A Different Kind of Occupation

On this blog when the words “Occupy” or “Occupation” are mentioned I am usually referring to the ongoing Israeli Occupation of Palestine.  In 2011 a different kind of Occupation sprung up on the streets of NYC and spread to many other cities.  As someone who has been involved in protests I know that what is seen from the distance on the news is not always the reality on the ground.  So I asked someone else for their first-hand account of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Enter my friend Tony III … below you will find a guest post written by him reflecting on some of his initial involvement in the Occupy Movement.

I need to apologize to him first and foremost as this post is looooong overdue for posting.  He sent it to me at my request last fall and it is only now being published.  I have asked him to send me another post giving his current thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Movement and I promise to publish that 2nd article in a more timely manner.

Just for a little context … I met Tony in high school.  He was a curly haired city-kid with a denim jacket, heavy metal demeanor, and a satanic bible in his back pocket.  I was a country boy who went to church twice a week, went to Christian music festivals and wore whatever was on sale at K-Mart.  We were unlikely friends but united by our creative spirits and a love for role playing games.  After high school we lost touch but were reconnected via Facebook awhile back.  It was great to reconnect … I found out that Tony had become a father, a small business owner, and a practicing Buddhist.  His love for music had persisted and I wasn’t surprised to find out that he was still in a band.

One thing that has impressed me about Tony since reconnecting with him is the diversity of his Friends list on Facebook.  He truly is friends with people from every walk of life.  This often leads to lively Facebook discussions between complete strangers that have only Tony as their common denominator. This has always been beneficial for me personally and I value Tony’s input on the matters of the day.  When he started getting involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement I asked him to write a guest post.  Without further ado, here it is …

MIC CHECK (MIC CHECK)

MIC CHECK (MIC CHECK)
My name is Tony (MY NAME IS TONY)
I’m a 38 year old father (I’M A 38 YEAR OLD FATHER)
and small business owner (AND SMALL BUSINESS OWNER)
I pay my taxes and I vote (I PAY MY TAXES AND I VOTE)
And I’m here because I want change (AND I”M HERE BECAUSE I WANT CHANGE)……..

And so the People’s Mic continues to shout the voice of the people. Anyone can use the People’s Mic in these local democratic groups that have been born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just shout “Mic Check” near any Occupy encampment or march, and anyone in ear shot will echo back. You now have the floor to voice your story; your thoughts and suggestions; your message to others around you.

On my first visit to Zucotti Park, during the second week of October 2011, I witnessed The People’s Mic for the first time.  It was about 8pm and an hour into the nightly General Assembly (GA) meeting. A person stood in the middle of a massive group of hundreds of people near the park steps. Using a mouthful of syllables at a time, the message was relayed like a wave over the crowd. This crowd was big enough to have to repeat the initial phrases 3 times for the whole group to hear.

The GA was voting on if the “media group” could use $2000 (of the amassed money the group had received from donations) for the printing of flyers and other material. “Are there any blocks?” the People’s Mic echoed.

At that point, I learned, anyone present could “block” the vote, if truly opposed. Arguments may be presented and a new vote taken. There were no blocks.

A second check for no blocks was made

“I don’t see any blocks. Do we have consensus?”

Almost all hands went in the air, fingers wiggling – The signal for agreement. Some, wrist bent down (the No vote) but only a few in the crowd.

“It appears we have consensus,” The announcement echoed through the crowd.

We had consensus. The media group would be allotted what they requested. As simple as that.

Observing Real Democracy In Action

There were probably a few other small bits of “rules” that went along with this communication and voting process that may have eluded me at that time but when I realized what I was witnessing I was a little taken aback.

This was democracy working.

Everyone had a voice and a vote. Anyone could propose almost anything. And it was rare when I saw this People’s Mic abused. The People’s Mic always seems to “break” when people start to speak hateful or violent things as this is very much a peaceful movement and the people, WE, control the People’s Mic.

Watching five hundred or more people get things done in a civil, cooperative way was a breath of fresh air. What if more people actually took an hour a day to involve themselves in the process of making things happen in their community? This was a group of people who didn’t know each other more than three weeks before, and they seemed to have a functioning micro-government. They had a sanitation crew, a working kitchen, a sacred space for prayer and meditation, a medical tent with real doctors, a library and so much more already in place.

If this organization was left to our government they would have likely still been debating and re-voting on what type of bottled water to have ordered during the breaks. This was direct action without the red tape and it appeared to be working.  There were no specific leaders., but there were plenty of people who were willing to step up and take jobs to help the new community.  However, no single person that looked over or gave final say. Final say came from the General Assembly votes and anyone present had a vote.

Are We All Created Equal?

I’ve had a cynical outlook on our government and many aspects of American society for a long time. I had watched what it did to the Veterans of the Vietnam War, through seeing what my father and many of his friends went through in the system. I witnessed the economy get worse and worse as I got older. I watched us, as a society, put profits over lives in many ways, over and over…..and it all sickened me.

