I knew that things would be pretty crazy when the organizer of the Oak Creek vigil called my home phone at 6:00 last evening and asked me, with a somewhat frantic tone in her voice, when the Overpass Light Brigade would be arriving. I had engaged a few brief phone calls with her the day before, when I proposed our participation, but hadn't heard from her since. We cleared our message with members of the Sikh community, and I assumed we would be arriving around 8:00, as we had discussed. "Can you get here right away? This is going to be ginormous, and we need all the help we can get!" We got rolling.
We packed up the Subaru and rushed on down to Milwaukee's farthest southern suburb. We passed the Sikh Gurdwara (temple) and noted that it was totally closed off by multiple police units, including Homeland Security. It is a new and lovely structure, built in 2007, with four doors facing four directions always open to all people. It will remain that way, even after such a devastating attack.
A bit farther south was City Hall. The area was absolutely packed with people. Thousands, with more streaming in by the minute. Police from multiple townships were everywhere. Hundred of them. I drove passed a barricade, and a policeman hailed me. "You can't go in there!" he said, but when I told him we were with the event, he already knew my full name, and hailed us through. We were debriefed by our contacts, told where to set up the message of the night, and I went to unpack the lights.
The other evening, we took out the message WISCONSIN WEEPS to try to express our collective sadness at this senseless blind stupid violence. Last night, we chose PRACTICE PEACE, with the idea that peace needs to be understood as an active state, not merely the absence of violence. It is a discipline and a way of life, and needs to be practiced daily. Peace is not passive. This seemed a good choice, and our Sikh liaison loved it as it fit into their religious ideals.
The letters were handed out, and our holders were lining them up. I was disconcerted when someone said in a perplexed voice, "Hey, what's up? Are we using the British spelling?" (Huh?) I looked and my heart dropped. In our haste, we had packed the wrong letters! PRACTISE! "Oh, shit!" I thought, looking at the national media already lining up to get some pictures. Shell, holding the lighted letter, looked down and was saying to herself "Why do I have an "S?" Randy (running for State Assembly, btw) had just pointed out the problem to me. We sprang into action and did a quick "field fix" which worked pretty well, turning the "S" into a bit of a crunchy "C." (Thanks, Makita, you beautiful little hand-drill, you! And thank you, as well, little roll of electrical tape! You both will always be part of our practise... err... practice!)
Thousands of people were streaming in. We were given white headscarves to wear out of respect for Sikh custom. We were asked to move over to the stage, and I was surprised when we were invited onto the stage. The Holders of the Lights had no easy task that night, standing for two hours in minimal space, the eyes of thousands upon them. Politicians were acknowledged: Senator Herb Kohl, Mayor Tom Barrett, Governor Scott Walker, Representative Paul Ryan among many other important local dignitaries. We found rich irony to be onstage standing behind Scott Walker while he addressed the crowd. Everyone was extremely respectful.
The Indian Ambassador to the United States gave a powerful talk about diversity in India, and the importance of Sikh culture. One Sikh speaker expressed a powerful aphorism of their religion: Fear no one, Frighten no one and expanded on that in the context of the shootings. The most moving part of the ceremony was the reading of biographies of the six slain Sikhs: a devoted mother who worked so hard for the education of her boys, a young father who had just put a downpayment on an apartment so that he and his small family could move in together, an older man who was expected to travel to the Punjab in order to attend his granddaughter's wedding, a man devoted to the temple who cut the grass and trimmed the hedges and then went in to teach classes and help serve the community meals. Images of the slain were held aloft as their narratives unrolled, their lives unravelled. We wept.
At the end of the ceremony we took the signs and lined up where the people were leaving. PRACTICE PEACE. I'm proud of what OLB is, of what it has become. We've given visibility to many people by putting words into light. Folks from all over the world visit our Facebook page, and our WISCONSIN WEEPS went viral, even appearing last night on NBC's coverage of the Olympics. Light and lightness in dark and darkening times. Our loose group of volunteers is amazing. They stood there for two hours without complaint, an integral part of this national ceremony of healing. This was a complicated event in all aspects - culturally, emotionally, spiritually and logistically. There was a lot of very quick, and quickly changing behind-the-scenes negotiations to be sure that our presence complied with and complemented the Sikh community's needs and desires. We occupy bridges. Last night the bridges were metaphoric.
As we were packing up and just sitting around talking, the young Sikh man in charge of the whole event came over and thanked us. He spoke from the bottom of his heart and said that the lighted messages will be considered by thousands the world over, and fit with his religion's focus on peace, equality and forgiveness. There has not been one suggestion of violence, revenge or retaliation from the attacked Sikh community. Plenty of hurt to go around, certainly - bewilderment, pain, sadness, loss - but no retribution. I've never seen a more noble and dignified and spiritually grounded collective response in context of such deplorable inhumanity. From the bottom of my heart, we have been strengthened by their great strength.