99 to 1: Taking our Fear for a Walk

Oct 20, 2011

A note to kind readers: This blog is both more and less than a blog; it hardly does justice to an exciting confluence of events in Toronto, conferences on non-violence, trainings in non-violence and a non-violent Occupation of Toronto; and it exceeds anyone’s idea of a blog in length. If the excerpt below intrigues, read on!

Confronting Global Crises:  A Non-violent Perspective :  Keynote Address

Taking our fear for a walk: The role of critical consciousness in confronting global crises

A conversation overheard in an airport recently:

Please take off your shoes.


The airport staff person looks quizzically at the woman in front of him.  ‘Why?!’  Wonder what cave you’ve been living in.  Don’t fly much?  Strange, she looks reasonably intelligent; should I bother to tell her about the shoe bomber?  No; too many people in the queue.

He resorts to the tried and true:  ‘It’s the rules.’

‘Oh!! That explains everything now doesn’t it.’

The dreaded beeping sound indicates that I must be hiding something.

‘Why did that go off?’ I want to know.  ‘You must have something in your pockets or somewhere.’  A woman in the ubiquitous gray uniform of airport security approaches me with her hands up – about here – and I say, ‘what are you doing?’

I will need to search you.

Why?Airport security Cartoon

Because the machine beeped.

Why did the machine beep?

Because you must have something on you.

‘Then let’s see, shall we?’  I turn my pockets inside out, roll up my pant legs and turn around.  Nothing suspicious.  ‘I’ll go through the security portal once more just to be sure.’


Why not?

Because you beeped.

But why did I beep?

Because you must have something on you.  So I have to search you.

But there’s nothing on me.  Do you not have a wand?


I’ll search you over there in that little booth if you want privacy.

No; if you’re going to do this, you will do it right here in front of everyone.  But you have no right to touch me.

She summons the manager who towers over me, asking me menacingly if I would like to get home today.

I lose.  I raise my arms, submit to the probing hands; yes, I do want to get home.  It’s been a long month and I need to get home.

In the course of one day’s travel, there have been CCTV, iris scanners and whole-body sound waves, random selections and pat-downs, baggage searches, wands and x-rays; checks conducted on your laptop, your water bottle, your toothpaste tube, your child’s stuffy, dummy and formula, and – did I mention? – your shoes?  As you get dressed, belt, shoes, jacket, vest, fanny pack, fold up your laptop, pocket your mobile, collect up all of your belongings that have been dumped into plastic boxes for an additional run through the security gadgets, and look yearningly into the bin where your best tube of lipstick and your favourite moisturiser now languish, it’s difficult to think deep thoughts.

Fear sells; fear invades, colonises our minds, takes over, shape-shifting and shifting shapes, ordering us into boxes and lines, kneading the defiance in us into compliance and we hardly notice.   Like sheep to the slaughter, we adapt to the new normal, repeat the aphorisms we’ve been told about bombers and terrorists and security and how law-abiding people have nothing to worry about.

Fear is an industry that begets more of the same.  It generates the production of neuro-transmitters whose job it is to prepare us for fight or flight.  And it generates profits.  The creation ex nihilo of the Department of Homeland Security, its equipping, staffing and implementation of DHS projects in thousands of locations in the United States approaches $1 trillion dollars.  Somebody is making stunning quantities of money.  But, as its website assures us:  Homeland Security:  Preserving our Freedoms.

Fear is at the base of anger, sorrow, regret, anxiety, fear of change, fear of exclusion, fear of loss, and, ultimately, fear of death. Fear changes us, does something to us, alters our thinking and our perceptions.  Fear is insidious and often hidden from our consciousness.

In 1955, experiments led by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College asked groups of students to participate in ‘vision tests’.  In reality, all but one of the participants were confederates of the experimenter, and the study was really about how the remaining student would react to the confederates’ behaviour.  There were 123 male participants.  Each participant was put into a group with 5 to 7 ‘confederates’ (people who knew the true aims of the experiment, but were introduced as participants to the naive ‘real’ participant).

The groups were shown a card with a line on it, followed by another card showing three lines of three different lengths, short, medium and long, and labelled (a), (b), and (c). The participants were then asked to say whether the single line matched (a), (b) or (c) in length. Each line length question was called a ‘trial’.  For the first two trials, the subject would feel at ease in the experiment, as he and the other ‘participants’ gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, however, the confederates would start all giving the same wrong answer. The real participants were, at some level, traumatised.

