In this season when we should be enumerating all of the reasons we feel grateful, many of us are feeling so overwhelmed by the number of critical issues that need to be addressed that it is nearly impossible to summon up gratitude.
We are disheartened by the pervasive tirade of mean-spirited, uninformed yelling coming from mass media and our neighbors. The temptation is to cocoon – to crawl into our personal space, lick our wounds and resign ourselves to defeat.
We can’t! We know deep down we can’t stop!
Last Saturday night I attended the 35th Anniversary of the Peace Resource Center – the Souper Supper. For hours I was surrounded with maybe a couple hundred people whom I have come to know, love and admire for their dedication to peace and justice.
The energy of love and hope in that room was palpable. It made me think about a piece I had written a few years ago about some of my experiences just before and after the 2004 election. I share it here for you, to inspire you to keep going – because we are, after all, so much more powerful than we think. And I am so very grateful that all of you are here with me in this time and place, when the world, and future generations, need us to be brave and persistent.
Heroes and Fire Ants
We were coming down to the wire in the ’04 election campaign.
The thought of Bush being president for another four years
But John Kerry was sounding less and less
like the hero who threw out his combat awards
in protest of the Vietnam war,
and more and more like just another war monger.
I’d spent the previous year writing a daily blog
about the demise of our democracy
and the birth of the progressive movement.
Following in the footsteps of Paine
I wrote about the reality of what was unfolding around us
and the urgency of creating change,
questioning myths of justice, equality and freedom
peeling back the layers of lies about 9/11
that had been used to inspire the masses to charge ahead to war,
even doing a weekly radio spot, On the Road with Jeeni!
Working for the Kucinich presidential campaign in Boston,
producing a daily newspaper at the Democratic Convention,
watching Dennis concede just before the Dems selected Kerry,
writing about the barbed wire cage they built around North Station
that was supposed to be the “Free Speech” zone
watching Kucinich and Howard Dean join hands in Roxbury
to launch Progressive Democrats of America,
I believed Dennis when he said,
“The Democratic Party is big enough for all of us.”
I marched in one of the largest protests in US history,
up Broadway, past Madison Square Garden, New York City
on the eve of the Republican National Convention.
One of nearly a million.
Surely the tide was turning.
Surely our voices would be heard.
After months on the road,
I returned to Tampa,
determined to help get John Kerry elected.
Friends, who perhaps were more enlightened than me,
said I’d regret it.
Refuse to choose the lesser of two evils!
But all I could think was,
Anybody‘s better than Bush.
At the Kerry campaign headquarters,
hundreds of people were begging for yard signs and bumper stickers,
but we didn’t have any.
None were on order.
No one seemed to find this alarming.
We were told all that money
supporters had donated,
was earmarked for the legal battle they anticipated
if Bush tried to steal another election.
I was staying with a couple who lived in Sun City,
a mega retirement community.
They were part of an island of progressives
in a sea of conservatives.
Just before Election Day,
we learned that Barbara Bush was coming to speak at their club house.
So they decided to stage a demonstration
on the road leading into their complex.
standing there in the humidity,
studying the line of enthusiastic, elderly demonstrators,
perched in their golf carts all decorated in Kerry regalia,
I admit to feeling a bit –
Having been to the battle zones of protest,
this was Disney World activism.
In fact, out of respect for the fact
that Barbara Bush was the mother of George Bush,
they decreed there should be no Bush-bashing signage or slogans,
only Kerry campaign signs.
This was the mindset of 80-year-old progressives in Tampa…
But I had to hand it to them for ingenuity.
Noticing that drivers going by were angrily blasting their horns
and shaking their fists at them,
one silver-haired lady wrote on the back of her Kerry poster,
“Honk for Kerry!”
And everyone copied her.
so anyone honking their horn, would be honking for Kerry!
They all got a good laugh out of that.
So I watched these folks laughing and enjoying themselves,
thinking how pointless it all was.
large and small,
were proving insignificant,
compared to the might of forces running and ruining this world.
What can we possibly do?
We are like ants compared to them.
They squash us without a second thought…
And just as I what thinking this,
as it is prone to do,
decided I needed an immediate attitude adjustment
a lesson dealt with a sudden burning pain on my legs
and private parts!
Looking down, I was horrified to see
I was covered in fire ants!
I had been standing at the mouth of an ant hill.
Threatened, those suckers climbed up en masse
into my sneakers
inside my tight-fitting pant legs,
I never even felt them gathering, gathering, gathering
And then all at once,
THEY BIT ME!
Those tiny, insignificant ants
brought me down!
I had nowhere to go,
the golf cart I had arrived in,
was now an integral part of the protest.
I couldn’t pull up my pant legs
And I didn’t want to take off my pants
in front of everyone
So I started screaming.
Seeing my plight
one lady brought her car around
and rushed me to her house to shower.
The ants continued their relentless assault,
even biting between my fingers
as I was crushing them by the hundreds.
I was covered in painful blisters for over a week.
In the middle of all of this,
Barbara Bush’s entourage arrived,
and the protesters chanted their polite pro-Kerry slogans
and it never made one bit of difference.
Except to me.
The day after the election,
I was having lunch with some friends in a Thai restaurant,
refusing to accept defeat.
I reassured them that all of Kerry’s campaign money
had been set aside to contest fishy election results,
such as what we were hearing happened in Ohio.
There was a TV on in the background,
and we stopped to listen to John Edwards
that they were going to make certain
every vote was counted.
“See!” I told my friends,
“It’s not over.”
Then John Kerry stepped up to the mic
and proceeded to concede.
