The Walk for Democracy
"It takes neither moral nor physical courage to declare a war for others to fight." - Claude Kitchin, one of the 49 members of Congress who cast votes against entry into WWI
It is the eve of World War III, and I find myself at a loss for what to say. There is much to talk about, of course - but where do I begin?
I am in Oxford, Ohio - a lovely college town with little to offer folks like me in the way of solace during these troubled times. Miami University is a grand old school, founded in the early 1800's. Its stony walls and groves of dogwood trees have stood in stoic vigil over every major battle since the Civil War. The civil rights movement gained momentum from this place in 1964, when 3 students from Miami disappeared en route to "Mississippi Summer". They were on their way to register Negro voters. The charred remains of their car were found before their bodies finally were, and it was later revealed that their license plates had been circulated among a number of hate groups down South. A small amphitheater in West Campus chronicles the turn of events that summer, and pays tribute to all activists who sacrifice their lives for peace and justice.
I thought of my fellow Washingtonian from Olympia, Rachel Corrie, who had been murdered only yesterday by an Israeli soldier - run over by a bulldozer as she stood defending a Palestinian physician's home from yet another senseless demolition. I know how passionate I become in the face of provocation. I know without a doubt that I would have done the same thing. When the only thing you have to fight with is your body and your voice, you have no choice but to lay them both down for the cause. What's the alternative? Giving up?
I didn't know Rachel Corrie, but I probably marched with her in the streets of Seattle - that jewel of a city which gave courage to so many of us who saw with our own eyes the power of solidarity and non- violent direct action. We shut down the WTO! You can't imagine the David and Goliath experience we all shared... that right can beat might. One jail guard I spoke to brushed it off as 'cognitive dissonance' - a social phenomena that occurs when you've been through a shared traumatic experience. This theory postulates that you take on the thoughts and opinions of those around you in order to 'fit in' and increase conformity within the group.
If I were an unquestioning idiot, that might be true. Instead, I like to think that I merely opened myself up to the people who had the information in order to learn, not conform. I've never been much of a conformist, and I am constantly seeking information from all sides of a problem... hence the whole walking- 3,000-miles-across-America thing.
No, I think I understand why Rachel sat down in the path of that bulldozer. She remembered how we had won in the face of intense provocation using nothing but love, solidarity, and strength of conviction. She believed with her whole heart that the soldier would stop. She believed in the power of one, and she believed she would single-handedly save that family's house. She was willing to stake her life on her beliefs. What have I always said? You don't lose unless you give up. I imagine that she believed this to the very end, and her legacy will prove that it is, in fact, always true. Our bodies are fleeting. It is our spirit of dedication to a higher law than the ones prescribed by Guys In Suits which will live on after these 'clay garments' (as Peace Pilgrim described our current physical forms) decay. I can't verify it from news sources yet - but I'll wager she did save that house, if only for that one day.
My thoughts wandered back to Oxford, where the only people sitting at the monument now were students more interested in discussing last night's drunken St. Paddy's day follies than the impending war. Miami is largely a business school now, swarming with teems of Ralph Lauren clad youth eagerly learning how to make their quarterly budget reports and increase their profit margins. The golf class was busy improving their game. Laughter from the Lacrosse players drifted across sprouts of emerald grass, only recently liberated from their snowy shrouds. Everything was clean, pure, and divine. It is, in fact, how things should be. Youngsters without a care in the world. Bills dutifully forwarded to dad for worry-free resolution. The breezy exchange of Spring Break stories. Everyone agreeing that Fuji is a great place to vacation... even with your parents.
Wandering around campus later with my ubiquitous backpack bearing the words "5,000 Miles On Foot For Democracy", I scanned each face for even a twitch in response to my "No War In Iraq" button. I didn't see any other buttons. How happy I would have been today to find even ONE person publicly bearing witness to their political beliefs on a day like this! All I could find was a "God Bless America" shirt with the word "$OLD" emblazoned across the American flag. A few folks stopped to chat, asking the usual questions:
"When did you start?" "How long has it taken you?" "When are you going to get there?" "How many shoes have you gone through?"
I didn't feel like talking about the walk much. I kept reminding people about that war thing that's supposed to start tomorrow. People were by and large opposed, but certainly none were willing to actually express it openly. What would people think? I was told many times over what a "conservative" school this was, though I could not for the life of me figure out why that gave the kids blanket permission to disengage. Are conservatives magically protected from the ravages of war? Have I been wrong this whole time... should I amend the "War is bad for children and other living beings" slogan with the qualification "...except if you're conservative, in which case you should go on with your lives as usual because war doesn't really affect you"?
No one wrote a grievance for me today. I was fortunate enough to have had interactions with some passionate peace activists over the weekend in Richmond, Indiana. Otherwise I may have gone ballistic in this hotbed of student apathy. I even had the opportunity to meet Father Roy Bourgois, founder of the School of Americas Watch, and a big hero of mine, but that's all for another time.
