On Power and Violence (Baltimore, for example)

Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.

Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.  (Reflections on Violence)

The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage.

In many parts of this country, power—the power of the state, derived from the people—is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. This is a direct result of the deployment of the forces of domination over communities of color for hundreds of years. The reaction to the violence of the state is twofold: on the one hand, the creation of alternative forms of power, nonviolent power which competes with and sometimes influences state power; or, alternatively, when the violence of domination breaks the power of community totally, the response itself is violent.

The death toll in the African-American community reminds one of the death tolls of occupied peoples in other parts of the world. In Baltimore, the city currently on fire, over 100 African-American men and women, between 2011 and 2014 “won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations.”

As we stand now, city governments in various places in the country have lost their power and can only project violence. For decades, if not centuries, the role of the police has been to preserve order as much as to enforce law. “Order” has almost always meant the protection of property and property values. The protection against harassment from those gathering to present their grievances. The seclusion of the haves from the have nots, the sheltered from the homeless. The mandate of the police was almost never to protect the marginal from the powerful. The runaway slaves were to be returned, the homeless were to be declared vagrants, the petitioners were to be kept “orderly” and segregated.

If we want to start doing business differently—the business of building a society whose power is derived from the people and not the deployment of violence—there needs to be a rethinking of the legitimacy of police power. In part, we have to demand a shift in the balance of power between communities and the police. The police forces have to answer to the communities they are meant to serve and not vice versa. There must be a system of civilian oversight which has serious teeth. We must demand independent prosecutors for cases of officer involved shootings. The sheriffs and police commissioners must serve at the pleasure of the civil authorities rather than be directly elected. This gives the oversight commissions the power to force the retirement of those office holders if their actions are egregious.

We are, in the end, all in this together. We all must demand that those who are commissioned in our names to enforce our laws, start from the presumption that on the face of every single person is written “thou shalt not kill.” We must, in the urgency of this moment, repeat at the highest of decibels and in the most hallowed of places that Black Lives Matter.

 

Sitting with the powerful (on the women’s fast for $15)

I had the unique pleasure and privilege late yesterday afternoon to sit with six of the twelve powerful, brave women who were in the seventh day of a fifteen day fast. They are fasting to bring attention to the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It was a privilege to be brought into their circle.

They shared their challenges and their blessings. Martha Sanchez grew up in Mexico, and raised her seven siblings by herself as her mother had emigrated to the United States in order to send back money to support the family. She said that this was the first time she felt comfortableamong these women—to publicly recount the hardships of her childhood, the hunger and the abuse. She is driven by the hope that her children’s life will be better. That she and her husband won’t both have to work so much, because of low wages, that they don’t see their own children.IMG_0936

TJ Michaels is an organizer with SEIU 721 and the Fix LA coalition. She is fasting as a sacrifice to identify with the sacrifices of single mothers who, in her words, “make 26 sacrifices every morning before I wake up.” She spoke her frustration earlier yesterday at a City Council meeting. She pointed out to council members that 40% of Angelinos make under $15 an hour, and if they really wanted to do something about homelessness in the homelessness capital of the country, they would raise the minimum wage. (A living wage for an adult with one child in Los Angeles is $23.53 an hour. $15 an hour is a step in the right direction, but it is not the shores of Canaan.)

Anggie Goddoy is a young American-born Angeleno who committed to the fast and is so proud of the fact that she can carry through with it. She is fasting because of the injustice of low wages.

All the women had stories and all the women had reasons, but most of all the women had strength, and commitment.

Ultimately, this is on all of us. Do we want to live in a city which has some of the largest concentrations of wealth in the country, and yet people who work full time jobs can still be living in poverty? Do we want to live in a city in which some people have to choose between buying medicine for their kids, or buying food? Do we want to live in a city with world class museums, a world class airport, world restaurants, and hotels—and third world poverty?

Do we want to live in a city which hears the voice from atop the mountain: “I am God, your God who has taken you out of the house of bondage,”—who knows the difference between wage labor and slave labor, who abhors oppression; or do we want to live in a city that says about the Golden Calf “this is your god Israel who has taken you out of Egypt.”

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Walking the walk:

1. The fasters are sitting every day in front of Los Angeles City Hall (till around 7PM). If you are in the area go to see them, give them some support, say hello.

2. On April 29 at 10AM, the women will deliver the women’s voice to City Hall. Come support them.

3. No matter where you are, join the Fight for 15. Sign the petition, contact your representatives at the city, state, and federal level.

On the way to Sinai (on racism and economic justice)

We are on a journey. This period that we are now moving through, the seven weeks that start on the second day of Passover and end at Shavuot or Weeks,  the next holiday in the calendrical cycle, is a journey from Egypt to Sinai. It is deeply symbolic that as the first day of Passover was waning this year, we were marking the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year that anniversary was marked amidst the outcries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, amidst the sounds of gunshots and the cries of unarmed black and brown men killed by officers of the law, of the state.

Africa shootingWe are on a journey—but where are we going? Continue reading

Together We are Strong (On the labor horizon at this moment)

At a dinner the other night I was talking to a good friend who works in the hi-tech industry. Knowing that I blog about economic justice issues he suggested I write about the “Uber and Lyft economy.” “The whole world is Uber and Lyft,” he said, arguing that the working conditions of Uber and Lyft drivers—wherein the company controls the working hours and working conditions of the drivers, and yet considers them to be independent contractors and therefore is not responsible for paying their social security tax, health insurance, etc.—are not exclusive to Uber and Lyft. Rather, he said, corporations in general were trying to move to a model wherein all workers were independent contractors and therefore the corporations have no obligations to them beyond basic salary.

