“The war is manifest right here where I am” (Response to The Hour of Sunlight from George Wilkerson on NC’s death row)

(Some more thoughts from my friend George Wilkerson–this time responding to having read “The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker,” the book I wrote with, and about, Sami Al Jundi.)

(Intro)

I just finished reading your book and answering those questions (below.) Fuck—it’s a game-changer. For real. It’s going to take me some time to pull it all together, but your book has impacted me in a profound way, and there’s a storm of ideas and emotions banging inside me. It brought some deep-rooted ideas to the surface of me, helped me articulate them. In many ways, watching Sami’s transformation was me watching my own. It would take a book more more to express the similarities.

The underlying principles of conflict and conflict resolution are formulaic and can wear the clothes of racism, sexism, classism, etc. I believe anyone involved in activism ought to read it. It perfectly describes conflict through the lens of a Palestinian embedded in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Admittedly, most people involved in conflict never see past the surface issue of racism, sexism, etc—but Dr. King and Gandhi did. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to share it with others here and recommend it to everyone I know involved in social activism.

book coverI knew next to nothing about the situation over there, but now I feel conversant. Seldom has any on book impacted me so deeply, inspired me, enlightened me, educated me, humbled me. There is a treasure trove of experience and philosophical achievements contained in your book.

[…] I understand the war is manifest right here where I am (where each of us is, in fact) and I actively fight it. Not only do I try to demonstrate the love of God to those around me, but I also try to take it to the next level and participate in large-scale activism projects.

Q: Were there any experiences that Sami had growing up as a Palestinian boy living under Israeli occupation that felt familiar to you, or that you could relate to?

A: This is such as complex question—or rather, requires a complex answer. To be honest, I identify with Sami on so many levels as a human being struggling to make sense of the world around me. Culturally, we are very different. The unique reality of being Palestinian living under Israeli occupation disconnects most of the world from relating, though our common humanity allows me to relate to his emotions; what caused his and mine differ, but the effect was the same.

Rather than give a detailed list of similarities and differences that link he and I (or divide us), I would like instead to highlight one example, distill it to a principle, then show the universal applicability to each of our lives as members of the human race.

On page 2, paragraph 2, Sami describes “…joining a line of [vehicles] heading west (off road); creeping around rocks and trees on a path in the Hebron Hills that scarcely existed, all of them filled with Palestinians going to work inside the green line, none of whom had permits from the Israeli army to be there…They did this to bypass the checkpoint. It was illegal, according to Israeli law, and it was dangerous, but what choice did we have? We had the right to work and feed our families.”

I point this out because, ultimately, we’re all just trying to survive and “feed our families.” This value becomes the superceding law. He claims it as a “right”—but where do rights come from? Are they inherent, or granted by authorities? My argument isn’t about whether his claim is valid or not. It’s about the consequences of the idea of rights.

If I believe I have a right, it will shape my emotions and behaviors and thoughts, most especially if it’s violated, or if an obstacle stands in the way. Laws are secondary. Rights violations are at the heart of conflict…or desire is: one person wants one thing, one person wants another, so they fight. Who actually has the right is debatable, and depends on which moral framework (religion/secularism, etc) and laws one uses. It’s tempting to pick a side.

Here’s an example: Let’s say America passed a law saying it was okay to rape women and children. Would that be okay? Why not? For those who wish to justify their behavior of doing or desiring those things, they will claim they have the right—according to law. For those who wish to argue/protest it will cite laws they believe supercede it. They may even fight/kill each other, believing they’re right.

As a Christian, I accept the values of God. By doing so, He establishes my framework for reality, my morals, my rights, defines right/wrong, etc. But someone from another faith may have opposing morals, values, etc. It is powerful! Ideas (ideology) has tremendous consequences. My “life of crime” flowed from doing what I felt I needed to do to survive. I’ve done a lot of things which are considered illegal according to American law. Even now, I break prison rules because I obey a higher moral law. For example, we aren’t supposed to give other prisoners anything, but I give (and receive) anyway because I can’t stand to see someone go hungry.

Q: Was there any character that reminded you of yourself in any way?

A: Every character in the book mirrored me in some way, i.e., I saw myself in them. The beautiful and the ugly.

Q: What were your responses to Sami’s prison experience? What, if any, aspects felt connected to your own experience in prison? What did not?

A: I sympathized with him, and felt compassion toward him, especially when they were being “interrogated” and abused. Other than that extreme abuse, our prison experiences were nearly identical: the guards, the medical, the food, the divisions.

