Five Years (That’s All We’ve Got): Packing for Civil Unrest Revisited

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“Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying”

– David Bowie

It’s been almost five years since I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reconnect with and serve their communities.  In it I discussed my calling and decision to serve my local community by attending demonstrations and protests and providing medical aid to the demonstrators and then described the contents of my medical bag that I take with me out into the streets.  I re-read that post recently and was really struck by how much has changed since I wrote it.  Fascism and violence against marginalized people has always been part of the makeup of the American People.  Let’s take a step away from the “Greatest Nation on Earth” and “Land of the Free” nonsense for a moment and look at our history from a realistic perspective.  The United States is at its core a colonial power.  Our place in the world rose on the bloody backs of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was stolen from the Native People of this continent, and was solidified by economic and political manipulation of foreign nations and Indigenous Peoples.    We have a real issue with racism and xenophobia in the US and even with all of the progress that we have made in civil rights and equal justice,  we have always had a core of rot that was just under the surface.

Now we have made a drastic shift in how we want to see ourselves.  We have watched a demagogue take the highest seat of power in the country by  appealing to the worst natures of the American People.  As a result of that, every vile impulse and disgusting attitude has risen to the surface like the scum on a polluted pond.  We now have open racists, fascists, and misogynists coming out of the woodwork, attacking and murdering people  in the street, and even running for political offices.  Monstrous attitudes that would normally have been hidden from any decent society have now become a path to power.  As a result, things have gotten infinitely worse in most people’s day to day life and actions in the streets have gone from protecting demonstrators from an overzealous, militarized  police force to defending communities from gangs of armed fascist thugs that are protected and emboldened by an overzealous and militarized police force.

Throughout this deterioration of the ideals that America once payed lip service to, I have continued to go out into the streets and provide medical aid to people in need, and from my perspective things have gotten immeasurably worse and considerably more dangerous for everyone out there.  As the situations on the ground changed, my training, tactics, and equipment have changed.  I now have a more extensive training,  an expanded network of collaborators, and more comprehensive and complete medical kit.  When I first started this work,  it was in response to accidentally coming across a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration that was brutally kettled (cornered) and attacked by Bay Area law enforcement then illegally tear gassed, pepper sprayed and indiscriminately beaten.  I immediately want back to my house, grabbed whatever supplies I had on hand and headed out into to street to help whoever I could.  Over the next week, what is now known as the “Week of Hell”, I went out every night to help the demonstrators and confront the police.  I learned quite a lot in a very short period of time and my tactics and equipment changed over that week, constantly addressing new information and learning and adjusting to changing police tactics.  A short time after that week, I wrote my blog post “Packing for Civil Unrest

IMG_3528As it did over that week, much has changed over the past few years.  Demonstrations have become more violent and dangerous and people are being murdered on the streets and on public transportation by members of the far right.  Basic first aid and medical training has become essential for anyone who wants to be an asset to their community in a crisis.  My medical bag has gotten much bigger and now contains items that I hope I never have to use but I would feel unprepared if I didn’t have them.  My skill set has expanded from basic first aid to tactics, treating knife and gunshot wounds and disaster psychology, and I’ve gone from treating cuts and scrapes and washing tear gas and pepper spray out of peoples eyes to dealing with serious wounds while dodging projectiles and explosives.  Things are not getting better and it looks like they wont be for a while.

To that end, I’ve decided to revisit some of earlier posts and expand on them.  I’m planning on breaking this up into a few different posts, each one going deeper into one topic and set of guidelines.  For this post I’m going to go over the medical kit that I presently use and go over some of the items in detail.  In future posts I will go into tactics, philosophical considerations, and situational awareness.

Having a decent medical kit and learning how to use it is one of those skills that even if you never go to a protest or demonstration, you are likely to use.  We live in uncertain times and the possibility of civil unrest, random violence, or natural disaster is higher than its ever been.  Having the skills you need to be effective and able to help others in dangerous situations is essential for a community’s survival.  By acquiring this equipment and the training to use it properly creates a situation where you not only become someone who can be helpful in a dangerous situation, but it also means that you are less likely to be one of the people who will need aid and therefore require other people’s time and resources.  Knowing these skills means that you, your family, and your community are going to be safer when there is danger.

