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Pleading the First

Dissent may be the most American activity there is

by Janisse Ray

Published in the November/December 2004 issue of Orion magazine



EVERY DAY LAST SPRING when my husband left for class he made a sign, handwritten in red ink on the back of a whole sheet of paper, and clipped it to his backpack. It told the number of coalition soldiers killed so far in Iraq. Months ago, when I watched him make the first sign, it said—I remember distinctly the number—598.

Below that, he wrote the figure for Iraqi citizens. There’s no real count; it’s just an estimate, since nobody in our government—at least publicly—is keeping track.

I WAS RAISED IN GEORGIA in the particular brand of gentility that makes public dissent reproachable. Good southern girls are docile and pretty, they are not disagreeable or obstreperous; good southern men are gentlemen. A subliminal threat of violence runs through most societies, but in the headstrong South, the layer of manners that protects us from that violence is breathlessly thin. We’ve been a region of lynchings, duels, shootings, whippings, church-burnings. Here, the need to be quiet has been a matter of self-preservation, and although I have worked hard to overcome it, the voice of refinement still whispers in my ear, Don’t cause a scene.

When I was yet a young woman, my love of nature funneled me toward a life of activism: How could I not defend the wild places where I learned so much and found such hope and comfort? I learned that protest simply required stepping through fear—fear of ostracism, fear of attack. That fear is a temporary phenomenon. I came to understand that what I stood to lose by being quiet and complacent was greater than what I stood to lose by protesting. After a while I comprehended that environmental destruction was intrinsically and logically connected to every brand of oppression on the planet, and that destruction of wildness was one of many forms of violence against this glorious experiment called life.

And so in early 2003, when President Bush was trying to drum up support for an attack on Iraq, I was mostly incredulous. People said “upcoming” war but I refused to use that adjective. All over the country, friends were protesting, part of a great global outpouring of dissent that was effectively ignored. We were at our family farm near Baxley, Georgia, during the weeks when citizens attempted to stop an invasion that seemed unnecessary but inevitable. My hometown took great pride in being solidly loyal to government—the weekly newspaper ran home-drawn editorial cartoons of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as devils. One Wednesday a letter to the editor opposed the war. I rejoiced, knowing that someone else among us was brave enough to differ.

Being a writer, I am often in the position of being asked to express my convictions publicly. At a reading at East Georgia College in February, during the Q&A, someone asked what I thought about the “upcoming” war. I told the audience that I believed we had no grounds for invasion, that we were quickly becoming known as a world bully, that we had supported Saddam Hussein’s regime for years, that Hussein surely was a cruel dictator but it was obvious that we were going into the Middle East for oil. We had a president who wouldn’t sign the Kyoto Treaty, who wouldn’t put emission controls on SUVs, who wanted to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We had an oil tycoon for a vice-president. To invade a country that had no proven ties to terrorism in the name of retaliation for the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th was a non sequitur. Another man in the back stood up. “What country would you rather live in,” he challenged, “since you don’t like this one?”

I thought back to the months I spent living in Colombia, South America, as a teacher of English when I was thirty. I moved through the days terrified of guerrillas, of me or my young son Silas disappearing. One sunny afternoon in a pretty square, where doves cooed in the stone niches of the town cathedral, an American friend and I read aloud the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our Constitution, ratified on December 15, 1791. Having never even read them before, I was dazed: The rights assured me by my own country were sweeping and permanent. I announced then—I who had been a war-tax resister, I who scorned my capitalistic society, I who had marched and demonstrated and torn my hair—that I would never again condemn the United States. I knew my country to be founded on the highest principles. It might not be perfect, but it was built on solid rock.

To the agitated man in the audience that winter day in Swainsboro, Georgia, I said, “This is my homeland and this is where I’ll stay. But what’s right is right, and I will stand up for justice even if I oppose my patria to do so.”

But to answer the man’s question more fully, the country that I want to live in has a government that honors the vital fabric of land and life that supports us; it upholds the rights and dignity of every being, even those without voice; it protects the rights of its citizens to say what they believe. It is a place where people are educated, where they participate in public life, and where self-governance is welcome and necessary. The events of the past two years have me wondering, where is that place?

A FEW MONTHS LATER I was at home when the phone rang. The caller asked who I was and I cheerfully said my name. “Stay at home. Shut your mouth. Sweep around your own back door,” she said and then hung up.

This scared me, in the same way that 9/11 scared me. Who was this I had angered, and why? I have tried hard not to make enemies, since enemies are dangerous and unpredictable. The call scared my father too. He thought it was because I had spoken out against the war; or against the nuclear plant in my county, whose permit to operate another twenty-five years beyond its life-expectancy was rubber-stamped by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission without a single epidemiological study; or because I had testified against the tire plant that dumped copper and arsenic into the Altamaha River. He wanted me to lie low.