This breath of fresh air was the first time, in a very long time, that I felt a bit of real hope for society and this country of ours. I was brought up being told I could be anything I wanted if I tried hard enough. I was told that this was truly a free land of opportunity where “all men were created equal”. If anyone really believes that last statement to be honest and true at this point, I would love to sit and discuss that with you, because I can see, blatantly, that those with more money have more power.

And that is NOT in line with “all men are created equal”.

I have no issues with people having money or extra things if they work for it. But let’s level the playing field and work towards that “created equal” goal and slightly change the verbiage to “all PEOPLE created equal”.

Getting More Involved in the Occupy Movement

I found a new feeling of hope, that enough people felt like I did, that the social and political issues of this country needed to be brought to light, discussed and remedied and that we might actually be able to change some things for the better. Health care, education and private/ corporate funding of politicians were MY main issues. I have a few smaller ones too. And many have other issues that should be addressed. Some agreeable and some not.

But overall, we all wanted the same basic thing: social and political reform and accountability of those that put this country in its current disastrous shape.

That would mean politicians, banks, lenders, corporations and WE the people. After all, at some point we started caring less that we no longer have a say in our system and started caring more about either which color our iPod is or how we were going to survive the next month in such a declining economy. We left the governing to “those in charge” and they sold us out. It was time to reclaim our voice in OUR nation.

Over the next few weeks I attended what I could. Sometimes just visiting the occupation site to help out in small ways. Pick up some garbage, donate winter clothes, lend people my phone and help the People’s Mic be broadcast. I started discussing the movement everywhere I went. Educating people on what REALLY goes on and not what the main stream media depicted as “truth”. They after all are run by the corporations that fund the politicians and have something to lose if the message gets out to too many people. So I became the media. With a sense of empowerment and a better understanding of our laws and our Constitution I was ready to discuss issues with people from all walks of life and I loved it.

Since that fateful day of discovering the movement, I’ve attended several rallies, marches, occupations and General Assemblies. I’ve stood face to face with riot police, maintaining my stance on non-violent protest, even as I’ve watched some police officers and local politicians blatantly break laws to try to subdue both individuals and the overall voice of the movement. I’ve made friends from Occupations across the country. I’ve been invited to other cities for marches and rallies.

Overcoming Cynicism and Working Together for Change

Because of my participation in the Occupy Movement I’ve watched my cynicism in having hope for this country lessen.

I want this land to be all I was told it was when I was a kid. I want our Constitutional rights re-established. But most of all I want my kids to have a future and a fighting chance and if I can assist in bettering this country I’ll try my best to do so. I’ll risk arrest, taunts and violent “peace keepers.” I will face off with corporate America, and the politicians & police forces they keep in their back pockets.

I will do this so that maybe, just maybe, my kids won’t have to worry about doing the same thing down the road. They’ll have that fair chance I was never given. They’ll live in a country where they have a voice that means something and a government of the People that helps them better themselves and their social environment at the same time.

This really is just the beginning of a movement that will evolve and transform into bigger and greater things. I’m very proud and happy to be a part of it and welcome the rest of the 99% of the world to step up to those that socially or economically oppress you. Together it can create change and a better world for all.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one

PEACE!

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Jordanians Rally for Egypt

[Note: The bulk of this post was written earlier today before Mubarak stepped down.  It just goes to show you how quickly things can change on the world political stage.]

Tonight Jordanians and Egyptians in Jordan took to the street to celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak.  Cars jammed the streets and there was jubilant beeping and shouting as if a giant wedding procession were taking place.  Fireworks went off  in various neighborhoods.  Hours earlier Jordanians were rallying to demonstrate against Mubarak and in support of the Egyptian people.

Jordanians took to the streets in subdued numbers the day after Hosni Mubarak made his confusing pronouncement of relinquishing power but remaining President of Egypt.  After Friday prayers, protesters marched from al-Husseini mosque in downtown Amman.  The demonstration was peaceful and the mood of onlookers was curious and hopeful.  Friday shopping went on as usual as the rally progressed several blocks through downtown.

Young and old alike join the anti-Mubarak rally in Amman Jordan on February 11th, 2011.

Despite grave predictions about Jordan being the next Middle Eastern country to face widespread unrest, chanted slogans mostly focused on the situation in Egypt.  “The whole world are Egyptians!”  “Last night will be the last night!”  “No more Mubarak!”

However, some chants did call for the ouster of the newly appointed Jordanian Prime Minister.  They recalled his stint as ambassador to Israel and called the question if he might even be a double agent.  But as one local bystander remarked, “They don’t know what they are saying, they just want to say something in the streets.”  Security personnel walked interspersed with protesters.  Police cars blocked off traffic at key points along the route and followed the crowd down the street.  Candy apple vendors and an old man selling rice crispy treats gave the whole thing a bit of a feel of a parade rather than a political protest.

