September 22, 2005
The movement for peace and justice in the USA has been transformed during the past two months. But what is the nature of the change, and how will it help to move us forward? The short answer, I think, is that we have been enriched by sorrow; we gather upon a sorrow plateau. Because of this place we have come to, we have new opportunities to broaden the scope of our power to sustain lasting change for freedom.
Sorrow is the new power that Cindy Sheehan brought into the movement last month. And the power of our sorrow has grown in response to the sufferings caused by hurricane Katrina. This sorrow has not overcome us, but it has infused our motivations. Out of this sorrow comes a renewed sense of our struggle's significance.
Sorrow grounded Cindy's moral footing in the bar ditches of Crawford, Texas. Her sorrow was the reality that could not be conjured away by the alchemists of spin. It drew like a magnet so many who were grieving the loss (or the risk of loss) of a dearly loved life. The beauty of this sorrow was how it wept in consideration of one precious life at a time. For Cindy, the loss of her son Casey was enough. With each new arrival to Camp Casey came testament that one wasted life brings sorrow enough. To save just one life more is now motivation enough to stop the Iraq war.
Then came hurricane Katrina and the sorrowful reports of last moments: the one man who held with one hand the one woman he had to release. And that also was sorrow enough.
Refusal to share our plateau of sorrow was what exposed the President to the most devastating public rejection of his political life--a rejection from which he may not recover. When, during the early days of Katrina, we tuned to televised images of his trademark smirk and watched him attempt his cheerleading formulas as answer to the devastation, we saw naked as never before one man's incapacity to be moved by sorrow.
From the bar ditches of Texas and from the broken canals of New Orleans, the nation had been lifted to a sorrow place, and the President on vacation had transparently refused to follow. On that basis, his approval ratings sunk to the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain, faster than a sack of sand.
What we have learned over the past month thanks to Cindy, thanks to the unspun truths of Katrina, is that sorrow can serve as a worthy guide to the values of peace and justice. Our tears have made us stronger. The President's lack of tears has made him weaker. This lesson we should try never to forget.
As many commentators have noted, including Cindy Sheehan, some of the President's public declarations do not seem to make sense when compared to his record of performance in New Orleans. I think especially about the President's public declarations for freedom. We are a freedom-loving people says the President. They hate us for our freedoms, he explained. And so we are engaged in full scale war on two fronts in order to bring freedom to other parts of the world.
When Katrina blew the cover off of the USA's longstanding structures of poverty and racism, I thought about the President's concept of freedom and asked where did he find this freedom that he loves? Where did he locate the freedom that others would hate? And what kind of freedom is he building through full-scale war overseas?
Of course, it is possible to just dismiss everything said in political circumstances as mere politics. But I think there a concept of freedom that fits the President's usage, which makes sense and stands true in the statements that he makes to the world.
To make sense of the President's sense of freedom, all we have to do is carefully draw the line around who the President means by 'us' when he talks about 'our' freedom. So long as we draw that line carefully enough in the first place, I think we can see that the President means what he says. Certainly the President is speaking about himself, and his Vice President. Certainly the President is speaking about his Vice President's favorite company Halliburton. Then we throw in the oil companies, some wealthy corporate donors, and a certain crowd of upper middle class suburbanites who roam the highways to work and back each day with lots of freedom, too.
So long as we understand who it is that the President is talking about, we can see that they indeed love their freedoms, that their freedoms are the kind that provoke hatred, and when we go into full scale war, these are the folks who indeed wind up doing as they please everywhere they go.
From our vantage point on the sorrow plateau, however, we can also see that this is not the concept of freedom that we seek to spread through our movement. For the movement that has been recently strengthened and transformed through the sorrows of Iraq and New Orleans, freedom is a concept that would apply to an expanding circle of people. It is something we love because we do not already have it. It is something we would exercise in ways that do not provoke hatred. And it is a freedom that full scale wars cannot deliver, especially when those wars are motivated by secret agendas and made-to-order lies.
As a movement, the freedoms we seek are the freedoms of people to question and control the great powers of our day, whether those powers operate under public or private cover. The kind of freedom we seek is not the kind of freedom that allows a nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA to keep his working papers secret. As Dolores Huerta argued this week, when the public pays someone to work for the Justice Department, the public has a right to know what that person did.
