Occupy Wall Street - a chaplain's perspective pt. 2
In my last post, I discussed my role as a Protest Chaplain (PC) at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and offered some reflections about the Protest Chaplains NYC group. Since that post a month ago, the group has grown to nearly twice its previous size (currently 70-odd members) and has recruited many chaplains outside of Union Theological Seminary’s walls, both seminarians and ordained chaplains from around the city. Since that post a month ago, police have raided Zuccotti Park and cleared out all occupiers, only letting them return without their tents, sleeping bags and other structures and leaving many occupiers homeless. And since that post a month ago, over 32,000 people turned out yesterday for a rally and marched over the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as taking part in direct actions to peacefully shut down the New York Stock Exchange and occupy the subway system.
Yesterday the PCs got a call to assist with OWS Jail Support for the many protestors who had been arrested at the NYSE action that morning and throughout the day. So last night, instead of taking part in the rally, I walked a few blocks further to Chatham Square behind 1 Police Plaza, where OWS Jail Support was stationed to meet protestors who had been processed. Jail Support acts as a lifeline for released protestors, providing legal counsel, warm clothes, hot coffee, cigarettes and LOTS of donated food; while I was there, a stranger walked up and handed me a bulging bag full of hot Chinese takeout, and another Jail Support worker was handed $160 from an older couple who wanted us to use it to buy snacks. In addition, many medical / emotional / psychological supports are on hand (last night there was a social worker, a psychatrist and a doctor, in addition to the usual OWS Medical) and thus the added role of PCs as spiritual aid.
I arrived downtown on my bike around 6pm, but before I could even get to Chatham Square I had to navigate through 30,000 protestors and contend with a police presence that dwarfed even that of the RNC in 2004; as police in riot gear swarmed to contain the crowds, police vans and buses prepared for arrests and helicopters circling above shone spotlights on Foley Square. Police state, indeed. I got to the square and checked in with legal; they gave me the lowdown on the procedure. As people were released from police headquarters, they were advised to walk up to the square and meet up with us. It became easy to spot the released protestors from a block away, even at night: tired but exultant, they would stride forward alone or in groups of three or four and, seeing the Jail Support crowd, hold up their manila envelopes of confiscated personal effects and let out a whoop or a “ MIC CHECK!” Greeted with enthusiastic cheers, hugs and affirmation, we welcomed each released protestor like a beloved family member returning from a difficult journey. They were then directed to legal for debriefing, and given the comforts they needed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so grateful for a cigarette.
Throughout the 4+ hours I spent there last night, the care I provided didn’t look much like pastoral care; I didn’t have any particularly spiritual conversations or engage in any prayer. I did what everyone else did - helped to get weary protestors, many of whom had been held handcuffed in 1 Police Plaza for 10-12 hours, get plugged back into the outside world. (Now, how can we begin to approach with the same spirit our 2 million incarcerated sisters and brothers when they are released back from correctional facilities into our communities?) And yet I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. I could’ve been a “protesting chaplain” (as I was on Tuesday at Zuccotti - more on that next post!) , and added my voice to the thousands marching over the bridge; instead, I took a fellow-chaplain’s advice and decided to direct my energy to being a “chaplain to the protest”. At this powerful moment in the Occupy movement, who can say which is more important?
Next post, I’ll rewind a bit to discuss the eviction of the park, the Protest Chaplains response and some theological reflection, including excerpts from a sermon I delivered yesterday about Joshua 3:1-17 and what it means to be an “occupier”. Peace!