If You Want To Be a Rebel, Be Kind, by Nipun Mehta

The night before, Pancho Ramos Stierle heard about growing tensions in the community and thought, “If police are stepping up their violence, we need to go and step up our nonviolence.”

Pancho Ramos Stierle
Pancho Ramos Stierle

The police had declared Monday, November 14th of 2011, as the day of the raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment. It was the first Occupy site to call for a general strike, one that shut down the fifth largest port in the country; it was also the first Occupy gathering to report a shooting and a murder, as police violence also reached new heights. With tensions mounting amidst political chaos, police escalated their crackdowns. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in preparation for the raid, police from around the state were called in, and uncertainty filled the air.

The night before, Pancho Ramos Stierle heard about growing tensions in the community and thought, “If police are stepping up their violence, we need to go and step up our nonviolence.” So on that Monday morning at 3:30 AM, Pancho and his housemate Adelaja went to the site of the Occupy Oakland raid. With an upright back and half-lotus posture, they started meditating. Many factions of protesters were around, but the presence of strong meditators changed the vibe. Around 6:30 a.m., the police showed up in full force: full-out riot gear, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas. All media were present, expecting a headline story around this incredibly tense scene. Instead, they found thirty-two people, all peaceful, with Pancho and Adeleja meditating with their eyes closed in the middle of the Plaza. As the police followed their orders of arresting them, people took photos—particularly of two smiling meditators surrounded by police looking like they’re ready to go to war. Within a day, that photo would spread to millions around the world, as Occupy Oakland raid ended without any reported violence.

One such experience can be enough for a lifetime. For Pancho, though, this was just run of the mill. In small ways and big, he was always looking to step up his compassion in the most unexpected places.

Raised in Mexico, Pancho was fascinated by the stars, planets, and galaxies. He would always look up in outer space and admire the borderless cosmos that we inhabit; and he’d imagine looking down at planet Earth from outer space—and not seeing any lines across countries. He envisioned a world of oneness and unity, and when he got a full scholarship to study the cosmos at University of California at Berkeley, his vision got a huge boost. He moved to Berkeley to pursue his Ph.D. in astrophysics.

On campus one day, he serendipitously engaged in a profound hallway conversa­tion with a janitor. It opened his eyes to the janitor’s incredibly difficult life. Something awakened in him, as he actively started looking for solutions. “I saw that instead of Ph.D.s, what the world needs more are Ph. Do’s,” Pancho recalled.

As time went on, Pancho realized that his research supported an institution that actively proliferates nuclear weapons. That tipped him over the edge. Not only did he stop cooperating with the university system, he started raising a dissenting voice.

When his complaints fell on deaf ears, he took part in a nine-day fast with other students and professors across California to request an open dialogue with the UC Regents—the governing body of the University of California. The fast culminated at a public hearing of the Regents. When the student request was denied, they locked arms in nonviolent protest and sat peacefully. To disengage them, the police were ordered to make an example of one of them. They lifted up one man, slammed him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, twisted his arms behind his back, and handcuffed him. Supporters started shouting at the overt show of inhumane behavior towards a fragile student who hadn’t eaten a single morsel of food for nine days. That man was none other than Pancho.

The story would have ended there, except that Pancho’s strength resided beyond his body. “It was excruciating pain,” Pancho recalled. Perhaps the police officer picked on Pancho because of his small and skinny frame, but the outer force was no match for Pancho’s inner might. The injustice was obvious, but Pancho knew that the officer was not to blame. In a completely unrehearsed move of raw compassion, Pancho looked directly into the police officer’s eyes and said, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” The overflowing love coming from the heart of this man on a nine-day fast was unmistakable. This was not the kind of encounter that police had been trained in. Seeing the officer’s confusion, Pancho stepped up his empathy and changed the topic. Looking at the last name on the badge, he asked for the officer’s first name. And addressing him as a family member, he said, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.” [Awkward pause.] “Yes.” “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?”

