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BECOMING AND LIVING
AS AN ACTIVIST

SAM SMITH

Talk at Active & Compassionate Teens Conference for Social Justice

Tatnall School
WILMINGTON DEL
March 6, 2004

You never know how it's going to work out. . .

About 16 years ago my youngest son, soon to graduate from high school, visited a used clothing shop with two buddies. One of them found a pink suit, pink tie, and pink fedora hat that fit him just fine and made my son's friend look like some strange character out of a 1940s movie. As a joke, he wore the suit to his graduation a few weeks later.

The other day, I picked up a copy of his school's alumni magazine. There was a photograph of an African American girl in the pink suit with the pink fedora. For 16 years that outfit has been handed down from class to class to be worn at graduation by the person who best exemplified the spirit of the pink suit - whatever that is.

You never know how it's going to work out. . . .

In February 1960 four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn't know what the result would be.

One of the four, Franklin McCain, would say years later, "What people won't talk (about), what people don't like to remember is that the success of that movement in Greensboro is probably attributed to no more than eight or 10 people. I can say this: when the television cameras stopped rolling, the folk left. I mean, there were just a very faithful few. McNeil and I can't count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn't get people to help us staff a picket line."

Four people. . . . That's you and the students on either side of you and the one in front of you. That's all you need to make history sometimes.

I knew a civil rights leader named Julius Hobson. He used to say that he could start a revolution with six men and telephone booth. He seldom had more than ten at one of his demonstrations. Once in a church with about 30 parishioners, he commented, "If I had that many people behind me, I'd be president."

But between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities.

Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to city hall that encouraged the DC to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the discrimination in teaching, teacher segregation, and the unfair distribution of spending, books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school 'superintendent and first elections of a city school board. A few years later he started a third party that got him elected to the city council. And a few years ago that party became the local Green party.

You never know how it's going to work out. . . .or when. .

In 1848 the first women's conference took place at Seneca Falls in New York. 300 people were there but only one of the women present lived long enough to vote.

Usually I ask students: knowing what you know now would you have gone to the Seneca Falls conference or would you have said why bother? Would you have been an abolitionist in 1830, decades before emancipation? Would you have been a labor activist in 1890, a gay rights advocate in 1910? Or would you have said why bother?

I don't have to ask you those questions because you're here even though you don't know how it's going to work out. You have taken the leap of faith that is the necessary first step for progress: you have imagined that it is possible.

I'm not going to kid you. It's hard. Producing positive social, economic, and political change in a country as locked down as ours is hard work. And your generation has already taken it in the chops.

With the sole exception of black Americans in the post-reconstruction era, no other generation in the past century has been so deprived of its constitutional rights and civil liberties. No other generation of young males has been sent to prison in such numbers for such minor offenses. And few generations of the young have been so consistently treated as a social problem rather than as a cause of joy and hope. Except for blacks in the post-reconstruction era - no other generation has been so deliberately cheated of so much.

If you think I exaggerate, consider these figures from the Department of Labor, figures that you won't see on the evening news, or read in the morning paper. The earnings of everyone under 25 - black, white, latino, male and female - have actually declined over the past twenty years in real dollars, about 5% for the most part. But get this: the earnings of black and white males under 25 are down 17 to 21%. A typical white male is earning $97 less a week in real dollars than 20 years ago.

Your rights as a citizen of the United States have also been steadily eroded during your lifetime. There have been increased use of roadblocks, searches without warrants, wiretapping, drug testing, punishment before trial, travel restrictions, censorship of student speech, behavior, and clothing; excessive requirements for IDs, youth curfews, video surveillance, and an older drinking age - all of this before September 11.

Yet the system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its repetitive messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing it." And even as we complain about and denounce the culture in which we find ourselves, we are unable bury it or to revive it. We speak of a new age but make endless accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.

To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak and the young, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as just a right but as a frontier.

How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voices, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.

We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered others like themselves. The freedom schools of the civil rights movement. The politics of the folk guitar.. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple conversations.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.

You can do it. . . .in fact it's pretty much up to you. . . you can tell when change is coming. .. it's when the young demand it. We've had our chance and we blew it. And you've got at most about ten years to set things straight. Then you'll get busy with other things.

In fact, you have to do it.

I know it looks hard. We seem, as Mathew Arnold put it, trapped between two worlds, "one dead, the other powerless to be born."

So how can one maintain hope, faith and energy in such an instance?

