Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Youth speak, organize

I recently returned from Chicago, where I attended the national counter-recruitment conference, "It's our world - change it!" organized by the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth and hosted by the Chicago office of the American Friends Service Committee.
The conference was exceptional, partly because of the large contingent of youth participation and leadership in the workshops. I learned a lot. Here is an article about the conference posted by one of the leading scholars on the subject of youth and militarism, Jorge Mariscal, who was a conference panelist.

Another highlight was joining a group of youth and adult allies to hear the Brave New Voices youth slam finals that were coincidentally taking place in Chicago not far from our conference site. The team from Guam performed a poem about their homeland that had us on our feet. I can't find it on you-tube, but here is another poem from a Guam team member that riffs on the same themes of identity and colonialism.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Riding the Peace Bike

While listening to reports on climate change from the G-8 Summit in the midst of our own drought and heat wave, I'm drawn to my bicycle.

I was inspired by the art cars in the Houston Art Car Parade this May, and I decided that since I don't own a car, I could make my bike into an art bike. A peace bike. It would be the perfect opportunity to ride with a message: peace is green.

The 4th of July was a good target date for getting the bike spruced up, since our neighborhood planned a block-long parade with decorated bikes, dogs and kids. I was the oldest kid out there.

Later that evening, my partner and I rode our bicycles down to Auditorium Shores for the fireworks, and the next day, we rode downtown again to Mellow Johnny's for the Tour de France celebration where others came with decorated bikes, too. So far, the peace bike has had a warm reception.

Having an art bike makes it even more tempting to hop aboard the bike when I've got to go out. It's been fun loading it on the bus, too.

I feel as though I'm following in the wheels of my dad, who still, at age 81, rides his bicycle for as many errands as he can around the town where he lives in Wisconsin. Amazingly, he still rides the 3-speed Schwinn bike that he bought from a college student in about 1959 -- 50 years ago! He rode that bike almost every day to his office at the college where he taught for 30-some years, and used it to do errands then as he does now. He has never used a lock for his bike, and it's never disappeared from where he's parked it.

Roll on, Dad, and I'm going your way!

photo by Jeff Webster

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Howard Zinn on the Revolutionary War

On the 4th of July, when our CodePink contingent was walking through the crowds at Auditorium Shores with our PEACE signboards, one man came up to us and said something like "you know that we need war in order to have peace."
Well, no. The means become part of the ends. War breeds more of itself.

Most folks in the US like to think of the Revolutionary War as one of the good wars, or a necessary one, especially on the 4th of July. But, here's an essay by historian, Howard Zinn, that provides some good food for thought on that one. I was just thinking about Howard Zinn, remembering when I had the fortunate opportunity to interview him when he was in Austin in 2006 to keynote the first Historians Against the War conference. His experience as a WWII bombadier is part of what led him to expose the myth of good wars by delving deeper into history.

Here is his piece, published yesterday on Common Dreams, as reposted from The Progressive.
Untold truths about the American Revolution

by Howard Zinn

There are things that happen in the world that are bad, and you want to do something about them. You have a just cause. But our culture is so war prone that we immediately jump from, "This is a good cause" to "This deserves a war."

You need to be very, very comfortable in making that jump.

The American Revolution-independence from England-was a just cause. Why should the colonists here be occupied by and oppressed by England? But therefore, did we have to go to the Revolutionary War?

How many people died in the Revolutionary War?

Nobody ever knows exactly how many people die in wars, but it's likely that 25,000 to 50,000 people died in this one. So let's take the lower figure-25,000 people died out of a population of three million. That would be equivalent today to two and a half million people dying to get England off our backs.

You might consider that worth it, or you might not.

Canada is independent of England, isn't it? I think so. Not a bad society. Canadians have good health care. They have a lot of things we don't have. They didn't fight a bloody revolutionary war. Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England?

In the year before those famous shots were fired, farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place. But then came Lexington and Concord, and the revolution became violent, and it was run not by the farmers but by the Founding Fathers. The farmers were rather poor; the Founding Fathers were rather rich.

Who actually gained from that victory over England? It's very important to ask about any policy, and especially about war: Who gained what? And it's very important to notice differences among the various parts of the population. That's one thing we're not accustomed to in this country because we don't think in class terms. We think, "Oh, we all have the same interests." For instance, we think that we all had the same interests in independence from England. We did not have all the same interests.

Do you think the Indians cared about independence from England? No, in fact, the Indians were unhappy that we won independence from England, because England had set a line-in the Proclamation of 1763-that said you couldn't go westward into Indian territory. They didn't do it because they loved the Indians. They didn't want trouble. When Britain was defeated in the Revolutionary War, that line was eliminated, and now the way was open for the colonists to move westward across the continent, which they did for the next 100 years, committing massacres and making sure that they destroyed Indian civilization.

So when you look at the American Revolution, there's a fact that you have to take into consideration. Indians-no, they didn't benefit.

