Responding to the emergency

In The Trumpet of Conscience, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conjured up an apt metaphor of urgency and transformative engagement:

There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light.  But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light… Or when a [person] is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed…  Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds.  They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.

Four decades on, his words are as sharp and appropriate as ever.

Dr. King evokes the image of a world on fire. This fire burns on today, at a time of permanent war, the growing economic divide, threats to civil liberties, ecological devastation, and the structural violence of racism, sexism, and homophobia. We can continue to opt for the raging spiral of violence and injustice, or we can band together to build democratic, multiracial, and nonviolent societies where the dignity of all is respected and the needs of all are met.

This will not come easily, Dr. King suggests. This will be risky work.

Nevertheless we can, he implies, accomplish the difficult things that need to be done—even if we have never seen ourselves that way before.

Thus he urges us to try on a new identity: Join a social change ambulance crew. Work the fire hose with others to douse the scalding blaze of structural injustice. Become an EMT dispensing the healing power of love and courage. And get preparedness training to face the personal, psychological, or political consequences for boldly responding to the disaster at hand.

There are many emergencies everywhere, including the sprawling fire tearing through our communities or across our planet. Luckily, from Cairo to Madison and many other places, there is a growing web of “first responders” who teach us how to take the plunge, who inspire us, and who show us their own well-honed moves for nonviolent transformation.

Fr. Louie Vitale

In my own life, one of these people is Louie Vitale, a Franciscan friar who has spent the last several decades clambering aboard one Kingian ambulance after another.

For thirty years, the foremost emergency Louie has focused on has been the terror of nuclear weapons. He has joined other brigades—engaging the catastrophes of homelessness, torture, and the wars in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan—but his abiding concern has been the testing, production and deployment of nuclear arms.

In the early 1980s he joined a handful of others in building a movement to end nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site and to create the conditions for the promulgation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

And over the past few years—in between stints in prison protesting torture training at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA and Fort Huachuca, AZ—his attention has turned to nuclear and non-nuclear space war testing at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara, CA.

On June 1, hundreds of us gathered in San Francisco to celebrate Louie’s 79th birthday and his release from jail after serving a six-month prison sentence. Just days later he was before a magistrate in a Southern California court facing charges for a previous nonviolent witness at Vandenberg AFB, and since then he has crossed the line at the facility again.

Louie and a still-small “emergency response team” have repeatedly engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience at Vandenberg AFB with the hope of sounding the alarm at what is going on there—something relatively few people know about. Vandenberg operates the Joint Space Operations Center, a component of the Air Force Space Command, which coordinates data from satellites to support the facility’s mission of “air and space superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, precision engagement, information superiority and agile combat support.” It is home to the 30th Space Wing, the Western Missile Range (testing nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles) and Space Launch Complexes.

In addition to recent launches of Minuteman III missiles, Vandenberg AFB is scheduled to launch today the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, which is designed to fly at Mach 20 (13,000 miles per hour) and, the Pentagon hopes, will eventually be capable of delivering a military strike in less than an hour anywhere on the planet.

The machinery of space war is developing apace under our society’s radar. Friar Louie and company are therefore relentlessly clanging the siren about these strategies of “total dominance” by taking one nonviolent action after another on the California coast. He and his friends will be back in court on September 15, willingly facing the consequences of nonviolently “ignoring the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.”

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