If there’s anything that life and spirituality teaches, it’s that there are always at least two sides to every story and many sides to the same truth. Hearing the conflicting sides in depth rarely happens, but occasionally the story unfolds in a massive way like the protests in Ferguson, Missouri along with Gaza and Ukraine (etc, ad nauseum). As the tear gas flies and tempers flare in Ferguson, the story of who is wrong and right is as muddied and chaotic as the scenery of the protests themselves. What stands as an obvious current on either side of the story is that something needs to be done. The harm needs to stop without contributing more harm in the process. As spiritually inclined individuals, reconciling the desire to approach struggles in a compassionate and mindful way becomes even more important in a situation as dire and intense as the one in Ferguson. The question is how can maintaining spirituality be compatible with the call to activism?
Activism often asks that a “side” be taken to support and work intimately with those affected by an issue. However, spirituality doesn’t like to delineate rightness and wrongness when that both sides are behaving rightly and wrongly. It is like the old saying, “it takes two to make a fight” as though both sides are culpable. Choosing to speak out against injustice assumes that there is a “right” and “wrong” transpiring and when the injustices are perpetrated against people who may otherwise be labeled, “wrong” then it seems like it’s better to drop the proverbial hot potato and instead pray for peace and choose passive, “no comment.” The idea is reserving judgment when the facts are (seemingly) unknown avoids bringing more harm into a situation “still developing” and “confusing” to untangle. The theory behind choosing to be neutral and spread love to all involved is worthy and understandable. However, there is a deep flaw that separates the truth seeking spiritualist further from union and awakened spirituality.
Withholding judgment is a judgment in and of itself. To judge that there is nothing worth judging is, of course, judging. Non-judgment in the face of great suffering is a place of privileged disconnect that allows a person to stand neutrally and uninvested when there are serious issues transpiring. People who spend their lives in fear of the authorities sworn to protect them have no time for passive observation. People whose children and brothers are being shot and left for dead in the street don’t have time to wait for all the facts and both sides of the story. In an imbalanced power struggle, the call to act on behalf of the disenfranchised goes beyond passing judgment and what’s right and wrong.
It’s true that judgment locks everyone into a cycle of lower vibration struggle with hurt feelings, strained relationships, miscommunication and people against each other. Judgement leads to Ferguson with police judging black community members as threats and the community judging cops as a threat with both of these missed trusts ending in incredible harm. Additionally, deciding who is right and wrong further reinforces the disconnection between opposing sides because now there is a winner, loser dichotomy that pits responsible groups against each other. There is no disputing that judgment can be harmful. However, even with a confusing situation, there is great opportunity to learn and grow from what is happening.
Without “taking sides,” it is easy to acknowledge that there are some things that happen that have no justification. Without “taking sides” it is easy to challenge the injustices that are brought to light regardless of the reason why these challenges exploded into the public eye. Forget the lines of right and wrong and instead initiate and participate in meaningful dialogue on the unmet needs of the community. Instead of asking if tear gas and rubber bullets are justified reactions, the question should be: is there ever a reason to use these “non-lethal” weapons on protestors at all? Instead of pointing to looters as a reason to remain objective and disengaged, query if there’s ever a reason to loot? What does looting mean as an impoverished person, as a person who has enough but wants more? Does the substance being pilfered change the way looting is perceived (i.e. diapers versus flat screen)? If police are using Long Range Acoustic Devices to disperse crowds, what does that mean? The issues being brought to light are the places to begin discourse. There is no side, there is simply a matter of addressing the good and bad parts of the situation to shine light on solutions and stimulate meaningful conversations.
Staying silent is, after all, a way to continue to empower injustice by refusing to call into attention its grave implications. In events like Ferguson where tensions are high and communication between the parties at odds is low, waiting for facts sees more people get hurt than taking a stand of leadership against harm irrespective of who was or is initially in the wrong. Remaining silent in the face of abuses like Ferguson is selfish. To be silent and “neutral” is to ignore the actions of excessive, violent and unnecessary abuse as though there must be a reason when the reasons can never truly be known. Waiting for a “reason” when history and many different impartial facts can show that there is a disparity based around race, socio-economic class, and bigotry is purposefully remaining ignorant and therefore perpetuating harm.
As Ferguson has signaled in many ways, it is time for massive and radical change to the way things have been. Now that there is a moment of great social change unfolding, silence on the ways this could be a large scale spiritual as well as social transformation keeps that change from realizing itself. To fail to realize the important role one plays in this battle is to reject your own dharma (personal life purpose). Just as Krishna advised Arjuna to remember his role and to respectfully fulfill it in the Bhagavad Gita, so the same responsibility needs to be placed on the shoulders of everyone. What choices have been made to lead up to this moment are now only context because the situation stands as it is here and now.