Now that it is official that Mubarak has stepped down there will be a moment of celebration.  The hopes and prayers of many are for a change for the better.  However, one can be certain that the road ahead will be a bumpy one for Egypt.  Will the inter-faith goodwill displayed between Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood persist?  Will the military prove to be a just and fair intermediary until a more stable government is formed?  Only time will tell.  But tonight the people celebrate.  In Egypt, and in Amman, and perhaps around the world.   And perhaps some take comfort in the ancient wisdom that, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”  Let us pray that justice will prevail where greed has previously been at work and that the new government of Egypt will truly work for the people.

As for Jordan’s small rally today, here are a few pics:

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Oh . . . and here is a video I took of part of the rally.

A message from Martin Luther King Jr. to Israel, Palestine, and Obama on Inauguration Eve

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. (photo public domain from wikipedia)

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  and on the eve of the inauguration of a new American president, I believe words spoken eloquently and powerfully by MLK when he visited India 50 years ago could be given today  as a message to Israel, Palestine and President-Elect Obama.  My friend David pointed out the short (3 minute) NPR broadcast highlighting the newly discovered speeches, including this pointed and chillingly relevant fragment:

Since visiting India I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity . . . . in these days when . . .  ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere no nation can win a war.  Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence, it is either non-violence or non-existence.  Martin Luther King Junior, 1959

MLK’s unwavering and powerful commitment to non-violent resistance changed the tide of history in America.  He did not seek to kill his enemies, nor to be killed himself.  Yet his tragic assassination (martyrdom?), served as an exclamation point to the end of a life lived fully for God and others.  Change did not happen overnight in America and deep pockets of inequality, intolerance and injustice can still be found.  But part of the legacy of Dr. King’s life will be played out on the national stage tomorrow when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th (and first black) President of the United States of America.  We have come a long ways since the days of slavery, lynchings, and race riots.

I have often wondered when the Palestinian (or for that matter Israeli) Martin Luther King Jr. will step forward and declare non-violence as the “most potent weapon available to an oppressed people.”  Things have been quiet in Gaza since Israel and Hamas stopped flinging artillery at each other on Sunday.  Israel has declared that they will pull out troops by the time Obama is inaugurated.  To me, this confirms my gut suspicions three weeks ago that this was a carefully calculated “shift-change” war.  Just like the cat burglar who knows the streets won’t be watched for 30 minutes or so while the local police changes shift, Israel struck when there was very little America could say or do.  George W. and his crew were on their way out and Obama and his on the way in.  To me it actually seems like a kind of political slap-in-the-face from our supposed strongest ally in this part of the world.  That said, I hope the Israeli army does honor it’s inaugural deadline.  Maybe I’m too cynical.  Maybe they really are interested in seeing what Obama brings to the table.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table?  Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his team) will be a success.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table? Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his political team) will be a success. Of course, when it comes to baseball - Go Cubs!

I know that I am very interested to see what kind of change he can bring at home and abroad.  Personally, I’m excited that Barack Obama will be our new president.  I know all of my seriously conservative friends are scared of all the what-ifs, but we should all really be genuinely hoping that President Obama is a brilliant success.  If he isn’t the hopes and dreams of so many will be dashed.  All politics aside this is a huge step in American history, one that us “majority” folk probably don’t truly understand.  But truly,  I can’t imagine where the country or the world will be 4-8 years from now if Obama is a failure.   I think it is in everyone’s best interest that he does a fantastic job (whatever that means – personally, I wouldn’t wish being President of the USA on anyone – way too many headaches).

So as Americans celebrate the inauguration of a truly historic new President (or fret and hold their breath) Gazans pick up the peices of their lives after 3 weeks of fighting.  Over 1200 Palestinians are dead.  Around 1/2 civilians.  Maybe 1/3 children. 13 Israelis dead.  3 or 4 civilians.  Will the quiet last?  I doubt it.

It’s uncanny how 5 decades later Martin Luther King Jr’s words still hold a haunting power.  World leaders would do well to listen carefully to these words from the past.  I think if he were here today, MLK would make the very same speech.  I am hopeful that Obama will be man enough to follow in the footsteps of the peaceful revolutionary who paved the way for his presidency so many years ago.  If only those in both Israel and Palestine whose hands are responsible for carving “highways of death through the stratosphere” would also heed MLKs message and take up a different, more potent weapon.

*******

PS. – If you are interested my friend David is chronicling (as he is able) his trip to the inauguration on his blog Signs of Life.  If you don’t read it on a regular basis, maybe now would be a good time to check it out.  Also, if you like the Obama/White Sox poster it can be found here.

Observing the Gaza protests in Amman on Friday

It’s a bit surreal standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of 1000s, many of whom are chanting in a language you don’t totally understand.  Such was my experience when I decided to buck most everyone’s advice and check out the protest in the balad (old city) on Friday January 9th.  The embassy had sent out an ominous sounding note that there was a heightened risk of American interests being targeted.  Call me jaded by years of “elevated risk” at the nations airports or maybe just convinced that I’m not much of an American interest.  I asked a few Jordanians I trusted and was advised where might be risky (near the Israeli embassy – “duh”, and in Wahidat a very Palestinian neighborhood).  To my surprise the Jordanians said I should have no trouble in the balad.  My Western friends thought otherwise – but who are you going to believe the locals or the foreigners?  (Warning: Blondies with blue eyes, embassy workers, those who have to speak out loud in English and anyone nervous about crowds should probably not attend.  Plus I have the trump card that I used to live in Gaza.  Just because I went to the protest doesn’t mean I recommend it to everyone or will necessarily go again.)