I don't feel much like addressing the challenges of winter or the freedom of my newfound life-without-support-vehicle. My petty discomforts and triumphs are of little consequence now. I'm thinking about all of those kids in uniform on the other side of the world - the same age as the kids I saw today who worried about being too hung over to finish their assignments. I'm imagining our kids in uniform huddled in a sandstorm, wondering if today will be the last day of their life. Maybe they're wondering about the biological weapons they will be exposed to, or the depleted uranium impact dust that nearly 200,000 Desert Storm were exposed to and sickened by. Certainly they're wishing they were back home, hanging out with their friends... maybe going to the bar. It's what I would be thinking about. Maybe they're hoping for a miracle. Perhaps in the back of their mind, they're hoping those peaceniks back home might actually stop this war before it starts - saving them from war's deadly embrace. At the very least, we might be able to keep them from becoming the killers they are not.
I've worked with many Vietnam vets over the years. (note: Check out veteransforpeace.org if you're a vet who wants to get involved). I've been taken in by vets from every war since World War II. Remember WWII? "The Good War"? "The war to end all wars"? People actually believed that propaganda. There is much in our history that I can look back on and wonder, "Why the hell did people buy this?" I've often wondered what I would have done back then, when dissent was not nearly as tolerated as it is today. Would I have stood up to the rhetoric? Would I have risked jail time, ridicule, or even death for speaking out against the stupid institution of war? That was a crime which carried the charge of "treason" back then, by the way.
I'd like to think I would have. I'd like to imagine that I would have been one of the people during the rise of the Third Reich back in Germany who screamed at the parades that the Emperor had no clothes while everyone else was goose-stepping. Or maybe I would have been one of the many brave people who risked certain death by harboring Jews or sending them to safety. I like to believe I wouldn't have been one of the silent multitudes who maintained the status quo as indifference turned into the horror that a holocaust was occurring in their own country. By then, it was too late to speak.
I'm not going to speculate what the 24 million people of Iraq (50% of them under the age of 18) are feeling right now, waiting for the largest and most concentrated use of military firepower in the history of the world to descend upon them. I know that the average red-blooded American fence-straddler would simply blast me for being "too liberal" in my concern for non-American human beings, so let's just talk about our soldiers for now, because I'm friends with quite a few of our boys who are in the Middle East. They tell me different things than they tell the press or their recruiters or even their parents, and they ARE scared right now. You'd better believe it.
They'll give it their best, alright. They're certainly not cowards. I'm sure they're each hoping to be the heroic one that'll "Get Saddam". They want to make Mom proud. They want to make their country proud. They are not the enemy, and I will not stand for any more of the "I hate America" or "I don't support our troops" accusations I've been hearing lately from the proponents of the upcoming carnage. (My own father accused me of this, so I know from whence I speak.) When they're out of uniform, the kids in uniform I've befriended over the course of this walk frequently and lavishly thanked me for doing what I'm doing.
"Keep it up", they said. "We need more of it."
I guess that's what I want to talk about now - how to keep it up. It is my challenge to all of you.
I know there are many of you who have spent collective hours in the bitter cold holding signs over the last couple of months, sincerely hoping that all your hard organizing work would actually keep this day from happening. It is very easy to get discouraged now. No one seems to be listening. Our president has not met with a single NGO (non-governmental organization) with actual alternatives to war. Not one. It would seem that a decision as large as starting World War III might warrant at least a listen from all sides of the issue, especially the side which seems to represent what most of the world wants. 12 million people demonstrate for peace, and we're brushed off as little more than a "political lobby group". I WISH. At least politicians MEET with political lobby groups.
There are those of you out there who've waited on the sidelines. You aren't quite convinced either way. Shouldn't get Saddam? Don't we want to be the liberators? Still others don't really pay mind to this war business at all. You've got a job to think about... kids to raise. You can't waste your time being one of "those" people... the ones who carry signs. The whining liberals who hate America, right? You might have even made fun of them occasionally... we're easy targets, I know. We are putting themselves out there in the public eye, after all. We're practically BEGGING for you to drive by with your 'thumbs down' and smirk meant to urge us to, "Lighten up! You don't need to be so SERIOUS all of the time!"
To those people, I can only say this: It is not a question of Iraq. It is not a question of Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda or even terrorism. The question is whether or not you feel there is anything in this civilization worth saving. If there is, then you must work for peace.
You can start by wearing a button or t-shirt in whatever style you choose. Make your own. Use your voice! I know you have SOME opinion about this. You can wear it to work, to school - the important thing is to wear it. Allow people to approach you about it, and engage in dialogue.
Here's how I dialogue: I steer away from the CNN topics of the day (It's fairly easy to do when you're homeless.) My style is to talk about how war is stupid, because it is. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in the world to be elected to a legislative body, and the woman who cast the lone vote against entering WWII, said it best:
"The most futile occupation that a thinking person can engage in today is that of trying to make war and the war system a reasonable and just institution. The only way to prevent the injustices and wrongs essential to war is to prevent war itself."