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First Aid:

Medical Bag:  You are looking for a bag that is not only big enough to carry all of your supplies, but one that is also clearly identifiable as medical bag.  You also have to take into account your role in the field and the amount of gear you will be carrying. If you are just carrying medical gear, you can usually keep everything that you need in a basic shoulder carried medical bag.  If you are in a more dangerous environment and are carrying tactical gear, then I suggest a larger backpack style bag that can carry all of your gear to avoid having to carry two bags. Mark your bag with a clearly visible red cross.  People that are in need of a medic will be searching for that.

Nitrile gloves:  You should be wearing fresh gloves during every contact that you make in the field.    You will go through a lot of gloves in a typical action. Have a couple of dozen in a sealable plastic bag that you can get to quickly.  

Alcohol or povidone iodine wipes:  perfect item for sanitation, cleaning and sterilizing an area during a first aid event. These wipes can be used on hands, skin as well as injection sites to sanitize the area.

Butterfly Sutures:  used to close small wounds. They are applied across the laceration in a manner which pulls the skin on either side of the wound together

Bandage Shears:  Safe shears for cutting bandages, clothes, or anything else.  Keep these in a easily accessible location.

Bandaids: While it’s not explicitly necessary to carry any band-aids at all (as injuries which can be treated with a band-aid are not really necessary to treat in the first place), it can be helpful to have a couple on hand in case a child suffers from a small scrape or cut.

Self Adhering Bandages:  Works better than tape to keep gauze on or protect wounds in a dangerous situation.

Gauze:  Gauze tend to take up a lot of space in your bag, but its better to have too much than it is to run out when you need it.  I like to but all of my different types of gauze together into a gallon sized ziplock bag to prevent it from overwhelming your bag . Some useful sizes to carry include 2″x2″, 3″x3″, 4″x4″, rolled gauze, and if possible, a sealed compression dressing or two for extreme cases.

Israeli Pressure Bandages:  While the technical name is The Emergency Bandage, it’s a bit of a misnomer, as the Israeli is really a pressure dressing. It combines a sterile dressing, elastic bandage and pressure applicator capable of exerting up to 30 lbs. of pressure on a wound. The closure bar, which secures the bandage at the end of wrapping, can also be used to exert additional pressure. The Israeli is truly a multi-purpose bandage and can be used as a makeshift tourniquet, ACE Wrap, or even a sling to immobilize an appendage. It’s truly a versatile item to include in your trauma kit or first aid kit. It can also be self-applied, even one-handed.

Quick Clot Packs:   Quickclot is a gauze impregnated with a hemostatic clotting agent like Kaolin.Use QuikClot in a flash if blood is pouring, and direct pressure or pressure on pulse points wasn’t going to stop the bleeding, and using QuikClot was the only thing I knew to do to save a life—like if a femoral artery were cut so close to the groin a tourniquet wasn’t feasible. Or if I were facing a gusher on the neck and pressure wasn’t helping. I’d try it on a badly bleeding chest or abdominal wound if I couldn’t do anything else, even though I know if the QuikClot doesn’t come in contact with the bleeding blood vessel, it’s not going to help.

Instant Cold Packs: Cold packs can be useful for treating everything from heat stroke/exhaustion to sprains, fractures,,  dislocations and bruises .

Burn Dressings: Somewhat expensive, but worth carrying a few of these in case someone comes into contact with something very hot (like a projectile fired by police, or fire).

Ace Bandages  Very helpful for immobilizing injured joints and can also be used with a SAM splint.

SAM Splint:  Lightweight flexible splint that can be stiffened by folding it and used to splint broken bones and sprains.

Triangular Bandage:  A triangular bandage can be folded in the shape of a rectangle. It can be placed over a large wound to absorb blood and stop bleeding, functioning as a trauma pad.  Two triangular bandages can be used together to treat a wound. One can be used like a trauma pad to control bleeding, and another can be used to wrap the wound. It can hold the trauma pad in place if first aid tape is not available. A triangular bandage can also be used to treat a wound on the forehead or the top of the head. It should not cover the eyes, nose, or mouth.

Portable Gurney:  Lightweight foldable gurney used for moving patients out of dangerous areas quickly.

Tweezers:  Helpful for removing small objects and pieces of glass from wounds

Small Flashlight or Headlamp:  Essential if you are working at night

Comfort Aid:

Water:  Bring enough for yourself and others.

Sunscreen:  Sunburn can be a serious concern during many action.  Having sunscreen for yourself and others can help.