The aim was to see whether the real participant would change his answer and respond in the same way as the confederates, despite it being the wrong answer.  Solomon Asch thought that the majority of people would not conform to something so obviously wrong.  However, the results proved otherwise.  More than 75% conformed at least once, with an overall conformity rate of 37%.

Imagine yourself in that position.  You feel at home with a group of people, can’t imagine that you’re being paid to do something so simple.  And then, without warning, the wheels start to fall off. You see and hear people around you, unanimously, testifying to something that all of your senses tell you is incorrect.  What do you do?   Perhaps the first time the others’ answers seem just crazy – you hope an aberration – and you quietly say your answer after everyone else has confidently shouted out theirs – the line is long! – ‘it’s medium’ [whisper]. They turn to look at you as the odd one out; perhaps one or two smirk or snigger.  Then, it happens again and, this time, you quietly repeat what everyone else has said.  A short line is said to be long and you echo the others. After 12 trials, you are no longer thinking, hardly bothering to look at the cards being raised, simply repeating what the others have said.

What has happened?  What Solomon Asch discovered, what his student, Stanley Milgram, would later go on to elaborate in his own famous study on the same topic, was the power of conformity to shape behaviour, which, in turn impacts on ideas and values, deforming them in the service of belonging, going along to get along.  The status quo is re-enforced, despite the fact that that re-enforcement was laid on false information – and the dissident voice is silenced.

There is a country and western singer-songwriter named JT Hodges who captures it in a song he calls, ‘I’d rather be wrong than lonely’.

Think about it.  If you’re here, you probably hold minority viewpoints – within your class, your workplace, your family.  What do you do with those minority viewpoints?  Unless you’re in the privileged position to be a tenured teacher paid to play with minority viewpoints, it can be difficult.  And often it feels easier to be wrong than lonely.

At last weekend’s family thanksgiving dinner, the topic of Don Cherry came up.  The bombastic star of Coaches’ Corner called former ‘enforcer’-type players ‘turncoats’ and ‘hypocrites’, ‘pukes’ even, for supporting a move that would ban fighting in hockey.  The conversation was loud, supportive of Cherry’s assertion that it was a good money-maker for them and should remain so for others currently on the ice.  The consensus in the room was clear:  the players’ role as on-ice fighter had no connection to the drugs and alcohol that subsequently took them down.  No connection.  I was sitting on a stool off to the side, waiting for a moment to insert a dissonant note into the conversation.  With no opening appearing, I decided to leave the thought unspoken.  I decided that I would rather join the silent and apparent consensus on the margins than make a point that would have once more reconfirmed me as, well, whatever.

So what brings you here?  Why are you here as opposed to somewhere else?  Somehow, somewhere along the playing out of your story, you started to enquire.  To ask questions.  To dare to wonder out loud why everyone was saying that line was short when, clearly, it was long?  Do you know why?  Where did that happen?  Has it always been a part of who you are?  Were you raised to question or did you decide to digress at some point from a primordial mandate to comply, to behave, to be good and – my person favourite – to be a lady?

All of us, regardless of who we are and from where we come, regardless of our life circumstances, are formed by ideologies as transparent as the air we breathe, shaped by accepted beliefs and issuing in corresponding behaviours.  The particular brand of ideology, belief and behaviour are invariably rooted in our tribe or social location.  We learn by mimicking the speech, body language, choices, interests and motivations of those who make up our primordial environment.  We slip them on without even noticing we are doing it, just as those who provide the ideological garments for us are rarely conscious of their role as social, psychological, political and emotional haberdashers.  We are taught and modelled ‘norms’; we are schooled in the rules.

But at some point, something happens – if we are paying attention.  Something happens that shifts the ground beneath our feet, that throws us off balance.  An experience, a piece of information, a story suddenly – or gradually – brings you to the point of what is known as cognitive dissonance – a psychological phenomenon that occurs when new ideas or information arise, conflicting with those ideologies, beliefs, norms and rules.

No!  Hold on a minute!  That can`t be.  There must be a mistake!  It just can`t be so.  And somewhere there, deep inside, is a sense that:  there is a price to be paid here that I can only dimly perceive.

People through the ages have been presented with ideas that have shaken dynasties, kingdoms, whole societies, systems of meaning, each challenge met with with varying degrees of repression.

