It's Simple. It's Not So Simple

by Cynthia Peters

Now is the time to be talking to people. Communicating, sharing information, listening — they are the core of social change, of changing minds, of exchanging rationalizations and cynicism for vision and empowerment.

It's simple, really. A terrible crime is being committed in our name. Millions of dollars worth of bombs are raining down on an already decimated country. Beyond the military terror and destruction, the terror of starvation almost surely awaits millions of Afghans unless the bombing stops and a full-scale aid program gets food in place for the winter. This is a calculated crime against humanity that differs from September 11th only in scale; that is, it is many times larger.

That the U.S. is taking part in the killing of innocent people is not new. What's new is that people are paying attention. Before September 11th, I tried talking to people about the 500,000 Iraqi children dead, thanks to the U.S. economic embargo. And people's eyes glazed over. But during these last few weeks, as I've staffed an information table on the main street that runs through my town, I've noticed something else during my conversations with people about the war in Afghanistan, the certainty of mass starvation unless our current trajectory in that country is reversed, the principles of international law, the idea that escalating violence is exactly that and not a form of justice, and the importance of the rule of law over the muscle of vigilantism.

What I've noticed is that the glaze is gone.

People's eyes are opened to the world in a way they weren't before. People are bringing questioning minds to the problem of terrorism and the U.S. role in the Middle East and elsewhere. People are filled with grief, awed by the courage of the rescuers, stunned by what it means to turn a commercial jetliner full of innocent people into a living, breathing bomb. People are curious — and I mean that — about exactly how the U.S. has abused its power around the globe, and they are reflecting on the consequences of that abuse.

But not every conversation is so easy. I don't feel good about having some guy towering over me, jabbing the air with his finger, spitting out his passionate belief that, yes, we should kill as many Afghans as possible.

Heartless retaliation is not limited to war-mongers. Consider the guy in the corporate suit who speaks in soft tones and has a pained expression on his face as he shrugs off the possibility of millions of starving Afghans with, "Well, we have to get Osama bin Laden somehow, don't we?"

Rather than scream my disbelief, I try calmly repeating his own logic back to him. "So you think it's okay to put millions of Afghans at risk of starvation in order to possibly catch one man?" Then I try to let the pause be. I try not to fill up the silence with more words. I try to let him hear what he's saying. But this is hard to do. I feel a sort of a panic rising up. He is a thinking person, yet he has articulated his accord with an obscene and murderous set of policies. I hold down the panic. He backs off a little from his argument. The interaction ends.

This is where it becomes not-so-simple. I don't like talking to people like that man in the suit. They make me sick.

But talking is what we absolutely need to be doing right now. It is the only way to prevent mass murder. In a one-superpower world, the citizens of the superpower are the only force that can control the superpower. It's up to us.

Many people I've met in the last few weeks don't need to hear my analysis. They already know. And they have a lot to teach if we listen. A Vietnam vet challenges me on how we should pressure our government when corporations have so much control. A firefighter tells me that all he hears at work is that the killing should stop. A Haitian man wonders how international legal channels could be made more independent and less influenced by the United States. A teenager starts off protesting that her parents would disagree with me, but winds up voicing her own views. Three women carrying bibles talk for a long time, first with me and then amongst themselves.

Late one night, someone calls from a nearby town. He has our flyer inviting people to a neighborhood anti-war meeting, and he's shocked that I risked putting my name and number on it. I get the feeling he's calling partly to see if I'm real. He and his small group are planning on marching in a community-based parade featuring marching bands and civic organizations. They will carry a banner that says, "Our Cry of Grief is not a Cry for War."

Sometimes it strikes me as pathetic how few we are, how far we have to go, how many steps forward, backward and sideways we will have to take. Someone suggested that I give a short talk at the next meeting of her neighborhood crime watch group. But at the last minute, the group, which has put tremendous collective energy into debating the relative merits of stop signs vs. stop lights, relations with police, and all the minutia of orchestrating their security in the three-block radius of their homes, decides that hearing about the war is not relevant. I'm allowed to leave my flyers, but whatever I have to say just "isn't our business," says one of the leaders.

