Until two years ago, I didn't realize I was a person of privilege. To my mind, that meant country clubs and expensive cars and a glamorous lifestyle. I have never been that, nor would I want to.
What I had instead was a childhood as the daughter of a military officer. A university education. Not one day without enough to eat or a place to sleep. Enough money to pay the bills even when I was the single mother of two boys and without work for a few months. A job with good benefits and a decent retirement income.
I never thought much about it. I knew there were problems of discrimination and poverty and multiple other human difficulties in the United States and the rest of the world. I sympathized with all those affected by such things. I donated money to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders and Habitat for Humanity and for several years sent money each month to some Children's Fund to support a child in an impoverished part of the world.
Two years ago I was having dinner with six other women in Chautauqua, New York. We were discussing privilege, and I finally got it. I said, "I am just now realizing I am privileged." There was silence around the table and then one woman, Denny, said, "I commend you for your courage in acknowledging that around this table, to women you have just met."
A month later I made my first trip to Greece, to volunteer for six days in a refugee camp (I had planned this trip before I went to Chautauqua). I bought my ticket with frequent flyer miles. I was the oldest volunteer and lacked the stamina of the younger ones. I spent several hours each day in the air conditioned container that was the staff office. Fortunately, the director found me useful working with her. The other volunteers worked in the sweltering warehouse, distributing food and clothing to refugees.
Two months later I went back, this time for two weeks. And last year, I returned two more times, for a month each time. On my last two visits, I did two-week stints as vacation relief for the camp director. I took my husband with me, and we paid for our tickets from a travel savings account.
On these journeys to the camp, there was not one day when I didn't have enough to eat or a place to sleep. I shared a bathroom with eight other people, but had a hot shower each day. And wonderful food in the nearby village. And, sometimes, gelato.
I know now that we are all the same, no matter where we live or what kind of roof - or none - is over our heads when we sleep. Or where we were born, or how we worship - or not. I knew it not because I had read about it or watched it on the media, but because I had sat with refugee residents of the camp, and volunteers from around the world, and local Greek citizens. We are all the same. Really.
I belong to a progressive spiritual community. On Memorial Day this week some of our members participated in The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival". This movement was initiated by Dr. William Barber- whom I had heard speak at Chautauqua - using Martin Luther King's work as a model. The Poor People's Campaign is led by people of color, with support by others. So Monday, we were led by two people of color in Olympia, but the 16 people who sat in the intersections were white and mostly middle aged or older. The theme for this week is "The War Economy", and talks were given on the steps of the capitol about the cost of US defense - in money and in lives - and on gun violence. I was a "peace keeper" and wore a yellow vest. My job was to protect the protesters if agitators were present.
From the beginning of the event, the police watched us - some on bicycles, others in vehicles with flashing lights. We marched, chanting and singing. We took over four consecutive intersections in Olympia while the police positioned themselves strategically to manage and divert traffic. The leaders wanted some of us to be arrested for civil disobedience, but that did not happen in the first three intersections. We finally surrounded a police car in the intersection just before freeway onramps to north I-5 (Seattle) and south I-5 (Portland). At one time there were 19 police vehicles with lights flashing.
And the protesters sat for over two hours before they were finally arrested. Remember, there were no people of color on the ground. Just older white people.
Here's what the Reverend Cecilia Kingman said last night:
I can’t sleep tonight. I can’t stop thinking about Sandra Bland. I can’t stop thinking about white privilege.
Today I led an action of civil disobedience in which we blocked a freeway on ramp, and then surrounded a police vehicle (which we then realized was the vehicle belonging to the Captain of the Washington State Patrol). In spite of our disruptive actions, police took hours to arrest us, gave us multiple warnings, and were polite and warm. They even asked if we needed to use the bathroom, and asked if we were comfortable.
They asked me how I wanted the arrests to go. Seriously! They did everything but offer us a cup of coffee.
Sandra Bland, SAY HER NAME, was pulled over for failure to use her turn signal, and died three days later in her jail cell. Her turn signal!
I was utterly drenched in my white privilege today. I could hardly get arrested, the cops were so reluctant. Hey y’all, if a bunch of young people of color had done what we did today, they would have been dragged by their hair. Or worse.
I’m sick to my stomach tonight.
I can’t wait for my court date.
Even better, I can’t wait to get back in the streets, ready to do whatever our leaders of color ask of me.
And on the same day, in Oinofyta, Greece, refugees blocked the road in front of the camp, which reopened in March with inadequate living conditions. Here's what Lisa Campbell, Do Your Part's Executive Director and now my friend, had to say:
Tensions at the Oinofyta camp have finally come to a head. The residents are blocking the road, demanding to speak with journalists and refusing to move until they have told their story.
Please share this to raise awareness.
Please share this to raise awareness.
UPDATE: representatives from the ministry of migration came. They told the residents they would not speak with them until they open the road. So the road is now open and a small group of residents is speaking with the representatives. The residents have said that if they are not satisfied with the negotiations they will close the national road next.
UPDATE 2: Conversations were had with the ministry officials to air the residents complaints and requests. The main request is for the most vulnerable to be removed to housing. Promises were made. Things have calmed down, for now. We will see. I hope this is the beginning of a major improvement in the situation in the camp.
When we left Olympia on Monday at 9:30 pm - after the 16 protesters had been arrested and then released immediately, my feet and legs were very tired and sore. When I got home I took a hot shower and slept in my own bed. The next morning I mediated a session in small claims court, then came home and took a warm bath and a nap.
Drenched in privilege. That would be me.