Copernicus could not be right!  Otherwise, the earth, humankind (more likely, mankind) and, by extension, the Church, is not at the centre of all things; we are specks, one of many stories to be told in the universe.  That can`t be!

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King are in error!  Dead wrong. The status quo must be defended!

Emily, Irene, Nellie, Louise and Henrietta doffed their elegant hats long enough to enquire of the Supreme Court of Canada, ‘Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?  Their forebears – oh, the answer was No – had been asking the question for decades – to the shock and horror of the landed, male gentry intended by the word.  The horror! if women step out of their proper place!  who knows what will happen!

In response to cognitive dissonance, we have two choices: we can either deny the new information or idea and carry on as before – or we can turn to consider the new information or idea – each of those choices exacting their respective price.  This sample list of enquirers – from Copernicus to the Famous Five and Martin Luther King, these disturbers of God`s good order were willing to pay a price, to take their fear for a walk, to ask the questions in need of posing, to break the rules, to risk consciousness.

The status quo exerts a powerful force against change.  The servants of the status quo – psychological, political, social, economic – will move us, often without us even being aware, away from questions, away from critical consciousness, and into the ‘comfort’ of avoidance, compliance and obedience.  The rewards of doing so seem clear.   Clarity, acceptance, security, a future, a welcome.  To do otherwise, to challenge the status quo, to ask questions that undermine the pillars of that status quo, is to court fear, to court loss, exclusion and death.

I was raised in a small town – where the rules were clear.  But I was raised by a mother who had been colouring outside the lines for a good bit of her life.  And I watched her circle of friends grow smaller as she continued inexorably on a path to ever deeper critical consciousness and activism.  Despite such modelling and influence, I took my time joining her on that road, eventually finding myself by circuitous routes in late-1980s Central America, witnessing and documenting U.S.-paid-for horrors barely hinted at in my daily newspaper back home. My mother underwrote some of my earliest foolishnesses before she began to write her own story – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Brasil, El Salvador, Rwanda.  Mine took me eventually to Sudan.

Imagine this.  We’re gathered in a circle, west of Ombdurman, east of al-Fashur somewhere, the participants are mostly strangers to one another, feeling discomfitted perhaps, wondering what they’ve got themselves into.  Most of them are from Darfur, west and south, three from an IDP camp on the Chad border west of Nyala; a couple from the oil regions of Malikal, one from the disputed border zone of Abiyei, one from the north where the government is proposing to build yet another dam on the Nile to fuel the needs of Khartoum’s elites, hydro-electric wires passing over the heads of the displaced, south to the capital.

Half of them are women, half men; evenly divided between Muslim and Christian.  They are Baggara, Zaghawa, Fur, Massalit, Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk and their clans have stories to tell about the other, stories of slaughter, starvation, enslavement, herders and tillers caught in primordial vortices of hatred.  And yet they are here.

There is no one else in Sudan, multi-laterals, NGOs, no one, no organisation that is doing work just like this.  This is not the death-defying work of humanitarian aid workers attempting to deliver food, shelter and medical care to the displaced, desperate and dying.  This is the history-defying, social norm-, cultural-, religious- and warrior-defying work of non-violence training.  The participants have taken risky journeys to get here, as the edges of multiple conflicts overlap and spread across the map of this country.

We gather in a church compound layered with the red dusts of that weather phenomenon peculiar to the desert, the haboob (sand storm).  It is a place that the Bishop has declared holy ground – for both Christians and Muslims, where Muslims can pray, both in wonder.  This place has been targetted by the government and attacked by the Justice and Equality Movement, one of several Darfurian rebel movements.  News of a recent gathering here was embargoed until all participants had arrived safely.

We begin by talking about what we’re going to be doing over the following intensive weeks together, some idea of how the days will flow.  I explain my role; not as answer-person, not as expert.  Though I may have some ideas nurtured in places like these about the dynamics of conflict, our common humanity and alternative paths to violence, I do not come with the answers.  The wisdom already lies within you.  The knowledge of the way forward into peace already gestates within you; I am merely your midwife.  I will do my best to provide a safe place and all the tools and encouragement you need, but the work, the birthing is yours.