The police officer was completely flabbergasted, his humanity irrevocably invoked. He accepted the invitation! Dropping eye contact gently, he then walked around Pancho and voluntarily loosened his handcuffs. In silence. By now, all of Pancho’s comrades—twelve of them—were also in handcuffs, so the officer then loosened their handcuffs too.

There are those who use anger, sarcasm and parody to confront unjust action. Pancho does it with just the simple—and radical—power of love. If he had a superpower, that would be it. He is a fearless soldier of compassion, unconditionally willing to hold up a fierce mirror of love.

For Pancho, the whole world, every moment, is his field of practice. When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness. Meditation deepens his awareness while small acts of kindness deepen his inter-connectedness. Or as Pancho would sum it up, “Meditation is the DNA of the kindness revolution.” Ever since he first went to a meditation retreat, he has continued to meditate every day. “Pancho 2.0” is what he calls himself since then. It was as if he discovered a new technology to battle our burning world.

Spirituality often sees activism as unnecessarily binding, while activism often sees spirituality as a navel-gazing escape. For Pancho, though, the two paths merge into one. Meditation is internal service, while service is external meditation.

In Arizona, when Pancho was arrested for protesting immigration laws that President Obama called unconstitutional, he smiled peacefully for his mug shot. The Sheriff yelled out an order: “Stop smiling.” Several years ago, some of Pancho’s friends lived in a tree to ignite a conversation around “chopping down three-hundred year-old trees in thirty minutes.” When the authorities put a barricade around the tree to starve the tree-sitters, Pancho showed up to meditate and spread “metta” (loving kindness) to all those around him. While sitting peacefully under the tree, he was arrested. His offense quite literally read: “Disturbing the peace.”

Ultimately, it was in Gandhi that Pancho found his greatest role model for social change. Perhaps for the first time, history had seen someone manifest seismic systemic shifts in the world solely through the power of inner transformation. Gandhi opposed unjust action, not just without violence, but with radical love for everyone including the person doing the harm; and for every act of resistance, he advocated nine more actions for constructive social change.

“Nonviolence isn’t just a philosophy of resistance. It is a way of life. Nonviolence is the thoughts we have, the words that we use, the clothes that we wear, the things that we say. It is not just an absence of violence, not even just the absence of wanting to cause harm. Nonviolence is a state when your heart is so full of love, compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness that you simply don’t have any room for anger, frustration, or violence,” Pancho says.

When Pancho stopped cooperating with the University of California system, he lost his student visa. In light of his courage, more than a dozen people offered to help reinstate his status. He appreciated the gesture but chose to stay undocumented. More than being in one geographical location or another, he was more interested in blooming wherever he was planted. Now, all of a sudden, being “undocumented,” he got an experiential insight into what that meant for eleven million people living in the United States: he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a bank account or a credit card, he couldn’t own anything, and he’d have to work low-wage labor jobs, without any insurance, just to survive.

Here is someone capable of being a rocket scientist, whose father is an economics scholar and author in Mexico, who chooses to live without any financial currency—just so he can be of service to his struggling brethren. He is sustained purely by social capital. His tendency to constantly seek to be helpful earns him many friends, who host him one day of the week. And on days that he doesn’t have a host, he just lives out in the woods (“Redwood Cathedral” as he calls it). Such details don’t matter much for Pancho. All his possessions fit into one bag pack, as his life organizes around doing acts of service.

When Pancho learned about the troubled situation in his neighboring East Oakland, he was quite moved. Rife with gang warfare, it is an area that most people have written off. Every week, residents hear the sounds of gun shots being fired—and that’s no exaggeration. It’s a community with fifty-three liquor stores and no grocery stores. The tensions between the police and the community have continued to escalate, while traditional civic programs haven’t made much of a dent.

So Pancho decided to do something about it, with an altogether different framework. Instead of helping from the outside, he wanted to become one of them; instead of just receiving external aid, he wondered if the community could not only discover undiscovered gifts but then share them freely with others.

