Thursday, July 02, 2009

On the Walk To No War
A Thinking Dog’s Ramble

1. A Personal Dilemma

It was the week of the high summer solstice, and, facing the enormity of war in this world, a small group of my friends marched to call for an end to it. They marched the whole work week, Monday through Friday, June 22-26, from one military installation to another here in Hampton Roads, VA, stopping at thirteen of them in all, to demand that the United States disarm itself, now. (For details, see “In the Shadow of Military Might,” below.)

Initially, I imagined myself going along, participating as a journalist. Ideally, to do that right, I knew I should be on the scene for the entire week, including overnights divided between two of the area’s peace churches, the Mennonites and the Quakers.

But Port Folio Weekly, the alternative newspaper where I’d published many peace and justice stories over the better part of ten years, had gone out of business. With no print outlet for anything I’d write, I could only post it here, on my blog, where there’s little exposure for either myself or the cause I’d be writing about.

But I could still do it, blogging each day of the march, though that would mean I’d have no time for my job, not to mention my domestic life and my other ongoing projects, including the health and well-being of my body.

So the ideal scenario was not an option, leaving me with the alternative of checking in on the march at different points to see how it was going, maybe take some pictures, and blog somewhat irregularly but still covering the event, which seemed fairly unique, particularly for this area where, as I well know, the military presence is so dominant and unchallenged.

Unfortunately for that plan, as the time drew near for marchers to assemble in Newport News the evening of June 21—before the first scheduled day of marching, from one base to the next, carrying signs of protest—I’d come to an uncomfortable realization.

I realized I’m not a reporter any more. I’d only been a reporter because I needed a job and there was a newspaper willing to pay me to report. Since the paper closed, I’d moved on, not really with regret, to spend my time writing poetry and rehearsing it for performance at local venues. To return to reporting again began to feel like a chore I had little passion for.

Yet my relationship with the activists I’d covered for so long and among whom I’d formed many friendships was primarily as a reporter. It was expected of me, if I joined the march, to join it as a reporter. And there were very good reasons for someone to do that. But, I realized, I no longer felt I was that someone.

I stewed in that kettle of fish for the first few days of the walk while I also prepared for a performance and an audition for a television show, both of which had come up unexpectedly that week.

But Friday morning, June 26, I awoke at 6:30 a.m., which I rarely do—a signature telling me to rouse myself, pack up my camera, my audio recorder, my notebook, and my pen, hop on my bike, and peddle down through the beach-front neighborhoods to Gate 1 of the Little Creek Amphibious Naval Base to meet my friends when they gathered there at 8 a.m. at the intersection outside the entrance to the compound.

And it was good to see them all!—Steve, George, Tom, Angela, Jack; Russell, Patrice, Glenn, Ann, Mac; and others I’d yet to meet—their banners unfurled, their signs bold in black letters saying “Disarm Now” and “Swords to Plowshares,” as the heavy early morning traffic went crumbling noisily by, only some of it headed into the base.

2. The Anti-War Correspondent

I was raised on Catholic Worker social values. For years my mother, a Catholic who converted to Unitarianism, subscribed to the Catholic Worker newspaper which a volunteer staff sold on the streets of New York City for a penny, though it came to us in the mail, published on the thinnest of paper in small, crowded type with woodcut illustrations supporting its message of solidarity with the poor, sick, and homeless, and an uncompromising pacifist stand against militarism and violence of all kinds.

My mother also brought two Catholic Worker luminaries, Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy Day, to our town, Lancaster, PA, to speak at the Unitarian Church. They stayed in our house, and I listened to their ideas, which, I was given to understand, passed in an unbroken stream of thought through every great moral leader of history going right back to Jesus himself.

Of course both Hennacy and Day had done jail time for war resistance, among other infractions carried out in the pursuit of social justice. It went with the territory. Civil disobedience—risking arrest by breaking unjust laws—was a given in the life they lived and remains so today among those who have followed them in what has become the Catholic Worker movement.

In Norfolk there is a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, where the idea for the five-day peace walk originated. I first met the married hosts of the house, Kim Williams and Steve Baggarly, in 1999, when I interviewed them for a story in Port Folio Weekly.

Over most of the next nine years, until Port Folio closed in January of this year, I was, I believe, the only regularly reporting peace-and-justice correspondent in Hampton Roads, covering rallies and vigils and court appearances of activists arrested for disorderly conduct or trespassing on government property and even getting arrested once myself as I covered an unpermitted march in downtown Norfolk.

