moments I was acting on conscience, only, and learning where my limits were.
At one point I saw an African American youth -- standing just a few feet behind the lines and obviously as much a stranger to the (all white) Quakers as I. I seriously doubted that he would have known their tenet of pacifism. I saw him slowly draw a knife from under his shirt. I figured that he was preparing himself to defend us -- and I knew that I, alone, had seen the knife. The reason being that -- unlike the others -- I'd not held my ground on the road as the cars shaved dangerously past us -- but had stepped back in fear -- so only I saw his defensive act. I'd not been armed by the godliness of the Quaker belief system so was as defenseless as this boy.
A few minutes later the huge munitions trucks began to arrive. The sign carriers held their ground. I couldn't, but turned and ran as fast as I could to climb into my car and tearfully drive away from the scene in disgrace! I'd never felt so much a failure. I couldn't find the "right" in the picture; couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. I knew that I wanted to help to end the war, but since I'd never had to live through one, I truly didn't know what a war was. I did know what a truck with an evil-grinning driver was. I feared trucks! I could feel the searing hatred in the faces and the voices of those families -- and I couldn't escape the feeling that in some strange way it was I who was causing the rage and the contempt that was all around me. The love and patriotism of the Friends were over-ridden by the hatred their acts of dedication to principle inspired.
There was something of that experience in what I saw today. What? Was I again yielding my place at the roadside in the face of fear? I'm not yet sure, and I may not get to figure this out in my lifetime; not with what lifetime I have left. But I do know that when the logic disappears, hope is diminished. Those to whom the appeals must be made are far away where the logic in our simple acts of protest and defiance cannot be seen or heard. These peaceful logical voices will be silenced by the cacophony of sound bytes and the kaleidoscope of other atrocities in faraway places where life has been so cheapened that our precious war dead are now being shipped home as freight!
Has our nation lost its soul ... ?
And today I'm feeling some unaccustomed dispair, while hoping against hope that others will maintain while I try to pick up the pieces ... .
Photo: Country Joe MacDonald. We met in 1965, before he wrote "We're all gonna die rag!" and Woodstock happened. We shared songs as we wrote them some afternoons in my home in Walnut Creek. He'd just returned from a tour of duty in the navy.