Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is Failure the Chicken and Success the Egg?

(Thinking about chickens because of Nevada's new law that you can't wear a chicken costume to the polls.)

More reflections on Budrus, the Movie.

After seeing the movie, I went back and looked at my journals from those early days of action in Budrus. Here is a little bit of what I wrote after the first day:

After two hours or more, another group of soldiers arrived with two police jeeps. Ayad asked us to get in front. Ted and I did. The army commander came toward me and I pointed the camera at him.

He said, “You can put away the camera because I didn’t come to make a scene.”

“Why did you come?” I asked.
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I came here to build the Fence.”
“Well, I did know that, but I meant right now, why did you come?”
He said, “We both know the Fence is going to be built. We can do it today, or tomorrow we come in with hundreds of soldiers, we close the school, put the village under curfew. But my government wants to build the Fence, and I know and you know we are going to do it.”

I got a sinking feeling, because of course he is right. If they want it, they can do it. But I said, “No, I don’t know that.”

Reading that now, of course, I think, “I should have had more faith.” But nothing in my experience gave me reason to. And this is the little piece that I think doesn’t come through so well in the film: People did not go out there knowing or even believing that they could win. The villagers did not tell their kids to go to the fields that day instead of to school because they knew no one would be shot. Iltezam didn’t jump into the hole and sit there under the blade of a bulldozer, and her father did not stand there and encourage her to do it, because they knew the bulldozer would stop. Quite to the contrary, they knew that Rachel Corrie had recently been killed, in a situation not so different from theirs.

I can’t help wondering what international reaction to the film would be like if that were the story. (Of course, probably there would have been no film if that were the story.) Would Ayad and Naami be known, not as the brilliant organizers of nonviolent resistance who raised a brilliant daughter to follow in their footsteps, but as proof that Palestinian parents don’t value the lives of their children enough to keep them from sitting in front of bulldozers? What would all those people who say, “This film is so wonderful, these people are so brave, if only the Palestinians had used this nonviolence from the beginning, they would have won in a day,” be saying then? Presumably the same things they are saying about Rachel Corrie and Tristan Anderson, who were equally nonviolent and brave: they shouldn’t have been there. What happened to them was their fault, because they had an irrational hatred of Israel and the Jews.

I’ve said this before, but people have a tendency to read social movements through their outcomes. Working backwards, we make a coherent narrative out of their strategies and tactics, their power struggles and organizational styles, leading inevitably to their successes or failures. We subject both our own and other people’s movements to this torturous dissection, and we pretend that we are deciding what to participate in based on our clairvoyant ability to determine which movements are going to succeed. All of us would have stood with Mario Savio on Sproul Plaza, but none of us would have been killed at Haymarket; all of us would have joined the French Resistance and none of us would have joined the Judenrat (the Jewish Councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which cooperated with the Nazis in the belief that they would be able to help their people survive). A few years ago, I asked my friend’s son, who was 9 at the time, if when they taught him about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school they made it clear that the government, and many of its citizens, did not approve of what King was doing at the time. He said no, they teach that everyone always loved King. Okay, I said, then do they tell you that they put him in jail? Yes, he said, but I’ve never understood why.

The movements that succeed are not only a result of their forebears which succeeded. When we credit Gandhi’s march to the sea with helping to win India’s independence from Britain, we should also remember that he opposed the creation of Pakistan and that his hunger strike failed to prevent a bloody civil war.

The campus anti-apartheid movements in 1986 were no different from the ones in 1979. I was part of both, and I can absolutely tell you that. The 1986 movement didn’t succeed because it had better strategy than its predecessor. It succeeded because the movement of eight years earlier, along with so many other things, most of them in South Africa but some as far away as South Korea, had changed the conditions under which the students were struggling. And nonetheless, in 1987 it did not look like that movement was going to succeed in helping to dismantle apartheid.

My favorite book is Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy’s tapestry of interconnected stories of World War II. Toward the end of the book, one of the heroines, a captured resistance fighter, with her fellow prisoners is forced to watch the execution of inmates who carried out an act of sabotage at Auschwitz. She says, “No one cheered.” When I read that, I thought, well of course not. Why is she saying that? And then I realized that she meant they wanted to cheer, not for the execution but for the resistance. They were not standing there thinking, how stupid and reckless those women were to do something that could result in not only their own deaths but others’ too. It’s not that every act of resistance is the right one, but sometimes you don’t know which is going to be the right one until you’ve taken a few or many wrong ones.

Everyone loves a winner, and we especially do in this country. We don’t like to be reminded of our failures. But next time you hear an inspiring story of resistance and triumph, take a minute to think about how you would be feeling about the resistance if there was no triumph. Because most of the time, that’s likely to be the case.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ordinary People Can Change the World

(Photo: Iltezam and Hanin)

A couple weeks ago, the movie "Budrus" had its west coast premiere at the SF International Film Festival. This was an event I’ve been eagerly anticipating. I would probably have loved the movie even if it were terrible, because it's about people and a place I’m very close to. But it’s not terrible, it’s great. What’s great about it, besides being exciting and infinitely watchable and featuring the oh-so-lovable Iltezam Morar, is that it is the true story of an ordinary village which defeated the Israeli army using nonviolent protest.

