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Activists: Don't Blow It
Published on Sunday, October 22, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Activists: Don't Blow It
by Lisa Martinovic
 
AFTER SEVERAL DECADES characterized by collective somnambulence at best, and unrepentant self-serving gluttony at worst, Americans have begun to wake up to some very ugly truths. Everything from our basic civil liberties to the climate and the safety of the food we eat is imperiled.

By way of response, the direct action against the WTO in Seattle ushered in a new era of activism, and with it a commitment to challenging the unsavory practices of multinational corporations, governmental bodies and other institutions that wield power over our lives.

Buoyed by this vibrant energy, I am not alone in feeling tingly with hope for the first time in years. And yet I am disturbed by the tactics of some of today's activists. Fortunately, whether we're talking about AIDS research, animal rights, saving redwoods, or stopping sweatshop labor, the overwhelming majority of activists is committed to nonviolent action.

As a pacifist and a realist, I applaud this path and walk it myself. My concern is with those whose approach includes smashing storefronts, setting fires and throwing rocks at police. Equally disturbing are environmentalists who spike trees, endangering the lives of loggers and mill workers, AIDS activists who disrupt civic meetings and hurl fake blood at pharmaceutical company executives and animal liberationists who torch labs.

I certainly share in the outrage of anyone who has seen a clear-cut forest, watched an animal suffer or a friend die because he couldn't afford medication. But how can we expect anyone else to stop committing acts of personal or institutional violence if we ourselves cannot? Many sincere, committed activists are convinced that violence is justified in the service of the greater good. To such people I say: You cannot do this alone. To make the changes this country so desperately needs, you must have at least the tacit support of the majority of Americans -- which you'll never get by dishing up mayhem on the evening news.

Violent tactics serve to alienate the very people whom the activists are trying to convince, while simultaneously deflecting attention from their message.

Violence is counterproductive and symptomatic of old-paradigm thinking that we need outgrow. When we act from a place of rage and hate, we will only generate like energy in return. Instead we ought to turn, for example, to South Africa as a model for compassionate change -- coming from a people who chose reconciliation over retribution despite centuries of subjugation.

At the same time, it behooves us to remember one thing about those whose policies poison ground water, block paths to potential cures, criminalize classes of people, play Russian Roulette with our genetic inheritance and force people to work at less-than-subsistence wages: they are asleep to their own humanity and oblivious to that of others.

People who make power or profits their God are not so much evil as they are profoundly and dangerously ill. And just as we don't get an alcoholic sober by beating him over the head with a whiskey bottle, so too will we fail to awaken the hearts of government and industry leaders by attacking them.

Instead, by engaging in peaceful demonstrations, ballot initiatives, informational picket lines, class-action lawsuits, consumer boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and good, old-fashioned voting, we raise awareness about effective alternatives to animal testing; the number of jobs the United States lost to NAFTA; inhumane working conditions in factories where our athletic shoes are made; the dangers of unleashing genetically engineered crops without adequate research into the ramifications; the incalculable value of medicinal plants in rain forests being wiped out in favor of grazing cattle for ever more MacBurgers. Through thoughtful engagement, we open a public dialogue.

Spiking a tree is a statement. Statement is monologue. You cannot debate a spike, discuss with a rock, or open a dialogue with a Molotov cocktail. Communication, not escalation, is the key.

And if we think ``the enemy'' is cruel and inhumane, then we must strive harder to model the sort of behavior we wish to see in others. Let us summon the courage of ``ordinary people,'' like Rosa Parks and Erin Brokovich, who showed us just how powerful individuals can be. It is through nonviolent direct action that we demand -- and are beginning to effect -- change. For though they are the beholden to no one, the corollary and hope rests in the fact that governments and corporations are beholden to everyone. And therein lies the rub.

Activists who resort to violent tactics do so in part as a reaction to the passivity of a silent majority who can't find a reason to vote, much less save the spotted owl. By the same token, is it any wonder that people in power think that either we don't care or are happy with the way things are because so many don't vote? In a society spoiled by instant gratification, we are unaccustomed to efforts that take time and discipline. So, be patient. Go out and vote your conscience. Vote as if your life depended on it. Because, my friend, it does.

Lisa Martinovic is a San Francisco free-lance writer and slam poet.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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