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The Idea of a Walkabout

By John Beresford, M.D.

With prisons filling the landscape and a fervor for imprisonment seizing Drug War America, the idea of the walkabout is due for revival.

In common usage, walkabout refers to the aboriginal custom in Australia where a man breaks off from the daily grind and walks in solitude across desert and bush country on a spiritual quest. The distance covered on a walkabout may exceed 1000 miles, done without aid of compass or radio. The walker finds his way, it is believed, under the guidance of a spiritual power.

A walkabout in the sense to be explained has an element of the aboriginal meaning. More important, the key ingredient is the idea of circumambulation Circumambulation (walking around, walking about) has two meanings in the dictionary. One is walking about aimlessly. The other is walking around in the manner of and with the purpose of performing a ritual, religious in kind. Walking around an object or site with a religious purpose is the sense of walkabout meant here.

The ritual of walkabout is practiced worldwide and goes back a long way in time. In Mecca, in the days when there was room, the faithful circumambulated the Kaaba seven times. Buddhist devotees circumambulate a stupa, or monument containing sacred relics. Jewish and Christian scripture tells the story of the circumambulation of Jericho.

The story of this well-known episode bears repeating. It starts with the death of Moses and the assumption of leadership of the people of Israel by Joshua, Moses' hand-picked successor. At the end of their trek through the wilderness, the people of Israel have reached the river Jordan. Beyond lies the Promised Land, with Jericho the city first in line for conquest. Joshua contrives to have the water of the Jordan cease from flowing long enough for people, priests, and army to cross over. Stones are collected from the river bed and set up to mark the event that is to come. On the completion of certain preliminaries, the circumambulation of Jericho begins. Six days in a row, army and priests and people march around the city, the priests blowing their trumpets. All this while, the people are enjoined by Joshua to keep silent. On the seventh day, when they hear the trumpets sound, the people have been told to shout at the top of their lungs. When they do, the walls of the city fall down flat, and the mayhem typical of the day follows.

Take the Jericho circumambulation as an example of a walkabout, if in some respects extreme. What are the main points? A community of people act in concert, sticking to a plan that has been carefully thought out. The objective they are striving for presages a change in the organization of society. The objective involves a task of such magnitude that only with divine approval will it succeed. There is a rule of silence: people do not chatter during the circumambulation; presumably they have been told to concentrate on the end in view. The climax of the walkabout comes with an acclamation: a universal shout accompanies the collapse of the city walls. The event is commemorated by set of objects, stones brought from the river Jordan, and they are there to this day.

The November Coalition plans to bring to the attention of the American public the iniquity of imprisoning large numbers of people for long periods of time for violations of current Drug War laws. With proper information, it is expected that public sentiment will veer in the direction of more humane and rational solutions to problems encountered from drug use. As part of its campaign to educate the public in this aspect of social policy, the Coalition plans to revive the ancient practice of the walkabout, circumambulating prisons where prisoners of the War on Drugs are confined.

Expanding on the Jericho model, consider what conditions may apply in this important venture:

First, people who align themselves with the Coalition engage in a walkabout taking a path that encircles a prison holding prisoners of the War on Drugs. The route is planned well in advance. To avoid trouble, a determination has been made of the distance from the perimeter that satisfies concerns of the warden. As required, permits to assemble and conduct a walkabout have been obtained from the local authorities. Cooperation with the warden and the police is assumed. Provocation in the form of inflammatory speech or behavior is no part of the conduct of a walkabout, and is expressly advised against by the organizers. Provocative remarks or acts are in any case foreign to the spirit of a walkabout.

Second, participants in the walkabout may be aware that they are engaging in a solemn rite. In this connection, it does not matter if some, or for that matter all, participants are religious skeptics. Performance of a ritual circumambulation with attention focused on the site in question is itself sufficient to invoke a response from the power that tends to human affairs, if scripture from across the globe is anything to go by.

Third, the rule of silence: the walkabout is an occasion for directing attention to the space within the perimeter of a prison and those who live and work there. It is no time for chanting slogans or engaging in pep talks or idle chatter. Think of the tragedy daily enacted inside the walls being walked about - the cost to prisoners, their friends and families; the degradation imposed on prison staff by virtue of their employment in the Drug War prison trade; the national indignity heaped on the United States for its prosecution of the Drug War; the torment visited on people in other countries as a consequence of Drug War policies. There is plenty to occupy the mind during a walkabout.

Fourth, at the conclusion of a walkabout, walkers may wish to give vent to some cry. Spontaneously, or in advance, walkers may decide on an expression of grief, or perhaps a song of hope that the coming change will not be long delayed. A Jericho-type shout could set up a vibration that carries far and wide-who knows?

Fifth, it may be appropriate to leave behind a mark of the day's work. Burying a document addressed to the Drug War prisoners circumambulated will suit the feelings of some walkers. Some may want to leave behind a permanent reminder, such as a colored pebble or a piece of rock.

These points concern the form a Drug War walkabout may take. It is submitted that the more closely they are adhered to, the closer to ritual and the more immediately effective the walkabout movement as a whole will be.

The initial goal of the November Coalition is to tag all 132 federal prisons with walkabouts. Depending on the outcome, corporation-owned and state-run prisons may receive the treatment next. Coalition chapters are needed in each state to conduct walkabouts on home ground. Add your ideas to the above and let's get started.

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