(Note: If you’re looking for pics, there is a large gallery at the end of the post.  Click on the thumbnails for the bigger image.  Click on the 2nd pic for an even bigger one.  Pics in the post do not enlarge but they should be repeated in the gallery.)

For starters

Jordanian riot police bloc the street as the protest march nears. (Friday Jan 09 2009)

Jordanian riot police block the street

It had been labeled the “Day of Rage” with protests planned all over the city.  Police outfitted in riot gear seemed ready for it to be an anger filled afternoon in the balad.  However the atmosphere on the street seemed fairly relaxed.  I could hear the chanting of the oncoming crowd echoing off buildings as I looked for a ground-level vantage point with a good “escape” route in case things got dicey.  Spectators were gathering and no one paid me any special attention as I stood waiting on the sidewalk near the alley with a red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around my neck.  It not only served to stave off an ever so slight chill in the shadow of the building, but also identified me as Jordan-friendly.  To truly blend I would have needed to sport the  black and white Palestinian version that many have been wearing lately.

I was struck by three things as the marchers reached my section of street:

  • How quickly the street filled up and the atmosphere of the placed changed.  There was definitely a psychological shift from “I am standing here with a few people minding my own business” to “I am part of a crowd and anything could happen.”
  • The number of youth, including very young children who were participating.
  • The handicap of knowing only a little Arabic
Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

In the crowd

As the parade of flag waving protesters passed me in the street, the masses of people following along on the sidewalk swarmed around my location.  To keep my view of the street I had to step to the curb and within a minute there was nothing but a sea of people all around me.  Some were moving, others like myself were planted in one spot.  There was no jostling and people seemed to respect each other, allowing people to stay put or move as desired.  However, claustro- and agoraphobics beware!  Some people in the middle of the street were chanting slogans, but people near me were just watching and listening.  Many were holding up camera phones or cameras to record the moment.  A father with his children stood next to me.

Although everything remained peaceful, I sensed that my ability to move 100% as I pleased had now changed.  Group dynamics and psychology were in play.

Shortly a truck outfitted with a PA system halted near us.  I’m pretty sure it was a huge Saddam poster on one side.   Things got loud.  The men on the truck took turns rallying the crowd with various chants.  The 50 or so people immediately behind the truck raised their hands to punctuate their chant with fists or “V for victory” signs.   I was relieved that the people around me were not participating as I had hoped to speak as little as possible while at the protest.  My silence didn’t feel conspicuous.

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

However, there were two parts where the entire crowd got involved.  One was when a couple of shebaab (young guys) lit an Israeli flag replica on fire up on a roof.  It was kinda funny as it took several attempts to get the flag going.  Apparently flag burning is not as easy as one might think.  People around me were laughing and offering all sorts of advice such as, “You need more gas!”  After a few minutes it was ablaze and the whole crowd cheered.  At another point every  man, woman, and child on the street lifted aloft the victory sign.  My hand shot up too.   It seemed the prudent thing to do.

I realized pretty early on that my movement was at the whim of the crowd.  It’s a slightly unnerving feeling.  Later as the crowd was allowed to progress towards the municipality building and beyond, there were a handful of “Fast-breaks” that got the heart pumping as well.  By fast break I mean a number of people turned around and began running in the opposite direction yelling about tear gas.  I’m fairly certain the first four of these were just shebaab being shebaab as they were followed with laughter, and the older men in the crowd simply held their ground with skeptical eyebrows raised.

The handicap of not understanding

ammanprotest015

A truck outfitted with a PA system, and guys leading chants

I understood the Israeli flag on fire and the pictures of Saddam Hussein (understand is a loose term) but couldn’t understand most of the banners or chanting.   I figured that the crowd with the hammer and sickle flags and the pictures of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez were part of some sort of communist party.  And  I got that the people with the banner displaying a big red heart and the word Gaza probably love Gaza.  Beyond that it was all a bit fuzzy.  The chant/rant-wagon was catchy though, and after about 10 or 15 minutes of listening I think I might have been able to chime in.  I’m pretty sure 1/2 of the chanting was saying very good things about Gaza and Palestine (and maybe Venezuela), but the other 1/2 was putting down Israel, America, Egypt, and France.  Pretty much in that order of frequency.  Needless to say I quietly snapped pics and took videos.