At this point, I then hold my hands out in front of me, cupped, describing a stretched-out belly and affecting a late-term waddle.  You are all pregnant!  The women giggle as I walk round the circle, my hands clasped around this imaginary bundle, making eye-contact with each one.  The men smile, discomfitted, not quite sure what to make of this.  They’ve never been called pregnant before and here in this culture where women are confined and hidden and struggle against profound derogation and marginalisation, it’s a provocative epithet.  Pregnant.

Like all birthing, it will be painful.  The path from here to the arrival of the new Sudan will no doubt be punctuated by pain of all sorts – but the kind that issues in new life.  It’s always an amazing moment this one, when, the words having made their way through the chasm of translation, the participants erupt in laughter, creating gaping holes in fences of race, religion, tribe and gender.

In the weeks that follow, we will push one another to our respective outer edges, where nothing is not up for interrogation:  history, land, ways of life, culture, gender, religion, tribe, civics, history and heroes, all to be examined under the lens of our questions:  what in our every-day lives that we hardly see drive violence in a warrior culture? what makes for peace?  We will role-play the pillars, postures and dynamics of power; we will play simulation games in order to draw out the economic roots of violence, talk in ‘fishbowls’ to provoke women and men, Muslims and Christians to vent and examine their stereotypes of the other; marvel at the exposure of ourselves to the other, the daring with which we have explored all of those strictures and constraints and rules out there that divide us and make us uncomprehending xenophobes and warriors towards one another; we imagine our way into our return to where we came from, back home, what it will be like to put into practice out there what we have learned in here, the risks of dissent that will mark their lives henceforth.

The questions, once left unknown and unspoken, will be tested in here and, before too long, played out there, whether in the mosque or the church, the street or the school, the marketplace, the commons or the kitchen:  who wrote the rules? Who benefits from the rules? If only a select few, only one gender, one race, one class, one tribe, one village or region – and not another, then maybe this is a rule that needs to be questioned, changed, broken.  Each day ends in a kind of exhaustion, amazed that we have made it this far; that the stranger, the enemy has become so beloved; that the microcosm of their country being played out here is discovering peace, yearning for birth.

Paolo Freire was a Brasilian priest whose work fundamentally altered notions of education and power.  He noticed, in his work with poor people their reluctance to learn.  He diagnosed oppression as the heart of this reluctance and began to map out the mechanisms of oppressive power in the creation of a population acquiescent in its own oppression.  He began to map out the contours of oppression, what forms did it take, by what mechanisms did it function?  Poverty, illiteracy, repression, terror, discrimination, violence, cultural rules.

Freire then looked for those means and methods of normalisation that convert the oppressive into the normal:  those ways by which we become inured to instruments of our own oppression:  walls that we no longer see, rules that we no longer challenge, ideals that cannot possibly ever include us, violences so pervasive, sounds so loud, heat so hot – they blend into the landscape of domination, invisibilised, no worse than bad wallpaper, raising no cry, no challenge from the bought and sold.  It takes too much work to re-imagine ourselves as maîtres/ses chez nous – when ‘facts on the ground’, ‘new normals’ obliterate the past – or kill the vision of the possible.

The result is that South Sudanese are expected to be grateful for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that cost 1.5 million lives – or was it one million, perhaps two?

The result is that

South Sudanese are expected to be grateful for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that cost 1.5 million lives – or was it one million, perhaps two?

Palestinians are expected to be grateful for Oslo or an IDF-free Gaza.

US Americans are supposed to be grateful for their `freedoms` even as they fall in shards at their feet.

Women are supposed to be grateful for their minority membership in old boys clubs not of their making.

‘Inside jobs’ and ‘false flag operations’ are glossed over or sneered at by media committed more to access to power than truth-telling to power.

While the crap-shooters of the casino economy quickly return to widening profit margins, the margins of the marginalised widen with growing numbers of people who don`t count, on whose heads austerity exacts the highest cost.

Trivialisation of the important, the substitution of the trivial for the important; not just oppression that we can see but oppression we can enjoy.

Freire then similarly mapped the means by which the dominant group escalated oppression, increasing violence, intensifying repression, narrowing democratic space, squeezing dissent; how agents of the state used threats and fear to divide groups and create political support for the previously unthinkable.

Hopefully, Freire went on to describe those mechanisms that he could identify in a process of problematisation:  what was the point at which elements of oppressive structures took on the shape of a problem?  What happened? What impelled the change in perception?  How did people learn to cope with the price that problematisation was bound to exact?  What vision of the possible fired their courage?