So we got the worst of two evils for another four years.
And the Progressive Movement thrived.
Thrived to the point where four years later
We succeeded in electing the lesser of two evils.
And as we breathed a sigh of relief,
the Progressive Movement melted,
and hardly anyone noticed
the steady decline into oligarchy.
We are at a precipice.
Our earth cannot tolerate further abuse.
On every front our sense of decency and justice is under assault,
as our means of voicing dissent and implementing systemic change,
are systematically curtailed.
The pseudo two-party system we have
is NOT a democracy.
It’s a ruse to make us think we have some say in our own demise.
The emails I get from the Democratic Party
are all about bashing the Republicans,
As if this was just a game of Poker,
As if our future isn’t at stake.
As if children are not being bombed and conscripted.
As if mothers are not raising their kids on our sidewalks.
As if donating to the Democratic Party,
and voting for their selected puppets,
will make a difference
to our grandchildren,
to our communities,
to our planet,
to real, flesh and blood human beings.
We can no longer think in nationalistic terms.
We can no longer expect the existing electoral system
to deliver the kind of courageous heroes the times demand.
But we are no more helpless than the fire ants.
We are the multitude, the masses they know they cannot control.
They are no bigger than I was to those ants.
We can fell this monstrous beast that threatens our very existence.
Stop looking for heroes to save us, they,
the ones who march to a different drummer,
are all around us.
A few weeks after the ’04 selection,
I prepared to go back on the road,
heading west this time.
Just before leaving
I attended an event
at a bohemian cafe in Sarasota,
where Medea Benjamin was speaking.
I had met, and written about Medea,
while I was in Boston
after seeing her and her Code Pink cohorts
at many of the events I’d covered the previous year.
I thought she was gutsy back then.
With what she’s done since then,
I think she’s super-human.
Impossible to emulate, but easy to admire.
The heroes we seek
don’t leave shoes too big to fill,
rather footsteps we can follow.
Like the featured speaker that night,
a soft-spoken, 62-year old peace activist,
named Faith Fippinger.
She had been one of 200 hundred ordinary people
who had tried to stop our attack on Iraq
by going there as human shields.
Slammed with a $10,000 fine
which she had refused to pay,
and a threat of a twelve-year sentence,
she had the audacity to join a protest
against the School of the Americas
in November 2003.
For that, she had been sentenced to 3 months in prison
for trespassing on federal property.
She was scheduled the next day
to turn herself in to the federal prison.
Watching Faith try to hold back her tears
as she spoke of her impending loss of freedom,
and the opportunities for revealing injustice
her imprisonment would offer,
it occurred to me
that having courage
doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid.
In fact, you cannot be courageous
unless you are dealing with fear.
My own decisions a year earlier,
to sell everything
to be a traveling blogger,
living in a small RV,
didn’t come easily.
My family thought I was crazy.
There had been times
in the previous months
when I thought they might be correct in their diagnosis.
There were times when,
That night, in Sarasota,
I was surrounded with heroes.
One just being born in her tears.
Medea introduced the next speaker,
hair barely brushed.
trembling with grief,
told the story of her son Casey,
who had died in Iraq seven months earlier.
Her son’s death in a senseless war,
had inspired this shy woman
to confront the lunacy of war.
I could never have imagined,
how this heartbroken mother
would ignite the peace movement
simply by sitting in a ditch in Crawford.
I took her contact information.
More out of courtesy than anticipation,
thinking I would follow up
with an interview for my blog.
A month later, I was staying with my father
in East County, San Diego,
trying to unearth the progressive community
I just knew had to exist somewhere in Southern California.
It was like the time I went to Kauai
and after wasting five days of my vacation
enduring torrential rain
someone told me
the other side of the island is always sunny.
I heard that Cindy Sheehan was starting an organization
called Gold Star Families for Peace,
and decided it was time for that interview.
I still had our conversation on a small recorder in my purse
a few days later
when I joined a group in Oceanside
placing crosses in the sand,
representing each of the soldiers who had died in Iraq.
A lady handed me a stack of crosses
and a bunch of laminated strips
with the names of those who had died in Iraq.
Settled on a blanket in the warm sand,
happy to finally be around people
who shared my passion for ending the war,
thinking to myself as I began my task,
securing each name with an elastic band,
that I was glad I didn’t know anyone who had died in Iraq
because it would be so painful
to have to add the name of someone I knew
to one of these wooden crosses.
I reached for the first name strip in my hand
Casey Sheehan, April 4, 2004.
I could feel my heart explode in my chest.
I gingerly walked past the rows of crosses already planted in the sand
hugging Casey’s cross to my heart,
to one of the veterans
who seemed to be directing the process
of lining up the crosses in the sand.
I told him that I knew this young man’s mother
And that I wanted to place his cross myself.
Little did I realize
that in eight months
everyone would know Casey Sheehan’s mother,
and she would have sparked a fire in the peace movement
that didn’t end the war
but inspired and united peace activists around the nation
and the world.
The veteran gave me a flag to put by Casey’s cross
and as I was positioning it,
I remembered I still had Cindy’s interview
on the recorder in my purse.
So I sat there in the sand,
in front of Casey’s cross,
waves crashing in a steady background rhythm
and pressed the PLAY button
and let his mother’s sweet voice fill the space.
We are not alone in this.
We are surrounded by heroes who have our backs
as we charge into the fray.
But we need to look beyond the party system that divides us.
See beyond the superficial, manufactured differences.
Find the common threads that bind us.
Stop waiting for super-heroes,
Because real heroes are all around us.
They are us,
and we are ready to rise