Q: Sami describes the system of organization that Palestinian political prisoners built: the education system, the self-governance system, the way older prisoners nurtured the growth of younger prisoners. Is this something that happens in U.S. prisons?

A: I can’t speak for U.S. prisons as a whole, because I don’t know. I only know about this prison I’m at. The way Sami described it wouldn’t work here. The Administration would squash it immediately. Sami and his group were political prisoners. They shared a common goal. Over here, we aren’t political prisoners, and there are any number of cliques, gangs, faiths, etc—all with their own goals/values. The Administration would label such a group as a “Security Threat Gang,” and put everyone in isolation.

However, we do have an informal way of applying that same principle of education. The guys who share similar values converse, meet together on the rec yard, eat together, share/discuss reading material, attend the same classes.

The “governance system” is called “the convict code.” As an ideology, it’s distorted and only promotes crime, the suppression of justice, and violence—yet many live by it, even above their religious system.

I relate to Sami’s personal growth, too. I’ve followed the group and then saw its flaws, hypocrisy, betrayals, and so on. I too found a higher way. I too see the foolishness of hate and violence. As a Christian, I’ve come to understand God’s way is straightforward: It’s all about love.  “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.” “God is love.” “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” It doesn’t matter what we do, in terms of “good deeds”—if they aren’t done from a heart of love, they count for nothing. “Love is kind and patient. It doesn’t envy or boast, and isn’t proud. It isn’t rude or self-seeking, nor easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs (forgives). It doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices with the Truth…” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Being here, I’ve come to learn there are many things that divide humans: race, culture, sex, age, greed, pride, etc. First, I must have the courage to see, then to feel, then to act. It’s about building relationships. If I can’t build relationships on a one-to-one level, lasting relationships that cross the divides, how can I hope to bring peace between two cultures? It begins on a granular level of two people. If we can figure out how to build solid, lasting relationships on that level, then we can work our way up.

Q: Is there anything else about Sami’s prison experience that would be interesting or important for prisoners here in the U.S. to think about, study, engage with?

A: The one thing that was striking was their solidarity and how powerful it was. You know this already, but I never thought of it til I read it in your book: there’s a distinction between “unity” and “solidarity.” I believe solidarity subsumes unity as a necessary component, but it also connotes action, bearing responsibilities in an effort to reach goals. They emphasized learning about their history, and the history of others who were oppressed, how they handled it, etc. They operated from a common knowledge base, which strengthened their unity. The more we have in common, the more each member cares for the common good. They willingly suffered and bled together. I believe your book is the perfect entry point for anyone who wishes to understand the philosophical (ideological) and practical mechanics of a revolution. It touches on every aspect and gives a point of reference for those interested in exploring individual acts deeply; it gives a sort of overview. It speaks honestly about the hopes, dreams, obstacles, betrayals, and so on, even about the corruption. The book is worth of study or being part of a curriculum about the topic —I’d consider it mandatory reading. I’ll bet if Sami would’ve had this book when he first entered prison, it would’ve changed the pace of his education and transformation.

Q: The lack of indictments in the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (and more) and have sparked protests and resistance which some have called a renewed civil rights movement. Does this struggle in the U.S. have similarities to Sami’s struggle?

A: One thing you’ll notice about me, is that I try to look for the deeper issue. On the surface, what’s going on over here has no real connection/parallel to Sami’s struggle, because the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is uniquely complex: just about everything that can divide people are dividing them. I am not politically correct, and know it, so I’m careful about how I speak about the situation here—it’s so sensitive and volatile. What I’ll do is look for the deeper issue. I’ve mentioned we’re in a war, one in which people like you and I are fighters. I understand it as spiritual, but it can be explained in secular terms. Racism, classism, etc—all these represent hate, and are obstacles to peace. They are all symptoms of a deeper sickness. These things divide humanity itself. It’s not a problem between unarmed black men and cops; it’s not a problem between Palestinians and Israelis; it’s not a problem between rich and poor, male and female, religion and religion, gay and straight, prisoner and society, gang and gang, white and black. Those are all symptoms of the same problem. It boils down to a lack of love, a focus on one’s own interests…at the cost of others’. The war is between love and unlove; I say it like that because hatred, indifference, ignorance, all are enemies to love. Without love, true agape love, there can never be peace. There will only be appeasement. No doubt, reaching a truce is better than actively being at war, but human nature always gets in the way. Greed and pride, lust for power. We put band-aids on cancer. Band-aids are temporary, superficial solutions.

 

 

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