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Stoking the fires of activism

NCR Staff

The reasons to rekindle the fires of activism are abundant and close to home, according to notable stalwarts of peace and justice causes who gathered to kick off a 40-day effort, the People’s Campaign for Nonviolence. The campaign is an attempt to galvanize political will around a host of issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to U.S. militarism, from racism and poverty to sanctions against Iraq. The event is aimed at “Building a Culture of Peace and Justice.”

A standing room-only crowd at the opening ceremony in the chapel of Howard University here also provided a graphic depiction of the composition of any new movement that might emerge from the 40-day experience.

It was those absent from the chapel July 1 who were conspicuous to Helen Caldicott, Australian physician, author and veteran crusader against nuclear arms.

The 500-plus audience appeared equally divided between members of the Seattle generation -- a label granted college-age activists after their recent demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization -- and their white-haired elders.

Said Caldicott, looking out, “We’ve lost a generation. I was in the IMF/World Bank march (in Washington in May). There were two kinds of people. Kids age 15-23, thousands and thousands of them, and old codgers like me and Dan Berrigan, and nothing in between.”

Jesuit Fr. Dan Berrigan, the peace activist who was first arrested for protests against the Vietnam War and later for actions opposing nuclear weapons, shared the platform with her.

“We’re missing a generation, but for the first time in 20 years I felt a real hope and optimism,” she said. “Those kids are organized -- on the Internet, and in colleges. They talk to each other.” They understand the World Trade Organization, she said. “Now we have to teach them about the nuclear situation.”

And nonviolence, echoed the panelists, not least Berrigan.

The panelists, in addition to Caldicott and Berrigan, were Irish Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire; Marian Wright Edelman, a lawyer, civil rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (NCR, March 24); and Jonathan Schell, author of Fate of the Earth. They were primarily concerned with the two issues they said have disappeared from the national consciousness, yet have never gone away: the continued nuclear threat from weapons, stockpiles and nuclear reactors, and the always increasing diversion to the military of vast resources away from those in need.

‘All so overwhelming’

Listening intently were young people such as Viterbo College freshman Kathryne Nelson who, with 37 friends from the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Project in La Cross, Wis., had traveled by bus for this opening session. In the audience, too, was a young man who told the panelists, “It’s all so overwhelming at times -- the connection between militarism, racism, poverty. Is there a tactic you can suggest to work for nonviolence?”

The panelists provided some answers, but faced an even larger question. In Schell’s words, “We’re, honestly, not living in a very socially active time.” Can “we recharge our political batteries to recreate a will that has been missing since the end of the Cold War -- to take action in the political sphere together?”

The answer may be in the outcome of what Jesuit Fr. John Dear, organizer of the Washington campaign, told the gathering was “a modest but unprecedented” attempt to bring all faiths together to mobilize for nonviolence. Dear is executive director of the peace group Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Unprecedented, yes, but hardly modest -- 40 days ending Aug. 6 (the 55th anniversary of Hiroshima) -- bringing together Buddhists and Jews, Quakers and Muslims, Presbyterians and Mennonites, Catholics and Lutherans. All of those groups are bringing hundreds of their members to Washington to work for a ban on land mines, to pray for peace, consider war tax resistance, engage in street theater against the anti-missile scheme called “Star Wars,” lobby for nuclear disarmament, protest sanctions on Iraq and do civil disobedience.

The whole thing came about because someone reached across the generations. Maguire said she was visited in Belfast by a young Frenchman who asked her if she would rally all the living Nobel Peace laureates to press the United Nations General Assembly to declare the first decade of the millennium, the years 2001-2010, an “International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World.”

Maguire did as the Frenchman asked. The United Nations agreed. The Washington campaign is the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s kick-off response.

“We have 10 years ahead,” Maguire told the chapel crowd, “to move from a culture of violence and death to one of peace and nonviolence. We in Northern Ireland have a message to the world: that militarism and paramilitarism don’t solve deep ethnic and political conflicts. They’re conflicts of human relationships and military and political institutions.”

Change is essential, she said. “The institutions, the superstructures that we had before the Cold War, no longer meet the needs of the human family.

“We need new structures and institutions and new answers,” Maguire said, “and that’s all right. We can find them. We need young people who’ll take responsibility. When we’re conscious we’re not alone, we can believe it’s possible. We have to believe passionately in ourselves and our ability to bring hope and a sense of love.”

Explained Schell, “Anti-nuclearism is a kind of pacifism for beginners. It’s just so easy to get the point. War is impossible with nuclear weapons. Jesus knew that -- what else did he mean when he said those who live by the sword will die by the sword?”

Said Schell, “This is a historic moment in the nuclear age.” The mitigating factors once used to justify have disappeared, he said. “There’s no Hitler, no Stalin. There’s -- what? -- even rogue states have been downgraded, in a little propaganda juggling, to ‘states of concern.’

“I think God has given us [Americans] an opportunity, a miraculous opportunity, which we did not deserve,” he said, “to rid ourselves of an evil of our own making. And if we can’t do it, God have mercy on us, for we’ll head into a world even more dangerous than the Cold War.”