Protein bars:  Like water, a quick source of protein can be helpful for both yourself and others who might be suffering from hunger.

Honey Packets or Lollipops:  Honey is a quick, natural sugar source for diabetics.  Lollipops are great for providing a quick sugar rush in the event that someone is hypoglycemic and in need of a blood sugar boost.They also work to help calm children who may be feeling panicked for any number of reasons.

Mole Skin:  Most actions require extensive walking and blisters are inevitable.  Mole skin help people deal with the discomfort of blisters and raw spots on their feet.

Herbal Remedies:

Mullein Leaf Tincture:  Useful aftercare for exposure to tear gas, as it helps heal the respiratory system. Mullein leaf has no known interactions, and should be safe for nearly anyone to use.

Plantain Salve:  Useful for treating burns and scrapes, can be applied liberally to the affected area, and then covered with gauze.

Relaxation Tinctures:  Herbal medicine is medicine, and should never be taken or administered without a solid understanding of effects and interactions. One of the best options is Borage tincture, which is mild, safe to use, and is meant to make people feel support and courage of heart. Alternatives such as Passionflower, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Lavender (infusion, not essential oil), and California Poppy may also be useful in helping treat panic attacks and anxiety attacks. These should all be used very carefully, as all may affect different people in different ways. Some of the milder options above, such as Passionflower, Lemon Balm, and Catnip, may be the best options for wide use. Rescue Remedy, which is homeopathic and therefore contains nearly zero actual plant matter, may be a safe alternative to any of the above, but is likely to be less effective. The fact is, calmly and confidently telling someone you’re going to give them something which will help them feel more relaxed is frequently the most important part of helping people feel calm and safe in a protest setting.

Tactical Gear:

Liquid Antacid + Water:  A mixture of liquid antacid and water is useful for saturating bandannas in case of exposure to tear gas, as well as washing tear gas out of people’s eyes, and can help soothe the burn associated with exposure to pepper spray as well. A roughly 50/50 solution of milk of magnesia and water does the trick, but other antacids are also fine as long as they are alcohol-free and ideally unflavored.

Sharpies:  Not only is it important to write important phone numbers on your own body, so you have access to them in case of arrest, but it may also be important to write information on a patient if they are unconscious and you have to pass them off to Emergency Medical Services. Knowledge of what has already been done to help a patient, and knowledge of any vital information you may have been given before the patient passed out (such as blood type and/or allergies) can help save lives.

2 way Radio:  Generally you will be using your cellphone for most communication, but there are times when cell reception will disappear and having dedicated radios will help you stay in contact with your team when that happens

Gas Mask or Respirator:  If you’re the type of person who is likely to want to stick around when tear gas and/or pepper spray is being deployed in large quantities, it may be worth it to invest in and carry a gas mask or respirator. While useful to carry, it is worth noting that gas masks are both bulky and fairly heavy. Respirators tend to be slightly less so, but still take up quite a bit of space.

Goggles:  Lightweight to protect against exposure to pepper spray.

Helmet:  Given that a blow to the head with a less-lethal projectile can be deadly, it may be worthwhile to invest in a bicycle helmet for wearing to protests. As with gas masks and respirators, helmets are very bulky, and they can also make putting on and taking off a gas mask more difficult, but a helmet may still very well be a worthwhile inconvenience if you’re in an environment where things are being shot into a crowd.

Ballistic Vest:  This is an expensive investment, but worth it if you plan to put yourself in danger.

Approximate Costs:

Item Cost URL
Medical Gear
Medical Bag 12.95 Trauma Bag
Nitrile Gloves 9.95 Nitrile Gloves
Alcohol Wipes 4.48 Alcohol Wipes
Butterfly Sutures 5.20 Butterfly Sutures
Bandage Shears 11.95 Bandage Shears
Bandaids 6.47 Bandaids
Self Adhering Bandages 12.99 Self Adhering Bandages
Gauze 7.59 Gauze
Pressure Bandages X2 11.78 Pressure Bandages
Quick Clot Pack 15.19 Quick Clot Pack
Instant Cold Pack X6 4.75 Instant Cold Pack
Burn Dressing X3 14.95 Burn Dressing
Ace Bandage X2 6.48 Ace Bandage X2
SAM Splint 9.70 SAM Splint
Triangular Bandage X2 1.61 Triangular Bandage
Portable Gurney 27.00 Portable Gurney
Tweezers 2.17 Tweezers
Total Cost: 165.21
Item Cost URL
Tactical Gear
Liquid Antacid + Water 6.97 LAW
Sharpies 1.00 Sharpies
2 Way Radio X2 25.99 2 Way Radio
Gas Mask or Respirator 34.39 Gas Mask or Respirator
Goggles 12.99 Goggles
Helmet 24.99 Helmet
Total Cost 106.33