All month rain fell. It poured from the sky, beating against the west windows of my grandmother’s house. On the morning of March 20 we woke to thunder. “The war has begun,” Raven said. “I can feel it.”

THIS NATION WAS BORN OUT OF DISSENT, and it is dissent that keeps it alive. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Former Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright wrote in 1966 that “in a democracy dissent is an act of faith,” and called it a higher form of patriotism.

Immediately following the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft introduced to Congress the 342-page U.S.A. Patriot Act, which sped through both legislative branches scarcely read, much less debated. Sections 411 and 802 expanded the official definition of terrorism, so that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s interpretation, people who engaged in civil disobedience could find themselves labeled as terrorists, and thus imprisoned indefinitely and deprived of legal representation. From then on, dissent not only required courage, but also a willingness to disobey the law.

Despite these new restrictions, seven friends, all middle-aged, middle-class mothers, journeyed to south Florida last November to join protestors against corporate globalization who were trying to derail a meeting of trade ministers of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Demonstrators in Miami were met with wildly excessive police brutality—rubber bullets fired point-blank, guns held to the heads of peaceably assembled citizens, Taser guns and tear gas fired indiscriminately and savagely into crowds, sound grenades detonated, batons struck against skulls. Police in riot gear barricaded the portable toilets so that my friends had to form privacy circles in order to urinate. These are the police we tell our children they can trust. They used to wear patches with the insignia “To Serve and Protect.” Now they use the tactics of an occupying army against their own people.

The “antiterrorist” riot squads in Miami had been outfitted and trained with $8.5 million out of President Bush’s extra $87 billion military allocation earmarked for Iraq reconstruction. Their aggression was so “successful” at hindering protestors that it would become known as the “Miami Model,” in which authorities use force and arrest to muzzle free speech—no matter that civil liberties had been squashed and that these illegalities have resulted in huge civil-action lawsuits against the City of Miami.

Raven and I were in Mississippi at the time and telephoned Miami officials to demand safe custody for protestors; we sent money to a general fund used to pay for their bail. None of our friends was hurt or arrested, but they came home sober. They had experienced the brunt of our country’s force. Predictably, the media showed pictures of a few radical youth and completely ignored the thousands of nonviolent supporters of fair trade and fair jobs, including union workers, students, senior citizens, clergy—a broad array of Americans exercising their right to stand up for what they believe.

The very next weekend we joined ten thousand patriots of the United States who filled the street leading to the main gates of Fort Benning to stage a nonviolent condemnation of the activities of the army’s School of the Americas (SOA, now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), which trains Latin American soldiers in combat, counterinsurgency, and counternarcotics. This is to say that at Fort Benning soldiers are groomed for death squads, torture, assassinations, disappearances, and the overthrow of governments—activities that foreshadowed the revelations from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Among the more than sixty thousand SOA graduates are individuals responsible for some of the worst human-rights abuses in Latin America.

There were church youth groups and peaceniks and nuns and puppeteers and a young man with wings tattooed on his shoulders. A woman sitting in her fold-up chair held a poster on which she had pasted newspaper photos of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, and a matronly woman wore a button that read, “what i love are men out of uniform.” Despite a decade-long history of nonviolent demonstrations at the SOA, police presence was heavy. The officers looked like soldiers themselves, charged with guarding a police state. They wanded everyone who entered the cordoned-off “protest zone” and searched every bag. They lined both sides of the street, and some watched the crowd from a spy box on a cherry picker.

I was wearing sunglasses in case of pepper spray and a lime-green bandanna (in a tear-gas attack, wetting a bandanna and pressing it over your mouth and nose helps). I met a young man who had come from the Miami protests; his arms and torso flowered with blue and purple bruises delivered by rubber bullets. He had been fired at for no reason, he told me, and continued to be struck even when he ran. With no small amount of bitterness I thought about our right to peaceably assemble and how that right is slipping away.

Directly behind the tall iron gates of Fort Benning, the military had set up speakers aimed toward the protest stage and through them blared “Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This was psychological warfare, the kind the U.S. leveled at Panamanian President Manuel Noriega (himself an SOA graduate) for three days and nights, blasting rock music at the Vatican consulate in Panama City before soldiers went in and took him out. But a pair of loudspeakers wasn’t enough to drown out Adriana Bartow, who lost two children by abduction during the thirty-six-year civil war in Guatemala that followed the 1954 CIA-led coup there. “Shame on the School of the Americas,” she said. “We are the true patriots of this country. We are the ones willing to say ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life.” Nor could they drown out Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now,” who reported that one of her colleagues, a videographer, had been arrested in Miami simply for shooting footage.

