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Sit-In


By Arleta Little


I am a member of the People of Color Direct Action Sangha, a diverse group of practitioners from meditation centers and meditation circles around the Twin Cities that has networked around the murder of George Floyd. We’ve been organizing sit-ins at protests and events over the last month. We’ve committed to show up together. This morning, I’m at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue with Zenzele Isoke. Since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve been here at this intersection twice, and we meditated and held space in the grass at Elliot Park across from the chapel of Northwestern University during George Floyd’s memorial service.

I’m surprised to see so many people at 38th Street. and Chicago, already. It’s 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, a little more than two weeks after George Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe!” Amidst the people setting up tables and positioning vehicles to unload food stuff and other donations, a group of 20 or so volunteers are receiving directions on how to clean up around the site, how to pick up and rearrange flowers around the murals, what to throw away, and what to leave. A new sculpture has been installed at the center of the intersection since our last sit. Now, a large brown abstract fist mounted on a raised base is surrounded by a wide circle of flowers and hand-painted signs, some reading “Say His Name” and “We Are Better Together” and “Justice for George Floyd.” The street sign for Chicago Avenue has been renamed George Floyd Avenue.

We find a spot on the west corner of the intersection. Behind us, a large wooden fist leans against the bus shelter, and at the curb fifteen feet away rests an empty baby carriage draped in white lace. We spread our blankets in a U-shape and lean a cardboard sign against the transit post. Our sign reads: “Come Sit With Us/Justice for George Floyd/POC Sangha.” We position our cushions on the blankets facing Cup Foods, across from a large black and white plywood mural showing the shadows and contours of George Floyd’s face. This mural marks the site where police officer Derek Chauvin and two other officers held George Floyd down while Chauvin’s knee stayed on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, choking the life out of him. 

We sit. Each meditation will be ten to twenty minutes, and we’ll be here for a couple of hours. I ring a bell, and we begin with a chant from the Thai Forest Tradition, a chant for the Suffusion with the Divine Abidings. “I will abide …” This chant invokes loving kindness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity, all in abundance, without hostility and without ill will. At the completion of the chant, we are still and focus on our breath. The cloth mask that I’m wearing over my nose and mouth as protection against the spread of COVID-19 causes my glasses to fog, clear, and fog again. My eyes are open and directed downward toward the blacktop. On the street in front of us is a stylized tag with George Floyd’s name and a strong, intermittent breeze blows dried flower petals, dust, and ash all around us, up onto our blankets, and over our legs. A woman approaches the intersection talking loudly about Jesus and reciting Bible verses. Volunteers sweep and reposition bouquets while one of several Black women organizers calls out, “Make it look pretty!”

By the end of our first sit, more people begin to arrive. Friends walk slowly around the streets, conversing about the news, and talking about change and what it should look like. Families with young children bring fresh floral arrangements and stand looking at the carpet of flowers and handmade signs that extend down each arm of the crossroads. On the 38th Street side, a well-dressed elder stands opposite a sign that reads “Police/Now It’s Your Turn.” With the cadences of a preacher, he details the logic of dismantling an approach to public safety that fails to accomplish its purpose to a small, scattered group that stands and listens. All around, people take pictures of themselves and each other.

After another sit, we break to stretch our legs and greet a young Black woman who has joined us. She has cut silhouettes of Africa dangling from her ears. We exchange names before Njia stands, bringing her palms to touch in front of her. She thanks us and returns to her friends on the other side of the intersection. A portly man walking by meets our eyes and says, “Namaste.” We reply in kind. Two women in hijabs and abayas approach us.

“How long will this be going on?” One of the women asks.

“It’s the community that’s doing this,” Zenzele answers. “So, I guess, as long as the community keeps coming. This is all different people. There’s no one group organizing it.” The draped women speak to one another in a language that sounds like the wind over the surface of water before they smile at us, nod, and walk on.

After another sit, the lady reciting Bible verses comes over to us. She is white and wearing motley layers under her open, terry cloth coat. “They tried to burn down the hotel last night,” she begins. “The hotel where they evicted the homeless out of last week. They tried to burn it down, but some neighbors stopped them.”

We introduce ourselves, and I ask her name. “I’m Marilyn. I live right next door to that Sheraton,” she continues. “They called the cops, but the cops said they weren’t going to come.” 

“Didn’t the owner give them permission to turn the hotel into a sanctuary?” I ask, recalling the news of drug overdoses at the hotel.

“He did. He’s from Qatar. But he didn’t give them the keys so they couldn’t lock the doors and some bad gang members came in. They couldn’t lock the doors to keep them out. And last night, they came back, broke in, and were stealing out of the place, and they tried to light it on fire.”

I had driven through the midtown intersection at Lake and Chicago on our way here. The destruction was worse than I’d realized with buildings on two of the four corners of the intersection and down the blocks completely burned out and caved in. The Sheraton was on that same block, eight blocks north of where the three of us stand, now. We start to settle in for our next sit.

“Good to see you here,” I say to Marilyn, who remains standing.

“I’m here every day,” Marilyn offers as she steps away still talking. “My friend, Conrad, planted a garden over there. See it?” She points. My eyes follow the curb about twenty yards away where a large rectangle of dirt now covers the blacktop with plants arranged in neat rows. “I don’t know if he’s watered it. He needs to water it. I don’t know if he has. Maybe I should water it.” She moves behind us to engage some others standing to the side of the bus shelter. The streets are barricaded in all four directions. Signs on the transit post and shelter say that buses will not stop here.

I ring the bell, focusing again on my breath, breathing here because George Floyd could not. Collectively, we offer some stillness to the movement. Behind us, Marilyn begins to recite the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The breeze catches a half bouquet of dried roses still wrapped in plastic. The bouquet slides slowly across the street and comes to rest just in front of us. 

In the tradition of Vipassana or Insight Meditation, we practice being present with life as it is. In sitting practice, we breathe in and out, training ourselves to remain present in the moment and in the midst of the movements of our lives. Some practitioners believe that the next manifestation of enlightenment will not be in the form of the transcendent consciousness of an individual (the buddha) or in the transmission of an enlightened teaching (the dharma). Some practitioners believe that the next manifestation of enlightenment will be embodied by the community, the sangha.

I inhale and exhale. We inhale and exhale. The wind gathers strength and blows through the crossroads.