That’s how I made friends in the activist community—by hanging out with them during vigils, marching with them in the streets, riding with them on chartered buses to Washington for mass rallies protesting our country’s obsessive appetite for war.

I was their embedded reporter who they could rely on to tell their story, even if it was not going to appear in one of the two area dailies or on local network TV, as they preferred. Part of being an activist is to draw attention through media exposure, the wider the better, in this case to get the message out that war is wrong and cruel and a terrible waste of resources that should be used for the betterment of people’s lives, both in the U.S. and around the world.

I couldn’t agree with them more.

3. “The Only ‘No’ on the Landscape”

Steve Baggarly was the first person I ran into as I joined the vigil outside the Amphibious Base on the final day of the Walk to No War. He seemed pleased with the way things had been going. He said fifty or sixty people had joined the march at one point or another, coming from as far north as Baltimore and as far south as North Carolina.

They’d spent the first three days of the week demonstrating at sites in Newport News and Hampton, cities on the north shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Then on Thursday, after an 8 a.m. vigil at the army base at Fort Story in Virginia Beach, they’d walked fifty blocks down the ocean-front boardwalk, interacting with vacationers, among others, along the way. “That was great,” Steve said.

From the ocean front they’d walked several miles to the Oceana Naval Air Station, then gone on to the (relatively) nearby Dam Neck Annex, a training center for Navy SEALs.

“We were walking down Dam Neck Road for a couple of miles before we got to the end,” Steve said. “It would be a guess that nobody’s ever walked down there with a protest sign. So it was good to do, a good place to be, good places to go.

“Just walking to all these military bases,” he said, “there’s the flags and there’s the Navy ball caps and the military discounts and the overwhelming military presence and base stickers. We’re kind of the only ‘no’ on the landscape.

“It’s just so important to be public. It’s so simple. I guess it’s not easy for everybody, but just walking with a protest sign is a pretty simple thing to do. There are so many people who say they’re with us, they support us. But until we start being public about it, there’s not much chance for anything to happen.”

I also spoke with Dominican Sister Carol Gilbert, from Baltimore, who, with Sister Ardeth Platte, joined the walk for the entire week. The two nuns are well known for their prank-like action on October 6, 2002, when they and a third nun, Sister Jackie Hudson, cut their way through a pair of fences to get into a nuclear cruise missile site in Colorado. They’d dressed in white jump suits, pretending to be nuclear inspectors on a hunt for weapons of mass destruction. They found them, too, and painted a missile silo with their blood and rapped on it with hammers.

The government was not amused. The three were charged with “destruction of national defense materials” and “depredation against government property.” A jury convicted them on both counts in Denver District Court in April, 2003. Sister Carol was sentenced to 33 months, Ardeth to 41, in federal prison.

But that wasn’t the first Dominican prank Sister Carol was in on. “Do you remember when Martin Luther did the theses and hung them on all the church doors?” she said. “Well, we did that with the statements that the denominations had taken on nuclear weapons.

“On a Saturday night we had all kinds of people and went and hung those thesises (sic) outside the doors of the churches so when they went to church it was there for people. This was in the ‘80s when we were trying to get nuclear weapons on the ballot in Michigan, to keep nuclear weapons out of Michigan, and it passed, in 1982.

“But then in 1983 they brought cruise missiles on Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which is why we had to work for twelve years to try to get them out of there.”

In the end, she said, the base closed, “which is why we came east.”

She and Sister Ardeth now live in Jonah House, a Catholic community in Baltimore dedicated to nonviolent resistance to war.

“I think that we’re taught at a very early age to be violent,” she said. “I mean, just look at the videos. That’s why I say that parents who try to raise their children nonviolently today are doing an act of resistance because the culture is so violent. We’ve got to turn the culture around, and some of that is because our faith and the flag have just become so embedded and are seen as one, and they’re not one.

“The documents in my own faith tradition are wonderful. They’re opposed to nuclear war, they’re opposed to war and weapons and killing civilians and they’re for, you know, justice for the workers. It’s all on paper. But how does it get from the paper that we write into the pews, into that day-to-day life? You know, a lot of the people don’t know that those things are written.

“That’s where pastors and ministers and people have a responsibility to teach their congregations. And if the congregations all fall, well, so be it, then maybe they should fall. Because I think you can teach people. People can be educated around that.

