Friday, July 16, 2010

Alice goes on the road: a reflection

Walk for a Nuclear Free Future: As a child, I believed that the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust before I could grow up. As a result, the "what do you want to be when you grow up, dear" questions took on an abstract quality for me.
Well, I am happy to report that, all of these years later, I'm still alive and trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up! I am much less happy to report that the world, which was not destroyed when I was a child, is still in peril. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the possibility that they could be used also exists. Despite my lifelong dread of a nuclear holocaust, I have never protested against nuclear weapons. Until I went to the federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, in April of 2004, for crossing the Fort Benning fence while protesting against the School of the Americas (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), I had never met anyone who had been involved in protesting against nuclear weapons. There, I had the good fortune to meet Sister Ardeth Platte, who was serving a 41-month sentence for a Plowshares action at a nuclear weapons silo in Colorado. Ardeth quickly became a mentor and an inspiration for me. She explained to me that her action was an expression of love and of faith. That faith is also expressed by the World Council of Churches in its statement: "The production and deployment of nuclear weapons, as well as their use, constitute a crime against humanity."
Since becoming friends with Sister Ardeth, I had wanted to do something to express my hope for a nuclear-free world as a way of honoring her determination and her sacrifice. So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to join a Walk for a Nuclear Free Future this year, I was happy to participate. I couldn't do the entire 700-mile walk, but I was able to join this group for a little more than half of the walk. In March, I walked from Buffalo to Rochester, a distance of 100 miles, in one week. From April 11th until the first of May, I walked from Utica to New York City. This was a distance of approximately 265 miles. It took me through the Mohawk Valley and the Hudson River Valley into New Jersey and, finally, over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Part of the mission of this journey was to visit all six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). I visited half of the nations: the Tuscaroras in Lewiston, the Senecas in their Tonawanda territory near Akron, and the Mohawks in their Kanatsiohareke community near Fonda.
Also, many of my fellow walkers were from Japan. I learned from them that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still suffering the effects of the nuclear attacks. These people, called Hibakusha, survived the initial bomb blast but suffered from illnesses due to radiation exposure. Among them, there is a high rate of leukemia and other cancers, as well as thyroid problems. Their children have suffered, too, with birth defects and other health issues.
Similar health problems also plague people in places where nuclear weapons were developed and tested, both during World War II and later, during the "cold war," which was called "cold" only because it didn't involve direct conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The cold war claimed many victims throughout the world.
I heard terrible stories of birth defects in the Tuscarora territory, where leakage of waste materials from the Manhattan project was found. One of the walkers, Al White, a Cayuga who lives in the Seneca Nation's Cattaraugus territory, talked of a baby who was born in the Tuscarora territory with two rectums. He said that people in the Cattaraugus territory are exposed to toxic materials that have leaked from the West Valley plant. "The biological and chemical warfare done to our people continues today and our people are suffering." 
When I arrived in New York City on May 1st, I went to the Riverside Church, where a conference was being held on the topic of a nuclear-free world prior to the start of talks on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the United Nations. These talks are held once every five years. I heard a presentation called "Global Hibakusha."
Claudia Peterson, a medical social worker, said that people in her community in Utah drank contaminated water and they ate contaminated meat and vegetables. The contamination, which affected parts of Nevada and Utah, was caused by nuclear weapons tests that had been conducted at the Nevada test site, located in the Nevada desert. Between 1951 and 1962, more than 100 nuclear bombs were detonated at this site.
"The U.S. government assured us that everything was safe. People were living downwind from the tests. We watched loved ones suffer and die." Claudia's father-in-law, a uranium miner, died of cancer at age 63. Claudia talked about the many family members who died of cancer. She said that she remembered holding her six-year-old daughter in her arms when the child died of cancer. She said that her sister died of melanoma at age 36.
"I wished that I could die," Claudia said. "You are changed by loss and suffering. The heartache never goes away. The wound never heals. I never dreamed that I would have to do this. My story never changes."
Abbacca Anjain Madison is a former senator of the Marshall Islands from Rongelap Atoll. She talked about the disastrous results of above-ground testing done by the United States in the Marshall Islands. She said that 67 atomic and hydrogen bombs were tested there. One of the most devastating tests was done over the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. "At the crack of dawn, we saw a bright light in the west," the former senator related. The light was accompanied by a loud noise. Small children cried. A strong wind blew. A bitter rain fell on everything. People washed in the rain, thinking that it was soap. Their skin became itchy, and they suffered pain in their eyes. The water was poisoned but the people didn't know. No warnings had been given to them. Their bodies were covered in painful wounds. Their hair fell out. People suffered from lung, thyroid, stomach, and brain cancer.
A few days after the nuclear test, a research study, called Project 4.1 (Study of Response of Human Beings exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation due to Fall-out from High-Yield Weapons), was organized. It was done so without the consent or knowledge of the "human guinea pigs." According to the final report of Project 4.1, people in the Ailinginae, Utirik, and Rongelap atolls experienced "significant" exposure to radiation, from 14 rads in the Utirik atoll to 175 rads in the Rongelap atoll. After the nuclear testing, "women gave birth to 'jellyfish' and to deformed and dead babies," Abbacca siad.
"People are dying of radiation and cancer," Abbacca explained. "The future is so bleak."
She shared the story of the Marshall Islands as a cautionary tale. "Learn from our experience. Let us help each other."
The United States ended its above-ground nuclear tests in 1962 and its above-ground nuclear tests 30 years later. The nuclear threat, however, still exists. An aging stock of nuclear weapons is maintained by several countries throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Depleted uranium, which is made from nuclear waste products, has been implicated in increased numbers of leukemia cases in Iraqi children.
Grand Island walk: It has now been two months since the Walk for a Nuclear Free Future ended. Since then, I have been walking around my own community. On Friday, July 2nd, I walked along the Niagara River. I picked wild raspberries and I watched boats in the river. After several hours, I reached Beaver Island State Park, where I met a group of archaeology students and their professor, Dr. Lisa Marie Anselmi. They were busily digging for artifacts of the early- to mid woodlands period. I got a tour of the site and an explanation of the project by a student named Jess. She showed me the "test pits" that were dug to determine if there was anything there of interest. If there was, then larger holes, called "units," were dug. Jess showed me how the students sifted the dirt for artifacts. It was a lot like panning for gold! After I left the archaeology site, I walked to the beach, where I saw many people having fun in the sand and in the water.
It was a peaceful and educational walk. But I couldn't forget that even this close to home, I was still affected by the dark legacy of the cold war. The fact that nuclear waste, as well as other waste products from the heavy industry on the Niagara Falls side of the river, has been identified in the Niagara River means that any fish caught there probably is not safe to eat. And, yes, people do go fishing in the river.
My experiences this spring and early summer have taught me that it's long past time to get rid of the nuclear weapons.
Bertrand Russell once said: "War doesn't determine who is right -- only who is left." Nuclear war changes that reality, too. In a nuclear war, it doesn't really matter who is right because, when it's over, no one will be left.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Scattering to the Winds

