Tenderness in the streets

Tenderness in the streets

We get word through the Internet, first through snippets of news and then photographs that are increasingly graphic that the Israeli military has landed on the biggest humanitarian flotilla on its way to Gaza and open fired into the activists on board, killing at least ten, injuring dozens more. We learn that “Made in the USA” was stamped on the weapons the commandos used to kill the international peace activists.

I scan the news for names, wondering if any of them might have been with Diane and me with the Free Gaza Now delegation in Cairo five months ago, wondering if George Galloway was on the captured boat or another, knowing, in a way I hadn’t before that the Israeli aggression here could easily have been aimed at us in Cairo.

I remember for the first time a point on the last day in Cairo when I was running as fast as I could around a corner of the Tahir Square toward the Sun Hotel, running as fast as I could with the riot police close behind, ducking into the hotel where one of the young hotel workers got up from his chair, let us sit, watched for us, silently assuring us that the police would not recognize us as among the protesters if we sat close by him.

Today, I see three of my students at the demonstration, each from different eras in my teaching. Crystal from Colorado, now in a graduate program in Boston, and two others I have worked with in previous years. About 150 people gather, from very young people–a six or seven-year-old holding tight to his father’s hand as his dad carries one end of a banner–to men and women who look to be in their seventies and eighties. Women in high heels, men in natty suits, two people with walkers, and a tall white woman with shiny white braided hair, one of the spokespeople of this demonstration, taking the media on with her fire. Pierced activists in their twenties, many women in headscarves, African American, Arab, Latino, white people, a sizable number of progressive Jews. Some of the people I recognize from demos of various causes over the years, many whose faces are new to me.

At the designated time, 40 of us, all in various shades of black lie down in the street, laying as still as we can in a staged “die-in” while the flock of media click their cameras—Associated Press, local news, leftist media. The police let us be. My body begins to relax, so tense before when we were marching in a circle in order to avoid blocking the sidewalk. And I realize I am safe. We are safe. The drumming and chanting and slogans of the first half of the demonstration have been replaced by a quiet solemnity as those not in the die-in circle those of us on the street, quietly watching, witnessing. It dawns on me that with this die-in, we have figured out a way to incorporate a contemplative practice right into the demo.

The Associated Press photographer continues to snap photos, shooting through the flurry of colors from a Palestinian flag a man is waving above those of us lying down. The little boy who had been holding his father’s hand crouches down close to the die-in folks, taking in the crazy scene of adults lying down together on a busy downtown street.

In the quiet, I realize that this is some of what I fantasized about in the introduction to the tenderness book I am working on—teaching about justice that may begin in but extends way beyond the classroom, teaching about justice from a contemplative space, teaching about justice knowing that life and death sidle up to each other in uncanny, often scary, unpredictable ways. A woman holding one end of a banner is crying, a young, tall, auburn haired woman extending her other hand into a peace sign as I wonder if her boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend might have been one of those on the flotilla whose name the Israeli government has refused to release. Or not. Maybe she is just crying because she is feeling in some deep way that the world she is inheriting is really in trouble.

Today, I am learning, while on my back looking up at the moving sky, breathing, waiting for a signal, our next move once the police begin to insist that we move. Crystal to my left. Another student standing close.  A third talking with reporters. It is a good bad hard scary big small day. Tenderness is in the space between each of our bodies, the space between me and Crystal lying right next to me. She whispers that I need to stop looking around. “Stay quiet,” she tells me. I smile.

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