Coming out as an activist

The fast-attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) sails past downtown New London, Conn., as it makes it way out of the Thames River and into the Long Island Sound. (Flickr/Marion Doss)

The fast-attack submarine USS Seawolf sails past downtown New London, Conn., as it makes it way out of the Thames River and into the Long Island Sound. (Flickr/Marion Doss)

I trudged down the side of the road carrying a small sign: “I am waiting for YOU to shut down Guantanamo.” We were marching toward the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., on Good Friday. I was grateful for the orange jumpsuit that added a layer of warmth and the black hood that blurred my sight. Not because I like not seeing, but because it was nice to not be seen. Not just yet.

This is not my normal M.O. at demonstrations. I like to be out and about; I like the give and take with passers-by. In New York City, where I was an activist with the War Resisters League and Witness Against Torture for 12 years, I often opted to pass out leaflets or hold a lead sign. I even honed an outgoing, chatty, aw-shucks persona that helped me greet everyone with enthusiasm and openness.

But New York City is not southeastern Connecticut. When the response was hostile and barbed, it was brief. Even the biggest haters in the Big Apple are in a big rush. They are also largely anonymous. In a city of 8 million people, the person who tells you to “get a job” or “move to Russia” or wants to “behead all the Muslims” is probably not going to be pulling you over for speeding on Route 32 or taking your gas money at the local Pump ‘N Munch.

Is that what I was worried about as I walked down the road on my way to the U.S. Navy’s submarine base? Not really. What I was really worried about was the people I already know and like who work at the base or at General Electric — the big military contractor in the area. I was not quite ready to “come out” as a peace activist.

Until moving to New London two and a half years ago, I had never been friends or even acquaintances with people in the military, or people who worked at military contractors. For years, I have casually and professionally referred to them as “merchants of death” (not that I coined the term), but I didn’t know them.

I am a second-generation activist whose last name is synonymous with prophetic witness, long prison sentences and military-related property destruction. Growing up we weren’t hanging out with Army brats outside the local VFW. My dad was a veteran of foreign war, but a repentant one. I knew lots of those — men haunted by their time in war, who drew strength for their resistance to war from their experience in the military. I didn’t know people who saw the military as a smart career move or a chance for adventure. I wasn’t likely to meet them as a pudgy 11-year-old wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message: “Join the Army: travel to exotic, distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them.”

Now I live in a town that sees its economic vitality as dependent on General Dynamics, the Coast Guard Academy and the submarine base. My massage therapist is a subcontractor at Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics. My best friend’s new next-door neighbor makes great beer and works for Electric Boat as well. Our old downstairs neighbors were in the Navy. When my car battery died, he helped me get my car started again despite my assertion that I knew what I was doing (which I most certainly did not). We have a friend at church who sings in the choir with his daughter perched on his shoulder. He run-commutes to work at the submarine base with her in a jogging stroller. Half the moms in the local La Leche League live on the submarine base.

Joanne Sheehan — my mother-in-law, a nonviolence training guru and a longtime War Resisters League staff person — often says that it is easier to speak truth to power than to speak truth to family and community. She has lived in this area for more than 30 years. I am starting to see what she means.

I have yet to scourge these friends and acquaintances as “merchants of death” or challenge any of them to give up their jobs and work for peace. Should I hang up my peace movement credentials?

I am trying to figure it all out.  It is a new thing for me to relate to people in the military and the military industrial complex across dinner tables, church pews and street corners instead of across picket lines, fences and arrest scenarios. It is harder, in some sense. It is easy to judge and condemn and decry. It is hard to relate and communicate and respectfully agree to disagree.

But how do I get the conversation started? “Hey, I notice you are a really great father. Why do you work on submarines that could annihilate fathers and daughters?” “How do you sleep at night?” “Don’t you see the contradictions between your life and your work?” Or my favorite when I was a kid protesting at the Pentagon, where lots of people run-commute to work: “You can’t run from a nuclear war.”

These conversation “starters” actually kill dialogue, don’t they? Empathy, compassion and mutual aid will be more effective and way more nonviolent. It is about building relationships, right? Where do I want to go? Understanding (mine), conversion (mine and theirs) and transformation (ours). It is time to take off the hood.

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