Even the most die-hard proponent of Operation Shock and Awe won't find many arguments against this. Use your own experiences. Why ARE you opposed to war? Again - don't focus on Middle East policy if you're not an expert in it. Some of these folks watch CNN a LOT, and you'll feel dumb and small if you haven't been (which is FAR from the truth). Those CNNsters will feed you all sorts of fancy lingo, but just ignore that. Encourage them to ignore it. Most folks agree that what they see in the news is garbage - it's just a matter of deciding if it's too corporate or too "liberal". Who cares?
If you insist on dispelling a few of the myths people who watch TV like to talk about, then please peruse this Voices in the Wilderness fact sheet (http://www.nonviolence.org/vitw/pages/myth_reality_war.html). You should read it anyway, since it will serve to strengthen your resolve. There are many VitW activists in Baghdad at this moment, waiting to bear witness to the atrocities of war for all of us living in the relative comfort of home. Those people are my heroes. I can't even imagine the terror they must feel on the eve of this war... the one that's supposed to liberate them from terrorists. My hope is that they will make those fence-straddlers hang their heads in shame for being afraid to wear a button or t-shirt to publicly express their opinions against war. It's the very least we can do.
After a while, you will begin to feel more comfortable with engaging in dialogue. You will, in fact, wish to do more. You will build relationships with the people who share your beliefs. You may start talking about taking some direct action, and this is the point where you can start what's known as an "affinity group". All that means is that you few will plan and carry out some sort of action. There are many to choose from, but I only advocate the non-violent ones. It is important to familiarize yourself with the rules of non-violence. Many resources for this are available on the internet, as are many examples of creative non-violent action. My favorite website, indymedia.org, has consistently covered these events.
A favorite one I read about recently dealt with the arrest of a petite mother in New York who stood dressed as an Easter bunny next to a display containing "patriotic" pro-war Easter baskets. Her sign read: "Help! There's a G.I. Joe in my Easter basket!". As she was led away in handcuffs for her crime, she expressed great pleasure with the outcome of her solitary action.
"Easter baskets are for chocolate Easter bunnies, not G.I. Joes!" That was the only point she wished to make.
And you can, too! If you had told me five years ago that I would be walking across America for democracy, I'd still be laughing. All I can say is this: one day, you just get to a point where you understand that everything you thought was important is not. The only important thing in life is to make the world a better place than it was when you found it. Even if you can't see a difference now, you must work towards this goal anyway. You have to look at the choices you make now not in terms of what people will think of you now, but how they will think of you 50 years from now. Do you want to be the kind of person who's remembered for keeping silent while innocent people died in your name, or do you want to be remembered with pride by your children and grandchildren as one of the brave people responsible for making the world the peaceful place we want them to inherent?
History is happening right now. You - YES, YOU - play a crucial role in how it will write itself... how we will be remembered 50, 100, 500 years from now. It is a great responsibility to be living in this time, and I hope you will give serious thought to how you are going to act. Those great mentors of ours are calling out to us... encouraging us to take up the flame and become the Gandhis, the Dr. Kings, the Dorothy Days, the Mother Joneses and Joe Hills of tomorrow. They wouldn't stand for their teachings being appropriated by people who are afraid to take action, so don't summon their words if you can't follow through with their intent.
Let's stop this problem of war forever... right now. Let's stop it today. We have so much power, and we don't even know it! All of this could end in a moment - for better or worse. You won't have a job or kids to worry about after WWIII, I guarantee it.
Call in sick to work and get out on the streets. There's other people out there - I promise. Having walked all over this country, I can promise that any nearby town with a population over 30,000 will have a peace group, and they will be on the streets when we start bombing. You will find that many of the folks there look and think just like you, so go meet 'em! Don't just sit around feeling helpless and alone.
Students - walk out of class and camp out on your campus. I know from experience that you've skipped classes for less important things than this. Make it MEAN something this time. Refuse to leave your institution of learning until this situation is peacefully resolved. Talk to each other. Find that humanity you share with every single person in this world of ours, for we are not separated by lines on maps. Stop waiting for the world to be legislated for you by Guys in Suits who are not the least bit concerned with what your thoughts and feelings are right now. Don't let these Guys in Suits profit from your feelings of helplessness. You always have a choice! Nothing is inevitable. If all of us got together and talked this out, we would understand this... and we would not allow war be an option EVER.
In America - we have a good record of doing this. It would be inconceivable to carpet bomb - say, Ohio, if they had a governor our President deemed "evil". If we can just extend this common sense to the rest of the world, we would be on the forefront of a human revolution for peace instead of the complete extinction of our species... which is the only direction I see this war pulling us towards. It might not happen in a week or month or even a year, but it is setting the precedence for it to happen in the very near future. These things tend to have a domino effect. Which row are you going to set in motion?
The line has been drawn. The cards have been dealt. Many metaphors are poised awaiting your action. Which side are you on?
Are you with us, or are you with us?
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