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Pancho Ramos Stierle: Nonviolence Is Radical

An interview with the activist who made headlines when he was arrested while meditating at Occupy Oakland.

Pancho Ramos Stierle, painting by Ly Vũ Hoàng

Pancho Ramos was arrested while meditating when police raided the Occupy Oakland encampment in November 2011.

Painter Ly Vũ Hoàng based her work on press photos of the arrest. Painting used by permission of the artist.

 

Occupy Oakland has been at the forefront of some of Occupy’s most visible actions—a massive general strike on November 2, a shutdown of the Port of Oakland, and attempts to occupy vacant buildings. And it’s become known for the brutality of police actions, especially the case of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, who was hit by a tear-gas canister fired by police and suffered a severe head injury.

It has also been the center of much controversy over tactics—especially the tactics of the Black Bloc. These tactics are turning the San Francisco Bay area public against the Occupy movement, according to a report in the East Bay Express. Anonymous recently accused Black Bloc members of being misguided, harmful, and perhaps agent provocateurs, and threatened those involved in vandalism in a video posted on YouTube: “Consider this an act of diplomacy before we start doxing your asses all over the Internet and paying special attention to personally ruining your lives."

We turned to Pancho Ramos Stierle for some insights into the question of Occupy tactics. Pancho was arrested Nov. 14 2011, during the police raid on Occupy Oakland, while meditating. Pancho came to the United States from Mexico to study astrophysics in the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, but left the program out of opposition to the university’s research related to nuclear weapons development.

We talked to him about police violence in Oakland, his own arrest, deportations, and, especially, his insights into the controversies over tactics in the Occupy movement.


Sarah van Gelder: Could you tell the story of what happened the night that the Oakland site was raided by the police and you were arrested?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: Since the Occupy movement started, we’ve been seeing the Oakland police escalating their violence.

The first raid happened early in the morning, and the city of Oakland spent $2 million on rubber bullets, tear gas, and helicopters to repress people who were peacefully gathering. In the same two days not one or two but five elementary schools were closed. Today, you can see an elementary school that has been converted into a police station here in Oakland.

I’m telling you this to set the tone for what happened the day we were arrested.

Sometimes the most radical thing to do in a polluted violence-based system, is to be still. The mud settles to the bottom and we then have a clearer vision about our next steps.

We knew the city of Oakland was bringing police from all around and they were staying in the Coliseum, which is one mile from here.

So we said, okay, if they want to escalate their violence, how do we escalate our nonviolence? On the night before the raid, we heard the helicopters and the hundreds of police that were descending on the Oakland downtown. So at 3:30 a.m., we bicycled to the Ogawa-Grant Plaza. We wanted to set a tone of positive energy and also to claim the space.

We'd been meditating and doing yoga in public parks for the last eight months because we want to let people know that these spaces are our spaces. We want to bring calmness and a different energy.

So if you have the riot police coming with tear gas and pepper spray and all their weapons, we have a more powerful weapon, courage and stillness—it's kindness, it's compassion, it's generosity, it's the small things, but when you add them up that makes a pretty strong army.

So we sat in receptive silence from 3:30 a.m. to the time when we were arrested around 6 a.m.

Sarah van Gelder: So what happened during the actual arrest?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: On Mondays we practice silence, and the police officer who arrested us thought that we were deaf because we were not speaking. So he got a notebook and a pen. It was very considerate of him, and I could feel his energy shift a little, and so when he gave me the notebook I wrote, "On Mondays, I practice silence, but I would like you to hear that I love you."

When he read that, he had this big smile and looked me in the eye and he said, "Thank you. But, well, if you don't move, you're going to be arrested. Are you moving or not?"

So I wrote back, "I am meditating." He said, "OK, arrest them one by one."

That was one of my favorite moments from the whole ordeal.

Dear 1% Sign photo by Bluelaces
This Changes Everything: How the 99% Woke Up
Introducing the movement that’s shifting our vision of what kind of world is possible—from the new book, “This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.”

Sarah van Gelder: Who else was sitting with you?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: My housemate Adelaja. We are also now on a mission to bring together people with different skin colors. He's a six foot five beautiful brother with black skin, and I have brown skin, and we have another brother here with white skin, so we're trying to be together. 

