Of all the people I interviewed for my book, Inside the Red Zone, the words of one have never left me.
In a little farming village 50 miles north of Baghdad, I spoke with a local sheik who described his arrest and detention by the U.S. Army. For two weeks, he and a dozen other men sat on a patch of open ground surrounded by concertina wire. Without even a blanket for each of them, they literally baked in the sun and huddled against a three-day rain. They dug a hole in the ground with their hands for a toilet. They had to beg for enough water. Being sent to Abu Ghraib was actually a relief.
This man, responsible for the welfare of 2,000 people in his village, looked at me and very graciously said what I’d heard so often from Iraqis, “I know there is a difference between the American people and your government.” Then, as his voice quaked and his eyes welled up he added, “But you say you live in a democracy. How can this be happening to us?” (Note to all stout souls laboring for peace and justice: please observe that he did not ask, “When are you going to elect a new president?”)
It is not pleasant to conclude that, contrary to what you’ve learned all your life, the place you call home has become just another empire intent on enforcing its will on humanity. Our discomfort is trivial compared to the suffering of those living where our missiles land, but still there are days when the latest news from the colonies leaves you screaming with anguish and rage against the terror rained upon the innocent without end.
It’s enough to make you want to strike back in any way possible, understanding that doing so would be to join those who rose up against impossible odds and at times fought even the mighty Roman Empire or England’s feudal aristocracy to a bloody standstill.
An equally long record of nonviolent struggle parallels that courageous and violent history. We here today are the latest in an honorable, unbroken line of people who have refused to accept injustice, hunger, war and ignorance as normal and who used the power of nonviolence to make change. I’d like to share with you just a few of our predecessors’ stories.
In Judea, under the rule of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire attempted to publicly display imperial images, a move which sparked street demonstrations. Surrounded by soldiers and threatened with death, the Judeans held their ground and forced the empire to back down.
After WWI, Britain ignored requests from Egyptian anti-colonial activists to leave. Saad Zaghlul led the organizing of mass civil disobedience in the streets. Students, merchants, peasants, women, Muslims and Christians brought normal life to a halt and the revolts forced London to issue a unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922.
In February 1943, Nazis arrested 1,800 Jewish men in Berlin and shipped some of them to Auschwitz. The Aryan wives of these men and 4,000 supporters demonstrated in Rosenstrasse, staring down Nazi machine guns for a week. Worried about the effect on civilian morale, Goebbels and Hitler ordered the men released and some even returned from Auschwitz with numbers tattooed on their arms.
The Cape Town Peace March in September 1989, part of countless protests in South Africa, is considered by some to be the beginning of the end of apartheid.
In the wake of Argentina’s economic crisis, about 200 companies were “recovered” by their workers and turned into cooperatives, including the Hotel Bauen and the ceramics factory Fabrica sin Patrones or “Factory without Bosses,” where 410 people now work.
And just three weeks ago, Ecuador approved a new Constitution with plans to increase national control of oil and mining, give free health care to older citizens, extend civil marriages to gay partners, and allow women, the poor and Ecuador’s large indigenous community to have more say in the running of the country.
In this country we are familiar with how Abolitionists defied Federal law and refused to return fugitive slaves; how generations of suffragists agitated to win the vote for women; how the modern civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s tore down legalized segregation; how the Berrigans and others burned and poured blood on selective service records during the Viet Nam war; and how just this past May Day, the Longshore and Warehouse Union struck to protest the war and tied up every pound of freight from Seattle to San Diego.
There are more histories, and powerful ones, besides these — ones that didn’t fit within the popular myths of America, so they were buried. For example, the Populist movement of the late 1800s culminated in the People’s Party platform of 1892, which called for public ownership of telephone, telegraph, and railroads, stating, “The time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” That year Populists won 11 seats in Congress and many more in state legislatures, while their presidential nominee received over a million votes and won four states.
Such electoral success only happened because a democratic insurgency organized carefully for a decade and accomplished a transformation that was not only political, but also cultural, affecting every institution, even the courts. Here is just one example of many court decisions from that period. After agreeing that the North River Sugar Corp. had violated its corporate charter, the New York Court of Appeals in 1890 disbanded it with these words: “The judgment sought against the defendant is one of corporate death. . . . The life of a corporation is, indeed, less than that of the humblest citizen.”
Imagine a time to come when a democratic culture insists and inspires a modern court to rule that Raytheon Corporation or Blackwater LLC is indeed less important than the humblest citizen, dissolves them for trying to buy off Congress, and distributes its assets in the public interest! That has happened in our history and it can happen again. But our actions must be bolder. We have to quit being “good soldiers” all the time. Bringing down the Berlin Wall did not require legislation, nor will legislation bring down today’s biggest empire.
Howard Zinn‘s counsel is always timely: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders . . . and millions have been killed because of this obedience. . . . Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves and the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”