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Getting Arrested and The Parable of the Ants

The Bangor Police arrested us reluctantly – a bunch of elderly white folks enraged at the Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. “You’ve made your point,” they said in a very friendly manner, “Go home.” We were refusing to leave Congressman Jared Golden’s office in Bangor, Maine. Golden energetically backs Israel’s right to “self defense “ against a people whom they had been violently oppressing for 75 years. The seven of us wanted to be arrested to demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment in opposition to the ongoing bombing of Gaza, to demonstrate our solidarity with millions of others around the world who were protesting. We wanted to express our solidarity with the Gazans in this time of crisis. We wanted to make it clear how angry we were at being made complicit in the slaughter of the Palestinians by our government’s support of Israel. We hoped to use the fact of our civil disobedience as a means of creating some publicity for this cause. 

For the most part doing things which are energized by moral imperative involves long stretches of boredom – as much for the police as for us. Processing in the station means methodical taking of each personal history, fingerprinting, mug shots, the repetition of many steps done poorly, waiting for the bail bondsman to do the paperwork for our release. Efficiency, even though the department seemed over-staffed, was not their strong suit. We sat and sat – making small talk with ourselves and with some policemen and women. If they had any political or moral objection to our cause, they never showed it.

At one point five us were told to sit in an area best described in its physical appearance as  a breakfast nook – a small open space enclosed by a waist high, pale blue wall and a continuous bench around the inside. Very casual. We were never confined by handcuffs or bars. The nook was open to the larger processing hall with a constant flow of officers and orange jump-suited prisoners. In the background the low chatter of many voices was broken haphazardly by the loud electronic clunk of a security door’s lock opening remotely. From time to time officers leaned on the nook’s perimeter wall and talked with us. My guess is the cops spend a lot of down time with each other and are eager to have conversations with fresh faces.

Our longest and most interesting conversation was with officer St. Pierre. (I’m not sure of his rank.) Fifty-five years old, with close cropped hair and very fit, he met the stereotype of a military figure. His khaki uniform was taut across his thick shoulders, the snug short sleeves accentuated his bulging biceps. This  man is very conscious of his physical presence, which, to some people, is probably more intimidating than his badge. He didn’t want to discuss fitness, though. His concern was with political partisanship – how that partisanship impedes not only our ability to talk to each other, but, more importantly, aggravates our inability to solve communal problems. He stressed that wherever we are on the political spectrum – from hard left to hard right – we share the same desire for functional government and cooperation on urgent issues.

Yet, we let our antipathies for each other’s politics and cultural values override our good sense. ”Why is that?” he asked. His question was rhetorical. Officer St. Pierre was quick to answer his own question with the parable of the ants. He said, “Let’s say you put a colony of red ants in a jar – or the part of the colony you can catch. The ants will be disoriented for some time; they may fight with each other, but soon enough they will establish a hierarchy, a division of labor, and create a functional order.”  (In the ant story he did not deal with practical things like sources of food and water; this was a metaphor.) “You could do the same with black ants or white ants; you could even put red, black and white ants in the same jar. They’d fight, but soon enough figure out how to live together. Unless,” he said, “someone shakes the jar.”

All of a sudden his philosophical investigation went deeper. “Partisanship does not hardwire us to be dysfunctional.”  Powerful forces, he was saying, promote partisanship to maintain permanent dysfunction for their own benefit, the continuation of their power. “The important question,” he said, “is who shakes the jar?” Shaking the jar was his metaphor for setting people against each other by race or class or fear, by ethnicity, religion or wealth – by insisting on a false narrative of why the problems exist, and keeping them unsolvable.

This conversation was an illustration of his theme. Officer St. Pierre identified himself as a political conservative. He was talking to a group of radical protesters. Together we were being very civil and jointly invested in solving the problem of partisanship and naming the forces that make the problem solving very difficult. Human society fails if we can’t come together to solve problems. Power maintains itself by creating division and turmoil. 

While he was talking, I was thinking that a primary educational mission of Americans Who Tell the Truth is identifying the bottle shakers and those who courageously try to stop them. This project started as a response to the George W. Bush administration vigorously shaking the bottle with fear and jingoism to instigate the Iraq War.  And think of all the racist bottle shakers – past and present – who used Jim Crow and ethnic hatred to keep us divided. We honor those who try to get us – red, black and white – working together for the common good. And the fossil fuel industry shakes the bottle with lies about Climate Change. AWTT presents the environmental truth tellers. 

I was amused that I was sitting in custody in a police station in Bangor, Maine being taught a lesson in the antidote to stereotypes and partisanship by a concerned, right-wing cop who understands the urgency of collaboration and cooperation. Hope shows up sometimes in the most unlikely places.

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