Sarah van Gelder: Tell me about your experience in prison. Were you able to keep your nonviolent witness going while you were behind bars?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: Before being in jail, it was hard for me to understand what Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi meant when they said that prisons are the temples of freedom. It's clear that they can do many things to your body and try to oppress you and use psychological violence. But there's something so strong inside each of us, the human spirit, that they can not reach. They can put you in shackles and cold cement cells, and feed you horrible food, and put you in solitary confinement, but there's no way that they can reach the human spirit.

That was powerful—to find once again that that part is sacred. I think that was the only thing that kept me sane and healthy in that very dehumanizing environment.

That's what I would like to share with people—that it is time for the spiritual people to get active and the activist people to get spiritual so that we can have total revolution of the human spirit. Because we have the idea that the self-indulgent people are just meditating—they are going to caves and meditation centers while all this madness is happening, or you have people at these meditation center that are asking how can you bring peace and calm and harmony to the world if you do not have that in your heart?

I think that we need both now, and that we need to combine this inner revolution with the outer revolution to have the total revolution of the spirit.

Then you can build the alternatives to a collapsing system built on structural violence.

I believe that nine out of ten actions must be creating the community that we want to live in—we're talking about permaculture, independent media, restorative justice, gift economies, free currencies, and preventive medicine. By doing all that, we make ourselves stronger.

If you are creating true alternatives to the collapsing, rotten system then you will naturally come into conflict with the power structure. Then the political action becomes necessary. So I think one out of ten actions should be obstructive—that is boycotts and protests and marches and nonviolent civil disobedience.

But when we cultivate inner awareness, it's easy to see that what we need to do is spend most of our time creating the communities that we want to live in.

Sarah van Gelder: Can you give me an example of how that plays out in movements for change?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: Gandhi showed us that the spinning wheel—part of the constructive program—was the center of the movement for the independence of the part of the planet we call India.

If you have the riot police coming with tear gas and pepper spray and all their weapons, we have a more powerful weapon: calmness and stillness.

At the time, the part of the planet we call India was selling cotton to the part of the planet we call England and buying back clothes. Gandhi figured out that if they started making their own clothes, then they could become self reliant, autonomous, and every single person could get plugged into this—women, men, elderly people, young people—social status really doesn't matter. So that created the foundation of a national movement.

And once they had the alternative, they had bonfires with British clothing, and he said every person needs to spend at least one hour a day in the chain of creating your own clothing.

Well now, a hundred years later, many of us believe that Gandhi’s spinning wheel of the 21st century is healthy and local food. Many of us believe healthy and local food is the foundation of social justice, and anyone can get plugged in, from compost to planting, watering the crops to going to the farmers market to cooking healthy food or just eating it or washing dishes anyone can spend an hour a day— men, women, doesn't matter social strata can get plugged into this chain.

Once we have that constructive program, when we're solid in that, we can confront the pollution- and violence-based system more effectively. But we also need an inner "spinning wheel," so we must spend a couple of hours each day in receptive silence—any silent spiritual practice that brings awareness and equanimity to our hearts and minds—and put the inner revolution and the outer revolution together. Then we will be more than ready to make a bonfire out of passports, visas, and the devastating genetically modified Monsanto seeds.

Sarah van Gelder: What do you say to Occupiers trying to negotiate differences in views about nonviolence?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: Stop negotiating and start embodying the principles you believe in.

Sometimes the most radical thing to do in a polluted violence-based system, is to be still. The mud settles to the bottom and we then have a clearer vision about our next steps—for example, facilitating the growth of the communities we want to live in or realizing that the most efficient tools against a system based on greed, fear, hurry, and violence, are generosity, courage, slowing-down, and loving-kindness.

When the puzzle gets complicated, I always remember: our means are our ends in the making.

To all occupiers and fellow satyagrahis I say: Liberate ourselves from the shackles of wage slavery. Liberate our minds and hearts from the oppression of colonialism. Let's occupy our beings with courage and loving-kindness.

Sarah van Gelder: What should people know about Occupy Oakland, which has been confronted with some of the most police violence in the U.S., but has also had groups engage in property damage?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: "Occupy Oakland" has been happening for many decades.

revolution is love still
The Revolution is Love

What’s love got to do with the Occupy movement?

