Two Pagan faith leaders arrested at Black Friday 14 protest

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OAKLAND, Calif — Last evening, Pagan spiritual leaders T. Thorn Coyle and Marissa Evans, along with 12 other interfaith leaders, were arrested for trespassing at the Alameda County Court House. The spiritual leaders were part of an interfaith service and a rally, demanding District Attorney Nancy O’Malley drop all charges against a group that has come to be known at the Black Friday 14.

The faith leaders arrested are from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the Deacon of First Congregation Church of Oakland, Bend the Arc: Jewish Partnership for Justice, United Church of Christ, and the Starr King School of Religion. Also included was T. Thorn Coyle, Pagan author, spiritual leader, and President of Solar Cross Temple, and Marissa Evans, co-founder of Light Hands Healing and a Pagan seminarian at Pacific School of Religion.

Police arrest T. Thorn Coyle (center) and other faith leaders.

Police arrest T. Thorn Coyle (center) and other faith leaders. [Photo Credit: Michelle Puckett]

In a statement to The Wild Hunt after she was released, Ms. Thorn Coyle said:

We are in a state of emergency in the U.S. Something must be done to counter the corrosive effects of white supremacy and racist systems that are killing Black, brown, and trans people on a daily basis. Bearing witness to this, as a reminder that we are all part of the sacred web of connection feels important to me. It is part of my religious and spiritual practice to invoke justice whenever I can, in as many ways as are possible.

The charges the Black Friday 14 are facing must be dropped. They chained themselves together and stopped the wheels of commerce for a few hours in order to tell us: Wake up! Remember what connects us! What connects us does not have to be greed and consumption. What connects us is breath, and life, and all that we call holy.

I was willing to get arrested to stand in solidarity with such a powerful wake up call. It is my job to invoke the sacred and to call on justice. And as I said in my statement [on Facebook]: I must fight for what I love. What I love are these people, struggling for life and freedom.

Being arrested is a small price to pay. And in the scheme of things, I’m a middle class white person who spent only a few hours in jail. That is nothing compared to the suffering of Black, brown, immigrant, indigenous, poor, or trans people who get shuttled through these inequitable systems built to protect the interests of a tiny portion of our society. All of this suffering feeds the .001%. If I can highlight that at all, by placing myself in the hands of that system for a few hours, I consider that community service.

I feel blessed and grateful to the Interfaith 14, the Black Friday 14, the people in the streets of Oakland, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York City, Ferguson, and everywhere that voices are raised for the call of love and justice.

The Black Friday 14 are a group of protesters, affiliated with the Black Lives Matter, who blocked access to the BART trains in West Oakland Black Friday 2014. The West Oakland stop is in the heart of the Bay Area and one of the busiest sections. Four of the system’s five trains pass through that station, and Black Friday is when the trains are running at full capacity. The protestors successfully shut down the station for several hours.

Similar shut downs took place at stations in other parts of California, such as in Los Angeles.

Black Lives Matter activists have alleged that white protesters in other transit shut downs are normally cited and released, while the fourteen black activists in West Oakland were arrested and initially threatened with $70,000 fines. The fines were later dropped, but the Black Friday 14 are still facing misdemeanor charges of interfering with train operation and trespassing. These charges carry a maximum sentence of six months in jail.

Marissa Evans, who identifies as a Witch, agreed that justice appeared to be applied unequally based on race. She said, “Last year [a few weeks after Black Friday] I joined a group of faith leaders protesting in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement: we engaged in a nonviolent direct action of obstructing a freeway. All charges against my mostly white group were dropped. The harsh penalty that the Black Friday 14 are facing for their action reveals systemic racism.”

Those charges are what the interfaith group were protesting last night by staging a sit in at the Alameda County Court House. The sit in, led by a group called the Interfaith Committee In Support of the Black Friday 14, is the latest in a string of actions that began last week when labor leaders also occupied O’Malley’s office, demanding the charges be dropped.

The interfaith service started at 1:30 pm outside the courthouse. Lou Florez, Awo Ifadunsi [Orisha Priest], was asked to attend the interfaith service to bless three of the Black Friday 14, pour libations, and evoke the ancestors in the ritual space. He also helped construct the altar that was used during the service.

Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, a Dedicant of Umbanda, decided to attend because Thorn had said that a Pagan presence was requested at the rally. Odinsdottir said, “At this time, more than any other, we need to use as many of our tools as possible to fight the systems that are creating more dead black bodies in our streets.” She also said that as a nonwhite Person of Color she couldn’t stand by when oppression is being masqueraded as law.

Florez and Odinsdottir at the interfaith service outside the courthouse. Altar is in the background. [Photo from Florez]

Florez and Odinsdottir at the interfaith service outside the courthouse. Altar is in the background. [Courtesy Photo]

Lou Florez, invokes the ancestors, during the interfaith service. [photo credit Clark Sullivan]

Lou Florez, invokes the ancestors, during the interfaith service. [Photo Credit: Clark Sullivan]

When asked why he agreed to participate in the protest, Awo Ifadunsi said, “As a man of color, I don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the lived experiences of racial inequity and injustices. As an Orisha priest and practitioner, who works with African deities, how can I say they are sacred and holy if I’m not willing to fight for their people? I was there because Black Lives Matter.”

While the interfaith service was happening outside, the 14 faith leaders were staging their rally inside the courthouse. Beginning around 1:20 pm, they joined hands in a circle, read statements, and sang. When the service was over, several of those outside entered the building to join in solidarity. Then, shortly before 4:30 pm as the courthouse was scheduled to close, police issued their first warning to the protesters. At 4:55 pm, they arrested all fourteen faith leaders including Thorn and Evans.

Thorn describes the experience:

We were handcuffed and led to a holding space in the courthouse and told to face the wall. The whole time we were singing: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes!” and “Which side are you on, friends?” We were asked a list of questions and had IDs taken. Searched. In custody, I was reminded of the story of Inanna, because, hands cuffed behind me, the arresting officer started stripping my things from me, one by one. Necklace. Earrings. Rings. Belt. Sign around my neck. Shoelaces. Black Lives Matter buttons… and then, still singing, we were taken in a caged elevator down, descending like Inanna. We then walked a long circuitous warren of cement hallways, following a red line, singing all the while.

We were then placed in holding cells. Then moved. Then moved again. Then we had to take shoes and socks off. Then put them back on. Spread our legs and stand against the wall. Get searched a second time. Back in a holding cell. Then another holding cell.

Finally, we were cited and released. As usual, they had trouble taking my fingerprints. This always amuses me.

As I was being searched the second time, I kept thinking of people for whom this is a regular occurrence. People who are not white. Not middle class. Without the stamp that clergy offers. Nine out the 14 of us were white, and several wore clerical collars. It was clear we were religious leaders. What if we hadn’t been? Our experience would have been vastly different.

All fourteen faith leaders peacefully submitted to the arrests, were cited for trespass, and released later that evening.

CORRECTION 11/26 4 p.m.: The original article stated that the interfaith rally and protest happened one after the other. However, the protest inside the building began as the rally was happening outside. We have corrected that timeline.