Most of the discussion about polytheism and politics has focused on theory. This is a little bit strange because you often hear people saying that polytheism is a matter of “orthopraxy not orthodoxy.” As it happens, I am not particularly a fan of either. Still, if it’s all about “right practice” then why has so much of the conversation been about “right belief”?
Nearly every aspect of my daily life is marked by religious practice. I pray when I wake up, at midday and before I go to sleep. I pray before I eat or drink anything. I leave offerings frequently, and do trance-work for an hour about three times a week. I tend a candle every 20 days for Brighid as a Brigidine flamekeeper, and meet with a small group for prayer and offerings every new moon. When religion plays such a large role in my daily life, it’s only natural that I would also turn to religion whenever I have to go on a journey or face any kind of challenge.
A few weeks ago, I started a Southern Maine chapter for an antifascist organization. I’m not going to name the group here, because they are not a religious organization and might not prefer to be mentioned in an article about paganism. I’m sure the members come from a wide variety of backgrounds, both secular and religious. However, the current membership of the chapter I founded is the same group of people I worship with on the new moon every month. Our current focus for antifascist activity is the Trump campaign, so when we found out that Trump was going to be speaking at the Hyatt in New York City on April 14th I decided to go.
The night before the action, I stood in front of my deity altar and prayed the Sloinntireachd Bhride, the Genealogy of Brighid in Gaelic. This prayer is the center of my daily spiritual practice, and under normal circumstances I recite the Sloinntireachd at least twice a day. I’ve said this prayer so many times over the years that I can recite it during sleep to dispel a nightmare. Almost everything else I do starts with reciting this prayer.
There is a long tradition of antifascist streetfighting, going back to the decades before the Second World War. Even now, many groups take an aggressive approach to antifascist action. I do not condemn this strategy, but due to past experiences in my own life I have made a personal commitment not to ever fight except in self-defence or direct defense of another. I chose the particular organization I’m part of because they have made the same commitment. Nevertheless, my next step in preparing for the protest was to make an offering to Macha.
Why would I pray to a goddess associated with war and conflict before going to a nonviolent protest? Because civil resistance is a form of conflict even when the participants reject violence as a tool in that conflict. Past protests against Trump have been marked by violence against the protesters, and the NYPD has a reputation for violence at protests too. I left a small bowl of milk and honey, and asked Macha to keep me safe and sound on my journey to new York and in the protest itself, and to bring us victory if such was her will.
Next I went to my ancestor altar and made three bowls of fiery water for my dead. Fiery water is an important symbol in Celtic lore, representing the water in the Well of Wisdom. There are a number of different ways to make it. I poured a libation of cold tap water into three glass bowls, lit a white pillar candle, then circled each bowl sunwise over the candle flame to put the fire in the water. Then I spoke briefly with my dead, asking them for both protection and moral clarity. In emotionally-charged and confrontational situations like a protest, it’s easy to get caught up in an emotion and carried away by events. I asked my dead to warn and counsel me if this should happen. I finished with an appeal to the spirits that watch over me, then went to bed.
If any of my spirits or deities had a strong objection to my plans, or a warning of great danger, I would most likely hear about it in my dreams. That night I dreamed that one of my spirits approached and smiled at me, so I knew that all was well and I could proceed as planned.
I have the primary responsibility for childcare in my family, so part of our planning for this event was to arrange for the other members of our group to help with babysitting so I could make the trip. Before I left, the babysitter spoke a blessing over me in the name of Thor. Then I got on a Greyhound bus for the eight-hour journey to Manhattan. I brought a history of the Spanish Civil War to read on the long bus trip.
When I reached Manhattan that evening, I had to walk as quickly as possible from the Port Authority up to the Hyatt on East 42nd Street to join the protest. As I made my way through the crowds, I saw one police van after another heading down the street in the same direction, followed by a column of officers carrying zip ties for mass arrests, and a bus to transport arrestees in case the vans weren’t enough. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me nervous, but I knew I was as well-prepared as I could be.
When I heard the sound of drums up ahead, I knew I had found the protesters. The drums belonged to the Fight for $15 contingent, which also had its own team of dancers for the event. Protests tend to attract an almost-random collection of people with different causes to push, but in this case the connection was easy to understand – Trump is on record as saying that current wages are too high!
