What is it about being arrested that evokes such deep and ambivalent feelings from most of us? Revulsion and fear from the majority and a different reaction, sometimes even attraction or the willingness to pay the price, from a few.
It is reminiscent of the account of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New England Transcendentalist philosopher and poet, visiting his friend Henry David Thoreau, abolitionist, tax resister and naturalist in jail. Emerson implored: “Henry, why are you here?” To which Thoreau replied: “Waldo, why are you not here?”
What a fascinating conversation between these two friends. Perhaps reminiscent of the inner dialogue that some of us are having as we see young people being arrested at the Wall Street occupation. Some of us might also have been puzzled recently at over 1000 people, including older citizens, being arrested outside the White House over the Tar Sands continental XL Pipeline. How can anyone be so foolish as to tangle with the Law?
And yet there is a tradition of nonviolent direct action reaching back to the Boston Tea Party, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and even Jesus. This tradition continues today with people — especially our youth — willing to break a human law as a way of obeying a higher law of “justice for all” or the sanctity of the earth.
In full disclosure, this writer admits to occasional arrests on behalf of social causes, most recently at the White House over the Tar Sands Pipeline, appealing to the President, who can single handedly stop this onslaught against the Earth. Some might ask why an 80-year-old priest should be involved in such senseless and undignified activity. For me the willingness to risk arrest is not like the moth flying into the flame. Rather it is an attempt by the powerless to communicate when all else has failed, to get the attention and perhaps even reach the conscience of the powerful through a seemingly extreme action. It might even evoke questions about those in the suites of high finance who have been guilty of the criminal activity that has caused this crisis and who will never feel the plastic cuffs on their manicured hands.
And so the idealistic and determined young people of the Wall Street Occupation have decided that if the banks and corporations and those who they see as their protectors in the Congress and White House will not listen, then perhaps the people will. It is an act of hope rather than despair and those in power would do well to listen. For there are others of the suffering dispossessed and often unemployed majority, growing more desperate each day, waiting in the wings, who may not subscribe to such discipline and non violence.