I agreed with him that this is a serious issue. When I suggested however that it was tied to the larger labor issues in the economory—wage theft and working conditions amongst low wage workers, truck drivers at the ports and other folks—he was surprised. He did not know that wage theft was such a problem. (In truth, this should be the reaction of any moral person. How could someone steal someone else’s wages? In the Talmud, wage theft is compared to “murder” (Baba Metzia 111b) ) Continue reading

This is not a travelogue (With AJWS in Central America)

The word that kept coming up was “accompaniment” (acompañamiento in Spanish). In the second floor offices of the poetically named sex workers’ rights organization Flor de Piedra (Flower from the Stone) in San Salvador—ten or fifteen off-white plastic chairs set in rows on a tile floor under a glass roof; coils of barbed wire on the wall between this building and the next—a reflection of the high rate of violence and fear pervasive in El Salvador—four or five staff in their thirties and forties, sex workers of the same age who were members of the organization.

In the heavily secured (thick metal gate at the top of the steep staircase, barbed wire visible through the window) second story offices of COMCAVIS Trans—a necessity because of the violence faced by trans women on a daily basis—sitting in a cramped corner office with the slightest hint of a breeze on a typically hot San Salvador afternoon. Listening to Natalie, a member of the board of directors, speak about the dangers that the trans women who are members of COMCAVIS trans face on a daily basis. The mission of the organization is to represent, defend, and promote trans women’s human rights. However, when Diana, a native of San Salvador, who joined after a friend was assassinated, spoke of the importance of COMCAVIS, she spoke of accompaniment. Sullai spoke about the fact that COMCAVIS helped her get a restraining order against her brother who had threatened her. Other members recalled sitting in the hospital with a member who’d been attacked because her family refused to come see her. Continue reading

Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. Continue reading

When Our Judges Need to Be Judged

IMG_0708_11At Leimert Park, the man was holding a sign that said “We now have judges that cannot judge.” Midst chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Hey Ho, racist cops have gotta go” I kept coming back to this plaintive sign. It brought to mind the midrash which comments on the first verse in the Book of Ruth: “In the days when the chieftains ruled.” The Hebrew uses the same root for both noun and verb and has the more poetic: biymay shfot ha-shoftim. When the judges judged, perhaps. The midrash comments: “Woe to the generation which judged its judges, woe to the generation whose judges needed to be judged.” (Ruth Rabba 1:16)

Police officers are part of the judiciary. When asked about the role of police officers in light of Jewish textual tradition, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv (in a small book called Dvar HaMishpat: Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:7) discussed the idea that the police are invested with judicial authority and not merely with punitive or protective authority. Therefore, the Talmud’s demand (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 26a) that a court has two obligations—both judging (deciding law based on the facts and testimony) and saving (attempting as best as they could to find a defendant innocent)—would also apply to police. This translates to the fact that police officers are in a situation wherein they are obligated to defuse, and deescalate a situation rather than to “put down” a threat.

We are now in a time when some of our police officers, and some of the officers of the courts, cannot or will not judge. They will not judge the judges. Woe to our generation for our judges surely need to be judged.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—eighth night

The deepest yet also the simplest truth of Hanukkah is that it is a holiday about a miracle. The real power of the miracle, however, is not that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple was defiled by occupying forces. Neither is the real power that that one cruse of oil burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one day. The real power is the story of the miracle itself.

In the earliest accounts of the Hanukkah story (the Books of Maccabees) and even in the earliest liturgy (the al hanisim prayer that is still recited today) the focus is on a military victory. The Rabbis refocus the holiday to celebrate a miracle of light. This is the powerful story. A narrative of uncontrolled violence—which is what every armed conflict becomes—is replaced by a vision of light.

Tonight as we shine the full power of the Hanukah lights into the public domain, let us draw from that miracle and proclaim that violence only ever begets violence and darkness. Only light begets more light. This is our charge. This is our time.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—seventh night

One of the interesting laws concerning Hanukkah candles is that they must be placed no higher than approximately 35 feet off the ground so that they might be seen by passersby.

The core reason for candle lighting on Hanukah is pirsumei nisa/publicizing the miracle. The miracle, as the Rabbis understood it, was that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple had been defiled, and that cruse burned eight days until fresh pure oil could be made.

The possibility that purity can remain amongst the impurity of the world, that righteousness can stand even through the onslaught of injustice, that good can remain in a world that sometimes seems to be more and more evil—this is the miracle of Hanukah. The obligation then is to announce that miracle to the world. It must be seen in the streets. It is not enough to support justice loudly behind closed doors. One has to demonstrate justice and demonstrate for justice at street level. So it can be seen, and heard, and felt.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—fourth night

There is an interesting difference between Shabbat candles and Hanukah candles. According to rabbinic law, eyn madlikin mi-ner le-ner, one is not allowed to light one Hanukah candle from another. That is, each Hanukah candle has its own holiness and therefore it cannot be used for any other purpose—even to light another Hanukah candle. (This is why we use a specially designated candle that is not part of the sanctified lights to light the other candles.) This is different from Shabbat candles that are essentially utilitarian—they are meant to light up the room—and therefore one candle can be used to light another candle.

The Hanukah lights then symbolize a deep truth about people. Ner Adonai nishmat adam/ The soul of a person is the light of God. Each person is unique to the extent that we cannot truly grasp another person and therefore—and this is key—we cannot use other people; we can only respond to their needs. As we light the Hanukah candles tonight we remember that each person is a light of God. Each person is uniquely different. Each person has infinite worth.