11/11/2011 09:14 am ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

Praying With Our Feet at Occupy Oakland

When my teacher and mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary Abraham Joshua Heschel told me and others that he had been "praying with his feet" when he participated in the Selma Freedom march in 1965, he confirmed for many a way of overcoming the dichotomy between my religious practice and my radical politics. In many ways, the anti-war movements of the '60s and early '70s of the last century felt like that kind of community prayer.

I had that experience again at my various visits to Occupy Oakland, most intensely this past Wednesday, November 2, 2011. It was a strong protest of the class war that has been waged by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population -- and their hired guns in the media, political world, and educational institutions -- against the 99 percent of the population who have suffered both materially and spiritually in the past four decades. But it was also a powerful reaffirmation, celebration, and manifestation of the life and love energy of the universe that we in the religious community call God, Spirit, Unity of All Being, Source, Creator, Allah, YHVH, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mother, Father, Elohim, Yah, Goddess, and much more.

The tens of thousands of people who streamed through the various parts of the day were there to affirm life, to manifest love, and to challenge the injustice and unrighteousness of our economic and political system. And they did so with remarkable energy, creativity, beauty, and intelligence.

Some of the scenes I liked best:

  • Two preteen girls sitting with several pieces of poster board trying to decide which of the many slogans they had created should go on their posters and how best to decorate them.

  • The children's march to the Oakland library, whose services have been radically cut as a result of the national assault on the public sector. Roughly two hundred children and their parents participated in the march.
  • Twenty children performing a series of dances to songs articulating the visions of a just and caring world.
  • Thousands of people marching to the downtown main branches of Bank of America and Wells Fargo and other banks that benefited from our tax money. They held signs saying, "You got bailed out--we got thrown out" (a reference to the banks' opposition to lowering interest rates on home mortgages).
  • A crowning moment, when the crowd swelled to what felt like ten thousand people (others claim twenty to forty thousand) and marched to the Port of Oakland. The management of the port announced that it had been shut down.
  • The areas created by the Jewish contingent and interfaith clergy, which both set up tents and provided quiet space, prayer, meditation, and teachings from our traditions to hundreds of people who wanted to tap into that energy as well as the more overt protest energy.
  • And, like the '60s, there were also problems.

    • In the name of "inclusion" and "non-judgmentalism" the vast majority of nonviolence-oriented people felt unable to stop a comparatively tiny group of masked protesters from breaking windows and introducing a feel of violence that gave the corporate media their pretext for making "violence" the center of the story they reported to the world.

  • Due to the movement's aversion to leadership (epitomized by the slogan, "we are all leaders and have no leaders") it has become impossible to develop a coherent vision of what we are for. Full disclosure: I've been pushing for the Occupy movement to call for 1) a New New Deal providing full employment, rebuilding the U.S. infrastructure and repairing the environment; 2) a freeze on home expulsions for anyone who owns only one home and whose mortgage rates have risen, as well as a mandatory return to those lower rates for everyone; 3) a single-payer national health plan for all; 4) free college or university education for all; 5) a Global Marshall Plan; 6) regulations to limit the amount of money used to disseminate ideas or shape public opinion in any federal election in order to assure that all major points of view regarding issues and candidates receive equal exposure to the greatest extent possible; 7) an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • A fetishization of the occupied spaces, as though these physical sites were the center of the struggle, rather than the broader pursuit of justice for the 99 percent. Inordinate focus on the occupied spaces themselves, and the newly asserted "right" to have tents and cooking facilities through the nights, puts the movement at risk of losing sight of the larger goal: rejecting the ethos of materialism and selfishness of global capitalism and replacing it with an ethos of love, kindness, generosity and environmental responsibility (in short, building "the Caring Society -- Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Earth"). It's hard for anybody to believe that we are about a caring society unless we also show caring for the many people who are not living in these encampments, worry about how our sites are impacting on their ability to make a living, reaching out to them with messages and behavior that shows we understand their concerns, and restraining those among us who are interested in provoking violence as a way of expressing their anger at the irrational and unjust and fundamentally violent system of global capital.
  • I offer these thoughts in a collaborative spirit, not in an attempt to undermine all that is good in the movement. No movement is perfect -- we all have our problems and distorted views of reality. I'm hoping that more people committed to nonviolence will show up at the General Assembly meetings held by Occupy Oakland and change the vibe from one which prioritizes "unity" (meaning a refusal to "impose" nonviolence) to one in which people understand that nonviolence is the best strategy, as well as the only morally coherent approach to a struggle for human rights.

    It was very disheartening to me Wednesday night to listen as a speaker in favor of non-violence for Occupy Oakland was roundly booed at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly when he mentioned the names of Gandhi and King; and when another person who had introduced a call for non-violence withdrew it in favor of "unity" because he could see that many, if not most, of the people on hand at that time (only about five hundred, less than 5% of those who had marches the week before) rejected the idea of an explicit commitment to non-violence and to creating a group of monitors who would use non-violent techniques, hopefully supported by most everyone else, to restrain those who prioritized acts of destruction of property over the goal of creating a sense of safety for the 99% who this movement often claims to be speaking for.

    But the key is to have compassion for everyone. This includes compassion for those decent (but in my view, misguided) young people who believe that "a diversity of tactics" should include tolerance of vandalism). It includes compassion for those who right now don't support us (and including those in the 1 percent who have a desire to rectify the injustice of our social order), and use this moment to thank the universe for the opportunity to overcome cynicism and fight for the world most people really want.

    That compassion, however, need not include tolerance of violence committed by either the police or by our fellow demonstrators (who should, in my opinion, be nonviolently restrained from breaking random windows, engaging in provocative actions designed to incite the police, or carrying weapons to smash windows). I believe those engaged in these tactics should be publicly repudiated by the rest of the 99 percent who want fundamental change but do not want it achieved in a violent way. I do not mean to equate the destruction of property with the violence of the police against people, but I do understand and want the demonstrators to understand that the public representation of our movement is critical to its public effectiveness. When its message is seen as being primarily in favor of the rights of the 99%, it opens people's minds in creative and important ways. When it is seen as a turf war for the alleged right to sleep on public property or the right of some people to smash windows, it loses its appeal and allows the 1% to use its media to marginalize the movement, jail its activists, and switch the conversation away from our telling critique of their wealth and power.

    So acts of property destruction and the violence it elicits from the police, while inappropriate and self-destructive, should not be allowed to distract us from the central demand for a caring society and justice for the 99 percent. Most people want a world of peace, justice, democracy, human rights, ecological sanity, and an end to poverty and oppression. The problem is, most people don't yet realize that they are not alone in this yearning, so they compromise with an existing social, political, and economic order that they don't really believe in but believe is the only realistic option.

    It is time for us to embrace our highest vision of the good, even if it is dismissed by some as utopian. These utopian plans are far more "realistic" than the mush being generated by the realists in the media and in Washington, D.C. -- realists who have given us a society that is growing in its inequality and suffering.

    Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, national chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and author of eleven books including the forthcoming (at the end of November) Embracing Israel/Palestine (published by North Atlantic Books and distributed by Random House.) He is the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, Ca.