Today, my Buffalo group (Vicki Ross, Jim Anderson, and Tom Casey) left Washington, D.C. It was great to have them with me over the weekend. I look forward to seeing them soon, as I am heading home on Wednesday morning.
The Washington, D.C., portion of the Peaceable Assembly Campaign ends early tomorrow afternoon. After that, as the saying goes, we all scatter to the winds. We've already started scattering. We will have a small group for our last vigil in front of the White House tomorrow. The police (both Park police and Secret Service uniformed police) will have other groups to babysit.
One of the interesting things about vigiling in front of the White House is all of the different people who meet us and want to take pictures with us. Today, a large curious group of tourists descended upon us. They had already taken out their digital cameras and were ready to click away. It wasn't hard to persuade them to get into the picture.
"Where are you from?" we wanted to know.
"Russia!" said one of the women.
The Russians smiled gleefully as they held up signs calling for an end to war, an end to military aid to Israel, and the immediate closure of Guantanamo and Bagram.
After the photo session, the Russians walked away, chattering with great animation.
Another interesting thing about vigiling in front of the White House is watching all of the various characters who seem to come there on a regular basis. There is a man who dresses in a black suit and a top hat. He actually looks as if he belongs in the nineteenth century. He has a stick and uses it for some sort of elaborate display that looks as if he is saluting a king, instead of a president. He never speaks. There is another man who goes to the other extreme. He dresses us as some sort of superhero (but none that I would recognize) and he carries a big sign critical of President Barack Obama. Then he shouts about the government wasting money and collecting taxes. The man in the black suit came to the White House. The superhero has been missing for a few days. Either he ate some kryptonite or he's off fighting the good fight against all comic book villains.
Well, those are just two of the characters who frequent the street and sidewalk in front of the sidewalk.
I'll add some more stories and photographs after I return home.
Bye for now.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Judge Faircloth's last hurrah

U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Mallon Faircloth in Columbus, Georgia, presided over his last trial of SOA Watch fence crossers. He is set to retire this June. Three fence crossers showed up in court. One of them didn't come for his court appointment. Judge Faircloth issued an arrest warrent for the missing protester and promptly sentenced the other three to six months in federal prison each (no, not collectively as in two months each). I still think that six months in prison for crossing a fence is a tad excessive. One of the fence crossers went straight to jail. That was Father Louie Vitale. The other two will self surrender at a later date to some federal prison.
Maybe by next year, no one will cross the fence because SOA/WHINSEC will be closed by executive order.
That will be change that I can believe in.

