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blt Lessons learned on social activism? (41) RE: Lessons learned on social activism? 11 Jan 01

For me, I think my first step toward activism was in the 60s, probably 1964 or so, when I confronted a much older and bigger adult male, a member of the American Legion, who was heckling the heck out of marchers against the draft in Danbury, Connecticut. My father, who was with me, became very frightened, whereas I, as a 13 year old, was oblivious to any danger. I was simply annoyed that this guy was acting so stupid, and I told him so. I was shocked when he backed up and remember wondering what I had done. I think it was mostly due to the fact that he wasn't prepared to argue with a young girl. What that taught me was that bullies require standing up to.

During the 1980s, I was very active in direct action against the White Train, a sort of armed transport train that moved components for nuclear power plants around. It was painted white for reasons I can't recall. The folks who protested with me were adherents of Saul Alinsky's philosophy of using theatrical means to gain attention: one guy stood on the tracks, nude; we did the hokey-pokey on the tracks at one point. We sat on the tracks outside the Boeing plant in Seattle. In those days, Buddhist monks would beat drums and chant as the train approached, train-track sitters would try to gain a foothold on the tracks while rather large employees of the Burlington Northern would grab one protester after another (we tended to be a rather undernourished lot)and throw them every which way. We were also trained to go limp (a strategy honored by the demonstrators in Seattle recently). When I think about the lessons I learned from this (other than if you're arrested, it's very helpful when the Polaroid camera used to document your presence at the scene malfunctions), I think of my friend Alison, who was in a wheelchair. She and I have locked her chair to several buildings and train tracks. In spite of her on-going battle with disability and illness, she never, ever, gave up. Ever. She died of AIDS this past fall.

The lessons I return to are the ones that point to the connectedness of the issues involved. Working on the issues of white supremacy, I have to address my own internalized fears and biases. When a right-wing group in Oregon started to advocate for anti-gay and lesbian laws state-wide (seeking to make it illegal, for example, to speak about homosexuality in a public school), I helped organize a speakers' bureau. It became very clear very fast that, without an understanding of how one oppression is simply another facet of all oppressions, the people in this state would probably vote to make homosexuality "illegal" in Oregon. As it was, proposed anti-gay, anti-welfare, anti-abortion legislation has been defeated in Oregon every election since the late 80s by only the barest of margins--51% to 49.

Doing this work, I've also noticed that class issues are critical but typically unaddressed. I've worked, at some point, in a homeless shelter, and have been homeless myself (twice). Even worse is to be poor and mentally ill, for then all rights vanish like smoke.

I've tried to sing about my perspective in the songs I write, figuring it was easier to hear that way. I also think political theater and street theater are extremely effective. Too often rallies and conferences forget about the role of "cultural workers," and subject audiences to one boring speech after another.

In October of this year, I went to a new collective coffeehouse (the Red and Black Coffeehouse) in Portland, OR to celebrate Joe Hill's birthday. The musicians were all died-in-the-wool folkies, oral historians, and very enthusiastic. It was like being at a labor meeting in the twenties to judge from the way people were dressed. We all sang union songs well into the night. This intimacy between folk music and activism is very important, as well as (obviously) traditional.

I've written more than enough.
In Solidarity,

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