People seemed angry, but not out of control.  No one directed any anger towards me.  Why would they?   I was just another soul quietly showing my support.  Friends who looked at my pics have commented, “Wow that looks scary.”  Was it?  Not really.  I saw a few locals that I knew and they smiled from afar or greeted me warmly.  Overall, I am sure it would have been better to understand more of what was being said but I got the message very clearly that people are upset with innocents being killed and at the political machines unwilling or unable to do more to stop it.

Would you bring your kids?

2 guys wave to a little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf.

A little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf flashed the Victory sign to onlookers.

The day before (Thursday) there had been a children’s demonstration for families.  Mothers, fathers and kids marched to the Unicef headquarters to ask for stronger actions against Israel due to the number of kids that have been killed.  Before leaving for Friday’s protest I had joked with my wife and a couple of friends that I should bring the kids along.  To my surprise they would not have been out of place.   There were a number of youth out on Friday.  The youngest (maybe 5 or 6 years old – I even saw some babies) seemed to be accompanied by parents or older siblings.  Many were decked out in patriotic gear, sporting keffiyeh’s or Palestine scarves.  One held a “blood stained” doll aloft.  A couple of youngsters wore black masks.  On the one hand kinda freaky.  But on the other hand  think about how often we dress our kids in camouflage or drape them in patriotic clothing on the Fourth of July.  To Americans dressing in the Stars and Stripes and camo are symbols of hope, freedom, and courage.   I wonder if that kind of gear would play differently in other parts of the world.  And maybe kids wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags isn’t as ominous as we might think. I have a bad feeling that Western pundits might spin children marching like this as teaching them to hate.  From where I stood it seemed more like teaching them to speak out.  We haven’t told our 6-year old son what’s going on in Gaza yet so as not to needlessly worry him, but the vast majority of kids here have heard loud and clear that children are dying in a war just a few hundred miles away.

A less than perfect ending

I’m not sure how many were in the crowd.  Thousands I am sure, but how many exactly I have no idea.  The police released the crowd to march and we progressed towards the Amman municipality building and beyond.  The crowd stretched across four lanes of traffic.  There were cars trying to pass, but they were completely stopped.  Near the chant/rant-wagon and the flag carriers the crowd was noisy, but for the most part people walked quietly or in conversation with their friends.  It wasn’t until we reached the big intersection at the end of Ras-al-Ain where the road splits off towards Jabal Amman and 3rd Circle on the right and Abdoun on the left that the police finally stopped the crowd again.   We had walked about a mile.  The crowd had been thinning for awhile and once it was stopped many more turned around and walked away.  When the Communist Party flagbearers started backtracking I figured things were pretty much over and wondered if I should leave to.  However, a vocal crowd of hundreds remained at the police line so  I joined a dozen or so people gathered on the terrace of a large office building a safe distance away.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

We were about 20 feet above street level and on the other side of a walled off parking lot full of red trucks.  Chanting protesters still choked off one of Amman’s busiest thoroughfares connecting the Old City with affluent western Amman.  The crowd mostly consisted of shebaab now.  There was a small street that intersected the main thoroughfare near the police line. It ran up the hill to the left and was beginning to fill with spectators.  Traffic began to back up on the other side of the riot police.

I was wondering what would happen. Were the police waiting to let the protesters continue marching as they had before?  Would they send the protesters around to the other side of Ras-al-Ain to march back towards the balad?  How long would they let them stand there chanting?  My answer came about 10-minutes later in the form of a fast-break of 25 or so shebaab yelling about tear gas.  I saw none, but it was obvious that police were trying to disperse the crowd and meeting with some resistance.  To my surprise rocks began to hail down from the side street on the hill and even from the crowd.

It was then that the the first can of tear gas was shot.  The crowd scattered pretty quickly.  Lots of bark, but fortunately little bite.  Another canister was shot towards the retreating crowd for good measure.  As it skittered down the street past our safe vantage point many yards away I got a small whiff – not pleasant to say the least.  My left eye watered and stung for a good 15 minutes afterward.

Moral of the story: always head home when you see the Commies packing up their flags.

Final Word

My taxi driver and I talked about the protests this morning on the way to take my son to school.  He told me that most of the protests in the city were peaceful.  He hadn’t heard that tear gas had been used in the balad, but knew that it had been used near the Israeli embassy where apparently protesters were the most aggressive.  He told me that he and his brother had taken their children to the march to UNICEF headquarters the day before.  Then he said something that really caught my attention.

He said that even though people march here in Jordan and across the Middle East people are still dying every day in Gaza.  Almost 800, maybe more now.

He then told me about 4 children that had been trapped in a house with their dead mother for days with no food or water.  Later I read the report that the International Red Cross is accusing Israel of breaking international law over this specific incident.  Apparently the Israeli army blocked aid workers from entering the area to look for casualties.  Once the volunteers did get to the house they found the 4 children and 12 corpses in the house.  While the children were being rescued the Army continued to order volunteers out of the area.

Honestly, to me the “Day of Rage” in Gaza seemed to be a little more like the “Day of Being Really Upset.”  But as long as stories like these keep coming out of Gaza the protests will continue and the anger  will grow.  Unfortunately rage is like a fire that smolders quietly for a long time only to burst into flames once it’s too late to put out.

