Standing together to stand alone

    All those peacemakers and justice-seekers who have faced the powers that be with no one standing beside them display a depth of courage I cannot fathom.
    "Tank man" blocks a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
    “Tank man” blocks a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (Wikipedia/Jeff Widener)

    I am sort of a wimp when it comes to rule breaking. No really, it is true. You would think that the eldest daughter of rabble-rousing peace activist parents would have been born with a devil-may-care attitude towards society’s dos and don’ts, but the exact opposite is actually true. I heed the signs. If it says: “do not walk on the grass,” I am taking the long way around. If it says “no ball playing,” you won’t catch me tossing the pigskin around. If it says “no parking,” you get the idea. When I was little, I was able to ignore the “no swimming in the fountain” signs, but only when surrounded by other wet kids.

    My brother would argue the point: “we’re not playing ball, sir… it just dropped and we were running to catch it,” while I tried to look as though I did not know who he was, or was illiterate, or from a foreign country; or if I tried hard enough, all three.

    My mom loves to touch things in museums. This drives me nuts. The signs are pretty clear (and ubiquitous). Afternoons set aside to commune with art at the National Gallery or the American Visionary Art Museum have been spent hissing at my mom and pointing out that the “do not touch” signs do not have an invisible  “except for Liz McAlister” clause.

    My sister devoted a lot of time to activist climbing a few years ago. Down the side of the TransAmerica building in Los Angeles to protest Ford Motor Company, up a huge crane to demonstrate against the paper company Weyerhauser. That is hardcore. Ropes, harnesses, hard hats, adult diapers (if you remember), and walking past lots of “no trespassing” signs.

    My dad visited me once at Hampshire College and lit a cigarette right below a “no smoking” sign. I was scandalized. “Daaaaad, you can’t smoke in here” (this was before you could not smoke in anywhere). Phil Berrigan giggled.

    I will break the law. I have been arrested. I have knelt and “died” and blocked and obstructed and harangued and failed to quit. I have dug through dumpsters, crossed under barbed wire, climbed over chain link. I have pulled secret banners out of my pants and out from under my coat. I have wheatpasted posters in the middle of the night. I have even organized nonviolent direct actions involving lots of people getting arrested. But I have never acted alone.

    Rosa Parks, Tim DeChristopher, Peter DeMott and all those other peacemakers and justice-seekers who have faced the powers that be with no one standing beside them display a depth of courage I cannot fathom.

    They were not all alone, of course.

    Rosa Parks, whose 100th birthday we celebrated last month, was a trained and committed activist when she refused to give up her seat to a white fellow passenger. She was not alone on the bus; the driver asked all of the blacks sitting in her row to move. And she was not alone in the cause; there was a peaceful army of activists from the Women’s Political Council, the NAACP and other groups waiting to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott after her arrest. But she was alone when she said no. She was alone when she was arrested.

    Tim DeChristopher was a college student and environmentalist when he participated in a demonstration outside an auction of federal lands to oil and gas companies. He probably held a sign and joined in some of the chants, before deciding to go inside. He thought he might make a statement or disrupt the proceedings. But, after sitting and watching, he started bidding. Before he was led away, he had bought more than 22,000 acres of land for about $1.8 million. He did not have the money. But, during his trial and sentencing, people raised that and more, hoping to keep that land in the public trust. Tim DeChristopher went to jail for the better part of two years for his action on behalf of the environment.

    Peter DeMott was a Vietnam veteran and a peacemaker, a husband and father with four daughters. He died in a tragic accident in 2009. In 1980, Peter was at the christening of a nuclear submarine in Connecticut along with other demonstrators opposed to the investment of billions of dollars in machines with just one purpose — nuclear annihilation. He saw an empty van, the keys in the ignition. He left his friends and community and climbed into the van, ramming it into the side of the submarine. It was not exactly sword into plowshares or spears into pruning hooks, but the action was a symbolic transformation (very minor denting—those subs are sturdy!). He went to jail for that and other acts of disarmament.

    I know it takes a village to be a peacemaker, and these three peacemakers did have a community of support. But when I step over the line, I want that community breathing down my neck, not waiting in the wings.

    As I meditate on the courage of these men and women in their solitary witness (and I know the Waging Nonviolence readership can add countless other examples of people who stand alone for peace and justice), I am so grateful for the deep and broad community of peacemakers given to experiments in truth that has pushed me out of my wimpiness, passed all sorts of “do not” signs — further than I ever thought I could go. Who knows, they may still push me to stand alone someday.

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