Did blacks benefit from the American Revolution?

Slavery was there before. Slavery was there after. Not only that, we wrote slavery into the Constitution. We legitimized it.

What about class divisions?

Did ordinary white farmers have the same interest in the revolution as a John Hancock or Morris or Madison or Jefferson or the slaveholders or the bondholders? Not really.

It was not all the common people getting together to fight against England. They had a very hard time assembling an army. They took poor guys and promised them land. They browbeat people and, oh yes, they inspired people with the Declaration of Independence. It's always good, if you want people to go to war, to give them a good document and have good words: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, when they wrote the Constitution, they were more concerned with property than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You should take notice of these little things.

There were class divisions. When you assess and evaluate a war, when you assess and evaluate any policy, you have to ask: Who gets what?

We were a class society from the beginning. America started off as a society of rich and poor, people with enormous grants of land and people with no land. And there were riots, there were bread riots in Boston, and riots and rebellions all over the colonies, of poor against rich, of tenants breaking into jails to release people who were in prison for nonpayment of debt. There was class conflict. We try to pretend in this country that we're all one happy family. We're not.

And so when you look at the American Revolution, you have to look at it in terms of class.

Do you know that there were mutinies in the American Revolutionary Army by the privates against the officers? The officers were getting fine clothes and good food and high pay and the privates had no shoes and bad clothes and they weren't getting paid. They mutinied. Thousands of them. So many in the Pennsylvania line that George Washington got worried, so he made compromises with them. But later when there was a smaller mutiny in the New Jersey line, not with thousands but with hundreds, Washington said execute the leaders, and they were executed by fellow mutineers on the order of their officers.

The American Revolution was not a simple affair of all of us against all of them. And not everyone thought they would benefit from the Revolution.

We've got to rethink this question of war and come to the conclusion that war cannot be accepted, no matter what the reasons given, or the excuse: liberty, democracy; this, that. War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate.

Once a historical event has taken place, it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No.

We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Peace in the Park for the 4th

On Saturday, the 4th of July, our intrepid CodePink Austin group gathered at the symphony-and-fireworks festivities at Auditorium Shores in downtown Austin to display a freedom message of our own: PEACE -- and what peace means. Five of us women, along with our supportive CodePink associate, Jim, strolled through the crowd wearing our signboards and carrying peace flags, two of the flags sewn just for the occasion by our own Betsy Ross channeler, Heidi Turpin. On the backs of our signs were the messages, "Peace is Freedom from War," "Peace Takes Courage," "Peace is Creative," "Peace is Healthy," and "Peace is Matriotic."

Response was overwhelmingly positive! Some people applauded as we walked by. Many flashed us peace signs and smiled. Lots of folks wanted to take our picture, with quite a few wanting to have their picture taken with us. It was fun and inspiring. People everywhere want peace!

Thanks to Heidi Turpin and Jeff Webster for the photos

Recent press

I am encouraged that several items have been published lately in the Austin American-Statesman that address "truths that are self-evident," -- the costs of war and occupation, the injustice and illegality of the continuing Guantanamo incarcerations and the ongoing people-power demonstrations in Iran and Honduras that have shown the strength of nonviolent freedom movements.

Economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have been writing for some time about the costs of US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally, an op-ed of theirs was published yesterday in the AAS that includes the straightforward statement, "This wartime spending undoubtedly has been a major contributor to our present economic collapse."

In all the "tea party" spouts and even in the majority of news stories about the US economy, the obvious connection between spending on war/occupation and the lack of funds for domestic programs is the elephant in the room. Last month, huge spending bills for military operations in Afghanistan were passed in the US House and Senate, and I saw no mention in the AAS when the bills were passed. To his credit, US Rep. Lloyd Doggett voted against the bill, and was the only Texas Democrat to do so.

On Saturday, July 4th, the op-ed by Air Force JAG, Barry Wingard, "No Justice Today," was another straight-ahead look at the terrible unfreedoms wrought by members of the Bush Administration as they sought to consolidate power and capitalize on public fear after Sept. 11th. Knowing how the US treats its prisoners is the truth that will eventually set us free from such injustice.

I appreciated today's story by Patrick George, "Family sees firsthand as chaos unfolds in Iran," about Austinites who were in Iran to visit family during the major street marches last month (although I found the story's title strange -- were the demonstations really "chaotic"? If so, how does chaos "unfold"?). The story points to several positive consequences of the people's movement that I believe will lead to further positive change, even amidst the clampdown.

It wasn't that long ago that the Bush Administration was talking about bombing Iran, lumping all Iranians together in its "axis of evil" category, as though every Iranian shared the views of one Iranian president. Thank goodness most people in the world didn't think the same about US citizens during the past 8 years. During the DNC demonstrations last summer, I recall seeing pictures of a display of photographs of Iranians that represented the people as people. There were many such humanizing projects in recent years, including delegations to Iran by CodePink and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, that helped show Americans that Iran is a country of individuals, many of whom are young and admiring of people in the US, and who have been striving for more openess in their own government.