The freedoms we seek as a movement are the freedoms of people to expand and share in the development of issues that preoccupy the state, not the freedoms of state actors to craft and deploy their policies from behind airtight vaults. Or witness on the one hand how the President's circle of freedom made a state-by-state campaign this year to pass laws that would tighten up the access and identity of would-be voters. Notice how our movement fought those initiatives in each state, led by voices who remember and stand for the long struggle to expand the circle of freedom at the ballot box.
A movement that works to expand the circle of freedom operates much differently than a movement working to widen the gap of freedom between some 'chosen' circle and the rest of us. So we can say that the President makes perfect sense when he talks about freedom, but we reject his concept. From our gathering place on the sorrow plateau, we have learned the value of reaching out. And our sorrow has helped us to see what it looks like when the face of power has already decided whose freedoms do not count.
In the aftermath of Katrina, we can see that the President's Homeland Security is not a security that cares for an expanding circle of freedom. His Homeland Security is all about increasing the freedom gap between those who can already do as they please and those who must seek permission and certification to count for somebody. This is the significance of the whisper that Karl Rove will be taking over the reconstruction of New Orleans, where prevailing wages will be neither maintained nor expanded, as the gap between workers and overseers will continue to widen apace.
The Clarity of Our Tears
So we don't say, "no more tears." Instead we value the clarity that the tears have brought to mind. From our place upon the sorrow plateau we feel the difference between the President's concept of freedom and the concept we pursue. What we might also take to heart is how the form of struggle that follows from the concept of an expanding circle of freedom looks much different than the kind of power that gets organized to increase a freedom gap. In a circle of freedom already established, the sorrow circle is also already drawn. But for a circle of freedom expanding, sorrow helps to draw us more quickly outward.
Take the very practical example of guns. When the purpose of an action is to increase a freedom gap, guns have obvious and decisive value. In the work of expanding a freedom circle, however, it is not so obvious that we must shoot our way forward. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I think about how the image of guns appeared in the narrative of Malik Rahim, an activist from the Ninth Ward.
When asked about the problem of people shooting police, Rahim stated, "I know that the police shot a guy for looting." After that Rahim says people did shoot at police, but not so much to hit them as to warn them that firepower was not a monopoly. Then says Rahim gangs of white vigilantes in pickup trucks appeared with guns, threatening to shoot people who looted. This provoked people into looting gun stores right away so that if the vigilantes came around again, the firepower would be more fairly distributed. In the aftermath of New Orleans, gun news was an important focus of concern.
But notice how in Rahim's account of things the guns show up to defend property. And the property needs defending in this case because it is surrounded by people in dire need. So if we are on the side of expanding freedom (rather than seeking to expand freedom's gap) it seems that we notice how deprivation is the condition that produces guns. From the circle of expanding freedom, we have here a lesson to learn. Guns teach us that deprivation is our danger. Failure to cure deprivation is what provokes a cycle of guns.
When I shared these thoughts with a friend she replied: deprivation, you mean like Cindy Sheehan losing her son? Yes, what a godawful deprivation. In Iraq, cycles of enforced deprivation during a decade of sanctions spiraled into cycles of grim violence that escalated to the point of full scale war between peoples who were forced into the ultimate deprivation game of all: your life or mine.
Of course at this point someone will raise the spectre of 9-11 and the massive deprivation of life on that day. Didn't that require some response--a reaction armed with guns? I don't know the exact answer to this question. It would certainly help to know more about the secret intelligence operation they called Able Danger--the one that had Mohammed Atta and three other suspected hijackers identified one year before the attack, the one that refuses to tell us more--but I do know that we as a nation have not yet tried to find an answer to 9-11 in good faith. We refused to step up to the plateau of sorrow. Instead of asking how we could respond to the massacre of 9-11 in a way that would expand our circle of freedom, we circled ourselves tightly and rushed off to kill. From the sorrow plateau that our movement has finally reached today, we must see that it is in our power to greet the world with a resolve from here on out, to always act in better faith than that.
Note: Thanks to Michael Parker, and the Shreveport Unitarian Universalist Church circle of activists who commissioned these remarks for the occasion of a teach-in that linked "Iraq, Katrina, and the State of Civil Rights Today."
Greg Moses is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.
Courtesy Greg Moses