The not so secret service and other musings

Today, I was in front of the White House with the Voices for Creative Nonviolence folks. A group had come from Minnesota to join us and to engage in a civil resistance action in front of the White House. The group had come well-prepared for the action. They brought decorated shoes and t-shirts. I was given one of the shirts. On the back, it said "Minnesotans for Peace." On the front were red handprints. They looked like bloody handprints. They could have been Lady MacBeth's handprints. She had lots of blood on her hands.
We also have lots of blood on our hands as a result of the actions of the U.S. government.
I can no longer keep track of all of the wars that the United States has fought since the end of World War II. I've never understood the point of all of those wars, probably because no one has given me an explanation that I can accept. I've heard:

  • We have to protect our way of life.
  • We are protecting our freedom.
  • They have weapons of mass destruction and will attack us.
  • They want to kill us so we'd better kill them first.
The first one doesn't make any sense whatsoever because I don't know what this way of life is supposed to be. We have homeless people but I don't think that we're fighting to protect the right of homeless people to live on the street. We have millions of people who don't have health insurance but I don't think that we're fighting to protect the right of people to go to emergency rooms because they can't find a doctor who will provide them with preventive health care. We have inadequate mass transit in much of the country but I don't think that we're fighting  to protect the right of people to sit in traffic jams and not go anywhere because there are too many cars with one person in them. We have people who graduate from high school unable to read but I don't think that we're fighting to preserve illiteracy.
I could go on and on but I think that you get the idea.
All right, I'll go on to the second one. This one really annoys the heck out of me. We are fighting in (enemy country du jour) to protect our freedom. I am not sure of which freedom needs to be protected with remote control bombing (drone attack), depleted uranium, and other weapons. Oh, wait. Isn't depleted uranium a weapon of mass destruction (see excuse number three for attacking the enemy du jour)? Never mind. I'll get to that later. At any rate, this is the one that seems to be the juiciest propaganda of all of the excuses. I actually hear this nonsense in the mainstream media. This is what passes for news reporting: (Someone far too young) made the ultimate sacrifice in (name the foreign country) to protect our freedom. All too often, that can be translated to (Someone far too young) was killed when the truck that he was riding in came into contact with an roadside bomb. That someone far too young probably joined the military because he was promised money to attend college after he left the service. Or perhaps he was an illegal immigrant and he was promised citizenship, instead of deportation.
That has nothing to do with my freedom. My freedom is not protected by guns and bombs; it is protected by the U.S. Constitution. And it is not threatened by some foreign power. It is threatened by my own government. I am told where I can stand or sit when I want to criticize the government's policies. Most of those places ("free speech zones") are places where the governmental officials who need to change policies never frequent. How can I petition governmental officials for a redress of grievances if the governmental officials can't see me? So I break a few rules. I have no desire to protest just for the satisfaction of having protested. If I wanted to protest for my benefit alone, I could make a picket sign and march around my house, all by myself. But that's not what I want. I want governmental officials to know that I am waiting for the change I can believe in. I am waiting for an end to war and to torture and to secret CIA prisons.
I speak out and I write my viewpoints, as I am doing now, and I don't give the military permission to kill in the name of my "freedom." I'll protect my own freedom, thank you.
How about the third excuse: They have weapons of mass destruction and will attack us. Has anyone noticed that we have more weapons of mass destruction than any of our "enemies"? We have nuclear weapons and depleted uranium and who knows what other types of weapons of mass destruction. We could kill every man, woman, and child on the earth several times over. We have so much weaponry that I can remember thinking, as a little girl, I will not live to be an adult. We will have a nuclear war and everything will be taken away by a huge mushroom cloud of death.
Of course, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were fictitious so we don't hear that one any more about Iraq.
Ahh, but Iran has a nuclear program.
Darn! We can't put out the fires fast enough. Of course, when you're trying to put out fire with fire, you might get a few flames.
So. The last excuse that I can think of. We've got to kill them before they kill us. That seems to be applied to "terrorists." Terrorists are people who target civilian populations. I could mention the drone attacks that killed civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan, except that it was "us" that did that act of terrorism. Ooops. Did I just call the U.S. government a terrorist?
Never mind.
So, back to the original topic. The protest against the war that's supposed to protect our freedom to do something or not do something but I don't know what. Yes, we wore shirts with bloody handprints. We symbolically threw shoes at the occupation. Then we sang and marched around in circles on the sidewalk in front of the White House. People started lying down for the die in. They lay on the cold hard cement to represent the war dead, both military and civilian. But that was a problem for the police. They have deemed that an illegal protest. We can protest in that "picture postcard zone" all we want, as long as we keep moving. We just can't have any stationary protests. The government is probably trying to ensure that we get our exercise when we protest. Um. Maybe. If we stand still or lie down, we get arrested for having a stationary protest. I guess that it's not freedom of speech or assembly that we're fighting these wars to protect because I've been arrested twelve times for trying to exercise these rights where someone can see me, not in a "free speech zone" for the benefit of other protesters or for no one at all.