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Special Thanks to Oakland Elle for some of the ideas for equipment and for always being there in the middle of it when the shit starts going down

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An Era of Failed Leadership

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I was reminded the other day that it has been a year since I’ve written a blog post.  When I started writing this blog I had planned on at least writing a post once a month. I saw a great value in engaging with the community and with the larger world around me through this medium, a place to exchange ideas and information with a broad audience, and a modern community meeting hall.  And then 2016 happened.

By 2016 I had seen a trend in the pagan blogging community that I was having a difficult time accepting.  To those of us paying attention to the larger world, there was a shift occurring in the general global rhetoric and politics towards a true ugliness, a type of fear and hate mongering that inevitably leads to violence and bloodshed.  We saw the consolidation of power of far-right  hate groups and watched in horror as their armies of trolls and goons started to rekindle the fear and loathing and aim their barbs at marginalized communities, creating the targets for the scapegoating necessary for  authoritarian and xenophobic regimes to take hold of global politics again.

Any student of history has seen this before.  These people are trying nothing new.  Divide and conquer, fan the flames of fear and prejudice, control the message of the media or try to discredit those you can’t control. This is straight out of the fascist playbook, so clear that if you look hard enough you can see the margin notes of a host of dictators and would be dictators scribbled across their words and deeds.

During this moment of the rise of hate speech and violence in the world, I  watched as our community continued to tear and rend at each other over what amounted to differences of opinions over spiritual practices and how different people viewed the Gods.  I watched the great pagan Internet “wars” between atheists and polytheists, or wiccans and traditional witches, or sneeches that have stars on their bellies and those that don’t, finally ending with the “battle” between Marxists and fascists, the latter finally starting to get closer to the heart of the terrible maelstrom at our gates but unable to remove personal vendettas and attacks from their rhetoric and by failing to do that, divided our community at a time when we desperately needed unity and dialogue.

It was during 2016 that I also stepped into the role of Chief of the Coru Cathubodua and started to reflect of the role of leadership in our communities and more importantly what constitutes failed leadership and what constitutes successful leadership. Because our community needs leaders, but not the type of leaders that are commonly modeled right now.

Leadership is a word with a broad spectrum of meaning attached to it. To some, the word leadership is synonymous with authority, and authority, no matter what the form, is something to fight against.  To others, leadership signifies a person or group that will make all the decisions for you, to them a leader is someone to rule you, a parental figure that they hope has their best interests in mind.  This type of vision of leadership can be dangerous in a political climate where “strong men” and tinpot dictators claw for real world power.

This breed of top down leadership will ultimately fail us, preying on our fears and insecurities while binding us in lies and controversies.  Leaders that sit apart from the people pointing fingers and making demands from them always show their true natures eventually.  Leaders that demand authority and power over others but have no skill or talent for leadership fill our world today, and when the illusion of power fades and the reality and sacrifice of leadership becomes clear, they fail and flee and attempt to destroy the institutions they wanted to control.  But thankfully, there’s something else that happens in times like these, something hopeful.

2016 was an excruciating year for most of us.  We watched as tragedy after tragedy unfolded while our attention was demanded by an election that twisted the level of discourse to mudslinging and vitriol and more importantly emboldened and inspired the worst aspects of humanity and turned hatred into a virtue and a path to power.  By the end of the year our community could clearly see what many of us had been aware of for years, the true danger at our gates.  The specters of fascism and authoritarianism were no longer just philosophical differences that needed to be weeded out from within our small community, but real live monsters, stomping around our streets attacking the most vulnerable among us.  People who tried to lay claim to the pagan blogosphere quickly found that real world terrors were demanding their attention and those in our community that thought it wise to cozy up to the far right to make a public show of how much they disliked the left, discovered that no matter what they did, they would never be far right enough for their new friends and were attacked and abandoned by them.

As 2017 dawned on us we found that things were worse than we could have possibly imagined.  Gone was the pretense of an inclusive and just nation.  Hatred and targeted violence have become commonplace.  The failure of our elected officials and our crippled republic is abundantly clear now and the monsters are running the show.