If we accept the apparently inevitable - that is, the future as marketed to us by the media and our leaders -- than we will become merely the audience for our own demise. Our society today teaches us in so many ways that matters are preordained: you can't have a pay raise because it will cause inflation, you are entitled to run the country because you went to Yale, you're not good enough to go to Yale, you are shiftless because you are poor; there is nothing you can do to change what you see on TV, you don't stand a chance in life if you don't pass this test.

And what if we follow this advice and these messages? If you and I do nothing, say nothing, risk nothing, then current trends will probably continue in which case we can expect over the next decade or so:

More corruption, a wealthier and more isolated upper class, more homelessness, increased militarization, a growth in censorship, less privacy, further loss of constitutional protections, a decline in the standard of living, fewer corporations owning more media, greatly increased traffic jams, more waits for services and entertainment, more illness from toxic chemicals, more influence by drug lords, more climatic instability, fewer beaches, more violence, more segregation, more propaganda, less responsive government, less truth, less space, less democracy, less happiness, less love. . .

But what if, on the other hand, we recognize that the future of our society and our planet will in large part simply represent the sum total of human choices made between now and then? Then we can stop being passive spectators and become actors -- even more, we start to rewrite the play. We can become the hope we are looking for.

But how? Well let me offer a few suggestions, what I might call helpful hints for happy hell raisers:

- Discover that you are not alone. Begin right after my talk by introducing yourself to those around you. Find places where people like you can gather not just to commit social justice but to enjoy each other. Change comes not just from agendas, but from casual conversations, from communities of the caring, from having fun with people who share your beliefs.

- Even when you can't change things you can change your attitude towards them. For example, we tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s. Because in beat culture, jazz, and the civil rights movement there had already been a stunning critique of, and rebellion against, the American establishment.

Norman Mailer called such people "psychic outlaws" and "the rebel cell in our social body." Ned Plotsky termed them, "the draft dodgers of commercial civilization."

Unlike today's activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters. To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.

For the both the civil rights movement and the 1960s rebellion that followed, such a revolt by attitude seemed far from enough. Yet these full-fledged uprisings could not have occurred without years of anger and hope being expressed in more individualistic and less disciplined ways, ways that may seem ineffective in retrospect yet served as absolutely necessary scaffolding with which to build a powerful movement. In other words, even when you can't act you can think, you can talk, and you can react in some way.

- if you want to scare the establishment, get people together who it doesn't think belong together. If you have a problem with your principal or headmaster don't just go to his or her office with the usual troublemakers; walk in with some of the smartest kids, some jocks, a few punks, blacks, whites, latinos, and, best of all, the kids who never seems to be interested in doing anything at all. Once when we were fighting freeways in Washington, I looked up on a platform and there was the Grovesnor Chapman, the chair of the white elite Georgetown Citizens Association, and Reginald Booker head of a black militant organization with a name so nasty I don't think I can say it in school, and I said to myself, we are going to win. And we did.

- Have fun. Don't be ashamed of it. You are not only fighting a cause, you are building a new sort of community. Back in the 1960s, a really good black activist told me, "You know, Sam, all I really want to do is sit on my stoop, drink beer and shoot craps." After that, I never forgot what the battle was really about.

Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things -- like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.

- Remember the definition of a saint: a sinner who tries harder. You and your colleagues don't have to be perfect, you don't have to be always right, you just have to keep trying.

- And while we're talking of saints remember what St Francis of Assisi said, "Always preach the gospel. Use words if necessary." Which is to say that words are not always the answer. Justice can be expressed in many other ways. For example, if you volunteer at a homeless shelter, you don't have to make a big deal of it. Just the fact that you are doing it will have an effect on those around you.

- Among the other ways are art and music. Music is often the forerunner of political change. Billie Holiday was singing about lynchings long before the civil rights movement. Cool jazz was a form of rebellion. And when they write about what led up to the important Wilmington student conference of March 2004 the smart historians will give credit to punk rock. Because it kept the idea of freedom alive at a time when few others were interested. As the webzine Fast 'n' Bulbous noted:

"Punk gives the message that no one has to be a genius to do it him/herself. Punk invented a whole new spectrum of do-it-yourself projects for a generation. Instead of waiting for the next big thing in music to be excited about, anyone with this new sense of autonomy can make it happen themselves by forming a band. Instead of depending on commercial media to tell them what to think, anyone can create a fanzine, paper, journal or comic book. With enough effort and cooperation they can even publish and distribute it. Kids were eventually able to start their own record labels too." In other words, it was a musical version of democracy.

