Sunday, January 25, 2009

What makes an activist?

Summary based on a Tidings from Hazel Kahan program first heard on WPKN on January 1, 2009.

Lately, I’ve been curious about why some people become activists while others look on from the sidelines, unmoved by situations that a committed activist finds intolerable.

We’re all against oppression and injustice and we all believe human rights are hugely important and must be defended at all cost—but not necessarily by us.. Others however hear a call that the rest of us don’t and they respond, believing that their presence is required elsewhere, sometimes on foreign soil. Somehow it’s the ‘foreign soil’ part that seems of particular significance to me. What makes such people different from you and me? Are they fearless? Grandiose? Risk-takers? Adventure seekers? Or is it something more personal? More in touch with their conscience? Perhaps they have less to lose back home? Do we each have a tipping point?

For Bill McNulty, well-known for his non-violent civil disobedience opposition to the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia for which he served six months in federal prison, activism has been a progression as he came to understand that it’s is a lonely quest without the camaraderie, support and learning of community.

You never know when somebody will take the next step, increase the risk he or she is willing to take. Bill relates the story he heard first from Daniel Berrigan, the poet, activist and Roman Catholic priest whose voice and actions spearheaded the Vietnam anti-war movement:

"A river runs through a village and everyday bodies float down stream. The villagers are good people and they remove the bodies, healing those who are still alive, burying the corpses. One day, one villager realizes this is not enough. He goes to the head of the river, the place where the bodies come from, where the people who create the policy reside, where the brutality originates. The closer you get to that place, the more intense the experience becomes.”

Going to the head of the river, the place where the bodies come from, where the risk is greatest. It’s a powerful image and an apt description of the work done by IWPS, the International Women’s Peace Service in the occupied West Bank. Located in the village of Haris in the Salfit region, their regularly emailed Human Rights Reports provide witness accounts of Israeli violations and abuses. So far, they have produced 391 reports.
Why do these women activists do it? “A concern about human rights and the rule of international law,” one of them told me. Sometimes it’s risky, sometimes it’s scary but it’s also “a deep experience”: daily life in a Palestinian village, experiencing the Palestinian people and their legendary hospitality and strength, experiencing the Occupation, “being able to contribute toward solidarity with Palestinian people...peace and reconciliation in the Middle East,” experiences that “helps to do solidarity work in our own countries.”

Expressing a truly global perspective, one of the IWPS volunteers told me: “I think we as Europeans have responsibility in trying to solve the problem because we contributed to it. Besides," she added, "carrying the story beyond Palestine’s borders and the reporting by traditional media provides is also important."

So much commitment and yet no certainty that any of it will end up making a difference. The women at IWPS report not only no visible progress in the region but actual deterioration as the occupation becomes increasingly entrenched and institutionalized. Bill McNulty adds the perspective of a veteran activist: “I realize that no matter what you do, you do good because it is good. You’re not necessarily called on to be effective but to be faithful to the principles that govern what you do. You will lose friends in the process,” he warns “because you will be outside of the box of conventional wisdom.”
My friend Eleanor, who has volunteered in South America, Thailand and Burma tells me that having witnessed injustice and suffering first-hand, she must continue telling the story: “If you see it and do nothing, it’s such disrespect. They gave you their story and you have to honor them and look for ways to keep it alive.”
Perhaps that’s what it is then: motivated not by success but by conscience, activists are people of conscience and consciousness who, knowing what they know, have no alternative but to do what they do. Perhaps we’re all at different stages of that progression.

A podcast of these interviews is available on Tidings from Hazel Kahan. Tidings, produced by Tony Ernst, can be heard on the first Thursday of every month on WPKN 89.5 Bridgeport, WPKM 88.7 Montauk and