Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Not Guilty!

May 26 is a day I will never forget. At about 5:30 in the afternoon, after nearly 6 hours of testimony and legal debate, the twelve of us arrested for protesting in front of Colismo’s Gun Shop were pronounced not guilty by Judge Yvette Simmons. After nearly 5 months of preparation and waiting since our arrests in mid-January, we gave a collective sigh of relief for justice being done. As I said in my testimony, the very fact that we were even brought up on charges was a contradiction of justice, when the current laws in Pennsylvania readily allow for the process of straw-purchasing. While Judge Simmons did not explain her verdict, she appeared to be moved by the collective convictions of those of us who testified. Our lawyers invoked a “justification defense,” which essentially said that our actions were justified in that we committed a lesser harm in order to prevent a greater danger.

To be part of the action and the trial was a humbling privilege that will stay with me for a long time. As I have previously shared in this blog, I had a traumatic experience in jail after we were arrested. As a result I was quite timid when it came to the whole legal process; yet time and time again I was lifted and inspired by the passion, conviction and commitment of my co-defendants. To be counted in the same number as these amazing people was a humbling honor.

Moreover, the hundreds of people who came to support us before and during the trial, many of whom spent part or all of the day sitting at the trial, was amazing. Words cannot express how it felt to have all these folks giving up their time to stand with us in our effort to draw attention to Mr. Colimos reluctance to do his part to stem the flow of illegal guns on to the streets of our city. Their presence was a reminder that what we had done carried a significance beyond our individual convictions in front of one particularly notorious gun shop.

Beyond those who were physically present, there were many more who were praying for us. Shortly before the trial, I was handed an envelope in which was contained a small knit square 12 stitches by 12 stitches. With it was a note indicating the square was reminder of this woman’s prayer for all of us. She had knit one for each of us. Several times during the day, and especially shortly before I testified, I held that square in my hand as a reminder of the greater Presence with us. I was reminded that we were being upheld by brothers and sisters in spiritual solidarity with us.

During his testimony, Fr. Isaac Miller drew attention to the long standing tradition of Christian civil disobedience best exemplified my Dr. Martin Luther King during his non-violent struggle for Civil Rights. Fr. Miller reminded us that we serve a higher law that calls us to challenge unjust laws when they contradict God’s law. Yesterday was a validation that this struggle is a divine struggle for justice against principalities and powers that have a vice grip on the processes of legislation and justice in our country.

For that reason while yesterday was great day, today we must continue the struggle. During the trial we did not change one law, nor did we necessarily stop any straw purchasing. As a sign of hope I can say that in my perusal of the morning paper I did not see any mention of gun violence in Philadelphia on the night of May 26. Nonetheless, the struggle must continue. That is why I will be at Millcreek Baptist Church this weekend at their 2nd annual stop the violence conference, which will include a gun buyback, and I will be speaking at Frazer Mennonite Church’s peace festival. That is why some of us will continue to witness in front of Colisimos on Mondays and Fridays. That is why Heeding God’s Call will continue to invite and encourage churches to join this faith-based effort to change the laws and practices in Pennsylvania around the sale and use of guns.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign that came from the trial was the hope our actions engendered in others. During a short break in the trial I was approached by a distinguished African-American man in his early 60’s. As he shook my hand and thanked me, he said that in the 60’s and 70’s he had engaged in activism and civil disobedience during the Civil Rights struggle. He is now a lawyer, but said that our action had encouraged him that people were still willing to put their livelihoods on the line for social justice. What I and the others endured was probably nothing compared to the suffering he must have endured during the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights struggle, and yet he was thanking me! I thank him for showing me and the others the way in which the struggle for justice can be won against overwhelming odds. While I did not see my decision to stand up for justice by sitting down in front of a gun shop as a particularly courageous act, I recognize that it has inspired and emboldened others. My hope is that our actions and the trial that followed can be a catapult to further action that eventually will change the laws and the violence-saturated culture in which we live. When that day comes, I will be grateful for having played a small part in bringing it into being.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Faith, Guns and Direct Action

In preparation for our trial on May 26, our lawyer asked each defendant to put together a personal statement as to why we participated in the direct action against Colismo's gun shop. While this will not be my exact testimony, the following is my basic reasoning for particpating in the action.

My Statement at Trial

For years I was troubled by the nightly reports of violence and death on the streets of Philadelphia, often at the hands of young people, mostly young men, using guns. As a Christian, I had long believed and witnessed to my conviction that God has not created people for violence but for community. Long ago I had dedicated myself to be a person who lived out lifestyle of peace and called others to the way of peace. So I agonized over the statistics of violence in our city, and I wondered what can I, and what can we as Christians concerned about peace do in response to this situation. I had been involved in numerous efforts to stop the wars in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq, and had even supported some folks who went to witness as Christian Peacemakers in Baghdad on the eve of the 2nd Iraq war. I wondered: if we can send people halfway around the world to protest war and witness for peace, why do we feel so powerless in stopping the violence in our city streets?