The military brought in a third loudspeaker just before Pete Seeger came on stage.

BACK IN MISSISSIPPI, my husband continued to update his sign. The number rose. But it was not simply a numeral. It was manifold grief, quickly multiplying. Each morning he rode off to campus on his bicycle, bearing the burden of thousands dead on his shoulders, and too, he bore the dead into our home. We lived with them.

When the war had been raging a year, he organized a peace march in Oxford. On a flawless spring morning, a few hundred people gathered at the courthouse downtown. One cautious man in uniform, who had been in the Gulf War and opposed the invasion of Iraq and who now was studying elementary education, showed up. In the country I want to live in, war is a last resort. Speaking up for all that lives is the highest and truest form of patriotism.

BY EARLY SUMMER the number on my husband’s sign was 911. The figure for Iraqi civilians, over 11,000. Right about that time we were preparing to attend the protests of the G-8 summit, a meeting between Bush and the heads of the seven other wealthiest nations, on Sea Island off the coast of Georgia. Compared to the $8.5 million spent quelling the Miami rallies, $25 million had been apportioned federally for “protection” in Georgia. The state would spend another $30 million.

To secure the G-8 meeting, the state of Georgia provided 11,000 security forces and the feds sent another 9,000. National Guardsmen lingered about their Hummers. A helicopter hovered constantly. In the windows of the federal courthouse, where the march began, we could make out officers peering around sashes, holding video cameras. Afterward, the press would report that 350 people gathered, when thousands had been expected. Cops, then, outnumbered demonstrators forty to one. In addition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “as many as one in nine” of the protestors was also an undercover cop.

When Raven and I stopped by the planned protest in Forsyth Park in Savannah later that evening it was dead. We saw a few people milling about a graffiti panel upon which someone had lettered: “YOU DID A GREAT JOB OF SCARING EVERYBODY AWAY.”

The Bush administration wants to scare us all away. They want citizens to think politicians know best and I’m not going to put my neck on the line. They have made dissent, that most essential American act, ever more harrowing. Attorneys for the ACLU have been working night and day to defend our freedoms, those which the administration so glibly promises to deliver around the world and yet so fastidiously represses at home. Now, the reason is the threat of terrorism. Tactics that might be appropriate for terrorists are used against innocent Americans—and not only those who commit crimes, but those suspected of having the potential to commit crimes.

These policies are an affront to the idea of free expression. Terrorist “alerts” are used to manipulate the American public, to make us afraid enough that we will not balk at giving up our civil liberties. This culture of fear undermines the very spirit of our country; it cracks the foundations of American democratic life.

TODAY’S WORLD RAGES WITH WOUNDS. Brutality of governments. Mistreatment of working people. The notion of inferiority based on skin color, race, nationality. Oppression of women, children, gays. Torture. War. The way men are made to fight wars they did not start and to die. Ignorance of the fabric of wildness that sustains us; the sacrifice of our waters, lands, creatures, forests, ozone to profit-hungry industry. Erosion of the noble ideals of free speech, true democracy, and justice for all by corporate interests.

These wounds deepen and fester with our willingness to be complacent, our turning of heads, our silence.

These days, when I ponder the idea of freedom, I am haunted by the eyes of the Iraqi man who lost ten members of his family. In the wire photograph he is encircled by coffins, all of which hold dead family members. He is weeping over the body of his mother. When I look away, it is as if not just my eyes but my whole body is weeping.

As an artist, a writer, I don’t want the job of dissent. But I am a human being and a citizen first. If it’s not my job, then who’s job is it? Why should I be afraid to speak? Why should I allow anyone to hush me? Why should I be embarrassed that my husband, a Vietnam-era veteran, goes about town waving a sign? Why would I not ask, of everything: Does this uphold life or does this annihilate it?

“Our freedoms were not granted to us by any governments,” Arundhati Roy reminded us in her celebrated talk at Riverside Church on May 13, 2003. “They were wrested from them by us.” Every right we have gained as citizens, every inch we have moved toward peace and justice and equality, every move we’ve made to protect those beings that have no voice has been accompanied by struggle, by courage, by someone holding out a vision so that people could walk toward it.

To exact change in the world—worthwhile change that elevates the dignity of our humanity—we must protest the wrongs until they fail. Even, or perhaps especially, when our own government attempts to silence our voices.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

JANISSE RAY is the author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home. She is a writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College and Keene State College, and divides her time between Vermont and her family's farm in Georgia. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, Sierra, and Natural History, and she has been a nature commentator for Georgia Public Radio.

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