Activist initiatives multiply; wise advice from elders with experience
Despite postponement of a momentous vote on the Delaware River Basin Commission’s proposed natural gas regulations, activists carried through with a planned rally in Trenton, NJ on November 21 (see page 1). The rally was one of a quickly multiplying number of initiatives on the part of people responding to a sense that the time has come to be heard on issues ranging from the economy to hydrofracking.
In addition to international actions such as the Occupy movement, some of the local efforts arising include last weekend’s Occupy Honesdale event (see page 5), weekly gatherings in front of the Monticello, NY post office to express solidarity with the Occupy movement and the Watershed General Assembly on November 19 (see sidebar below).
During a community discussion on civil disobedience sponsored by the Crones Club in Narrowsburg, NY recently, a group of elder women led a stirring session on civil disobedience with personal accounts of past activism and guidance for today’s initiatives.
Crones Club founder Beverly Sterner said she recognizes a similar energy to that of the 1960s when she first became an activist. “It’s Washington and Wall Street coming together now,” she said. “We’re connecting the dots, forming a movement and creating coalitions. This is the beginning of a discussion about how we can connect and bring this issue home.”
Sterner began with an explanation of what civil disobedience is and how it has historically been practiced. “Civil disobedience and nonviolence go hand in hand,” said Sterner, before sharing Martin Luther King’s basic elements of non-violence, including, “The ethic of real love is at the center of non-violence.”
“It’s extremely important that when we commit a civil disobedience, we make it clear that this is nothing personal against the person who is arresting us, that we have options to walk and talk with them, or to go limp and not cooperate with the arrest,” she said.
Drawing upon years of personal experience, Sterner urged caution. “It can be a very iffy situation. If provoked, don’t engage. Don’t get hooked into their language or their arena. Back off and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Suppress your immediate response to react. Heavy judgments, blaming and projecting are all forms of violence.”
Sterner recounted the principle of “moral jujitsu.” “Don’t give something to push against,” she said. “If you do not respond in kind, then your opponent is thrown off balance and there is an opening to get through.” Sterner also stressed the importance of non-violent language and cited the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.
Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Vera B. Williams spoke next. “When you’re dealing with power, there are very different layers. There’s a great danger in situations with police. You can’t regard it lightly. You are asked to find in yourself what will respond to a given situation. You’re steering a way between not inflaming another’s ego or vulnerability. They have been led to believe that we are dangerous and they don’t want to show weakness. If you can keep your head and not get furious, you will find a way to reach into their humanity and find common ground.”
Now 83, Williams said she is deeply grateful to be part of the special community she is enmeshed with in the Upper Delaware region. “The ‘beloved community’ really sets forth how you feel about the people you work with, protest with, go to jail with and sing with,” she said. “There becomes a deep connection. I went down and hung out for a few hours at Occupy Wall Street and you really feel it there.”
Williams’s oldest grandchild, Hudson, who is featured in one of her early books, is now 25 and active in the Occupy movement in Seattle, WA. Talking to his mother, Williams asked, “Are you worried that he’ll get hurt, stepped on, run over, or even die in the service of this?” Williams continued, “His mother said, ‘I’m worried that his heart will be broken,’ that he’ll throw his heart into this, striving for the beloved community.’”
Williams concluded, “In the end, it’s your bravery, your courage that gets you through. You work at it your whole life. This is a project like anything you want to accomplish in the world, but it’s not a given, and like love, you will get your heart broken.”
Following Williams, Virginia Kennedy and her daughter Marygrace recounted their recent experience protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, during which Virginia was arrested. The experience connected the pair to activists from across the country and woke them to a sense that many issues are coalescing into increasingly unified and timely movements that strike at deeper issues.
“What’s so important is that the potential and momentum exists not just to stop fracking, or mountaintop removal, or a pipeline or to get regulation on Wall Street, but to ask people what they value in this life,” said Virginia. “Do we value relationships, tradition, ceremony and experience, or do we just want to accumulate crap? The reason this momentum is happening is because it’s time. There are better ways of being in the world and people have been fighting for this for a long time.”
High school senior Marygrace offered her perspective on the Tar Sands protest. “The action itself was really empowering,” she said. “It was this new feeling that I never had before. When we went to DC the second time and made a chain of 10,000 people around the White House, it was just incredible.
“It’s really scary to be this young and have to be thinking about this. It’s so unfair that this falls on us. We didn’t cause the problems. But you have to turn this into ‘think of the amazing opportunity we’ve been given to be the beginning of change.’”
Grace Lutfy, a Pike County teen with a long activist history of her own, said it’s valuable to become involved at an early age. “It’s important to stand up for what you believe in,” said Lutfy. “There are lots of challenges that could put you down and it’s so easy to give in to those roadblocks. But I’ve met many amazing people who never gave in to anything. They’re very inspirational.”
Moving forward together
Virginia challenged the audience to consider how to motivate those who sense things aren’t working, but who are lulled into complacency by their own level of comfort. “People have to be convinced to become uncomfortable even if they aren’t,” she said. “We never really understand until the plight becomes personal,” added Sterner.
“This is revolution we’re talking about, peaceful none-the-less, but that’s what’s going to be required,” said audience member Pat Carullo. “This is our world; we’re fighting for it.”
Presenter Marcia Nehemiah stressed the importance of not vilifying opponents. “When we look to the police guard as the enemy, or the gas leaser as the enemy, that is a mistake. When we do that, we accept as legitimate what the people in power want us to do—to pull apart the community. That happens when we look upon the person next to us as our enemy without understanding that there’s another story there and to get beyond that dualistic thinking. The unity is what will make us stronger.”
Williams advocated for stepping up efforts related to natural gas extraction in the region. “There’s still a movement we have to make if we really intend to resist fracking,” she said. “It’s possible to be outraged without being furious and it is outrageous that they want to take our valley, which includes a federally founded scenic preservation river. We have to make this even more visible than it has been.”
Barbara Yeaman, founder of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, expressed her deep gratitude to those assembled. “Those of us who are crones have been fighting these fights for a long, long time, and to look around this room and see all of you working toward a better world is just incredible. It gives me a great sense of good will and peace. When I leave this world, I will leave with a lot of satisfaction that the work is going to carry on.”
Contact Sterner at 570/729-7068 for more information.