Why do we protest?


Protest.  All it means is to disapprove or object to something.  Yet the word carries so much baggage, it seems downright inflammatory sometimes.  I served on a local panel of women who had attended the Women’s March in Washington in January.  The moderator asked if anyone had any concerns now that they were back home again.  One woman spoke up with considerable energy about how the media had characterized those who marched as “protesters.”  No, she insisted, we weren’t protesters.  We weren’t angry.  We were peaceful.  We had a positive message. Several others on the panel strongly agreed.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Queen Gertrude says in Hamlet.  This woman’s protest of protest brings us right to the core issue: many Americans are afraid to express their disapproval or objection to what their leaders do or say.

Europeans have been quicker to pour a million or more citizens into their streets when their leaders misuse their power, but we Americans relish a sort of exceptionalism about ourselves.  Let’s be polite and patient, and perhaps the leaders of our storybook democracy will save us in the end.

Whatever we call this exercise in free speech, all of the women on the panel had been drawn to travel across three states to speak out plainly in our nation’s capital on the side of justice.  It was something to celebrate.

My activist group, People for Peace & Justice Sandusky County, has been protesting war and social injustice at a downtown Fremont corner every week since 2007.  Friends sometimes ask me why we do this thing that seems so futile.  What can it accomplish?

My favorite answer is that we are telling passers-by that it is legitimate to dissent.  Each of us has a right to decide whether or not to consent to the dominant political ideology. Members of the public are not unanimous in their views.  We hope we can give passers-by the courage of their convictions, and at the same time find our own.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Toledo Faith and Values that attempted to express all of this.  I offer it, slightly updated, below.

Shattering the Unanimity of Consent

Josie Setzler | Original version published by Toledo Faith and Values | Sep 4, 2012

There can be great urgency in protest’s seeming futility.  Pietro Spina, the hero of the novel, Bread and Wine, felt that urgency.  Pietro does just one thing during a time of war; he goes out in the night and writes the word NO on the town walls. Writer Robert Ellsberg comments, “If nothing else, his deed shatters the ‘unanimity of consent’; it allows people to envision the subversive possibility of an alternative reality.”

Saying no feels plenty futile.  I’m one of the Sandusky County residents who gather at a busy downtown corner in Fremont every week to say no to war.  We’ve done this for some nine years now and we don’t expect the world will give us an excuse to stop anytime soon.  Nonetheless I feel the urgency of saying no.

The “unanimity of consent” pervades and supports the comforts of my daily life that have been bought with the application of immense US military might.   It’s convenient to turn a blind eye to the suffering caused elsewhere, and life’s daily busy-ness serves well to distract us.  It seems as if every week the news gives us another story of innocents killed, drones hovering menacingly over houses in tiny villages, men tortured, people incarcerated without charge, our own citizens surveilled, but then the stories pass into oblivion.  And my life goes on as always, just like the lives of all the drivers passing by me at the corner of State and Front.

I’m complicit until I find a way to say no, to break the unanimity of consent.  In small ways, consent starts to break up once someone says no.  Long-time Chicago peace activist Kathy Kelly tells us we need to “catch courage” from each other.  I’ve found the process is mutual for motorists and protesters alike.  My husband Denny holds the sign that lets people make their own statement.  “Honk 4 Peace,” it proclaims boldly.  He pumps the sign up and down strategically as the light turns, and the honking begins.  The honks crescendo beautifully and our spirits soar.  Some folks whose horns don’t work gesture in frustration at Denny.  He grins and tells them to turn on their windshield wipers.  They are delighted to comply, and we laugh in solidarity.

I admit there’s something foolish about facing traffic with a sign announcing my wisdom in just a half dozen words.  I remember a conversation with my friend Jude who called our signs ineffective, because “you don’t have room to make an argument on a sign.”  With a master’s degree in theology, Jude figured a statement is a thesis that needs arguments to defend it.   I knew I liked to argue with the best of them, but the vigils gave me something else.  “Jude, just making the statement is the whole point,” I told her.  “It’s about finding the courage of our convictions.”  People fear they’re not allowed to dissent, let alone express that dissent.  They see someone they know standing on a street corner in their own hometown expressing what they know deep in their own hearts, and they are surprised.  The protester finds the courage of her convictions in the hopes that passers-by might discover that same courage in themselves.