Now, they have shown us and the rest of the world en masse. The notion of Iran as a monolithic "enemy state" is dispelled. Their own president can't ignore it, even if he claims he does, just as our former administration couldn't stop the push for change in the US.

Observing Iran, I see parallels with what could have happened in Iraq had the US not pounded the country with bombs in 1991 and punished it with crippling economic sanctions on top of the destruction of its infrastructure. Saddam Hussein's ruthlessness was not well-loved by most Iraqis, and he could have been ousted by a citizen movement had citizens not been forced into struggling for basic survival instead. In fact, the seige only strengthened Saddam Hussein's hand by making the people more dependent for goods like food and fuel. What I learned from those who traveled to Iraq in the 1990's was that Saddam Hussein held a status like a godfather boss. Unfortunately, the Iraqi people were dehumanized in the West right along with their president, as though it was not possible to separate the universal hopes and desires of a nation of people from the despotic behavior of their president.

Prior to the US bombings of Iraq in 1991, Iraq had strong participation by women in civil society and it had health care and education systems that were exemplary in the region. Those strengths could have provided a firm foundation for increasing democratic reform. Instead, their healthy underpinnings were pulled out from under them, leaving a refugee crisis on top of the destruction of their systems of education, health care and physical infrastructure caused by war, sanctions and occupation.

Every time I hear someone in the West declare that Iraqis must now "stand up," I picture the abusive relationship, a battering partner yelling at the abused partner to get him or herself together. Blaming the victim, adding insult to injury, continuing the pattern. It's bullying, it's destructive, and it's an abdication of responsibility for damage done.

Most people do want to stand up, to control their own destinies and to live helpful, meaningful lives. Part of standing up is to acknowledge and face up to what has been done. We can encourage this natural impulse for a full accounting, or discourage it. We can report it or ignore it.

In this light, I am hopeful for the Honduran people as they build on the courage demonstrated by Iranians and do as much as they can to make their voices heard without resorting to violence. A CNN video report aired over the weekend shows some very interesting scenes, including close-up views of the soldiers -- one can see how young they are, and how confused and fearful they appear to be about what they are doing. There is also an encounter between an armed man suspected of being a provocateur, who is carefully surrounded, disarmed and escorted out of the crowd by several demonstrators without being harmed. Here's the link to the video:

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Slam poets and gender talk

I appreciated the story, "Schooled in hip-hop, changed for life" by Deborah Sengupta Stith featured on the Austin360bets page of the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday. The article described how local poets have come together to form the Cipher, a spoken word project for local youth.
I'm a slam fan myself, and I especially admire the work of one of the Cipher organizers, Chris "Gator" Ockletree. I first met Gator several years ago when he was a winner in our Nonmilitary Options peace poetry contest. At the time, he was a student at Reagan HS and was also active with the Texas Youth Word Collective. Gator is featured on our Nonmilitary Options peace wheel of fortune, too.
One thing I find especially encouraging about the Cipher project, as told in Saturday's article, is the young poets' growing awareness of gender/power balance and the use of language regarding women.
Gator also addressed these issues through his participation in recording "Drop Jewels," a CD produced last year in collaboration with A Call To Men, a national men's organization that works on the premise that ending violence against women is primarily the responsibility of men.
Drop Jewels is a collection of songs by the local group, Public Offenders, and it's been one of the recordings I've listened to most often this year. I feel like it helps put me in the shoes of the young men and women who are trying to figure out their roles in the world. Public Offenders, by the way, stands for: POVERTY UNITED BUILDING LOVE IN INNER CITIES - OUR FUTURE FOR EVERY NATION DOES EFFECT REALITY.
I wasn't able to attend the Cipher event this weekend, but I hope to attend at least one of the upcoming showcases for this year's youth slam team who will be representing Austin in the Brave New Voices slam competition in Chicago next month. This year, for the first time, the Austin team is ALL-WOMEN! Awesome.
Here are the upcoming dates planned by the Texas Youth Word Collective, where we can hear the work of these young poets before they head up to Chicago:

July 2, Slam Bowl, 8 pm, $10 cover, Club Illusions, 2700 S. Pecan, Pflugerville --Team Competition between the Austin Youth Poetry Slam Team, Neo Soul Slam Team, Austin Poetry Slam and Killeen Poetry Slam. Come watch the younger generation teach their elders a lesson or two!
July 5th, 7 pm, Spoken and Heard Feature Performance, Kick Butt Coffee, 5775 Airport, Suite 725
July 6th, 7 pm, The Hideout, Feature Performance, 617 Congress
July 7th, 7 pm, Ruta Maya, Open Mic, 3601 S. Congress
July 10th, 8 pm, Old Skool Chi-City Send Off Dance Party, $10 cover, The Independent, corner of E. 5th and Brushy St.