The police had declared Monday, November 14th of 2011 as the day of the raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment. It was the first Occupy site to call for a general strike that shut down the fifth largest port in the country; it was also the first Occupy gathering to report a shooting and a murder, as police violence also reached new heights. With tensions mounting amidst political chaos, police escalated their violent crackdowns and the narrative of fear. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in preparation for the raid, police from around the state were called in, and uncertainty filled the air.
The night before, Pancho Ramos Stierle heard about growing tensions in the community and thought, "If police are stepping up their violence, we need to go and step up our nonviolence." So on that Monday morning at 3:30AM, Pancho and his housemate Adelaja went to the site of the Occupy Oakland raid. With an upright back and half-lotus posture, they started meditating. Many factions of protesters were around but the presence of strong meditators changed the vibe entirely. Around 6:30AM, the police showed up in full force. Full-out riot gear, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas. Mainstream media was present, expecting a headline story around this incredibly tense scene. Instead, they found 32 people, all peaceful, with Pancho and Adeleja meditating with their eyes closed in the middle of the Plaza. As the police followed their orders of arresting them, people took photos -- particularly of two smiling meditators surrounded by police looking like they're ready to go to war. Within a day, that photo would spread to millions around the world, as the Occupy Oakland raid ended without any reported violence.
One such experience can be enough for a lifetime. For Pancho, though, this is just run of the mill. In small ways and big, he is always looking to step up his compassion in the most unexpected places.
Raised in Mexico, Pancho was fascinated by the stars, planets, and galaxies. He would always look up in outer space and admire the border-less cosmos that we inhabit; and he'd imagine looking down at Planet Earth from outer space -- and not seeing any lines across countries. He envisioned a world of oneness and unity, and when he got a full scholarship to study the cosmos at University of California at Berkeley, his vision got a huge boost. He moved to Berkeley to pursue his PhD in Astrophysics.
On campus one day, he serendipitously engaged in a profound hallway conversation with a janitor. It opened his eyes to the janitor's incredibly difficult life. Something awakened in him, as he actively started looking for solutions. "I saw that instead of PhD's, what the world needs more are PhDo's," Pancho recalls.
As time went on, Pancho realized that his research supports an institution that actively proliferates nuclear weapons. That tipped him over the edge. Not only did he stop cooperating with the university system, he starts raising a dissenting voice.
When his complains fell on deaf ears, he partook in a nine-day fast with other students and professors across California to request an open dialogue with the UC Regents -- the governing body of the University of California. The fast cultimated at a public hearing of the Regents. When the student request was denied, they locked arms in nonviolent protest and sat peacefully. To disengage them, the police were ordered to make an example of one of them. They lifted up this man, slammed him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, twisted his arms behind his back and handcuffed him ruthlessly. Supporters started shouting at the overt show of inhumane behavior towards a fragile student who hadn't eaten a single morsel of food for nine days. That man was none other than Pancho.
The story would end there, except that Pancho's strength resided beyond his body. "It was excruciating pain," Pancho recalls. Perhaps the police officer picked on Pancho because of his small and skinny frame, but the outer force is no match for Pancho's inner might. The injustice is obvious, but Pancho knew that the officer is not to blame. In a completely unrehearsed move of raw compassion, Pancho, with all the love in his heart, looks directly into the police officer's eyes, and says, "Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children." The overflowing love coming from the heart of this man on a nine-day fast is unmistakable. This is not the kind of encounter that police are trained in. Seeing his confusion, Pancho steps up his empathy and changes the topic. Looking at the last name on his badge, he asks for the officer's first name. And addressing him as a family member, he says, "Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food." [Awkward pause.] "Yes." "Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I'd like to break my fast with you. What do you say?"
The police officer is completely flabbergasted, his humanity irrevocably invoked. He accepts the invitation! Dropping eye contact gently, he then walks around Pancho and voluntarily loosens his handcuffs. In silence. By now, all of Pancho's comrades -- twelve of them -- are also in handcuffs, so the officer then goes around to loosen everyone else's handcuffs too.
There are those who use anger, sarcasm and parody to confront unjust action. Pancho does it with just the simple -- and radical -- power of love. If he had a superpower, that would be it. He is a fearless soldier of compassion, unconditionally willing to hold up a fierce mirror of love.
For Pancho, the whole World, every moment, is his field of practice. When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness. Meditation deepens his awareness while small acts of kindness deepens his inter-connectedness. Or as Pancho would sum it up, "Meditation is the DNA of the kindness revolution." Ever since he first went to a meditation retreat, he has continued to meditate everyday. "Pancho 2.0" is what he calls himself since then. It was as if he discovered a new technology to battle our burning world.
Spirituality often sees activism as unnecessarily binding, while activism often sees spirituality as a navel-gazing escape. For Pancho, though, the two paths merge into one. Meditation is internal service, while service is external meditation.
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