On Monday afternoon, June 4, 2018, I was in the Capitol Rotunda in Sacramento, CA, acting as a moral witness, acting out my faith as a Unitarian Universalist, siding with love, and lending my support to indigenous peoples.  Courageous people who have been oppressed and fighting for a long time and who would appreciate some understanding, some respect, but mostly some support. As a middle-aged, white, Cisgender male born in Sacramento, I recognize that my role is mostly one of support.  We have heard quite enough from people who look like me telling people who do not look like me what they should think, say, and do.  A core principle of the new Poor People’s Campaign and of representative democracy is that those who have been and continue to be directly impacted the most should be allowed to speak for themselves with their own voice.

When the new Poor People’s Campaign addresses environmental degradation, I stand, hold my sign, and listen while those who live in sacrifice zones and suffer the most speak.  When the issue is lack of healthcare, I stand, hold my sign, and listen while those who do not have healthcare speak.  When systemic racism is protested, I stand, hold my sign, and listen to people of color speak for themselves.  And when, as was the case Monday, the message is about our brutal colonial history, I once again stand, hold my sign, and listen while indigenous peoples take the microphone and speak for themselves.

We did hear what the indigenous peoples want.  They want Californians and lawmakers in Sacramento to understand the true human cost of colonial conquest and exploitation.  They want the offensive statue of Columbus in the State Capitol rotunda that legitimizes and commemorates brutal colonization removed.  They want an end to the detrimental practice of documenting blood quantum to “verify” indigenity, which is then used to deny reparations, including healthcare, owed to native peoples by treaty.  They want us to understand that many of their communities still suffer gripping poverty, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, undrinkable water, violent resource extraction and unemployment rates up to four times higher than the rest of America.
Besides standing there holding my sign, I can offer an additional contribution.  Because of my white privilege, I can offer a more confrontational, direct action supporting those who are ignored, those who have fought enough already, and those who cannot risk arrest because of the severity of the consequences.

During Monday’s action, during loud singing, and while joined hand-in-hand forming a circle of people around the colonial statue of Columbus in the rotunda, an indigenous woman approached me, reaching out the corner of her banner toward me.  As I looked at this woman, whom I did not know, looking back at me with her outstretched hand, wordlessly requesting my support, I experienced one of of those rare, deep, emotional moments of singular clarity.  I had two choices: I could take her banner, place it on the statue, and be arrested or I could choose to become yet another white man in a long, sad history of white men who turn away and leave an indigenous request unanswered.  I took the banner, crossed the barricade, and placed it on the statue.  The banner kept slipping as I tried to drape it in place so her message could be seen upon the statue.  The police closed in, laid hands on me, took the banner away and wadded it into a ball.  As my hands were placed forcibly behind my back, I was thankful the focus was on me, as I watched her slip safely away, unnoticed into the crowd.  I spent the rest of the day in Jail.  It was a very good Monday.

Rene G. Castle