With a few like-hearted friends, Pancho now rents a house right on the border of two gangs. They call their home “Casa de Paz”—house of peace. The shared values of the house include two hours of daily meditation, no drinking, and a vegan diet. And no locks on the doors—anyone can come in any time.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, they meditate and do yoga at the local Cesar Chavez park (which has been home to several shootings in recent months). People have all kinds of reactions to their public meditations. One time, a mildly drunk man with bloodshot eyes was roaming the park with his girlfriend. Initially, they smirked and made snide remarks, but as they approached Pancho and his two housemates sitting in crossed-legged meditation, Pancho opened his eyes with a loving embrace. As Pancho reached to grab something from his bag, the man instinctively reached for something (possibly a gun) in his pocket. “Brother, here’s a fresh, local, organic strawberry for you,” said Pancho.

On another occasion, their neighbor’s teenage daughter attempted to commit suicide on a Friday afternoon. The sounds of sirens created a mild panic in the community, but for Pancho and his housemates, it was another opportunity to spread love. They showed up to comfort their neighbors, with a kettle of hot tea, as the family shared their troubles. Over the next month, that same teenage girl became a friend and got interested in the farming projects at Casa de Paz.

Almost everyday, Pancho and the others facilitate these transformations. Another time, a few young boys boisterously smashed empty alcohol bottles on the streets, just as a prank. Instead of cringing in fear, Pancho ran outside, barefoot. The boys could see him and vice-versa, and instead of anger, Pancho humbly bent down and started picking up the pieces of broken glass. Something about that act took the kids by surprise, as they slowly came back. “Brother, you see that house over there? They have a young one, and when he walks out on the street, we don’t want him to get hurt,” Pancho explained to them in fluent Spanish. The kids themselves started picking up the broken pieces—and made role models of these love warriors on their street.

In isolation, these are small stories. Yet, collectively the impact adds up. It binds the community, it creates new connections, it fills the gaps. It’s like the silence in between the notes that allows music to be heard.

“A lot of people talk their talk, but very few can walk their walk. Living in that community is hard, but living at Casa de Paz is even harder. They simply refuse to compromise their values, even in small ways, when no one else is looking. One time, I told them that perhaps their precepts were a bit too tough, and Pancho opened up a book and showed me eleven observances that Gandhi upheld at his ashram. I couldn’t say anything to that,” remembers Kanchan Gokhale, a longtime friend.

One of those observances is Silent Mondays. In the tradition of Gandhi, Pancho is silent every Monday. Even on that November 14th, the day of the Occupy Oakland raid that happened to be a Monday, Pancho stayed silent on principle. As the riot police arrested him, he wrote a comment on a piece of paper: “On Mondays, I practice silence. But I’d like you to hear that I love you.” The officer smiled. How could he not?

“On the face of it, Pancho doesn’t own anything. Yet, he is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met,” says another friend, Joanna Holsten.

How can you give, when you don’t have anything? That paradox is what makes Pancho shine. When a friend asked him about service, he took her to a local Farmers Market with two chairs. She sat on one chair and put a sign on the other chair: “Free listening.” When Pancho and his friends saw unused fruit in their neighbor’s backyards, they requested to “glean” the fruit and then gift it to strangers: “This is a gift from East Oakland.” On a recent Sunday, they gave away two-hundred-fifty pounds of fresh, organic oranges that way.

That creative generosity, a kind of “giftivism,” takes all kinds of forms for Pancho.

Of the thirty-two people arrested at Occupy Oakland, thirty-one were sent home on the same day, with misdemeanor charges. Pancho, however, was held for deportation. Very quickly, he became an iconic symbol for all that is wrong with the dominant paradigm. Within two days, twenty-thousand people signed a petition to free Pancho. At his court arraignment, a large group of people showed up to meditate—which had never happened in that courthouse, and confused the police in riot-gear who were themselves drawn to the circle. People from around the world called the sheriff and congressional representatives. Media everywhere reported the story. Vigils were held by many around the globe. By the end of the four days, the Alameda County D.A. dropped all criminal charges and ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) released Pancho from jail, without bail. No one can really explain the unprecedented move by the authorities. “It was truly a miracle that he was let go,” Marianne Manilove posted on her Facebook wall.

