Moving Beyond Occupation into Presence: Decolonizing Our Minds, Hearts, and Spirits
The heartbeat of a large painted drum met me as I joined the crowd gathered at the edge of Oscar Grant Plaza. This had been the stronghold of Occupy Oakland until a series of brutal, fastidiously planned attacks by police brought the days of the encampment to a close.
Many of us were returning to the General Assembly for the first time in weeks. We had closed down the Oakland Port with a march of over 10,000 people, built a mini-city of shared food and cooperative work, and found ways to offer medical care and housing to people affected by the impact of the recession on our local community. But then it had all been taken away, and our unity was torn apart by internal conflict, confusion, and the heavy scars that follow police brutality.
Weeks after the clearing of the encampment, we gathered again in Oscar Grant Plaza to discuss a proposal brought forth by Ohlone, Pomo, and other Native American activists and allies to change the name of our encampment from “Occupy Oakland” to “Decolonize Oakland.”
The proposal was rooted in a deep desire for this movement to begin to address long-buried, seemingly irresolvable issues, such as the occupation of this land over 400 years ago by settlers that displaced the native population, the current displacement of native Oakland residents through gentrification and mass foreclosure, and the profound disconnect from these sacred lands that many of us suffer from, even those who are blessed with the opportunity to stay in our homes.
“Decolonization means connecting to the land and each other by growing and sharing food. It means connecting to the traditions of our ancestors and creating new forms of authentic human connection,” read the official proposal that a young man with short spiky hair passed to me. He offered the briefest of smiles, as well. The proposal went on to say:
Decolonization is a practice of healing from violence in forms such as slavery, occupation, and poverty. It is about raising our children to find beauty and meaning in their cultural identities. Decolonization means telling stories that emancipate our minds and dreams…. We want to deepen our efforts at political transformation by using language that heals, unites, and educates our communities. This name change signals our deep and lasting commitment to liberation and meaningful political education against corporate and capitalist violence, which are rooted in colonial relations.
I was struck by the beautiful energy of the scene before me. The chill of winter pierced the famously warm Bay Area autumn air as the sun dipped down behind the tall arches of City Hall. At least two or three hundred people had gathered—people of many different ages and backgrounds. Even in the midst of ideological debates that seemed irresolvable and the heaviness of a history of unhealed scars, or perhaps beneath them, was a yearning to be together again and to find the next step we might take together.
In that moment, I looked up and the reality that I usually live in—one of iron-boned skyscrapers, fiberglass-coated cars, tangerine-colored streetlights, and cheap consumer goods—shimmered in front of my eyes, as if it were coarse wool rippling atop bare skin, hinting at unseen beauty lying beneath. It lasted only a breath, but in that moment I had a glimpse of something deeply authentic that is hidden by the consumerism, capitalism, and colonialism that dominate the psyche of those of us born and raised in heavily industrialized societies.
In that moment, I had my first real sense of what this movement can achieve if it reaches its fullest potential, why it’s so threatening to the powers-that-be that relentlessly and violently try to repress it, and why it sometimes seems at its most powerful when it is undefined, unnamed, and without demands.
Occupy’s magical ability to make the invisible visible is one of the reasons it grew from an end-of-the summer activist fling into a global movement. Sharing stories of the real-life impact of economic policies that favor the extremely wealthy at the expense of just about everyone else, we have broken the silence that once veiled a system of compounding class, racial, and gender oppression. In doing so, the American people not only came to understand that these personal stories of hardship and desperation were not, as many had believed, shameful instances of personal failure—they also began to connect the dots between jobless college graduates wrestling with crippling student loan debt, families evicted from their homes due to bank foreclosures and predatory lending policies, elderly folks and children needlessly suffering because they lack access to affordable medical care and, perhaps above all, the corporate greed and government complicity that fuel these inequities and that have gone unchallenged for so long.