There was also a large contingent from Black Lives Matter, and another from a group called People’s Assembly. In case anyone assumes this was a partisan protest, many of these groups had also been protesting Clinton the day before. The People’s Assembly speaker was saying something to the effect that “Trump doesn’t speak for us! Clinton doesn’t speak for us! Sanders doesn’t speak for us!” This wasn’t about the Democrats versus the Republicans.
I managed to find the local chapter of the group I’m affiliated with somewhere in that crowd of a thousand or so people. They were right up in front of the police barricades. These were intended to keep us separated from the much, much smaller contingent of pro-Trump protesters on the other side of the street. The barricades were not entirely successful for this purpose, as a Trump supporter had already come running across the street to punch one of the protesters several times in the face. As any activist knows, you can be arrested without warning for something as simple as stepping off the sidewalk at the wrong time, but the Trump supporter who attacked the protest wasn’t arrested or even asked to leave. The police just told him to go back to his own side of the street.
Shortly after I reached the barricade, I saw one of the protesters being carried away on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. People were saying he fell off a barricade and hit his head. As the EMTs wheeled him by, I recited the Sloinntireachd under my breath to ask Brighid to bless and help him.
I introduced myself to the other people from my group. Solidarity is a type of love, not based on personal history or affinity but on the simple act of standing together as comrades even though you might have almost nothing else in common. Solidarity is real spirituality, it can bring people together who would normally never have any reason to even speak to each other. I had never met any of my comrades at this action or even exchanged an email with any of them, but they all welcomed me to join them with warmth and acceptance.
As we were making our introductions, another protester walked by carrying an effigy of Donald Trump, filled with needles and pins like a so-called “voodoo doll.” Surprisingly enough, this led to a debate between two of my comrades over the relative merits of Vodou and Santeria! (Neither of which actually uses this type of magic, but that’s beside the point.) I turned to them and said “whatever gets the job done” and they burst out laughing. That was the end of the debate.
The woman who had made the fliers for our group had just had hip surgery, so she couldn’t walk through the crowd to distribute them. I volunteered for that job, but there were a lot of protesters packed into a small space and various random New Yorkers kept trying to push through the crowd. A pedestrian pushing a bike happened to get behind me just as I was turning around. I fell over his bike and landed on the sidewalk, but a Black Lives Matter activist quickly leaned in and pulled me to my feet before I could get hurt.
The police were trying to keep us away from the Hyatt and Grand Central Terminal with two rows of barricades and a large contingent of uniformed officers blocking us from crossing over to the other side. Despite their efforts, a hundred or so protesters managed to get around them (possibly through the subway system, I’m not sure) and were soon in front of the doors on the other side of the street.
The police immediately swarmed in on them while moving to close off access to the rest of us. I tried to slip through a gap in the barricades and cross the street to join the other protesters, but found the way blocked by a row of cops and new barricades. I thought I might be able to get around them if I went down the street a little way and then crossed at that point, but there were police blocking the way no matter how far I went. They were letting commuters through at one spot only, so I removed items that would have identified me as a protester and slipped through with the commuters.
I tried to circle back to where the protesters were trying to get into the building, but the police weren’t letting anyone through. I walked up to 45th, then cut down a side street to try to approach from the west. I happened to pick the street the police were using as a staging area for their reinforcements. More vans, more beat cops, a row of cops on horses. I walked right past them trying to look casual and a bit distracted so they wouldn’t realize I was trying to rejoin the protest. It worked, but by the time I got to my destination all the protesters who were trying to get inside had done so, and cops were standing in front of the doors. I found out the next day that around 30 of us were arrested in total, so despite their preparations the cops didn’t arrest that many people.
At this point the action had all shifted elsewhere and my people were nowhere in sight, so I returned to Port Authority for the journey home.
As I was walking up 42nd, I recited the Sloinntireachd one more time to thank Brighid for her protection. We may not have succeeded in shutting down Trump’s event, but I did what I came to do. The more people who stand up and confront neofascist ideologies, the stronger the resistance gets. We’ll keep building this movement until Trump is defeated – either before the election or after it. Then we’ll turn our attention to the next threat.
Fascist ideas may be resurgent, but so is the willingness to confront and defy them. May the gods protect and bless us as we do so!
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.