But as our new reality sunk in, I saw a change in the leadership of our community.  I witnessed the leaders that had always relied on a top down style of leadership fall silent, either too frightened or too stunned to take the actions needed to protect or inspire those that looked to them for direction.  I watched many of the people the community looked at as leaders or elders because of some level of fame or popularity that they were attached to, fall into a state of “I can’t even….” and become paralyzed with their own fears and insecurities.  But most importantly I watched members of our community, some recognized leaders, some not, step up and start to help others in whatever way they were able to.

During times of great crisis one would expect the social order to fall to pieces and devolve into chaos.  But one of the beautiful things about humanity is that in most cases this is not true.  Studies show that during times of extreme societal trauma, wars , economic and natural disasters, that instead of societies falling apart, that communities almost always come together, forgetting previous divisions and prejudices and working together for the safety and benefit for all.   Contrary to what the apocalyptic films tell us, that when circumstances are at their worst, humanity is at its best.

In our community I witnessed an outpouring of action and support from great numbers of people.  Safety networks were created, individuals gave their time and energy to holding close those that needed it, people reached out and built connections and alliances designed to create a stronger and more resilient community and started creating safety nets to catch those of us that might fall through society’s cracks.

This is the type of leadership that is going to carry us through this troubled time.  Leaders that stand alongside the rest of us, shouldering as much work as the person next to them.  Leaders that inspire by their actions alongside their words, pulling people together to address tasks that are too great to handle alone.  Leaders that lead from the frontline not the safety of the back of the crowd.

These leaders are here now, doing the work, taking their share of the burden, and helping those that are struggling with theirs.  These leaders are often young , sometimes unlikely, they come from generations of powerful people, raised on stories of rebellion and resistance, their earliest memories rich with strength of character and the toppling of unjust empires and they have a message for the monsters.

Their message is, We are the children of the Rebel Alliance, the Fellowship of the Ring, and the Browncoats.  We are the inheritors of the Civil Rights Movement, the Indigenous Solidarity Movement, and of Stonewall   Our sense of justice comes from these modern myths and current struggles and encompasses rooting for the underdog, fighting the good fight, and doing the right damn thing.  As things get worse in the world around us we will come together despite our differences to fight to protect our communities.  We will stand side by side and do the work that must be done to create and maintain a safe and just world for everyone.

And in that is where I lay my hope.

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Our Lady of Perpetual Agitation vs. Social Media

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA     Some think it looks like a Maytag washing machine

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of the Catholic church, but if I am going to be fair I am forced to admit that the Catholic church usually makes a moderate to good effort in giving aid to the houseless.  In most cities, Catholic social services are some of the most accessible to marginalized populations with in a community.  Sometimes this aid is given asking nothing in return and sometimes it requires sitting through a church service or sermon, but most of the time at least some sort of aid can be had if the proper hoops are jumped through.  That’s one of the reasons that I was so surprised to see a headline reading “SF cathedral dousing homeless with water to keep them from sleeping in doorways” on Patheos this morning.

To summarize, for the past two years the Cathedral has been using a system of hoses from the roof of the building to spray water on members of the houseless community in order to deter them from seeking shelter in the doorways of the Cathedral.  The hoses were timed to go off every 30 to 60 minutes for about 75 seconds, from sunset to sunrise, effectively soaking whoever had made the mistake of trying to sleep there and all of their belongings.  The Archdiocese’s reasoning for this is that they wanted to prevent people from urinating and defecating in the doorways, and keep the area clean and safe for everyone, and I completely understand the need for that.  I also am aware that the Archdiocese of San Francisco does make an effort to aid people in distress, and that the houseless problem is extreme in San Francisco for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the houseless themselves.  What I find interesting about this case is both the strange and misguided choices that a Christian institution has taken to arrive at a solution as inhumane and cruel as this one, and how quickly the media, aided by social media, forced the Archdiocese to make amends for this and change their policy.

I first read about this story on Facebook this morning.  I immediately reposted it and started researching the history behind it.  After learning a little about it and the history of the Archdiocese and the Archbishop’s shaky relationship with the people of San Francisco, it quickly became clear that I was not dealing with a particularly progressive branch of Peter’s church.  Ten days ago, hundreds of people stood outside the cathedral protesting a morality clause in their teacher’s contract.  The clause, pushed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone,  includes language against homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.  On top of this, Archbishop Cordileone recently helped push the drive for the canonization of Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary that founded the first mission in California, helped establish the mission system, tortured and murdered the native population, and helped create the conditions that decimated the native population in California.

