On a Beach in the Firing Zone in Vieques

¡PAZ!

I could feel the warm sand on my feet even through my beat-up sneakers. A few hours later in the day that sand would be a lot hotter, dangerously so. But at 8:00 in the morning, it felt nice, pleasant, relaxing, even.

Funny how I was calm, not very nervous at all, even though I knew that any minute I’d be surrounded by men—white, black, and brown—dressed in camouflage, armed with automatic weapons designed to tear into human flesh and bone with total detachment. They were there to protect what they believed to be theirs. How would they know that soldiers and sailors three generations before had come to clear out the property their government had stolen from the people of Vieques? These men, these sailors and Marines recruited off the streets of New York, out of the high schools of DC, off the unemployment lines right here in Puerto Rico, were just following orders: “Detain any civilian trespassers on this base!”

Standing there in the sand, writing my simple, yet clear message, in letters ten feet tall —P…A…Z…— I was at peace. It was like any other meditation, only this time walking, writing in the sand, soaking in the morning sun, soothed by the breeze and breaking waves.

I focused on the beauty of it all while I mentally prepared myself to be grabbed up and put away for God knew how many days, weeks, or months. I concentrated on the quiet of the moment, before jet fighters would come swooping down to drop their loads of bullets and bombs into now-imaginary enemy targets, soon to be very real ones in places far from this once-upon-a-time Caribbean paradise. I stayed present to the moment so as not to think of what could happen to me there, alone, separated from the many other civil disobedients, obedients of consciousness, demanding respect for freedom, for health, for peace. How could I know if I would have the same fate as Ángel Rodríguez Cristobal, who twenty years earlier on those same beaches had been arrested, only later to be found dead in his federal prison cell? How could I know if I’d ever see my son or my partner again?

Yet when the soldiers came, I was at peace. When they handcuffed me, and searched my body, I was at peace. When they locked me in a cage, and later ten more, twenty—a hundred eighty peaceful warriors of conscience—I was at peace.

And while at peace in my mind, I was keenly aware of the quake deep in my soul, the tremor strong in my heart that reminded me that my peace would never be complete while soldiers and sailors roam, while bombs and bullets fall, while cannons blast and projectiles explode, while the planet’s most powerful military force continues to impose its will upon those of this tiny nation, the will of a people who merely want what we all want: health, justice, peace.

One year later, many are still imprisoned while the US Navy insists on exercising its might. “One more year,” they say trying to appease us, as if anyone in his right mind could actually consent to his own violent abuse for even one more minute. It remains to be seen just how many more people, how many more nonviolent re-occupations of the live-fire range it will take before peace finally comes to the people of Vieques.

Meanwhile, my own search for peace requires daily practice, as I write, now not in the sand, but on the page, or on the computer. I seek this peace when I speak the truth of our struggle to a large group, or as I try to convey the power of our vision to just one other. Or as I sit, alone, in silence, bearing witness to the beauty of the world and its people, wondering when this realization may also be enjoyed by those in Vieques and by those in uniform… and those in Washington… and those on Wall Street… and in Jerusalem and Gaza… Delhi and Karachi… Beirut… Bogotá… Kabul… Baghdad…

¡Paz!

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This piece was originally written in the summer of 2002. Almost one year later, on May 1, 2003, the US Navy officially closed its base at Camp García in Vieques. In effect, the largest, most powerful military force in history was overcome by the persistent non-violence civil disobedience of the thousands of people who joined this cause. Having obtained the demilitarization of this island-municipality of Puerto Rico, the people of Vieques continue their struggle for the land’s decontamination, its devolution to local residents, and the sustainable economic development of its community. Meanwhile, the people of Puerto Rico continue their centuries-old struggle against colonialism and for self-determination and national sovereignty. — RQR, Summer 2008

(c) 2002, 2008 Raúl Quiñones Rosado. Appears in Turning Wheel Magazine, Summer 2008, published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Berkeley, CA.