Yes, there are the occasional obscene gestures and angry shouts.  My friends at a longstanding vigil in Tiffin actually got mooned once by a passing motorist.  We’ve learned that we are not there to change the minds of people who disagree with us.  We are aiming instead for the hearts of those who wonder about these things.

Don’t judge your action by its prospect for success, long-time peace activist Father Daniel Berrigan told his Toledo audience back in 2002 as he spoke about activism in the run up to the Iraq War. An audience member asked him why our religious leaders were not speaking out at the time. “You can’t wait for them,” he told us. “It’s up to you.  Do it.  Get going.”

Speaking out is the job of each of us.  That much we can do right now.  Fellow protester Tom Younker tells me as we wave at passing motorists, “I stand here now, because I didn’t do it when the Vietnam War was raging.”  He senses it is not too late, and so we’ll be out there with him again next week.  We welcome others to stand with us wherever they might be.

–Josie Setzler | March 24, 2017


springtime in the desert

My daughter’s poem.


City Sister & Mountain Mama


the desert in utah
fills with wildflowers in may

prickly pears
all blooming in
cadences of color
dancing in the
spring wind
i wake to the sound of
birds in green mulberry trees, singing
in delight to
see the sun
there are layers of life
so apparent in
sandstone mountains
salty, smooth but jagged

inside, i stand atop the misty canyon
at peace with
all the questions and scars
all the layers of my self

because valleys fill
and empty
over and over

grow wildflowers from
salty, sandy dust

sing songs in gratitude
to see the seasons
change as they do

it seems that
beauty can thrive in the most
unlikely of places



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Stop US weapon sales to Saudi Arabia

Project Peace

Josie made a plea to each of us today:
Now’s a good time to take a small action on behalf of peace.  We urge you to call your senators and ask them to block the State Dept.’s latest decision to sell even more weapons to Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen.  US weapons have killed many innocent Yemeni people in hospitals, schools, and more. (See NYT editorial below.)

Congress has the power to block this sale. They have 25 more days to do so by law.   Here’s a link from Codepink that will explain the issue and make it easy for you to take action:

Phone calls will draw even more attention to the issue**:

Senator Sherrod Brown 202-224-2315

Senator Rob Portman 202-224-3353

**I have these numbers stored in my cell phone so it’s easier for me to overcome my inertia and make a call!

Democrat Sen…

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Life’s just one long improv gig

Andrew and ducks 2

A friend of mine who does improvisational theater and comedy loves to regale us on Facebook with impromptu stories from his travels.  You thought being stuck on the tarmac for hours in an overcrowded airplane is excruciatingly painful?  So does Justin, so how does he manage to make a hilarious performance out of a cell phone conversation he overhears from the woman across the aisle?  You and I wake up in the night and stumble to the bathroom.  Justin tries this in Nigeria and suddenly an African-sized spider waiting for him in the darkness turns into a full-blown comedy skit.  After his latest Facebook episode I finally had to leave a comment.  “Justin,” I exclaimed, “your life is one long improv gig!”  His reply came as a surprise:  “Josie, isn’t that what life is for everyone??”

Now I really had to laugh!  Do you mean each one of us is improvising our lives every inch of the way?  If that’s true, I’m laughing out of relief.  I’ve spent most of my life convinced that there’s a big long script somewhere and I’ve forgotten the lines. There’s a right way to do things and there’s a right thing to say.  And I need to find them.  And someone has hidden the script!

Do you mean to tell me I am allowed to write my own lines?   That I can find my lines in the moment?  That if I stay present to everything the moment brings me, I’ll be ready to give back to the moment in the way that only I can give?

