Monday, April 7, 2008

Rachel Corrie, Ben Linder and Me

April 5, 2008

Tonight I'm going to an event for the premier of a book, Let Me Stand Alone, the Journals of Rachel Corrie (actually, I didn't, but my intentions were good). I haven’t read the book, and I know enough about Rachel to know that this is probably a misperception, but the title of the book rubs me the wrong way. It gives the impression, especially to those who will hear about the book but never read it, that Rachel’s life has meaning because she did something alone, when in fact, what she is known for is something she did as part of a movement, something she could not have done on her own. More generally, it feeds into the American idea that it’s extraordinary individuals who make a difference, rather than groups, what might be called Dr. King Syndrome. It’s the same response that I had to Cindy Sheehan when she issued her (short-lived, as it turned out) farewell as the “face of the peace movement” (see my Open Letter to Cindy at

Everything, our media, our literature, our history, is reduced to the actions of individuals. This may be nice for the few who become those icons of personal achievement (though it’s certainly not nice for Rachel Corrie or Casey Sheehan, because they’re dead, and it wasn’t nice for Cindy because it led to a nervous breakdown and a life-threatening illness), but it makes the masses of people feel both that they cannot make a difference, and that they do not need to make a difference.

I remember when I had first started participating in and organizing direct action, primarily against U.S. intervention in Central America, I was talking to a close friend of my mom’s, who has since died. She was impressed with my commitment, but even more, she was impressed that I had friends who had been friends of Ben Linder’s in Seattle. For those of you – probably most of you, at this point – who do not know who Ben Linder was, he was a young Jewish American who went to Nicaragua as an engineer, to help electrify rural areas. The government of Nicaragua at that time was the popular/Marxist Sandinistas, and the U.S. was financing and arming the “contras” in their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas, and Ben was killed in a contra raid in Jinotega in 1986. A lot of U.S. citizens had by that time spent time in Nicaragua, picking coffee and cotton, volunteering in clinics, building houses and schools, and Ben was the first (and last, as it turned out) to be killed. And though his name is barely known now by people who didn’t know him, he was in the eighties at least as well known as Rachel Corrie is today. (And as with Rachel, the U.S. government did nothing to help his family find out what happened to him or to hold anyone accountable for killing him.)

So this friend of my mom’s had heard about Ben and she was opposed to the contra war, and she said she would be willing to participate in civil disobedience, but only if she knew it was going to be worth it. And I struggled with how to convince her, because the truth is, you never know what your actions are going to be worth. Would Ben think that his sacrifice was worth it, if he knew that before the nineties were a year old, the Sandinistas would be voted out of power? Would he think it was worth it now, because Sandinistas have regained power in some areas of the country? Would Rachel think her sacrifice was worth it, if she knew that a few months ago in Gaza, police controlled by Hamas violently broke up peaceful demonstrations commemorating the death of Arafat? Would either of them think their sacrifice was worth it, even if they knew that eventually the lands where they gave their lives would be free and prosperous?

I hope not. I hope that if either of them knew they would be killed, they would have made different choices on those fateful days. Among internationals working in Palestine, we honored Rachel’s life, but we didn’t encourage people to follow her example. When I was recruiting people to go Palestine, if I ran into anyone who said, “I want to be the next Rachel Corrie,” I would say that that person should not be allowed to go, because we are not in the business of recruiting martyrs.

At the same time, who am I to say that their sacrifices were not worthwhile? We have no way to know while we are in the throes of struggle, what is going to be the tipping point. There’s a fallacy which goes along with the culture of stardom, I think, that says that there’s one way to accomplish our goals and we all need to do the same thing. Thus you read books by the people who led the “Troops Out Now” movement claiming that they were the ones who ended the Vietnam War, and ones by people who chanted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” insisting that no, it was them, while the Silent Majority who stayed home and watched them all on TV saw them all as one bunch of crazies. Lately, everyone in the antiwar movement is talking about “what is effective?” and I sometimes get the feeling that they think there’s one right answer that is hiding just around the corner. We don’t always remember to ask, what is the effect we want to have?

Some people claim that leafleting is more effective than direct action, because it reaches people directly. But how do we know what effect our leaflets have on people? We don’t follow them around so we have pretty much no idea how many of the people who take a leaflet even read it, and how many of those learn one thing from it, and how many (or how few) of those are motivated to do anything. Occasionally, you give someone information and they come back and ask for more, but that’s very rare.

On the other side of the spectrum are the people who only want to do actions that really impede the making of war in some way. Those people are usually putting a lot of energy into figuring out how to outwit the authorities, and they are easily stymied by the fact that the authorities have more resources than we do. At a meeting I was at today, someone observed that the San Francisco police have gotten very fast at dismantling the lockboxes that activists use to prolong blockades, and so he said we need to come up with better lockboxes. I think a better message to take is that we’re not going to win a war of equipment, that we need to stop relying on equipment to make up for the fact that our actions don’t involve enough people.

Then there are people whose main goal in any action is to get positive media coverage, but that’s a big crap shoot because we have pretty much no control over what the media do and don’t cover. On March 19 we got a lot of mostly good coverage, but that wasn’t because of us and how great our action was, it was because March 19 is the one day a year when the media looks for stories about the antiwar movement. It’s like being veterans on Veterans’ Day. We could do the same action next week and get no coverage at all. I know this is true because the group I was part of, which was one of the media stars of the day due to our highly photogenic orange jump suits and hoods, did almost the same thing on January 11 and not a single news outlet responded to our press calls. The wide variety of available media nowadays gives you more possibilities for getting coverage, but also makes it harder to make a dent. It used to be, if your demonstration got on one local television station, a significant percentage of people in the area would see it. Now even if you get on all the TV stations and CNN, most people will not see it because a majority of people who follow current events at all are getting their news from the internet.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa is considered the epitome of a successful movement that used direct action, and when people think of that struggle, they are always thinking of the huge protests at places like Berkeley and Michigan. They don’t remember, or they don’t know, that there was daily civil disobedience at the South African embassy in Washington for an entire year, and some of those actions had movie stars getting arrested, and some of them had dozens of people, but some of them had five priests or twelve students. At U.C. Berkeley; a different group did direct action every day during one quarter – one day the teachers, one day the disabled activists, one day the queers …. People in many countries protested when South African athletes participated in international sports events, and boycotted South African cultural events. Not one of those actions would have made much difference by itself, but all together, they won the day.

It’s not what one person does alone, or what one group does alone, but the times when in spite of all our divisions, we manage to support one another, that we should be proudest of. Let us all stand together.