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First thoughts on Gaza protests in Amman

It was a beautifult day in Amman today.  Sunny skies with just a few clouds.  Temperature hovering around 50 degrees F.  A good day for a protest.

A nice day in Amman, despite clouds of war over Gaza

A nice day in Amman, despite clouds of war over Gaza

Some were calling today a day of “Rage” and westerners were warned to stay home.  Protests were called for throughout the city to speak out against the situation in Gaza.  I tend to blend in very well, so went down to the ballad to see what I could see.  (Please note: I am not reccommending that others do this, just simply telling you what I did.)  The protest march lasted a little over an hour and made it’s way from Al-Husseini Mosque in the old city past the Amman municipality and ended near Ras-al-ain and the intersection going towards third circle and also Abdoun.

When I got downtown I stopped in a shop that I frequent and asked the workers about the situation and if I would have any troubles.  They assured me that I wouldn’t saying people don’t like the American government but love Americans.  Even so I was stuck in a riot in Jerusalem once back in the late 90s, so kept towards the edges of the crowd near definite “escape” routes and stood near some older men with children, thinking that they were less likely to take unnecessary risks.  I saw a few faces of locals I knew.  They flashed me smiles and mouthed greetings to me.  That set me a little more at ease as well.

I have more to say later, I just wanted to post an initial pic and give my first gut reaction.  I was sturck that people are genuinely upset and are looking for a way to vent their frustrations while showing solidarity with the people in Gaza.  As I snapped pics and looked at them on the way back I realized that a picture is worth a 1000 words, but that a picture with no explanation could speak 1000 wrong words.  The protest was very peaceful, but I could put 2 or 3 pics up here with no explanation and pundits of all stripes could spin the situation in several different directions.  Once again that I was reminded that sound bites and even visual bites cannot do complex situations justice.

Here’s one pic.  I promise more later.  I need to spend some time with my family and collect my thoughts for a more intensive writing session later.

Protestors peacefully march from Al-Husseini Mosque towards the Amman Municipality building on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protestors peacefully march from Al-Husseini Mosque towards the Amman Municipality building on Fri Jan 09 2009

Not just another round of violence in Gaza

It’s the holidays.  The lull between Christmas and New Years when so many of us have a little time off from work and spend extra hours enjoying the company of loved ones.  A time of peace, joy, and celebration.  A time to be thankful for the blessings of the past and consider what possibilities the future may hold.

Not so in Gaza over the last two days.  Israel has pounded the Palestinian territory with precision air strikes causing over 250 deaths and over 600 injuries.  Casualty statistics vary according to source, but all are climbing in the wake of some of the worst single-day violence in recent years of the conflict. The airstrikes come on the heels of a tenuous months-long cease fire that was punctuated by mostly ineffective Hamas sponsored rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.  Reaction in the Arab world has been quick and vocal.

  • At least one Saudi cleric has issued a fatwa condemning Israel and calling for attack on Israeli targets anywhere.  The cleric does not appear to have any “official” standing – but I am sure more and more of these edicts will begin to roll out from clerics of varying degrees of stature
  • Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi has called upon the Arab League to end all attempts at its peace initiative with Israel
  • The Arab League (not in response to Libya) postponed a regularly scheduled meeting to be held over the weekend to meet later this week reportedly to establish an official response to the airstrikes
  • Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khameini (Ahmadinejad’s boss) said, “”The Zionist regime should be punished by Muslim states. This usurping regime’s leaders should also go on trial and be punished for this crime.  All Palestinian Mujahids (fighters) and believers in the Islamic world are required to defend in any way they can the defenseless women, children and people of Gaza.”
  • Protests broke out in leading cities from Iran to Syria to Lebanon to Morocco to Spain to England

There were even protests here in Jordan.  My wife called from the grocery store with the news, “Something’s up – people are all gathered around televisions sets and it looks like buildings are on fire and there are people protesting.” As it turned out the fireswere in Gaza and the protests were here in Amman. An hour later she was stuck in traffic being held up by the army while a protest wound it’s way through the old city of Amman (see picture below).  My wife called and said she could see the protesters were waving green flags.  I guess they could have been Amman Municpality flags, but I was fairly certain that they were Hamas flags (which they were).  According to the Jordan Times some protestors “expressed allegiance to Hamas” and chanted, “We will avenge you, we sacrifice our blood and souls for you Gaza.”  I would have tried to find a safe vantage point to observe but everyone in our house has been sick of late, so I stuck at home and watched a little news coverage.  Today a friend and I exchanged typical greetings with a Muslim neighbor. Instead of the usual stock answers he said he was terrible “because of Gaza.”  Seems this latest attack has really struck a chord here.