Conscientisation he identified as the penultimate step to change, that point of determined discernment, naming and describing of the contours of oppression:  See them; know them, name them, describe them and then, then, we can challenge them because we know them, we`re on to them, and we have decided to be free of them.  Action for change cannot help but flow.

Whether paedagogy of the oppressed or paedagogy of the privileged, critical consciousness must scale formidable psychological and social barriers for words and actions to emerge.  And fear is the greatest of those.  Of what am I afraid?  Is that a logical fear?  What will be the price if what I fear may happen happens? What are my interests and motivations, so often unconsciousness and unacknowledged?  How do those interests and motivations, primordial ideologies, beliefs and rules serve to impede my capacity to take in new information?  Of what will I have to let go? What supports do I have in place to work through the grief of loss?  Who are my companions on the way?

My role in war zones is to train people in non-violent direct action, in conflict transformation and the tricky work of third-party non-violent intervention – and sometimes to do it, alongside them. We are training for disobedience, weaponless waging of peace.  And in the playing out of it, I am rarely, if ever, amongst those who pay the biggest price.

Men walk out their fear of loss and chaos as they prepare to go home to put into practice their experientially-changed understanding of women; what will people think.  Women walk out their fear of taking their place in the commons; what will be the price.  Nuer and Dinka, Zaghawa and Massalit walk out their fear of dissenting from history’s mandate to hate.  Today we will take our fear for a walk in the streets of Ombdurman.

We are working through the design of an action meant to protest police and security force brutality and an impenetrable wall of impunity.  We have thoroughly told the stories needing to be told, Flora’s scars, Rafaat’s torture and imprisonment, Priscilla’s exile, Abdul’s son’s killing, Rahman Adam’s wife’s rape by the Janjawiid.  The closer we get to our imagined destination, the quieter the room became.  People are gathered in little knots, painting slogans on cardboard nailed to roof slats.  A group of women are concentrating their efforts on a banner, modest in size, not so modest in sentiment.  If this were Latin America, it would say ¡Basta ya!  But it’s Arabic, flowing like streams of water across the white canvas:  العالميراقبيكفي! Talahílam yurákabu! Y ekfi!

Gradually, the signs and banner are completed and we begin to choreograph the march; we practise some refrains and mantras.  It will be modest; it will be small, the route past the police station is short.  Beneath the activity, there is an unspoken question, neither asked nor answered:  are we actually going to do this?  Or is this just a role play?  The pulse of fear in the room thrums, yet contained within a web of trust and mutual confidence.

The marchers begin to form in rows of three, moving out into the red, sandy grounds of the compound.  As they approach the gate, to their audible relief, the trainers relieve them of their banners and signs.  The 20 women and men, Christians and Muslims, mostly young, walk through the gate and out into the busy streets.  People turn and stare as they walk, carrying high their unseen signs of protest, stretching out a virtual banner of dissent, walking to the rhythm of provocative unspoken chants.  The careful ranks of threes slip and adjust to the market-day crowds, weaving their way along the planned route.

On the approach to the police station, there is a stiffening in limbs and faces as their courage falters ever so slightly. But the march continues; they turn to greet the police, whose attention is caught by the suspicious-looking parade.  Some in uniforms of blue, some khaki, some lolling in the mid-day heat, they shift their machine guns like peacocks with their feathers.  The marchers, signs and banner pass, their wordless chorus parting the throngs.

As the marchers return to the compound, some stumble to the safety of the ground; some gather in pairs and groups for hugs.  Exhilaration is written on their faces, clouded a bit with the ebbing signs of terror.

‘I didn’t know I could do that!’

‘I thought I was going to throw up’, said another.

‘It was like living a nightmare – and surviving!’

‘We did it!’

The group gathered to talk, all at once, the translators struggling to keep up, about how they were feeling, going back through their walk of fear, how the fear shifted and changed and moved within them as they walked; its eventual defeat.

‘So what does it mean?  So what?’

‘I took my fear for a walk – and we lived!  It changes everything.  I will never forget this.  It will be with me, this story, right here, something to hold onto as I do this for real.’

One more story:   The media section of the Tahrir passenger list has grown to include Daria from Pravda, bringing the number of journalists on board to more than a dozen.  They are photographing the trainings, filing stories, doing interviews.

