For the last couple of days, I have been reading repeatedly an account and commentary by Rev. Rich Lane on being pepper sprayed during an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstration in Seattle. I have come back to it many times because I find it to be both thought-provoking and troubling. I suggest you read the whole article here before you read my response.
Rev. Lane recounts from his perspective the confrontation that initiated the whole incident. He writes, “At one point her flag was thrust in [the police’s] direction.” While he downplays this as insignificant, his own words betray him. He does not write, “She thrust her flag,” but rather, “her flag was thrust.” There is a subtle, but significant nuance here. He purposely writes in such a way as to remove the responsibility from the young woman with the flag and place it on the police. If the young lady did thrust her flag at an officer, then it is both provoking and threatening.
Moreover, isn’t provoking someone equal to threatening him, especially when inanimate objects are used? I am not sure there can be a situation where someone was provoked with an object and did not feel at least a bit threatened. Rev. Lane makes the mistake of judging intent, a luxury that he can make as a third party. Unfortunately, because of the violent world we live in, officers have to make split second decisions and prepare for the worst. An officer cannot assume the woman was only going to wave a flag. What if the woman was using the flag as a distraction in order for someone else to pull a gun or a knife? What if she had a weapon? If he felt threatened, it is his duty to act. To counter this and say it was non-violent is absolutely incorrect. If one wants to see how a non-violent protest should be, then one should look to how the interfaith tent at Occupy Oakland protested and were arrested. It was without incident, and it was truly non-violent. No flags thrusting. No provocation. Only peaceful protest and compliant arrests for their civil disobedience.
With the account given by Rev. Lane, I find no error with what the officer did. He felt threatened and responded by taking the woman down to the ground, where he could safely (for himself and her) put her in restraints. Police take people to the ground so they can immediately subdue a person out of control, and so the person does not pull out a weapon and hurt the officer. Her friends made a poor decision in trying to interject themselves in this situation: they were interfering. If they had left her alone, she would have been arrested, put in jail, and then released in just a few hours. But her friends provoked the officers even more by getting in the middle of them doing their job—arresting a person who is breaking the law. Here is where group dynamics play an important role. Most people would never interfere with an officer arresting or detaining someone. But when large groups of people get together, they are prone to act in ways that are contrary to how they would act when they are alone. Reason, logic, self-control and civilization give way to the sway and passion of the mob. Unfortunately, the herd mentality that was at work here did not help the young woman as they were intending. Rather, these people interfered with an officer and the law and paid the price for their actions.
Rev. Lanes asks several questions in his article that seem as if the answers are seemingly obvious to all. I think his “common sense” may not be as common as he assumes. My answers to the questions are different than it seems like he is concluding. He writes,
“One might think the officer acted within reason, that the officer was suddenly threatened. But with what? By whom? The friends of the offender were grabbing for the girl, they were not grabbing at the police.”
As I have previously mentioned, even a mere flag can be threatening. And the woman herself, with or without any object, was acting in a threatening manner. If Rev. Lane doubts the ability of a female to harm a male, then he would be sorely misjudging half of the human race. Furthermore, he states the friends, who out numbered the police, were grabbing for the girl. What Rev. Lane fails to acknowledge is the culpability of the woman and the crowd. Those people interfered with the duty of a police officer to detain the woman. The police are within their rights to carry out their duties and protect themselves, especially when large crowds are obstructing justice.
Rev. Lane also slams the police for pepper spraying him, an innocent third party trying to walk between the police and the crowd as a peacekeeper. But there is something about Rev. Lane’s complaints on being harmed that strikes me as counterproductive to the spreading of the Kingdom that Jesus spoke about. There is a saying my wife uses to students in her class: “If you play near water, you’re going to get wet.” When you intentionally put yourself in the middle of an escalating situation where pepper spray can be used to gain control of the situation, you may be pepper sprayed as well. The Apostles understood the imminent threat of harm and preached the Gospel anyway. And after they were captured, punished, and released, they did not complain, but rather, they rejoiced (Acts 5). If Rev. Lane had taken his cues from the saints that have gone before him, rejoicing in the chance to be present with people in all circumstances, a greater witness of God’s Kingdom may have been achieved.
But that is enough of my picking on Rev. Lane’s account concerning the incident. There is merit to his writing as well. It is truly wonderful Rev. Lane recognized his place as a chaplain by putting himself in the midst of the OWS movement. I appreciate Rev. Lane acting as a peacekeeper between the Occupiers and the police. This in-between space is exactly where clergy belong. Chaplains are needed in every aspect of society, including in the OWS movement.
Some of Rev. Lane’s article is a well-written call to action. The following statement is particularly moving. There are a few choice phrases that I have underlined that I think do not belong. But the whole is not to be disregarded:
“My question to my clergy colleagues is this: “Where are you? How much longer can you preach without practice? How dare you remain protected in your sanctuary while your people (the rag-tag mob of the least, last and lost whom Jesus loved) are slaughtered doing that which God has commissioned you to do (prophecy!). Where are you? Who have you become in this age of baptism by pepper spray? Do you not know how much power you have to stop our national descent into chaos? Don’t you realize that the world is your parish and right before your eyes the Spirit of God is doing a new thing? Can’t you hear that God’s judgment is upon the land? God is against the thieves that bankrupted our nation. God is against the armies of the Beast who pillage other lands in our name, and turn and destroy our people on our own soil. Are you blind? – Perhaps you need a baptism of pepper spray in your eyes to restore your vision.”
With regard to the underlined sections above, nobody in the OWS movement has been slaughtered and to see actual national chaos, I would suggest one look at some third world country in Africa, like Somalia, as an example of national chaos and lack of government order. Those phrases are so extreme, they do nothing to add to his argument.
But the place of the clergy in this movement is to act as one who stands in the midst of all people: not solely with the OWS or the police, but with both and apart from both, in an in-between place. We are called to ministry in solidarity to the Occupiers to name sin, both individual and systemic, where we see it. We are to minister to the police, by listening, caring, and providing a Christ-like presence. And we are also to speak out against violence, whether it is police brutality or those in the OWS whom have stepped across the line of peaceful assembly. More than anything we are called to tell everyone that the structures and powers of this world are never going to be just. The structures and powers are inhabited by sinners, whom are self-seeking, self-focused, and hungry for power. We are called to tell them there is a Kingdom not of this world. This Kingdom is shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A Kingdom that God calls all to participate in through radical love, repentance, and forgiveness. We are called to be witness to both OWS and the police. We are called to stand in-between the line calling both to repentance. We are called to show a third way. A way of the Kingdom that is in the mix, but different than either side.