So after reading all of that,  I decided that I was going to head down there today and try to talk to someone about their choice to drive the houseless away from their cathedral with hoses.  I grabbed my things, hopped on the train, and headed to San Francisco with another Coru priest.  As we hiked up the hill to the cathedral, I thought about what I wanted to say to a representative of the church.  I was hoping to get a chance to talk to the Archbishop, but as a pagan priest I realized that it was unlikely to be an option, but I wanted to express to them the danger in and cruelty of soaking peoples belongings and clothes in an environment like San Francisco, where it is almost always cold and damp.  I wanted to ask them find another way to prevent people from sleeping in these alcoves that doesn’t put them at risk of pneumonia or destroys what little bit of property that they own.  To point out to them that as religious leaders in this community, people look to them for moral guidance and by taking an action as callous and heartless as this one, they are being a bad examples for others.  By the time we got to the cathedral, there were already 3 news vans there and reporters.  Because of the pressure that was put on them by the media and social media, the Archdiocese was forced to face this and take action.  When we arrived, the church had issued a statement apologizing for the action and were already removing the hoses.

Now I could easily go through their statement and point out some pretty messed up aspects of the whole incident, like the fact that the Archdiocese made the decision to do this system “was installed approximately two years ago, after learning from city resources that this kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District” meaning that the Catholic church was getting advice on how to deal with the homeless and poor by looking to the Financial District, or that they had violated permitting requirements to install this, or that California is in the middle of a serious drought and this is a huge waste of water.  But I will also give them credit for helping the homeless in many other ways and for taking actions to address this issue as soon as they were confronted with it.

What I really want to point out here is that there is an immense power in social media and social media activism.  Because regardless of  complaints about hashtag activism and the criticisms of the “cause du jour” phenomena, social media is one of the most powerful tools that activists have to make change.  In this case, within 6 hours after hitting the internet,  this deplorable practice that has been going on for two years was ended.  Since the mainstream media does such a poor job of giving us an unbiased version of the news, it’s up to us to learn to filter the lies from the facts and that’s not always an easy job.  The benefit of having sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a seemingly infinite number of independent news sources, is that the amount of unfiltered, but completely biased information we receive is much greater than ever before in history.  With a little work, one can get enough perspectives of an event to have a better idea of what actually happened, and with critical thinking, and taking into account one’s own biases, we are able to understand events better and make better decisions for our lives and the world around us.  Social media also allows us to bring an issue to the public eye almost instantly, bringing public scrutiny to misdeeds and misconduct and forcing rapid change when needed.  Without social media, this issue would have taken months to resolve, with social media, 6 hours.

So don’t criticize activist’s use of social media to bring awareness to issues, and stop complaining about the “cause du jour”.  Social media is proving itself to be one of our most effective tools and one person’s “cause du jour” is another person’s lifetime struggle.  Instead of turning away from an issue because it’s too “popular”,  “trendy”,  or you don’t want to “jump on a bandwagon”, take the time to use the tools that we have in social media and the internet and learn what the issues are.  Learn the facts and listen to other people’s opinions about it, especially people’s opinions that have been involved with, or are directly affected by the issue.  Take the time to share information with people who you know and help educate them about the issues.  Take the time, educate yourself, and then make an informed decision about what you want to do about something, if anything at all.  Become involved, and either help or get out-of-the-way of the people who are helping.  Because changes are possible if we try,  and fixing some problems just require people to know what is happening for the problems to improve.

Can You Really Keep Your Religion Out of Your Politics?

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Doing any sort of activism work will inevitably lead to some criticism by members of your community, at least it will if you are doing it right.  Demanding relevant change in the world makes people who are complacently comfortable in their lives, positions, and viewpoints profoundly uncomfortable.  This comfortable complacency is often one of the most persistent barriers to making lasting changes to equity and justice within our society.  One quickly finds that being perceived as a threat to that comfort will incur criticism, attacks, and vitriol from the most invested.  This can be tiring, but it’s to be expected.  It’s part of the process, and while responses of personal attacks and malevolence tend to harm everyone involved, respectful and civil disagreements and debate furthers the dialogue and can lead to solutions to problems.  So a big part of remaining effective in your activism is to learn when to ignore criticism and when to engage in dialogue with your critic.