Though perhaps it is unclear what Ferguson is about and why it is erupting in the way it has when the reality of the disparity between the experience of black people and white people in this country is intentionally confused. Ferguson is an explosion of decades of frustration, pain, suffering and disenfranchisement from the very establishments that are in place to care. Tensions between black communities and individuals and law enforcement and the white establishments haven’t been resolved over the years. Despite the “race riots” in the 1990’s or the affectionately termed “Civil Rights Era,” racism is not part of a bygone era of the past and retains incredible relevance today. With a need for better integration, with continued segregation, with marked disparities in black arrests, imprisonment, convictions, and sentencing terms, there is an obvious system of white privileges that have never dissipated.
Add to all of those tensions, a hyper imbalanced representation of the above issues, add in a government gone wild with militarization of police forces nationwide, an increasingly oppressive and fascist state, and a place like Ferguson becomes a ticking time bomb of sorts. In Ferguson now, Amnesty International has deployed on US soil for the first time ever due to the egregious abuses that the police force– trained to act in this way, for what it’s worth– has enacted against all non law enforcement persons in the streets. In Ferguson now, Gaza has found empathy and gives advice on how to deal with tear gas being thrown at protestors from a police force that is over 90% white. In Ferguson now, media as well as aldermans and entertainers are being treated as common criminals even being told they will be murdered by the police officers sworn to protect the community– and this is problematic.
Where Ferguson brings the United States to now, is a place where every citizen needs to figure out how they can change this story for good. Outside of the United States citizens need to look at the global community and how choices affect all humanity that every individual on this earth. Racism exists, after all, not just in Ferguson. Despite the United States taking the center stage for racially motivated abuse, the same thing happens all around the world. What are spiritually inclined citizens of this earth going to do with their talents, abilities, and privileges to affect meaningful and lasting, positive change?
Work toward truth, loving kindness, and all the loftiest spiritual ideals by using the talents, knowledge and social reach of privilege and passion to create the world everyone, including the Ferguson community, deserves to live in. There is a world out there fighting for the right to live regardless of biological differences. There is a world where illusion runs so deep that people in positions of power and with discernible privilege act as though progress has been made. The avidya is so thick that despite knowing figures like there are more black men in prison now then there ever were enslaved, the fantasy persists that there isn’t a side to take. Wake up to life purpose! Practice dispelling illusions by standing up for the rights of people in Ferguson and denouncing the acts of violence (whether that is from agitator, provocateur, law enforcement or citizen) because when there is an obvious disparity between the treatment of people, there is only illusion and harm. Reaching enlightenment in a situation that isn’t based around the reality of what is happening, is not enlightenment. It is a false awakening based out of ignorance. Action to right the wrongs of what is so obviously apparent is necessary and required.
The continued harm black communities and black people, and protestors and activists that aren’t afraid to spark a conversation, grow together, and find answers, demands action from everyone including and especially in the spiritual community. Remembering the activists maced and blasted with LRAD during Occupy protests, it is not surprising to see the same tactics employed in Ferguson. Yet where were the conversations then? Where are the conversations now? Where was the action then? Where is the action now?
To ignore the suffering of people that are being terrorized and disenfranchised simply for grieving the loss of precious life that is systematically undervalued needs to end. This suffering and disenfranchisement has been woven into the very fabric of the United States of America and the cultures that shaped the US. While it is challenging to acknowledge, it is the truth. The harm is inherent and as a country and even global community, many benefit from the harm that the US perpetuates against people of color.
This kind of relationship is abusive and unhealthy. Look beyond the surfacing stories of injustice and see that this behavior and silencing and abuse is systemic. All of these stories, systemic injustices, and racial tensions are a continuing saga that needs to be addressed. Addressing and acknowledging and changing the course of events to a positive, inclusive, compassionate, balanced harmonious co-existence is the collective spiritual yoga practice. This is about healing, not harming; this is about loving and cultivating community, kindness, and compassion. Ferguson is about empowering people to make decisions that are based out of love and teaching them to respond from a place of love. Ferguson is about how there is an immediate need to stop pointing fingers– cops at the black community, for instance– and start working toward solutions that are coming from a place of respect for the self and love for the community. Because what the world is witnessing is not about love; it is fear, ignorance, and even hatred. This is not respect and love and whether one side is or was right or wrong is irrelevant now. Spirituality commands that love guide decisions and when there is a situation where hatred and fear is prevailing, it is imperative for leaders to help right that.
Both police officers and people in lower socio-economic areas need immediate spiritually based resources. Whose side seems right is irrelevant because all aspects of all communities need assistance and volunteers, and real life things that anyone can contribute. Turning a blind eye and remaining mute on Ferguson hurts the children who depend on school lunches for their meals– meals which have been off the table for going on two weeks now. Ferguson children need food. Because of the military grade over-response using tear gas against protesters, people need access to medical supplies and even just basic living supplies. The people on the streets, the people in the neighborhoods, the children, the press members, the protestors in solidarity, the police– they all need yoga and healing after high and intense warfare (truly, it is domestic warfare). Praying is a good place to start, but it can’t end there. Activists on the front lines of this work all over this country need help and it’s damn time the yoga and spiritual community stepped up and answered the call. Silence is not an option any longer.