Now of course, everyone wants to know, if this could be done in Budrus, why didn’t every village do the same thing, and why didn’t they all win? Those are hard questions to answer, and producer Ronit Avni did a great job of answering them without pretending that the truth is neater than it is. The truth is that Budrus was a special village to start with, a small village that is more unified than many. They benefited from the experience of some other villages which had resisted the wall earlier, and the fact that by that time, there was an international-Israeli presence that they could call on for consistent support. They were able to sustain the daily demonstrations partly because no one was killed in their protests, which may have been because of the high number of women participating but was also partly luck, because there were plenty of live bullets fired at people, as you can see in the film. They also won because the leadership was not held in prison for a long period of time, and whether that was because they had better legal support or just luck again, I don’t know.

Certainly, one of the reasons they had the strength to persevere was that the women were able to break through the army lines on the first day that their trees were being uprooted. What happened – I was right there, so I know – was that Iltezam, who was only 15 years old at the time, ran around the soldiers, jumped into the hole that the bulldozer was digging, defiantly opened her schoolbook and pretended to read it (I assume she could not have been so calm that she could actually read). And then other women broke through and swarmed the bulldozer, climbed into the bucket of the digger, opened the cab door and shouted at the Palestinian driver. The presence of so many women and especially schoolgirls that day probably accounted for the fact that the army pulled out that day instead of using a higher level of force to get rid of the opposition. I think if they had not succeeded that day in driving the bulldozers off the land, everything might have gone very differently. And since Budrus ultimately inspired Bela’in and Ni’lin, the whole course of nonviolent resistance in Palestine might have been changed by the events of a few seconds.

And that is what is so great about the film, because it actually captures (and I can claim a little credit for this, because I helped the producers track down a small bit of critical footage) the serendipitous moment when history was changed. Of course it’s an oversimplification to suggest that what happened was the result of one moment. It would certainly have been possible for the people to have won that day but lost the next. In some other villages, the bulldozers came in the middle of the night to avoid protests. On the other hand, if the women had not succeeded in getting in front of the bulldozers that day, someone else might have found a way to stop them, that day or another. But there is no question that that one incident both infused the people with the idea that "We can do it!" (as they would chant over and over in English) and instilled in the army a sense of what can only be called awe.

The last few weeks have been dominated by another story about a moment that changed history, this time not for the better. This of course is the oil spill in the Gulf, a disaster of unprecedented scope, in a region that seems like it can hardly withstand another environmental catastrophe. I’ve noticed something about the coverage of the spill, and some people’s reaction to it. It’s something I noticed during the first Gulf War as well. The media – especially the mainstream media, but even the progressive media does its part, for different reasons – promote the idea that dangerous offshore wells are drilled and wars for oil are waged so that we in this country can drive our cars and watch our televisions. And that in turn has a silencing effect on people who might otherwise want to criticize those policies. I heard someone essentially say on KPFA the other day that if you drove a car to work today, you have no right to complain that somewhere between half a million and 2 million gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf every day.

I beg to differ.

Neither Deepwater Horizon nor the Iraq/Afghanistan war are being waged for my benefit. I like having a car, but it’s not because I love cars. In fact, I would much rather be driven, whether in a bus, a minivan or a horse-driven cart (okay, forget about the cart, but only because it’s cruel to horses). I think I need a car so I can get to meetings after work without taking an hour’s worth of buses, which would cause the meeting to be over by the time I got there, and so I can get home from KPFA at 1:00 a.m., after the BART has stopped running. I think I need a car because I don’t live skating distance from a grocery store that carries the products I like to buy, which are grown semi-locally without pesticides. In San Francisco I never had a car and I never really thought I needed one, because it’s so small that I could get wherever I wanted to go by skating, walking, BART or occasionally a bus. I like watching television, despite the fact that there’s nothing on it I can really stand to watch a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to go to war for it. If that were really the choice, I would give up the TV and read mysteries by lantern.

U.S. policies are not proof that Americans are so selfish that we want to keep using fossil fuels despite their enormous cost to the planet and its inhabitants. We want to live well, sure. But so do the people of every other country on earth. No one says, "I want to be starving and cold and bored all day and die a miserable impoverished death." (Well, maybe Gandhi, ….) We are told that the only way we can live well is by stealing resources from other people, and/or by stripping away at the earth’s protective layers, and so we say okay, if that’s what it takes. Few of us are going to decide to make our lives a lot harder than they need to be, like No Impact Man, unless maybe we see it as a chance to star in our own reality series or something. But most of us would just as happily climb into shared taxis if they were zooming around our streets the way they do in Palestine, and avoid the hassle of parking our cars. Pretty much all of us would be happy to take solar showers in the sunny middle of the day if we were not expected to be in some other town performing meaningless wage slavery at that time.

Our lifestyle is at least as much a product of our addiction to oil as it is a cause of it. That is, it’s the economy which has grown up around oil, and coal, and dams, and nuclear reactors, that makes it hard for us to do without the convenience of being able to get places fast and eat fast food from disposable containers. Many people I know are very happy to grow their own lettuce and tomatoes and even corn, pick apples from their trees and sew quilts made from their old clothes, but these are not people who are having to work two minimum wage jobs and somehow get their kids to school across town.

We do not have to accept that just because this is the way things have been for the last 150 years or so, it’s the way it needs to be for the next 150. We do not have to simply swallow bad news with our morning coffee. We can be like the women who stood in front of the Israeli army that day in Budrus and said, no, we won’t accept reality as you have declared it to be. We are going to change reality.

My coworker, who is sort of a bad news junkie, insists that protest can't accomplish anything, ordinary people cannot make a difference, we need to wait until someone with power decides to take action. But I know that ordinary people can win, even against tremendous odds, because I've seen it. It just takes an Iltezam, to step into the void and lead the way.

I decided I am going to collect stories of seconds that changed the world, and maybe think about a short film. Do you have any? Please comment if you do, or if you have an idea about where to look.