In dispelling the rhetoric of “the American Dream” and widespread hopelessness (misdiagnosed as apathy—especially in young adults), the Occupy movement has inspired many people around the world in profound, catalyzing ways. In occupying parks, city squares, and vacant houses, and transforming them into the commons where we share food, housing, allopathic and alternative healthcare, and the responsibility of shared decision-making, we are creating the “Beloved Community” that Martin Luther King said was key to realizing his dream on earth. We are helping to bring forth the prophesy of the Shambhala Warriors oft quoted by engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy by honing the two essential gifts that she says those of us committed to healing our world must have: compassion and the capacity to perceive the radical interdependence of all things.
Pancho Ramos Stierle is probably further up the road of Shambhala warriorhood than anyone else I know. Last autumn, he was arrested while sitting in silent meditation during a police raid at Oscar Grant Plaza. Pictures of him in the pre-dawn light, his eyes closed and a sweet smile on his lips, surrounded by riot cops, immediately went viral—and when the Alameda Sherriff’s Department turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the entire community mobilized in his defense. Pancho was treated as a maximum risk prisoner at the ICE Detention Center. He was kept continuously shacked and locked in solitary confinement for long periods of time.
“We were in shackles and we were in handcuffs,” he told reporters in a conference call after his release, “but the officers, they were in handcuffs and shackles in their soul. So we were just providing keys to them. So we said, ‘You know, you don’t need to be doing this.’”
Pancho was arrested in front of the Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland, which was organized by a group of local religious leaders who have been repeatedly threatened with police action and undermined by City Council politics. They were cited last December, even though they had exchanged their tent for a large beach umbrella in an attempt to comply with a law that prohibits erecting permanent structures in public spaces.
In many sane versions of reality, the direst threat that a group of rabbis, pastors, and yogis gathering under a beach umbrella could possibly pose is as the first line of a bad joke. But for the powers-that-be, these religious leaders, like Pancho, represent something very frightening. The powers-that-be are materially invested in maintaining the illusion that many of us walk around in every day, suspecting something is wrong but not knowing how to name it, sometimes falling for the lie that we just need to buy the newest technological toy, shed a couple of pounds, or rid ourselves of some undesirable element of society in order to feel better.
There is a growing understanding that the power structures that we are fighting against are not only dissolving our right livelihoods, repressing our voices, making us sick, and polluting the planet, they are also intentionally obstructing our ability to be fully alive and realize our deepest potential as humans. If our collective delusion of individualism and disconnection from the earth were shattered on a global level, power structures rooted in inequity and domination would have no place here on earth. That thought is absolutely terrifying to people—especially those within the most elite echelons who have poured their lives, their ambitions, and their sense of security into current power structures.
Occupy Oakland did not adopt the proposal that day, but since then other groups have abandoned “Occupy” due to its connotations of militarism and a legacy of bloodshed, and are now using words like “Liberate,” “Activate,” “Unsettle,” and “Decolonize” in its stead.
The dance of these new names reflects the subterranean shifts that have been stirring for many of us in the Occupy movement during the long winter nights. We are being called to something we can’t yet find words for, something beyond the veil of internalized industrialization and assembly-line living, something that we know is our birthright and suspect is our future. We are no longer simply talking about a revolution that frees us from corporate powers that have taken our homes and jobs, but also conscious, collective evolution away from consumerism’s false promises and the tyranny of colonialism that affects us all.
We aren’t merely calling for a paradigm shift—we’re calling for an unsettling of the constant haze of distraction, dissatisfaction, and depression in our hearts and minds that denigrates our relationships with one another, the earth, and our most authentic selves. We understand that there is a difference between occupying and being present, and that being present means that we must be liberated, activated, and connected.
And in the beautiful spring days opening before us, as the earth burgeons with rebirth and new possibility, we feel a stirring inside of us as our ancestral memories, deepest desires, and highest aspirations come into alignment with our work in the world—no matter what words we use to describe this, and what languages we use to sing of the sacred.
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