Francisco Ugarte, Pancho’s pro-bono lawyer, happily reported that “They really didn’t know what to do with him.” He would relay Pancho’s notes from various jails that he was being shuttled to. “Tell them that I love them all. [It’s a] great place to meditate!” was his first note to friends and supporters. Francisco’s second note conveyed this message: “Pancho wanted me to convey to folks that he was, for some reason, identified as a particularly dangerous inmate … and shackled so that the movement of his arms was restrained. The shackles were metal, and surrounded his waist. Apparently, this treatment is reserved only for the most ‘dangerous’ inmates. It is unclear why Alameda County has done this. But after a short conversation, we agreed that, without a doubt, Pancho was the most dangerous person in Santa Rita Jail—dangerous to the whole system. As Pancho said, ‘The most effective weapon against a system based on greed and violence is kindness.’”

Kindness is indeed Pancho’s go-to weapon. When in doubt, be kind. Even otherwise, be kind.

As Pancho was shackled in solitary confinement, he created a makeshift cushion with his shoes and started meditating. The guards themselves took photos to post on their Facebook walls. Moved by his equipoise under conditions of extreme stress, some guards even inquired about the specifics of meditation. One of them befriended him and gifted him an extra “package”—a toothbrush, toothpaste, a piece of paper, and a pen. Pancho cleaned up his cell of all the litter, toilet paper, and other waste; on the piece of paper he wrote, “Smile. You’ve just been tagged with an anonymous act of kindness!” and left that extra toothpaste and toothbrush next to it. “I wanted to beautify the cell for the next person after me,” he would later say. Jails didn’t have any vegetarian food, so he fasted, eating two oranges in four days. He gifted his ham sandwiches to other inmates, and connected with them in the spirit of generosity. In transit, when he had more contact with other prisoners, he educated them about their rights. To the ICE agent who shackled him, he said, “Sister, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this kind of work.” To which she smiled back and responded, “Thank you.”

Really, there’s not much else one can respond with.

When Pancho was released from jail, lots of media houses were frantically looking for him. Pancho, utterly uninterested in the games of fame, was unreachable. The man doesn’t even have a phone. That weekend, like every weekend, the best way to find him was to meditate at Casa de Paz, or volunteer at Karma Kitchen, or farm at the Free Farm Stand. “Let’s replicate constructive programs,” he would say, while retelling stories of Gandhi.

From anarchists to administrators, people love Pancho—not just because he fiercely stands up for his values but because he is genuinely and constantly moved by love. Whenever you meet him, he pre-emptively warns, “Hello, my family calls me Pancho. I’m from the part of the planet we call Mexico and in Mexico, we like to give hugs,” before enveloping you in his trademark embrace.

Former US Marine Jason Kal recalls, “When we first met, I just casually told Pancho that I liked his t-shirt that said ‘ahimsa’ (meaning nonviolence) on it.  The next thing you know, he just takes off his t-shirt and gives it to me. I was totally speechless. I’ve never seen anyone do that.” Today, Jason is Pancho’s housemate at Casa de Paz
and a dear friend.

As Pancho often signs off his emails, “If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” ♦

From Parabola Volume 37, No. 1, “Burning World,” Spring 2012. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.

By Nipun Mehta

Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace.org, a fully volunteer-run organization that has delivered millions of web-related services to the non-profit world for free. The recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the President's Volunteer Award Service Award, his work creatively leverages web technologies for collaborative and transformational giving. He serves on the advisory boards of the Seva Foundation, Dalai Lama Foundation, and Airline Ambassadors.