And it can lead to profound political change. By the end of the 1990s, an unremittingly political band, Rage Against the Machine, had sold more than 7 million copies of its first two albums and its third, The Battle of Los Angele, sold 450,000 copies its first week. Nine months later, there would be a live battle of Los Angeles as the police shut down a Rage concert at the Democratic Convention. Throughout the 1990s, during a nadir of activism and an apex of greed, Rage both raised hell and made money. In 1993 the band, appearing at Lollapalooza III in Philadelphia, stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note in a protest against censorship. Other protest concerts followed. And in 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Rage's Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor. Throughout this period no members of the band were invited to discuss politics with Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer. But a generation heard them anyway. So Rage T-shirts became a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.

- Be patient. You are not winning a game called justice, you are living a life called justice. Bertolt Brecht tells the story of a man living alone who answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, "Will you submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, "No."

- Be fair to each other. There's been a sad side to social activism. Some people get delusions of grandeur, some rip it off. And some don't apply the principles of which they talk to those around them. For example, both the civil rights and the 1960s anti-war movement were rife with behavior that denigrated the women involved. So remember the old Mahalia Jackson gospel song and you won't go wrong: "You can't go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday. You've got to live the life you sing about in your song."

- As far as getting along with folks of different cultures and backgrounds, listen to my old friend Chuck Stone. Stone really knows how to get along with other people. When he was columnist and senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 75 homicide suspects surrendered to him personally rather than take their chances with the Philadelphia police department. Black journalist Stone also negotiated the end of five hostage crises, once at gun point. "I learned how to listen," he says. Stone believes in building what he calls "the reciprocity of civility." His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.

- I can't emphasize that too much. Show everyone respect and you'll walk comfortably among every class, subculture and ethnicity in this land. Don't show respect and you'll live a lonely life.

- Part of that respect is towards yourself. Don't apologize for who you are. Don't be afraid to argue with someone just because they are of a different ethnicity. Arguing with someone is a form of respect too, because it means you really care about what they think.

- If you are a member of a ethnic or other minority, remember that as an activist your role is to provide solutions to problems and not merely be a symptom of them. To be a survivor and not a victim. It is hard these days because basically all the corporate and political establishment want any of us to do is to consume and comply, and the poor and the weak more so than the rest of us. For example, they not only want you listening to hip hop but to accept its culture as the outer limit of black aspiration. There is nothing wrong with hip hop except when all doors leading beyond it are closed.

Ethnic politicians have a similar problem. During the civil rights movement, black leaders spoke not only to those of their own culture but to many whites, especially young whites like myself. The most influential book I read in college was Martin Luther King's 'Stride Toward Freedom' and it wasn't on any required reading list. Cesar Chavez had a similar cross-cultural appeal. But then as African Americans became more successful in politics there was a understandable but unfortunate tendency to retreat to a constituency you knew you could rely upon. And so black leaders became much less influential in the white community.

It's an important lesson for any young black or latino activist. Don't let your story be ghettoized; instead take that story and find the universal in it, and use that story to move those who don't look like you but can understand the story because you made it theirs, too. The greatest ethnic success stories in America have come when a minority learned to lead the majority, as the Irish and Jews often did in the past century.

As an example, I hear over and over that blacks and latinos can't work together politically, but I can almost promise you that the next great ethnic leader in this country is going to be someone who ignores that cliché and creates a black-latino coalition which, after all, will represent one quarter of the people in this land. Perhaps that leader is in this room.

- Look for consensus. There's a lot of either-or in political activism. But within your own groups, it helps to emphasize consensus. Before we got the national Green Party off the ground we held a conference in the early 1990s that many would have said was doomed to failure. We had 125 people from over 20 different third parties ranging from the Socialists and the Greens to the Libertarians and the Perot people. It was asking for trouble.

But we also had two rules: first, we were there to discuss what we agree upon, not what divided us and two, we would discover it by some form of consensus. And we did; by the end of the weekend we had come up with 17 points of unanimous agreement.

- Finally, trust in courage and not only in hope. The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery.

But as Lillie Tomlin noted, even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.

Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the behavior of the weak and naive.

There is far more to this than personal action and personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others -- in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love -- that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation. Here then is the real possibility: that we are building something important even if it remains invisible to us. And here then is the real story: even without the hope that such a thing is really happening there is nothing better for us to do than to act as if it is -- or could be.

Here is ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing - which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully down the street, through our school, and over the face of the earth doing it.