Jordanians protesting Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on Dec 27th 2008 (photo from Jordan Times)

Jordanians protesting Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on Dec 27th 2008 (photo from Jordan Times)

I’m afraid this is not just another deadly tit-for-tat in the ongoing struggle between Palestine and Israel.  Both popular and political reactions were swift.  It might just be saber rattling on the part of leaders like Khameini or Qaddafi.  But I’mnot sure how much longer the man in the street willput up with the situation in Gaza.  The situation has gone from bad to so much worse in the last 24-months.  Under American pressure premature elections were held resulting in Hamas legally (and democratically) winning power.  Of course democracy is only a good thing when the people “we” want to win actually do.  This unexpected (??really?? kinda like the Shiites winning in Iraq, right?) outcome has resulted in a civil war between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza (some in the western media allege  this was partially funded and equipped by the US), a fracturing of the Palestinian government, and a prolonged siege of Gaza.  For the past 18-months Israel has blocked shipments in and out of Gaza – including humanitarian aid.  Airstrikes have knowcked out power supplies and conditions on the ground are worse than they have ever been before.

Add to this some fresh post-Christmas, pre-New Years blood shed.

The initial barrage reportedly started right around the same time school children leave for home after the mornign shift at school and lasted for about 3 hours.  40 targets were reported, including mostly police stations, smuggling tunnels, and “Hamas related” posts.  Yeah, that makes sense.  Knock out the police stations.  Then let’s see how fast they can restore order.  Despite the official list of targets, missiles were reported as hitting near playgrounds, vegetable markets, the headquarters of a major charity organization, and near the entrance to the largest hospital in Gaza (where a friend of mine used to work).  Refugee camps were hit. Camps where I’ve walked the main streets and stretched both arms out to touch the cinder block  buildings on either side.  Camps where no amount of precision computer controlled targeting is going to keep civilians from being injured.  At least 20 children have been reported dead so far as a result of the strikes.

Of course, the Palestinians and, yes, the world should have seen it coming.

Back in February I mentioned that a Deputy Israeli Defense Minister made waves by saying, “The more Qassam (rocket) fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they (the Palestinians) will bring upon themselves a bigger ’shoah’ because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.”  The big stir was over the use of the term “shoah” which Israelis primarily reserve to refer to the holocaust.

But that’s not the only reason why the world should have seen this brutal attack coming.  On Christmas Day Ehud Olmert was interviewed by Al-Arabiya (a Dubai based news agency).  He gave this ominous warning:

Israel withdrew from Gaza approximately three years ago not in order to return to it. I appeal to the residents of Gaza: I speak to you as a father and grandfather and I know that there is nothing I want less than to put my children and grandchildren in danger. Is it the spirit of Islam to kill innocent children? To shoot rockets at kindergartens and at civilians? I do not think that this is the spirit of Islam. Hamas, which does this against the spirit of Islam, is the main reason for your suffering – for all of ours.

I say to you in a last-minute call, stop it. Stop it. You the citizens of Gaza, you can stop it. I know how much you want to get up in the morning to quiet, to take your children to kindergarten or school, the way we do, the way they want to in Sderot and Netivot.

Hamas is the enemy of the residents – not only in Israel but in Gaza. We want to live as good neighbors with Gaza. We do not want to harm you. We will not allow a humanitarian crisis and that you should suffer from a lack of food or medicines. We do not want to fight the Palestinian people but we will not allow Hamas to strike our children. We have very great and destructive strength – which we do not wish to use. I think of the tens of thousands of children and innocents who will be in danger as a result of Hamas’s actions. Do not let the murderers of Hamas, which is acting against the values of Islam, put you in danger.

Could I allow more missiles against the residents of Israel? More strikes at children and civilians and do nothing? Certainly not. Hamas is firing at us and at the power station that is supposed to supply electricity to Gaza. Stop them. Stop your enemies and ours. Tell them to stop shooting at innocents.

I did not come here to declare war. I have said in the past – as long as I am Prime Minister, I intend to reach peace with, not fight, the Palestinians. But Hamas must be stopped – and so it will be. I will not hesitate to use Israel’s strength to strike at Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  How? I do not wish to go into details here.

2 days later the world found out.  Merry Christmas.

What I find most galling in Olmert’s statement is his outright lies about his desire not to harm the civilians of Gaza or cause a humanitarian crisis.  Way too late for that – the humanitarian crisis started several months ago because of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.  It’s interesting that he addresses the exact same issues that the Deputy Defense Minister did back in February – the rocket attacks in southern Israel and the fact that Israel has a lot of power and can use it if they want.

Did you catch what he said in the interview, “the tens of thousands of children and innocents who will be in danger . . . “ What’s he talking about?  So far only a couple of hundred have died.  Is he alluding to some far greater, far more destructive attack? Let’s pray that this is not the case!  However electronic intifada reparted,

As Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli occupation forces Chief of Staff, said this morning, “This is only the beginning.”

Only the beginning?  Of what?