One of the most common criticisms that an activist that comes from a spiritual background will receive is to tell us that we shouldn’t mix our religion or spirituality with our politics.  The people who level this complaint at activists and take a stance on not mixing their religion and politics tend to be people who can afford to separate these two aspects of their lives, people whose human rights aren’t being threatened and whose lives and finances are well protected by a system that tends to favor white male rights over all others.  But what does this look like, this separation of spirituality and politics?  How does one untangle these ideas in our minds and make choices without one influencing the other?

The root of the separation of church and state in the United States comes from a combination of sources.  The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion and impeding the free exercise of religion.  On a side note, it also prohibits abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. These are all aspects of the protest movement that the same people who advocate keeping spirituality out of  politics often have issues with as well.  This leads people to cherry pick the constitution for statements that support their agenda the same way  that an evangelist will cherry pick the bible to support their agenda.  Further, Article Six of the Constitution establishes that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, ensuring that the US Government remains secular and not directly influenced by the Church.  Later, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut written in 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the subject that the United States should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

So what we have in regards to the separation of Church and State is a strict commitment, written into the Constitution and echoed by Jefferson and the Supreme Court, to not allow the government to be controlled in any way by the Church,  to not allow the state to establish a state religion, and to not require membership in a particular church in order to qualify for public office.  There are many reasons why this is a good policy.  There’s the fact that most Abrahamic faiths strongly encourage people to unquestionably follow an autocratic elite, an idea that clearly stands in opposition to the spirit of a truly democratic society, there’s the idea that we do not want another person’s religious beliefs impinging on our rights and freedoms, and there’s the fact that religion and government have different roles in society and should remain separate because mixing those role have historically been disastrous.  But while I strongly believe that the strict separation of the Church and State is necessary to maintain a just society, this is not the same issue as keeping one’s spirituality or religion out of their personal politics.

But how does one keep their personal politics and their spirituality separate?  For me, I can’t do it.  As a matter of fact I can’t even imagine how someone who critically thinks about the issues can keep spirituality and politics compartmentalized in their minds.  Because in my experience, most people’s spirituality and politics are influenced by their morals and ethics, not the other way around.  For example, I believe that everyone should have basic human rights.  I would not practice a religion that advocated denying others their human rights, and when I vote for a candidate their moral character and stance on human rights is a major factor on whether or not they will get my vote.  To separate your spirituality from your politics is to separate your morals from your politics and that is a dangerous thing.  For without consideration of morals, what are we using to make our political choices?  Our wallets?  Our party affiliation?  Our self-interest?  These motivations do not lead to a just and equitable society, they lead to inequality, power imbalance, and ultimately the decline of that society.

As a society, we must learn to be guided by our own morality and our own codes of ethics and not have them dictated to us by churches and politicians.  We need to have an active ongoing relationship with our moral codes and sets of values, a dialogue with ourselves and others to continually refine and update our opinions as we learn new information and hear other people’s viewpoints.  Morality cannot be written in stone, it should always be a work in progress.  There is danger in the inverse of this approach.  To allow your government or your church to define your moral and ethical code without critical reflection can be one of the most destructive impulses that a society can have,  Governments can tell you that they have to militarize and restrict your freedoms in order to keep you free, they can try to convince you that poisoning your water and land is necessary in order to maintain prosperity.  Churches can tell you who is righteous and who is pure and try to justify dehumanizing others for having differing faiths and they can try to convince you that your natural healthy impulses are impure and sinful and pit you against your self in a never-ending cycle of shame.  Spirituality and politics should never be top down institutions, they should be guided and led by the people in a continual process of refinement and education, striving for better understanding and a more equable and just society.

So to the demand that I keep my religion out of my politics, I will have to politely decline.  For both my religion and my politics come from the same place, my heart, guided by a moral code that I am in constant refinement of.  My religion and my politics can’t be separate because at the root of both of them is an uncontrollable impulse to stand for every person’s basic human rights, to help my community to grow and be prosperous and fair for everyone, to defend the most vulnerable and abused in our society, to create a culture of equity and a clean and healthy planet for the coming generations.   Our morality is not handed down to us from our churches and it’s not prescribed to us by our governments, it is ours,  a precious part of our humanity that must continually be nurtured and grown, educated and socialized, and refined and enlightened if we are to create a lasting society worthy of our vast potential.