We have a skylight in our bedroom, directly above my head. Last night, around a quarter to eleven, there appeared two helicopters, loud, and blinking lights into the darkened room. This morning, I found out why: the Oakland Police had corralled a good number of people to arrest them in front of the Paramount Theater, about six blocks from our house.
In case you hadn’t heard, in reaction to the shooting of an unarmed twenty-two-year-old father in a BART station on New Year’s, local residents turned from peaceful protest to violence yesterday.
I am conflicted. I have many thoughts in my head. I will, no doubt, be in many different places in this post (hold on to your hats). You might think, given my penchant for railing against the Man, my many many angry rants about race, politics, and power, that I’d use this space to draft a long critique of the criminal justice system and institutional racism. I want to. A part of me really wants to do just that. I am compelled to, especially after reading several other stories a very good friend of mine posted online about other young people of color who have been killed by the police in the past twelve months and the routine way in which police departments circle the wagons and deflect blame and as a result, according to some, no justice is served.
In light of that, I can understand the outrage. (I’ve got my own outrage. As long-time readers no doubt know.)
But three other things are rolling around up in my head. First, oddly, in the midst of all those newspaper articles my friend posted, she also posted something unusually sentimental by Deepak Chopra about love. Love. Of course. There’s love out there in the world, too. And I don’t want to forget that.
Which brings me to the second thing on my mind today. Earlier this week, when the video of Oscar Grant was making the Internet rounds, I thought about my father-in-law. He’s a criminal appeals attorney which means he makes his living defending people who’ve been sent to jail, defending people who lost. For the most part, I imagine him defending the kind of people I used to teach at San Quentin, people who had done, admittedly, horrible things but who, nevertheless, are deserving of redemption, have served their time, and are stuck in the System because of some Draconian mix of bureaucracy and institutional racism. That my father-in-law defends these guys makes me think he’s one of the good guys. He’s one of the good guys because he believes, as do I, firmly, that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, to the best possible defense regardless of their guilt or innocence. That is, after all, the corner-stone of our legal system.
And it occurred to me that when and if Officer Johannes Mehserla is arrested and brought to trial and sentenced, someone like my father-in-law would handle his appeal. Which makes Office Mehserla essentially no different from any of his other clients, from the guys I taught at San Quentin, that is, deserving of our compassion, just as much as Carlos. As much as any of us. (Note that this does not excuse his behavior. Feeling compassion for someone does not absolve them of responsibility for their actions or magically wipe away their karma.)
Which brings me to my last point. I’ve been re-reading River of Fire, River of Water and reflecting on this idea that attaining birth in the Pure Land i.e., entering the path, attaining the stage of non-retrogression, becoming a bodhisattva is possible for all of us, even those who have committed the five grave offenses. Among the five grave offenses are killing your parents. Patricidal maniacs are eligible for awakening. How much the more so those of us who have committed far less grave offenses?
Which brings me back to that point about compassion. We’re all in this together. We’re all struggling through samsara, this round of birth and death, without release, suffering seemingly endless. How do we respond to violence? To racism? To oppression?
Which brings me back, I’m almost embarrassed to say, to Deepak Chopra.
That is, to love.
I think it goes without saying that I believe rioting, that responding to violence with more violence, is an inappropriate response. Hatred, as the Buddha famously said, is never appeased by hatred but by love.
My heart feels heavy. With hope, with gratitude, I continue on my way.