When I’ve watched improvisational theater, I’ve been awestruck at the actors’ agility.  They give back a striking and funny response to whatever their fellow actor throws their way.  How do they do it?  Sure, I’ll bet they are naturally funny, but I’m just as sure they are practicing a strict discipline.  I found a set of rules for improvisational theater and noted that the first 5 rules sounded spot on for daily living:

Fundamental Rules for Improv

  1. Listen: easier said than done, and that’s exactly the point
  2. Agreement: say yes and add something, don’t reject ideas
  3. Team Work: have a group mind, think of others
  4. Don’t Block: stealing jokes / not listening / changing topic
  5. Relationship: focus on connection between characters, not just subject of scene

These rules sound familiar.  I’ve heard them in spirituality books and nonviolence training manuals.  In daily life, ‘improvisation’ might just be another word for mindfulness.  And as if to prove that the moment will give me just what I need, today I received  an email with a reflection on Christian mindfulness by Father Jim Bacik.

Bacik explores Thomas Merton’s interest in interfaith dialogue with Zen Buddhism.  He tells us that Thomas Merton “was convinced that western Christians could grow spiritually through dialogue with the Eastern religions.”  Among the Zen teachers he met was the Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn.

Hanh has advice for us:

  • concentrate your whole attention on whatever you are doing at the moment; wash a dish as if you were bathing the baby Buddha; practice mindful walking by being aware of your feet touching the ground and imagining a flower blooming in that spot;
  • be attentive to the holiness all around you, for example, the blue skies and the curious eyes of a child;
  • enjoy your work by staying relaxed and uniting yourself with the expenditure of energy;
  • be aware of your thoughts and feelings but do not judge them; consider the individuals you are actually with as the most important persons and making them happy your most important task;
  • concentrate on your breathing when meditating and when stressed because breathing unites our body and soul, helps us get hold of our feelings, and opens our heart to wisdom;

Merton offers a Christian perspective to enhance what we can learn about mindfulness from Zen practice.  Among the examples that Bacik shares are the following:

  • We should be attentive to each moment as a gift from God.
  • We can think of our ordinary daily routine as a way of practicing [St. Therese’s] Little Way of Charity.
  • Our work deserves our attention and best efforts because it is our way of cooperating with God in the ongoing creation of the world.
  • Our time spent with family, friends and colleagues takes on greater meaning when considered as opportunities to encounter the Holy Spirit present in all persons.
  • We can do a better job of attending to our thoughts and feelings without judging them if we remember that divine mercy has a fundamental priority over divine judgment.

That last point has special force for me.  What freedom there is when judgment morphs into mercy!  We can’t practice this by ruminating over past mistakes nor agonizing over future possibilities.  Just like a good improv performer, right here in the present moment is where we can best practice.  And as a Zen teacher once told me:  “We can begin again with the next breath!”


A people’s history erased, restored

Palestine 077972 Magazine posted an article last week about the civics textbook newly released by the Education Ministry in Israel. The text makes absolutely no mention of the military occupation of the West Bank.  This enormous political reality that violates international law and causes so much suffering to the Palestinian people is missing in action in Israeli school children’s history classes.

When a people’s history disappears, so does a piece of their humanity.  Their suffering becomes invisible and, in fact, so do they.  The oppressor doesn’t see the oppressed and so doesn’t see his or her own role in the oppression.  When Israeli children grow up and hear about unrest in Palestine, they will understand nothing of the historical context for that behavior and will have precious little to guide their political response.

When I traveled to the West Bank in 2013 with Project Peace, I observed the occupation firsthand.  The photo above shows the wall that surrounds most of Bethlehem.  The wall fascinated me because the Palestinians have made of it an enormous canvas .  While the Israelis erected walls that, in effect, made the Palestinians invisible, the Palestinians reclaimed this blank canvas to express their own reality and claim their human dignity.  They were famously successful when Pope Francis visited Bethlehem in 2014 and prayed by the wall.Pope Francis visits Israel's separation barrier in Bethlehem

Another people’s history: MLK and the Vietnamese peasants 

Today on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m thinking about King’s efforts in the last year of his life to call attention to the history and experience of another oppressed people, the Vietnamese peasants who suffered horrendous death, displacement, and destruction in the Vietnam War.  In a speech at Riverside Church April 4, 1967, he told the inconvenient history that was missing from our nightly news programs.