Today it’s my turn; my interview is with Daria, seated in a restaurant patio on plush cushions overlooking the Mediterranean.  She stands out amongst the group, make-up and wardrobe fit for a night out.  She is a late arrival here, and she is puzzled.

When she participated in yesterday’s media tour of the boat, she asked about the location of the cabins.  There are no cabins, she was told; no cabins, no beds, no showers, no bathing facilities at all; there is the ocean for that.  She is also perplexed about the people, who we are, why we are doing this strange thing.

Her beat is the Middle East; she was arrested and hooded, taken to an Egyptian prison during the course of the events of Tahrir Square.  It is her job.  Yet why would you, she asks, comfortable, so far from Gaza, care about Gaza?  Some of the others have said to me, her perfectly plucked brows rising in question marks, it is about the children of Gaza – why?  She is shocked that there’s a 23 year-old Australian who should be surfing somewhere, a 77 year-old who should be playing with her grandchildren; that there are mothers here – Soha left her husband and five year-old son to go camping in Algonquin without her; that, of a Vancouver couple who are here, only one of them is going on the boat.

Daria wants to know two things of me:  How did I get here?  What’s my excuse?  And, secondly, what was the training about?  In response to the former, I tell the story I know best, my own, the one that includes stops in Canada World Youth, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chiapas and Colombia; seminary, Thailand, the Philippines, Sudan and Iraq; that was shaped by a long list of inspirers, my mother, my children, my grandchildren, teachers, theologians, activists, pacifists, economists, friends.

Perhaps a story will help, I suggest.  I am in Basra, in a children’s cancer hospital.  It is a couple of months since George Bush has declared ‘Mission accomplished’ and five months since the birth of my grandson, Owen.   It is 49 degrees, inside and outside, electricity roaring the building into life only occasionally during the course of any given day.   In one of the wards crowded with children and their mothers, I encounter a woman, young, beautiful, dressed in the brilliantly embroidered weaves of the Kurds.  She is holding her son, who is five months old. The same age as Owen.  Her son is clothed in a thin shirt, exposing a purple-hued, scarred and distended belly, evidence of a vain attempt to conquer the depleted uranium-induced cancer that is killing him.

The two little boys are suddenly, in my mind, together somehow, sharing a common past of five short months, facing very different futures.  Why!? I want to shout.   Blond-haired, blue-eyed little Owen will live, playing in parks and streets and sandboxes unsullied by the fine yellow powders of DU, unlikely to stumble over and mistake for a toy a brilliant, wingéd – and death-dealing – cluster bomb.  Child of my child.  Child of a woman whose name I have forgotten; one lives, another dies.  Who decides.  What is the world doing about this? What is my government doing this?  What can I do about this.  That’s my answer to her question; that simple.

As for the training, there are three things we want to do, I tell her.  We want to get to know one another; we want to learn, in very short order, to trust one another.  And we want to take the imaginative journey ahead of ourselves, experience as much as is possible before we get there.  We get to know one another’s names, nationality, come to an understanding of the diversity we bring, the barriers of language and ability and cultures that must be scaled as best we can as soon as we can.  We want to know that we can reach for someone who was such a short time ago a stranger and know that they are there; their behaviour, the decision-making on the fly, practised, to some degree predictable.  Because we have come to know one another and we have been there before, if only in our imaginations.

I tell Daria about the spectrum of experience, stretching from one end of the long, rectangular room to the other, in which we tell by our bodies’ placement along the spectrum what history we bring.  After people have had some self-revealing conversations with one another as they figure out where to place themselves, a line forms.  At one end, people who are passionate, informed, organisers, who care about the people of Gaza, have written letters to editors and Members of Parliament, marched in demonstrations.  At the other, two veterans of last year’s flotilla, one a passenger on the Mavi Marmura, the other on the Challenger, as well as others experienced in war zones, Gaza, Palestine, in particular, incarcerated, kidnapped, tortured.  In between, variations on those themes.

Children’s games! she exclaims.  Of what possible value is that?

I try to explain.  Each end of the spectrum and between looks to the other and, in an instant, we can see both the gifts and the gaps, the complementary skills and experience, discern the cautious, the reluctant, the rash and the practical.  We have pulled back some significant veils on ourselves; bonds are forming.  We will soon get to know who are the trauma-listeners, the list-makers, the musicians, the poets, the high-order needs sergeant-majors, the risk-takers, the anxious, the easily-centred, the easily-provoked.  We’ll get into little bits of trouble in these land-based days and we’ll make our way through it.