On the one hand, this experience is simply frustrating — something to be absorbed, learned from, tried again someday perhaps. On the other hand, this experience is not-so-simply rather alarming — a stark reminder that people will mobilize tremendous resources for immediate concerns, but withhold those resources when it comes to contesting a major human-rights catastrophe in the making.

It's not hard to grasp the potentially genocidal consequences of current U.S. policy. It’s harder to integrate that understanding into daily life, and let it affect our actions. How will this knowledge change us? What will it make us question about how we spend our time, our money, whether we are doing everything in our power to reduce the horror? Before, when we sheltered ourselves from this knowledge, we never wondered if it was okay to spend time watching the Yankees' game. Now we wonder.

And we are looking around at the peace activists and realizing that working in coalition with people to stop a major atrocity can mean aligning ourselves with people we don't agree with — or even people who are personally threatening. Some of the people fighting this war might be the same ones that, in another forum, would be our bosses, deny us a living wage, ensure more privileges for the already privileged. Some of our fellow peace activists would be horrified by our sexuality, find us perverse, or wish us out of existence. They may never have learned to listen to women or take people of color seriously.

You survey the growing legions of peace activists and wonder if they're the same people who are gentrifying your neighborhood or planting tulips in the park, but letting affordable housing go down the drain, never showing up to protest police violence or the gutting of welfare. Working with these people can be alienating, disheartening, downright soul-killing.

Should you do it anyway?

To answer that question, keep in mind that there are ways to risk fragile coalitions, to ease the necessary work of talking and listening, putting ourselves face-to-face with brutal, merciless or just plain petty thinking. Here are just a few:

1. Pick the community you work best in. There is a growing peace movement, but if that movement is not your political "home," then work elsewhere — in your neighborhood, your union, your place of worship, your community organization. Don't stop doing political work, but do look for new connections. Now is the time.

2. Acknowledge the frustration and alarm that will be part and parcel of organizing work, but be careful not to overstate it. No matter how alarmed we might be by people's denial, people's rejection of a moral stance, people's downright selfishness, nothing compares to the alarm of those at the receiving end of U.S. bombs and U.S. orchestrated starvation. Keep your frustration in perspective.

3. Join others for solidarity, support, shared inspiration, venting opportunities, perspective, and retreat from the challenges. Bear in mind that organizing is painstaking work, and create conditions that will allow you to do it for a long time.

4. Know when to walk away. You don't have to talk to everyone. Don't waste time and energy engaging with a person who is going ballistic. Use your energy instead for the many sensible people that have their hearts in the right place but who lack information or support for entertaining alternative points of view.

5. Don't judge every interaction. It may feel as if you failed to reach someone, but people's growth of consciousness doesn't follow a linear path. They may ignore you, but later privately read the literature you hand out, and this may affect how they read the newspaper the next day. Each step is exactly that, and with others adding their efforts, each step matters more.

6. Finally, pick the work you can do most effectively. If a two-hour table stint on your main street leaves you feeling drained, despairing or frightened, then do something else. Write an emergency grant to help pay for all the leaflets and posters. Volunteer to manage the database for your organization. Set up the website, collate the articles, moderate the list serve, host the house parties, bring food to the meetings, design the banners, or take part in any of the numerous background activities that are essential to building a movement.

Sound simple? It is and it isn't. Each of us, individually, has a responsibility to figure out how we can negotiate the organizing challenges and moral imperatives of the current crisis. Together, our job is to knit our individual abilities into a mass movement that pressures our government to back off from its bloodletting. The not-so-simple problem with this mandate is that it won't be easy. The simple fact, however, is that we must do it anyway.

Cynthia Peters is a freelance writer and editor, a political activist, and a homeschooling mother of two children. More of her writing is available at www.zmag.org.

(c) Cynthia Peters


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