Seeing "the other" clearly in sacred protest space

In Israel and Palestine, where I lived from December 2018 - March 2020, there is a wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank. The wall is unsurpassable for many. As an American on a work visa, I lived in Israel and commuted to work in Palestine — crossing a military checkpoint daily. On either side was a different world. If I spent longer than a week on either side, I saw my mind adopting the familiar narratives of wherever I was, driving fear and anger at “the other” just kilometers away.

I was fortunate to have good friends on both sides of the political border, friends in whose company and love I could take refuge simply by jumping on a bus for 45 minutes. Intimacy begets love: I never could hold onto my anger for long when I could bear witness to the other in their fullness. My heart held in its depths the possibility to break open in love again and again. The practice was to step into intimacy and to not get caught in the illusion of separation.

Now I have returned home to family near San Francisco, California, in the United States, on land which was once home to Ohlone and Bay Miwok tribes, later Spanish settlers, and now this gathering of Americans. I am here as a non-Black person of color, a Japanese-Chinese American with light-skin privilege. Here I do not fear the police as I did the soldiers abroad. I do not fear them invading my home, assaulting my brothers, or suffocating me on the street.

Here in this time of invisible injustice becoming visible, I see again the truth of intimacy: I cannot hate “the other” if I see the suffering on their heart. I cannot hate the police officer and I cannot hate the Black person. It is the manifestation of Thay’s words: to understand is to love.

“The other” is not always the enemy on the other side of an uncrossable border. The other is anyone or any piece within me that I perceive as separate from myself. To step away from the confusion of “othering” is to meet the other on common ground, and to have the patience and stillness within me to include them in my understanding of myself.

Three Sundays ago I found this common ground on the streets of San Francisco, sitting in sacred protest with friends, neighbors, and strangers in front of City Hall. I was there as part of a movement called ‘Sit.Walk.Listen’, a gathering of 100+ friends and strangers coming together to grieve the black lives lost to police violence, to process our own roles in perpetuating systems of oppression, and to understand the suffering of “the other” as a way of cultivating love.

To understand is to hear the fear in the father’s heart for his black sons. It is to see the tentative hope on the faces of a listening circle committed to doing the hard work. It is to meet the truth of the other and to let it transform me, allowing the walls in my heart to crumble, to arise in their place compassion and tenderness.

That first Sunday was imagined by my sangha sibling Ivan and actualized by a team of Wake Up San Francisco friends emerging as facilitators, caretakers, and medics. Since then, our collective energy has manifested in what is now a weekly demonstration at City Hall and other public spaces, each including 45 minutes of sitting, 30 minutes of walking, and an hour of listening and sharing. Each week, we offer something fresh: a poem by Dzung Vo, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou; a “Hungry Ghost” ceremony; an altar with flowers, fruits, and drink.

Today, I write as a lead co-organizer of Sit.Walk.Listen and as a human being, mourning the separation within us that manifests in anti-blackness, oppression, and hatred. Part of me is ashamed to touch into my own suffering, all the parts of me that do not feel welcome in this world. I am afraid of the white fragility in my light-skinned body, my tears drying at the first sign of sun. Yet I do not want to turn away from my tears, for my tears are the gateway to my love, and my love has the power to transform the world.

I sit, walk, and listen knowing the potential of every stranger to irrevocably change me, to arise in me the compassion and wisdom required for long-term sustainable action. I sit, walk, and listen knowing that I am not separate from the stranger across from me, that his fears for his sons may one day become my own, that her optimism is now blooming in my heart.

I code-switched in Israel and Palestine because I did not feel safe in my truth. In Palestine, I could not reveal I had Israeli friends for fear I would be cast out as a traitor; in Israel, I feared government surveillance and reprisal.

Here in the place of my birth, I do not fear my truth. I am a non-Black person of Japanese and Chinese descent whose ancestors benefited from the Black struggle for justice. I am an often genderless body that has benefited from the queer struggle for justice. I do not walk in my relative truth alone, for my lived experience — and the privilege and lack thereof in my multiplicity of identities — is intricately connected to the story of the many peoples on this land. I belong to these people, to this land. Their struggle is mine, and I cannot turn away.

When I see clearly the nature of interbeing, the illusion of separation dissolves. My anger becomes the fire driving my call to justice. My tears become the rain, nourishing my commitment to peace and to collective awakening.

Dear reader, I end this essay with a poem for you:

And so I say to you, the stranger I do not yet know:
Let us continue to meet in this sacred space of protest,
crumbling the walls of separation keeping us
from seeing the clear intertwining of our roots,
the gentle song you sing carried by the wind to
the garden in which I tend my red maple tree.
Your voice is arising as the purest sound of love.
6/14 Sit.Walk.Listen at City Hall in San Francisco