The U.S. hypocrisy gap

And the most vulnerable in that world are children. “It is time to close the hypocrisy gap between society’s needs and the glorification of violence and war in our culture,” said Edelman. “We have 13.5 million poor children, 6 million in extreme poverty, hunger and homelessness. How can we look ourselves in the face? What stops us from doing what is right and decent? We spend more in a day on the military than we spend in a year on Head Start.”

Because of warped priorities, she said, “we’d rather spend $20,000 to $30,000 a year to lock up a child after they’re in trouble than invest a few thousand to give them a head start and a decent education.” Paraphrasing Gen. Omar Bradley, she said, “We’re military giants and ethical infants.”

Edelman looked out at the audience and said, “I’m so glad for your presence because so many people are waiting for Gandhi and Dr. King to come back. They’re not coming. We’re it. We must remake this world.”

Caldicott, in a frequently biting commentary on U.S. military and economic policies, and on the “incredible danger” and medical effects of “all things nuclear, including nuclear power,” said she writes her books, “like a doctor talking to her patient.” Those words were prescient.

The evening’s most dramatic and tense moments developed when people struggling with what they believe are radiation risks resulting from the recent Los Alamos fire turned to Caldicott for advice.

A group of 70 intergenerational peacemakers had traveled from Los Angeles, New Mexico and Colorado on the Loretto Peace Express, a special coach sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto and hitched to Amtrak’s Chicago Limited. Hot and tired (the train ran three hours late), the travelers arrived at the chapel after the session started.

During question time, a Loretto Express traveler said that many New Mexico residents had been contaminated from airborne radioactivity resulting from the extensive forest fires in and around the Los Alamos nuclear facility. She asked what actions the anxious residents could take.

Caldicott said, “My heart goes out to you. New Mexico was designated years ago as the national sacrifice state. During the fires, planes were supposed to be airborne monitoring and measuring radiation. They did not do it.”

A Los Alamos National Laboratories spokesperson told NCR in a July 6 phone interview that Los Alamos has 50 continuous air monitors around the site and brought in additional portable monitors during the fire. He said that during the fire no radioactive constituents outside the norm for a forest fire were detected. All forest fires, regardless of location, he said, release as a natural consequence very small amounts of radioactivity. That activity was detected in amounts of 1 to 10 percent above normal background radioactivity. No other hazardous material releases from heavy metals or other toxics were detected outside the norm of any forest fire, he said.

At opening ceremony, Caldecott continued to express concern about exposure to radioactivity. “The rains will come soon and wash the radiated waste down from Los Alamos,” she said. “Sometimes you just need to move, especially if you’ve got children. They’re 10 to 20 times more sensitive to radiation than adults.”

But those who’d ridden the Loretto Peace Express, a contingent that included Native Americans who live close to Los Alamos, would not let it rest there.

One rider said she’d lived in a Los Angeles barrio, and when her three teens were shot at, they moved. “We’re educated,” said the woman. “We were able to do that.” Another said, “There are many poor in New Mexico who can’t move, they do not have the education or the wherewithal. Yet their lands are being laced with plutonium and uranium. What else can we do?”

Pediatrician Caldicott, visibly moved, insisted, “The bottom line from the medical perspective is there’s nothing we can do. There are no answers. Once you get strontium 90 in the body of a small child, it stays there. Later that child may get cancer or leukemia. Once she gets plutonium in her body she can’t get it out.

Just say no

“Millions of Americans,” said Caldicott, “live within a short distance of a nuclear dump or a nuclear reactor. And what the politicians don’t understand about the human genome is that the nuclear waste will damage the human genome.

“That’s the problem with all things nuclear. We have no answer medically except to treat the cancer when it occurs,” she said.

Caldicott looked at the Native Americans seated to one side of the chapel. “Look at the people,” she said. “What can they do? With incurable disease you have to prevent it. But the reactors are generating tons of radioactive waste every year.”

In a rising voice, she said, “A democracy has to rise up and say, ‘No, we will not do it any more.’ Jesus kicked over the money table. We’ve got to kick over the nuclear table. This stuff is everywhere. All in the name of national security. Or to turn the lights on.”

Einstein, said Caldicott, said the splitting of the atom changed everything about life, “sweeping us toward unparalleled catastrophe. We’re starting to see it now.”

A somber audience applauded. Later, outside, the mood relaxed a little over ice cream. The July Fourth weekend would continue with a Sunday nonviolence workshop organized by activist Jim Lawson, and a Supreme Court fast and vigil protesting the death penalty, sponsored by the Abolitionist Action Committee.

Monday there was public witness and direct action at the White House with the American Friends Service Community, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the Atlantic Life Community. July Fourth brought “A Clown, A Hammer, A Bomb & God,” a Plowshares action play; “A Good Pie Day,” a play on genetically modified foods; and a vigil, leafleting and an interfaith prayer service for nuclear disarmament held at Lafayette Park and organized by Kairos Theater, Pace e Bene, Nevada Desert Experience and the Methodist Peace Fellowship.

Four days out of 40.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000