Most of the people with black and brown skin have been surviving the historical pain of racism and oppression for generations. When you have "food deserts"—perhaps a better description is "food apartheids"—and "liquor store forests" in Oakland, what can we expect? When police kill young fathers with impunity—like Oscar Grant—and harass hard-working, honest people—like migrants; when gangsters terrorize the community with shootings; when the corporate media broadcasts fear as much as they can; when the city of Oakland converts an elementary school into a police station, is there a clearer picture that this system is flawed?

Violence is only a manifestation of a deep conflict. Violence is an expression of pain. It is a monologue offered by gangs, including the police—the most organized gang defending the interests of a few.

The Native American peoples have been saying for centuries, "Beware what's happening to us because it could happen to you." Well, now people of black, brown, and white skin are experiencing it. It is the 99 percent.

The tear gas canister that fractured the skull of brother Scott Olsen—an Iraq veteran with white skin—wasn't a random shot by a police officer targeting the body of the 24-year-old defiant veteran. It was a choice made by the state to impose, with violence, submission on movements that resist their decisions. A choice to threaten all of those who want to resist arrangements that suppress issues like meaningful livelihood, public health, security, housing, and public learning.

In these so called "democracies" of today, state sovereignty takes the police form. There are police operations against all kind of "enemies." In these operations, not only the social movements are criminalized, but also whole categories of citizens, entire communities, and even ethnic groups.

The ultimate healing will come when we all stop cooperating with the rotten system and when we start understanding that we are the 99 percent facilitating the healing of the 100 percent, one heart at a time.

If we disobey with compassion and love in our hearts and minds, if we spend 90 percent of our energy creating the alternatives of a just, free, and liberated world, we will discover the joy to rebel against an imposed fear. We will be free from modern poverty and its two kinds of slaves: the intoxicated—the prisoners to the addiction of consumption, and those who aspire to get intoxicated—the prisoners of envy. It will be clear that our misery isn't caused by the siblings in corporations or most of the police officers or the army, but by our obedience to a flawed rule.

We ourselves must be strengthened and changed, for we have to experience an inner independence even before the corporations, police states, and governments grant the outward one.

Sarah van Gelder: What comes next for you? You’ve been arrested and the fact that you are in the United States without documents has become very public. What will you do now?

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: I'm going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. We as citizens of the world don't need silly papers and visas and passports—these are things that are totally new in the human consciousness. We paint imaginary lines in the dirt, and we need to erase those soon. So it really doesn't matter if I am here or if I am in the part of the planet we call Mexico. We really need to step up as citizens of the world.

For example, right here in California the University of California is still involved in the development of nuclear weapons. So as citizens of the world we need to do everything within our reach to stop that madness.

When the puzzle gets complicated, I always remember: our means are our ends in the making.

You can not deport the Milky Way from the sky; you cannot deport the Sun. If they send me to another part of this planet, great! I'll keep working. What's going to happen if I'm in Oaxaca or Chiapas or somewhere else in the part of the planet we call Mexico, I have no idea, sister, but I know that I'm going to keep trying to bring this message that the Earth is but one country and all living beings its citizens.

When I was in the detention center, there were 42 people in a very tiny space — like two people per square meter. And I met this man, this dad who has been working for 15 years in construction in Oakland, and he has a nine year-old and a five year-old, and he was going to be deported because he didn't have documents. So when you look into the eyes of that brother or talk to his children, there's no way that you cannot do something. 

Sarah van Gelder: I was at your arraignment hearing in Oakland and I saw so many people there who loved you so much.

Pancho Ramos-Stierle: I'm happy you were able to witness—and you know what this is, sister Sarah? We are the early adopters of a revolution of values, and we are the evidence that the totalitarianism of corporate capitalism—the machine that has devastated the planet and human beings—we are the demonstration that system doesn't work and that we need a new system.

Our movement is trying to give birth and move from scarcity to abundance, from transaction to trust, from consumption to contribution, from isolation to community, from perfection to wholeness, from terror to fearlessness, from violence to courage and respect and love, and this is the key.

The emergence of the new paradigm and our victory is not putting people in power but power in people.


Sarah van Gelder newSarah van Gelder interviewed Panch Ramos Stierle for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is YES! Magazine's co-founder and executive editor, and editor of the new book: "This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement."

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Learn more of Pancho Ramos-Stierle’s story here

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