I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

King told how the Vietnamese proclaimed their own independence from French and Japanese occupation in 1945, followed by our government’s efforts to help France recolonize them.  He spelled out Vietnamese peasants hopes for desperately needed land reform and how those hopes were repeatedly dashed as the years of conflict wore on.  He asked his audience:

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

King sought to restore the voices of these voiceless ones, to restore their history and experience that the war-makers sought to erase.  And one year later to the day, he was dead of an assassin’s bullet.

His efforts remind me of today’s activists all around the world who travel to Palestine to collect the stories of the Palestinian people, to learn their history, and to tell it widely with the dignity and respect it deserves.  I feel certain that if Dr. King were alive today, he would surely be right beside us telling those stories as well.



Restoring the prisoner’s face

procession police motorcycle

I’ve been going to Washington, DC every January since 2008 to join the Witness Against Torture community as they lift the voices of Guantanamo detainees in the streets and before the seats of power.  This work has taught me gradually to approach a political problem through the humanity of its victims.  The policy takes on flesh and bones through my own experience of another’s reality.

It all started that first time I came to a WAT action in DC in 2008.  It was the 6th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo’s prison on Jan. 11, 2002.  Activists were suiting up in orange jumpsuits and black hoods to make a prisoner procession from the National Mall to the Supreme Court.  I recall my fear as I made the decision to join the procession. Donning the prisoner garb right there in the center of political power that created these prisoners?  What would it be like to put that hood over my head?

Luckily for me, it was not the thick, stifling hood the detainees themselves were forced to wear.  Instead our hoods were made of a lightweight fabric that allowed us to dimly make out shapes. We could see where we were going and, with a little help from our procession guides, avoid stumbling.

While the hood did not recreate the detainee’s physical experience, it did indeed hint at the psychological experience.  I was now anonymous.  No one knew who I was.  Now for a protester, anonymity could be convenient.  Not so for the prisoner.

The detainees’ guards did not have to look at their faces.  The guards did not see the suffering in the prisoners’ eyes when they were strapped to the floor of a C-130 transport plane for the long journey from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.  Nor did soldiers see their sweating, terrified faces when the prisoners were shoved into cages in the blistering Cuban sun and made to kneel for hours on end.  Most Americans still remember the iconic image of the hooded detainee standing on a box with wires protruding from his arms at Abu Ghraib.  In all these examples, the hood served to hide the prisoner’s humanity.  The hood carried a sinister connotation, and each hooded prisoner took on the threatening identity labeled “terrorist.”  The deliberate dehumanization of the prisoners made it easier to heap tremendous abuse upon them.

Last June in Washington, I learned more about dehumanization at a panel titled Legalized Torture: From Guantanamo Bay to Rikers.  Dr. Maha Hilal, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, emphasized the role of dehumanization in producing torture. At Guantanamo, she told us, dehumanization took three forms: first, a cultural erasure, then a legal erasure, leading finally to the physical erasure that is torture. She emphasized that torture is part of a continuum, not a discrete act. Prior to torture, people are dehumanized to get the public conditioned to accept it and that becomes part of the torture itself.

I’m grateful to the Witness Against Torture community for its work to tell the stories of the prisoners at Guantanamo in a bid to restore their dignity and humanity before the American people.  One of our artist members has created large canvas paintings each depicting the face of a particular prisoner.  One of paintings was that of Tariq Ba Odah whom we displayed at the White House in the photo below.  When his attorney showed Tariq this photo, he cried tears of joy and gratitude.  So powerful was it to have his face restored, so to speak, and brought to the center of power.

Restoring the prisoner’s face is a first antidote to dehumanization and the evils it enables.  I’m reminded again of Luke Nephew’s powerful spoken word performance in front of the Department of Justice on Jan. 11, 2011:  There’s a Man Under That Hood.Tariq White House Rally 26 June