Olmert’s appeal to the citizens of Gaza might seem reasonable on the face of it – after all they elected Hamas, presumably the citiznery could do something about it.  But, really?  When have you or I ever really held sway over a duly elected official in the peace-loving United States? Now what is the average Joe Gazan going to do? Sidle up to the rocket launchers and say, “Look I know we elected you a couple of years back, but it seems like you’re making matters worse than better, could you maybe stop with the rockets for a little bit?” It like asking the people of LA or Southern California to take on the gangs and the Mexican drug lords.  Its rubbish.

It’s at this point that we all should start wringing our hands and say, “there’s no easy answer.  There’s innocent blood on the hands of both sides.  I’m just one person, what difference can I make?”

I don’t know.

But now, more than ever we need to pray for peace.  And work for it in whatever small ways we can.  In the spheres of influence that we have.  Maybe your circle has nothing to do with Israel and Palestine, but I’m sure there is conflict, and I am sure there is a way of peace that can be pursued.  Don’t take the easy way out and just ignore it.  Bad things don’t go away when we ignore them they just get worse.

Until someday we all have innocent blood on our hands.  Let’s pray it’s not too late.

Recent Thoughts on Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden has been getting on my nerves lately. Not personally, mind you – we’ve never met. But he released a speech recently that did two annoying things.

(1) he claimed that the Pope was responsible for recent reprints of the cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press, stating that Benedict XVI was part of a “new crusade”against Islam.

(2) Bin Laden again co-opteed the Palestinian cause for his own purposes saying that, “Palestine cannot be retaken by negotiations and dialogue, but with fire and iron.” (BBC reporting here) And also encouraging support for Palestine by joining the “jihad” in Iraq. Like that even makes any sense.

I find these two items annoying for two different reasons.

(1) When Bin Laden speaks out against the cartoons of Muhammad and links them in some obscure and nefarious plot by the Pope he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Muslim/Arab psyche. Namely that Christians are in the business of antagonizing and disrespecting Muslims and that, worse yet, Christian leaders are plotting a crusade against Islam.

(2) When Bin Laden links himself to the Palestinian cause he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Western psyche. Namely that muslims are religious extremists and that bin Laden, the Palestinians, and probably most Muslims are in cahoots against Israel and the US (and apparently Europe now).

Basically Osama bin Laden is a fear monger playing both sides against each other. Hitting at the core of what both sides worry about and what the other side doesn’t exactly understand. (Americans don’t generally get how anyone could be that upset about a cartoon and Muslims don’t understand why they are always guilty by cultural/ethnic association).

I was simmering in this annoyance the other day when I heard a fascinating episode of Fresh Air on NPR. Host Terry Gross was interviewing New Yorker writer Steve Coll about his new book entitled, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

Coll has studied the extended bin Laden family (54 children born to Osama’s father Muhammad bin Laden) and their rise from Yemeni poverty to Saudi wealth, and international notoriety. I was surprised to learn such facts as:

  • Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash caused by an American pilot’s error
  • Osama’s brother Salem died in an ultralight crash in San Antonio Texas
  • Before his death Muhammad bin Laden was the sole contractor for religious building projects in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem
  • That Muhammad bin Laden owned property in Jerusalem that was confiscated by the Israeli government in 1967

Hmm . . . and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Interesting, though to note the thin thread of connection with Palestine that I had not been previously aware of. Also interesting how having access to obscene amounts of money and powerful networks can “help”you cope with life’s tragedies in any way you want – from buying real estate and cars to fomenting religious extremism.

The episode is around 40 minutes long and well worth a listen (Fresh Air -The Bin Ladens a Complicated Family Tree). You can also find an excerpt from Steve Coll’s new book which deals with the broader family – not just Osama.

And now for the MLK connection. Today (well, Friday April 4th) is the 40th anniversary of his assassination. My friend David has posted a fitting recognition with some meaningful links. You can also look at a nice photo essay on BBC about some of today’s commemorative activities or a photo essay about MLK’s life at TIME.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Osama Bin Laden. Both charismatic. Both standing against oppression. Both still speaking today even though one is in hiding and one is in the grave. History will most likely count both of them as great leaders. Yet, these two men could not be more different.

One espouses the glories of martyrdom for a cause he is barely connected with, in hopes of using violence to end one form of oppression in favor of another. The other man dying as a martyr while he peacefully, but actively struggled to bring an end to an oppression that he knew all to well. MLK did not look at death as something to be sought, but was not afraid to face it. His martyrdom was significant in bringing a peace (though imperfect) to a troubled nation.

Both men fighting against oppression. One preaching violence, another peace. One encouraging others to die from a distance. The other dying unexpectedly right in the thick of the struggle. Who knows what historians will say about Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King 100 or 200 years from now. All I know is that from this angle, the martyrdom of MLK speaks more loudly from beyond the grave and is more relevant to Christians, Muslims, and Jews everywhere in this troubled world than OBL’s poisonous rhetoric from his hideout in a cave.

Here’s a 9-minute clip of MLK’s last speech given 40-years ago this past Thursday. If you don’t have time for that, click on the second one – it’s only 90 seconds or so. Profound, timeless, and a relevant example for all those seeking to end oppression and make peace in this world.