Tag Archives: social activism

Women’s Protest March (Trenton, NJ) and protest memories

Everyone else is weighing in, why not me? I’ve looked at very little of the social media since the march yesterday. My perspective may change…

I’ll start by saying that street protest isn’t my thing. It gives me cold anxiety. I’ve got baggage, in the form of ugly memories.

One memory is of a protest that “went wrong”. It may have left no historical traces… Around April 30, 1970, the United States bombed Cambodia and American campuses exploded. There was a protest march from my campus (I was a junior at Michigan State University) to the state capitol in Lansing. I joined the march, which seemed to have a good collection of marshals and other volunteers, and reasonable police cooperation. We’d been warned about tear gas, etc., and were a little jumpy. We walked along one lane of the main street between East Lansing and Lansing.

Presently, we were stopped, told to move to the sidewalk (?), told to sit, warned that we would hear sirens. Told “they’re on our side”. They came and went, without much fuss. We walked on. Then we saw the car that had been driven intentionally across the line of march. Two or three people had been taken to the hospital. The driver had been protected by marshals and/or police, and taken away for arrest. The car was smashed. It looked like it had been shot up. But there had been no gunfire. Marchers carrying umbrellas (it was rainy) had vented their anger on the windshield, which was punctured. We walked past, on the broken glass. I can’t remember anything about the rally at the capitol in Lansing. Could I hear a word anyone said? I can’t remember how I got home. Did they tell us there would be buses? Direct us onto city buses? Maybe I walked back. I’m also unable to remember with whom I marched. Perhaps I was alone.

Then came the shootings at Kent State in Ohio on May 4, 1970, when four students died and nine more were injured by the Ohio National Guard. (Wikipedia calls it a “massacre”.) It was a dark time. My roommate had nightmares. Our campus was in a state of civil disorder. No one could count on going to classes if they wanted to.

Michigan State (like many colleges) cancelled classes and encouraged students to go home. I spent the weekend on a farm near Kalamazoo, where it was so quiet we could hear the corn grow. We found that people away from the campus perceived more danger and disorder than we had actually experienced. But everyone worried and fretted.

And what did I do next? I escaped! Left the country! My application to the Exchange for Technical Experience was approved, and I was offered a summer job in the Netherlands! Off I went, for a summer of fun. What a relief!

This wasn’t what I meant to write. So… I don’t like demonstrations, and have barely participated since that time. Letter writers and citizen lobbyists are needed. And I ALWAYS, ALWAYS vote, in everything from primaries and school board races to national elections. Maybe tomorrow I’ll write about the Women’s March in Trenton.

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“Faitheist – How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” by Chris Stedman

I didn’t like the title of this book. “Faitheist” sounds contrived, and the subtitle describes the book perfectly well. I relented a little on learning that “Faitheist” was first used to Stedman as an insult from an angry atheist who thought Stedman was “soft” on Christianity. Shows how little I know about contemporary atheism. It’s a movement, not a description.

But that’s not the point of the book, which is fundamentally an autobiography, a very lively and interesting first person text.

Stedman is young, born in 1987 in Minnesota, the kind of intense child who took EVERYTHING seriously. He joined a “born again” Christian congregation shortly before he recognized his homosexuality. His pain and distress at the prospect of eternal damnation drove him to consider suicide. His mother and a sympathetic Lutheran pastor dragged him back from the brink. Spiritually, he developed into an independent atheist.

The real purpose Stedman found in life was social activism at the intersection between different religious groups and, later, between the “religious” and non-believers. He reached the important conclusion that “tolerance” between those of different spiritual paths is not enough – genuine respect is needed. It can only develop from deep friendship and careful listening. Stedman now works as Director of the Yale Humanist Community at Yale University.

Oddly, he never mentions Ethical Humanism.

Recently, a friend of mine observed that when President Barrack Obama discusses religious diversity, he generally includes non-believers as well as practitioners of all the world’s religions. Did Obama pick this up from the Unitarian Universalist congregation his family associated with? Stedman, whose family was decidedly secular, passed briefly through a UU group before his conversion to Christianity.

I mentioned a prominent atheist in a blog post dated January 31, 2014. This was Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, whom I found to be unpleasantly condescending towards religion and religious people.

I looked a little into the controversy around Stedman. He has been accused of “shielding” or apologizing for Christianity and failing to acknowledge its problematic behavior.

The best thing about Stedman’s book is his willingness to tell his own story. I think he recognizes the equal importance of listening to others’ voices. The US is in serious need of this type of respectful dialog.

“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson

This is another “I didn’t read the book” report, and, again, it’s based on the fact that I heard the author speak. The University where I am employed regularly celebrates Constitution Day. Now THERE’S a “holiday” I can get behind! A distinguished guest is invited to campus. (These are generally the caliber of speaker that requires payment.) The speaker visits classes, lunches with a select few and offers an address open to the entire community, campus and neighborhood.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Bryan Stevenson. His topic was “Racial Justice and the Constitution”. But he began by talking about himself, his education and how he became involved with advocating on behalf of death row inmates. He described being sent with a message to a condemned man, informing him that he was not going to be executed for at least six months. He kept apologizing – “I’m not a real lawyer, I’m just a student” to a man so desperate that this was GOOD news.

Stevenson’s other anecdotes were of human contact, with prisoners and others including prison guards.

Stevenson held the large audience spellbound. I can’t imagine a better speaker for students to hear. Mass incarceration is one of the crucial issues of our era.

When asked what an individual can do, Stevenson’s main point was that you can’t solve social problems from a distance. You need to get close – visit or correspond with a prisoner, support a prisoner’s family, etc.

“Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical” by John Royston Coleman

I haven’t read this book, but I know its good. How? I heard the author speak, shortly after the book was published in 1974. And the gist of his story stayed with me so clearly that I spotted his obituary in the New York Times last week (September 9, 2016)! John Coleman died at age 95, after a life of intellectual adventure and social activism.

Coleman was the first non-Quaker president of Haverford College, serving from 1967 to 1977. In the middle of that period, he took a sabbatical and worked as a garbage collector, ditch digger and salad chef. As President of Haverford, he abolished football (I heartily approve), encouraged antiwar protests and campaigned for coeducation, eventually resigning when the College’s Trustees wouldn’t open the doors to women. (They did so shortly thereafter.)

If you want to read Blue-Collar Journal, good luck. My local libraries don’t have it. I’m sure Interlibrary Loan would come through. Amazon has a few copies, but at $156.87 I won’t buy it. I hope a Kindle version will be offered soon.

Interestingly, I found another book entitled Blue Collar Journal available on Amazon. It’s by one Richard Cronborg, a retired heavy equipment operator who seems to have jumped, upon retirement, into blogging, Facebook, poetry and self-publishing. I doubt the two authors ever met. But what wonderful gifts their writings are!