About two years ago, I met Bryan Miller, the founder of CeaseFire New Jersey and CeaseFire Pennsylvania. Bryan spoke about the gun laws in Pennsylvania and explained in simple terms how guns could be bought legally in Pennsylvania gun shops and then sold or given to criminals or young people who could not legally own a gun. This process is called straw buying and is a major source of illegal guns on the streets of Pennsylvania cities. There is no legal repercussion for straw buying if when a gun is traced back to him or her, the straw buyer simply says the gun was lost or stolen. Bryan talked about two laws that had been proposed in the state legislature and passed in Philadelphia and other cities that could discourage this practice. The “Lost and Stolen” bill would require people whose legally purchased gun had been lost or stolen to report to the police when the gun was missing. The other was a bill that would limit handgun sales to one per month. Similar laws in New Jersey had significantly reduced the flow of illegal guns being bought and sold in that state. However, because of Pennsylvania’s truck-size legal loophole, PA is a major source of guns not only in its own state, but several surrounding states, including New Jersey. After hearing Bryan Miller’s simple and logical explanation, I realized there was something concrete and practical I could work for.

So for these past two years I have been writing letters to my local newspaper and to my representatives. I have helped organize a community forum on gun violence. I have blogged on the issue, and talked at length with friends and colleagues. Furthermore, as a college professor with students from Philadelphia, I have had personal contact with young people who have lost brothers and friends to gun violence. I have had at least one student who survived a gun shot wound as a young child, but as a young adult is still traumatized by it. Changing the laws and changing the practices around guns became personal for me.

Bryan has often reminded me that changing the laws is going to be a long slow process. So when we who were part of Heeding God’s Call began talking about a gun merchants’ Code of Conduct signed by Wal-Mart, I was interested. We chose to present the code to Mr. Colismo, since by all reports his shop was a major source of illegal guns bought through this process of straw buying. When Mr. Colisimo refused to sign the code, we discussed the possibility of performing a direct action at his shop. For me the decision to join the direct action was simple, and a logical next step in my growing commitment to stop the flow of illegal guns.

Others may have more developed rationales for joining the action, but my rationale is straightforward, and is captured in the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans where he said: “I beseech you brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to the Lord. For this is your act of spiritual worship.” For me, participating in the direct action and sitting down in front of Mr. Colisimo’s store when we were refused entry, was an act of my Christian commitment and an act of worship. It was a way for me to literally put my body on the line for stopping gun violence. My sitting down in front of Colisimo’s store was a concrete, physical act of faith, pure and simple.

The irony of this whole affair is that the police who arrested me and who blocked our entrance to Mr. Colisimo’s shop are the ones on the front lines suffering from the presence of illegal guns on our streets. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them to go out on some calls knowing they could be fired at. I admire their courage. Yet how ironic that they arrested me for trying to stop the flow of the illegal guns being fired at them. I pointed this out to one of the officers just before I was arrested, but he was not hearing any of it.

It is also ironic that the D.A.’s office is bringing this case, when they have testified on behalf of the very laws I too would like to see passed: the lost and stolen, and one handgun a month bills. It is further ironic that I am being tried in a court in Philadelphia, which itself has passed these laws, but has been prevented by legal challenges to enforce these laws I too would like to see enforced.

I am not the offender in this court. I am not the criminal. The criminals in this case are those who block the passage of sane laws, and who object to signing a simple code of conduct that would slow down the process of straw buying. Those are the ones who should be on trial, not the twelve of us who stand before you today. If I am a criminal, then the DA’s who are trying me, and the city of Philadelphia are also criminal, because we are all on the same side. I contend I am not in the wrong and should not be convicted of a crime because I don’t believe the city of Philadelphia is wrong or the DA’s office is wrong in trying to stop the process of straw buying. The criminals in this case are still free to operate: gun shops like Mr. Colisimo’s who look the other way to make a sale, and who won’t put common sense practices in place to discourage straw buying. The criminals in this case are those like the NRA who oppose the passage of these common sense laws. The criminals are politicians who allow their votes on these gun laws to be swayed by the NRA’s money. These are the criminals in this case, and they are not on trial, but were we acting logically and in accordance what is right and just, they would be.

