Clanging doors, harsh voices over antiquated address systems, yelling, screaming, nauseous smells of disinfectant ... row after row in San Quentin and Folsom prisons, inmates housed in lonely, desperate circumstances
Classrooms large enough for 30. Sophisticated young Black men from the Bay area; confidant, tattooed, white supremacist skinheads, aggressive, East LA Latino gang members, quiet but dangerous Native Americans from Northern California, all gathered together for the common good. A core daily exercise was 30 minutes of meditation to lower the tension. The silence was only broken by a faint Gregorian chant in the background.
Together daily for many hours, sorting our addictions, life skills, relationships, depression, rage — we came together in spite of our differences, skin color or manifest hatred. We understood the common good.
Retreating to a larger cell block later in the day, we were able to indulge twice a week in an AA meeting. Anyone could attend, but instant coffee smuggled in was the catch. Participate or go without. All had a turn, standing starkly before one another, slowly letting it out: relationships, lost children, isolation, thoughts of suicide. There were no jeers, no criticism, only a solitary voice, most often with head bowed and tears.
Questions and reactions were spontaneous. We talked it out. We supported one another — amazing, moving, gratifying. This diverse group of men, all longtime addicts with lengthy criminal backgrounds, weeping with one another for the sake of survival and that common good. In the end, we circled, held hands and said the Lord's Prayer ... at least the words we could remember. Then it was a cup of powdered coffee and segregation again.
Getting our lives together is often a struggle. As we have picked ourselves up from the mat, it is most often with the support that we have survived and prospered. Quite frequently, however, instead of prison cells, we are locked into daily mediocrity, social and political blindness and polarization. A multitude of extraneous issues blinds our vision: the big lie, insurrection, anti-vaccine, climate change, immigration, white privilege, race theory ... misinformation constantly gnawing, showcased by social media and a sparse few television outlets.
Frazzled nerves, attitudes, coupled with COVID-19 and lack of social interaction, make for lifestyle changes. We are cranky, suspicious and on guard. Those who disagree with our viewpoint are immediate enemies. There is little or no thought, much less discussion of the common good. Words and concepts from our Constitution are forgotten: "toward a more perfect union," justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare and that pursuit of happiness.
Time for balance and shared viewpoints is limited. For those out of the social media loop, there is nothing. For those involved, confusion and misinformation. The silence of churches in the face of a plethora of lies, racism and xenophobia is hard to stomach. Even more so now facing voter suppression and ascending fascism. Ecumenism is empty; churches are not alone. How about the Lincoln County Democratic Party? Where is their voice, their organizing, their pushback? Is there guidance, direction, inspiration with or without social media? What about our majors, our city councils, county commissioners, business leaders? Where is their voice?
In a sense, we are all in our prison cells, buying time, expecting the best, avoiding primary issues of our day. It is time for mediation and common dialogue with those around us, the theme being the common good. The Trump lies are not going to go away, and neither is voter suppression or the ugliness of xenophobia. In spite of ourselves, we must continue to talk and develop safe platforms where we can consume and digest healthy dialectics with respect while examining the very concept of truth. Our very democracy is at stake, as is our planet.
Morry Lindros is a resident of Waldport.