“Things happen in small groups, small circles of people. There’s no messiah going to come and save us all. I think we have to save ourselves, like a lot of these different people who have been willing this week to stand out here and let their beliefs be known. And I believe there are thousands of people in this area who believe as the people that are standing out here do, but for whatever reason they’re not out.

“People are afraid in this country. They’re afraid to say what they believe and stand up for it, afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. And ministers or priests or pastors or whatever, they’re afraid they’re going to lose the money that the congregation gives.

“There are churches that are not afraid. There are small groups that people can connect with, and they’ve got to connect with those people because you can’t do it alone. It’s too overwhelming.

“I think that maybe one of the best things that is happening is that we are realizing we cannot continue our greed and consumerism as we have. That the houses we’ve bought, the cars we’ve bought have been beyond our own means. We’ve lived on plastic.

“Security for me is when people have a job, they have basic human needs met, here and around the planet.”

4. The Arrests

It was a nine-mile walk that day, from the Little Creek Amphibious Base across town to the Norfolk Naval Base, where the marchers arrived around 2 p.m. With the group gathered by the side of the busy boulevard outside the base, two of the activists, Russell DeYoung and Glenn Fiscella, both of Newport News, walked down the middle of the road leading to the base’s security check point carrying a banner on a long pole between them. The banner read “Conversion: Military Dollars to Human Needs.”

While the Sisters led a hymn on the theme of the Biblical prophesy of nations beating swords into plowshares, sirens went off inside the base. Military police moved in to detain the two men once they’d crossed the line which divided the public street from government property. Their banner was confiscated and, hands cuffed behind their backs, they were led away to an administrative office, where, as expected, they received the minimum penalty—citations and an order banning them from the base in the future. Then they were released.

Both men had been arrested before, Glenn at an anti-war rally in New York City in 2003 as part of a general round-up of activists on the street, and Russell at the November, 2000, rally at Fort Benning, GA, as part of the annual School of the Americas (SOA) Watch gathering.

Glenn was released the next morning with no charges, but Russell ultimately served six months in federal prison for his act of trespass on the Fort Benning base where the American military trains foreign military officers who, with some frequency, then surface in their own countries as right-wing assassins or, as in Honduras currently, among the conspirators in a military coup d’etat.

Mac McKinney shot a video of the Walk’s closing ceremonies and the arrests which followed at the Naval Base check point. He posted it on YouTube.

As I watched the video, especially during the arrests—two men growing ever smaller in the camera’s eye as they deliberately walk toward the armed military guards preparing to take them into custody—I couldn’t help but think to myself that there was something comical about it all.

5. The One-Man Revolution

There’s no religion I’ve ever come across that quite fits me, though some intrigue me more than others. Those which intrigue me most are Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American. Christianity, except for the tender, mystical side of Jesus, leaves me cold. In fact, I have little resonance with any of the three desert religions and their bachelor God.

But Jesus’ teachings, it’s almost trite to say, stand out. His Sermon on the Mount is as compatible with the gospel of a loving, spiritual universe as you will find in any of the world’s religious traditions. Yet our societies no more reflect those teachings today than they did when Jesus spoke them back in first-century Palestine.

Are the teachings flawed? Or is it we, who fail to live up to the teachings, who are flawed? This may be argued until doomsday.

But what does it mean when only a couple dozen people in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million show up to take a stand in support of Jesus’ simple injunctions to love our enemies and forgive our trespassers?

Ammon Hennacy used to talk about the power of “the one-man revolution.” He meant the transforming effect on others one person can have simply by living a sacred life. That’s what he tried to do, with his vow of poverty, his canvas shoes and vegetarian diet, his pacifism and service to the destitute in the Bowery, his written words and his plain way of talking about the “the rebel Jesus,” who was his model for a sacred life.

For a time I took Ammon’s version of the one-man revolution as my own model and used his arguments successfully before my draft board in the early 1960s to persuade them to classify me as a conscientious objector.

But later in the ‘60s, when I began to make my own, independent forays into religious questions, my understanding broadened as I came into contact with a wider range of spiritual options than I’d considered before. One of these which influenced me considerably is Tarot, which I call the Book of the Goddess.

There is a card in the Tarot deck—The Hanged Man—which shows a male figure, usually youthful and virile, suspended upside-down from a tree shaped like a T-cross. It’s suggestive of the Crucifixion, except the figure doesn’t appear to be in agony but rather in a trance-like state of religious ecstasy, as if undergoing a peak experience.