So, your honor, I ask that you see this case for what it is: a complete contradiction of justice, and acquit me on the charges brought against me.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The "Dark" Side of My Family History

Several years ago as part of a workshop on Family Systems, I did an extensive history on my family of origin. With the help of an aunt on my Dad’s side, and an uncle on my Mom’s side, I was able to pull together a rather impressive history of the various strains of the Boyd and Mullins families from which I come. A few years after that, at a Boyd family reunion, I presented a booklet to all the members of my extended family with the history all written out. While the history is mostly complete, there have always been some gaps in the story that I have wanted to research more fully and try to fill.

However, recently I have begun to think that there probably is huge gap in my family history that I, like most white Americans, not only have missed, but have purposely ignored. This “dark” side of my history came to my attention through the reading of two books. The first book, The Hidden Wound, is an extended essay by Wendell Berry written first in 1969 and then updated in 1989. In this reflective piece Berry describes his childhood experiences on his grandfather’s Kentucky farm where there lived and worked an older African-American man named Nick Watkins, and his common law wife Aunt Georgie. Berry recalls the closeness he felt to Nick, even while his white family members urged him not to get to close to “the good nigger,” as he was called. Writing nearly 20 years later, Berry returns to those childhood memories to reflect on the nature of racial relations in his native Kentucky, as well as in the United States as a whole. Only upon reflection does Berry realize how unaware he was of the strict lines of separation between black and white during his 1940’s childhood and how his destiny and Nick’s were predetermined by the racial apartheid of that era.

The second book, Slaves in My Family by Edward Ball, is even a more intriguing look at family history vis-à-vis the legacy of slavery. Ball’s story begins at a family reunion in Charleston, SC, where his forbears had been wealthy plantation owners from the 1600’s to the early 1900’s. While the family myth indicated that the Ball ancestors were wealthy slave owners, the myth also said that “they treated their slaves well.” Edward Ball wanted to find out if that was true, and went on a quest to retrace the family histories of the slaves that worked in the rice patties of his ancestors’ plantations. In the course of his study, Ball not only found many cases of white brutality and slave rebellion, but also was able to discover cousins whose line traced back to the illicit and forced sexual relations between the white master and his female slaves. Along the course of his journey, Ball encounters anger and resistance from both white and black, who neither know nor want to know that sordid side of their history.

Now on the surface of it, my family and the families of Wendell Berry and Edward Ball, have little in common. They both hail from the segregated South, whereas my forbears came from England, Scotland, and Ireland by way of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio and Delaware. There is not hint of slave-owning in any of my background, and the ones who settled furthest south in Delaware were Quakers, who were the earliest religious groups to become abolitionists. There is even some evidence that one side of the Ohio family may have participated in the Underground Railroad. So why the concern?

Through my re-reading of US social history, I have become increasingly aware of not-so-veiled prejudice against African-Americans that existed in the North. Moreover the settlers in New England were well-known and proudly so, for their removal of Native American tribes from the whole region. The North regarded African slaves and America’s indigenous people as sub-human and thereby justified their violent treatment of them. While I was quite aware of this history, until reading Berry’s and Ball’s reflections on their own families, I had not thought to personalize this social history and see the degree to which my family might also have a sordid side that I and my ancestors had conveniently overlooked and ignored.

In reflecting on his own history, Berry writes of his “hidden wound,” the legacy of racism that has divided him from his African-American friends. He writes: “I knew well that racism had caused pain to black people, but I knew too that it been a cause of pain to white people – it been a cause of pain to me – and not just because of guilt. I knew that for white people it had involved loss and spiritual disfigurement” (pp. 110-111). While I would never suggest that the loss and pain of white people can even begin to approach that inexorable suffering of the ancestors of my African-American and Native American colleagues, I can attest to the sense of spiritual disfigurement and loss of identity cause by the history of racism of which Berry speaks.

W.E.B Dubois, the brilliant thinker and founder of the NAACP of the last century, wrote about the double-consciousness that all people of color have to master in this society. In Souls of Black Folk, he writes: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. [The black person] ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In my own way, I have realized I too have had to develop a double-consciousness of my own. On the one had I go through my days seeing myself in light my “official” history that points me out as a white person with a legacy of white privilege and power. On the other hand, while acknowledging that history I am actively trying to re-imagine myself and live a life where I don’t rely on the racial power, status and privilege my skin color and social class afford me. This second part of my double-consciousness challenges me each day as I realize how consistently and subtlely I am afforded advantages simply because I am a white, middle class male. Like most white people, I am hesitant to look too deeply into my family history for fear that I will discover what I intuitively already know: that the “success” of my family was bought and paid thru the suffering of others, a suffering my family directly or indirectly inflicted.

Despite my hesitation, I am now also curious to revisit my family history, and like Wendell Berry and Edward Ball, try to see that history in the larger socio-economic context of its day. No doubt in that search, I may find a dark side of my family history that has been ignored and forgotten.