I tell her about the scenarios played out to help us imagine where we’re headed.  In plenary, we brainstorm both the venues and the elements of the anticipated encounters.   At sea, on the dock at Ashdod, in prison, we list off possible weapons and tactics:  helicopters with blinding lights, M-16s, attack dogs, rubber bullets, tasers, live fire, water cannon, what is known as ‘skunk water’, sewage sprayed like water cannon; beatings, handcuffing, pushing, shoving, walking on your body, stress positions for long periods, food, water and toilet needs going unmet, interrogation, lies etc.  The participants are divided into five groups to design and script their role-play.

The first role-play is so realistic, so violent in both language and action, the room is shocked.  Israeli soldiers board from the stern, rapidly and loudly cursing, hitting, kicking, subduing with startling and ferocious efficiency.  Resistance by one passenger comes to a swift end with two rapid-fire tasers.

The role play ends and the group then breathes to collect itself, debriefs, asks questions, makes suggestions. Other role-plays follow suit, adding new elements each time, moving from open sea to dock to prison.  At each point, we discuss tactics, resistance, non-co-operation, submission, compliance, whether to sign the deportation document, whether to walk off the ship or go limp, forcing the Israelis to carry you off, recalling that the Israelis will be filming, hoping for footage that will demonstrate co-operative, friendly encounters and willing passengers.

We spend some time talking about, imagining, long hours handcuffed in stress positions, what it would feel like to have your stated need for a toilet ignored.  We think about that for awhile, some assuming those stress positions; we imagine some amongst us, perhaps ourselves, unable to hold onto urine or faeces, imagine the turning point, feel the warm release, recognise the odour; intentionally, determinedly imagine, right now, our response.  Grace, no shame; we must be alive.

This week, Karen de Vito, one of the passengers on the Tahrir, the Canadian Boat to Gaza, was quoted in Rabble: Fear is the problem, she is quoted as saying. In an age when wealth and power have thoroughly corrupted the machinery of democracy, civil disobedience is one of the few strategies that offer any hope of advancing the cause of social justice.   The system, however, does not take such disobedience lightly.

And then she goes on:  I think that the day that you look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a person who stands up for social justice, I’m a person who understands that the my liberation is wrapped up on the liberation of the other – there’s a shift. It occurs at a different time for everybody. Every person that you meet, every person that you talk to, every person is touched by this in some way.  You’re not going to change everybody’s mind. You’re not going to change the mind of someone with one word, one story. Maybe you brought a little insight, something they’d never thought of before, perhaps echoed a question they have not realised was already knocking around inside them.  It’s hard to measure these things. But that’s OK. All you know is that doing nothing is no longer an option.’

Homeland Security:  Protecting our Freedoms.

Hmmmm…  I guess it depends on what we mean by freedoms.  I want freedom to question, to dissent from the prevailing opinion.  Freedom to hear my point of view expressed alongside others without fear of repression or silencing or invisibilisation.  I don’t mind being uncomfortable.  I am OK with the discomfiture that comes with asking questions. I am OK with asking questions of myself, checking my motivations and interests that so often remain unconscious and unacknowledged, invisible to me and impeding my capacity to consider new information, to rethink my path.  I am willing to forgive myself when I falter, at times preferring the tenuous peace of silence.  I’m willing to open myself to the possibilities of fear, to take it for a walk and leave it behind.

Freedom from fear comes when you recognise that there is an endpoint to consciousness that is unassailable, that cannot be taken away from you, regardless of the apparent threat to your well-being – whether epithets, insults, assault, imprisonment or, even death.  It is called love.

So go ahead and ask your questions:

Why is public debt in private hands?

Why is that we can afford jets and jails and wars and not pensions and home care and day care?

How come those who created the problems get bonuses while the rest of us get job losses and service cuts?

Why does anyone think that a limited biosphere will forever contain unlimited economic growth?

Why is women’s work of less value than that of men’s?

Why does the U.S. government refuse a real enquiry into the events of 11 September 2001?

Why do we subsidise dirty oil to pollute our air and contaminate our rivers and aquifers?

Why are we at war with no discussion, no reason?

Ask the questions and don’t back down from the answers.

Find the companions on your way.

You are not alone.   And the odds are good.

99 to 1.


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Sudan third party non-violence intervention