There are many ideas you can draw from this. The main one I’ve found is that the world cannot be taken seriously if a man hanging upside-down—seeing the world from an entirely opposite point of view from an upright person—achieves what you might call a pure state of grace.

Activists take the world quite seriously and want to change it for the better, according to their lights. For many, the suffering of the world seems to be their suffering.

The Hanged Man, on the other hand, does not suffer. Yet he represents, symbolically, the martyrs of all faiths who have been subjected to persecution and death for their revolutionary teachings, which always run counter to the ambitions of the Caesars of this world.

There seems to me to be a great mystery here.

As Russell and Glenn walked to the Norfolk Naval Base check points with their anti-war banner held between them, you could say they were like Don Quixotes. You could say, as Sancho Panza would have, that they were just plain fools.

But from the opposite view point, by walking so contrary, as they were, to the ways of worldly convention, they were carrying out Ammon’s one-man revolution. They were finding (we hope) a state of grace in self-sacrifice, as Jesus taught and as The Hanged Man, as a universal symbol, represents.

But The Hanged Man symbol goes even deeper than that. Because if you reverse your point of view a full 180 degrees from that of the world, you find—as all the great gurus and masters, including Jesus, have testified—that the world isn’t real. It’s a dream which we only think is real.

The question then becomes, If this isn’t real, what is? And what relation does reality have to this material world, which we take so very seriously?

These are not abstractions. If it can be discovered that we only suffer and believe in suffering because of a fixed idea in our minds that can be changed, isn’t it worth looking for a practical way of making such a change?

One way of investigating such a hypothesis—that the causes of our suffering, as in war or other violence, exist in the mind rather than as hard-and-fast realities “out there”—is through meditation.

In meditation we explore the contents of our minds, not intellectually but experientially. We watch the mind at work. We learn to observe it as one would observe a troublesome or puzzling child in an attempt to find out what makes him tick. The object is to heal the child’s suffering by discovering and correcting the causes of it, which can be found in the thoughts it produces as beliefs, for the most part received from others and largely unexamined.

But eventually we also discover that there’s more in the mind than bad ideas. There are also ideas containing vast possibilities for a life of exuberance unknown here in the material. If these ideas attract us enough to pursue them, they lead precisely to that state of grace which is seen in the Tarot portrayal of The Hanged Man.

Paul Foster Case, whose book The Tarot is a metaphysical gold mine as well as a classic of Tarot literature, says in his chapter on The Hanged Man, “Silent, unostentatious reversal of one’s own way of life, combined with perfect tolerance of the ways of other people, is the method of the practical occultist.”

By “practical occultist” Case means a person committed to living on our material Earth plane in a way which does justice to the best teachings of human kind.

“For the world,” he writes, “is sick unto death, writhing in pain, hag-ridden by war, pestilence and famine; but the wise have found a way of health, of happiness and peace.”

That way—”of health, of happiness and peace”—is through meditation, which leads the mind to stillness and, finally, to non-verbal experiences of inner clarity and joy with which the world cannot compete. That’s what The Hanged Man is undergoing, it’s what the one-man revolution really is, and it’s what finally brings lasting peace, not through legislation or mass movements but individually, one person at a time, in the privacy of an interior room.

Or so I believe.


At 8:09 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I love the way you look at things from so many different perspectives. Sometimes I think you're in my head. I've been feeling the need to meditate lately. Thanks for the gentle push. Here's wishing you, the protesters and me, "health, happiness and peace."

At 10:52 AM , Anonymous Mary Curro said...

DD -
You know me from poetry and singing at the Venue. My beliefs and yours are right together. I, too, was raised Catholic, have grieved over the turn Christianity often takes, and have been a student of A Course In Miracles since 1975 - a member of the longest continually running group in the nation. It is a thought system, not a religion, and its primary concept is that what we see with our physical eyes is not true reality; the only true reality is spiritual reality. It is a remembrance that we are all one...which is the principle which makes both you and I have respect for Buddhism. Hinduism and native American beliefs.
I believe that physical harm is the only harm anyone can do, and that if we spent the huge amounts of money we have spent on war for the betterment of our lives and the life of the planet, we would be more secure in knowing we could defend oour own shores if necessary. And we would all be healthier and happier, which is what we are here to be - not fearful and sick.
Thank you for your well-written and thoughtful report,for sharing your thoughts and beliefs, and giving us a chance to get to know each other better as brothers and sisters in the oneness that is true reality.
Mary Curro

At 5:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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