As I was marching, I noticed that the cops had started putting crime scene tape up. Uh oh. Was I going to be arrested by accident. The cops then gave a warning and I skedaddled. Fast. Apparently, that was the cops' second warning. They give three warnings before they start telling us that we're in violation of some ordinance prohibiting free speech and that we are about to be arrested for unlawfully exercising our first amendment rights, which apparently are only symbolic and not real but seem to be worthy of sending our young men and women to be killed.
Once I got to the non-arrest side of the yellow crime scene tape, I resumed singing but not marching in circles. I waved to the White House but doubt that President Obama was looking out the window. He's too busy increasing the defense budget and sending more troops to Afghanistan. I wish that he wouldn't do that. Would he listen to me? I'd like to think that he would. He used to be a community organizer. Well, now he is the community organizer in chief and I am part of his community so I'd appreciate having a minute with him to express my concerns.
But, instead of talking to the president, I talked to police. I noticed this one cop was a member of the uniformed secret service. He had the word secret printed really big on his shoulder patch. The word secret was also printed really big on the police car. I had to ask so I did. If I can't ask the president about the war, at least, I could get some of my questions answered. And one of them was if the word secret is printed all over the place and the secret service police officer is in uniform, how is it a secret? The officer just started giggling. Another police officer laughed when I told him that I had been arrested three times in front of the White House.
These exchanges make me happy and give me home. The experience is never a protester vs. police sort of thing. I have never once protested against police. They don't set policy. They are put there to keep me separated from the people who do set policy.
It's the government that creates the us vs. them policy, who tells us that we have to kill the "enemy" so that "the enemy" doesn't kill us.
I was thinking about all of this outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House. I was thinking about the oil that we lust after and all of the other natural resources that we lust after. Of course, we don't fight wars for oil. Do we?
We sang "courage brother, you do not walk alone, we will walk with you and sing your spirit home..." and then we sang "courage sister, you do not walk alone, we will walk with you and sing your spirit home" to the thirteen folks participating in the die in as they were tied up with plastic handcuffs and taken to be patted down before being put in the police wagon.
At this moment, the group of them is in Washington, D.C.'s Central Cell Block. It is a holding facility... two to a little cage... um, cell... the walls are metal, the bed is metal, the toilet and sink are metal... the only food and beverages that are offered are one bologna sandwich and one plastic cheese sandwich (both with mayonnaise) and bug juice. No water. Just bug juice. It's very hot. You feel like a rotisserie chicken when you're in there. Yes, I was in there last week for a different protest. I'll write about that protest later. Central Cell Block is an experience that's not exactly on the official Washington, D.C., tour. It's not so terrible. We survive.
But those wars are a different story. Many people don't survive.
Maybe, if we protest enough, we'll get the attention of someone in government and we can tell that someone that too many people are being killed for... um... I don't know. People I know keep telling me to stop protesting, that no one will listen to my criticisms.
I don't think that I can do that. I can't stop protesting because no one is listening but I could stop protesting because someone is listening and is implementing changes. That's all I want: to be heard, to feel as if I really do live in the democracy that the media keeps claiming I live in.
I've learned a lot lately. I've learned about the mystery of the secret service not being very secret and I've learned about pretending to be on a great adventure in a submarine when you're spending the night in Central Cell Block because it really does look like a submarine but I still can't figure out why we are having these wars and letting our talented young people and the talented people of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan get killed for nothing at all. I don't understand that and I don't accept that.
So that's it for today. My musings about the not-so-secret service and war and lies and free speech that isn't all that free after all...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Day Two in the nation's capital

When I was in college, I was a political science major. I truly felt that I could work within the system and help to effect long-lasting change.  I spent a semester here in a Washington semester program. I was a part-time intern in the office of Rep. Dan Marriott of Utah. He was a conservative Republican. I was not. I had to write letters to constituents on his behalf. I simply wrote the opposite of my own position. I startled myself by how persuasive I could be at disagreeing with myself.
Unfortunately, after I graduated, I could not find a job on Capitol Hill.
Despite being shut out of the system, I still believed that the system could work.
Over the years, however, I have learned otherwise. 
I met torture survivors and found out that my government had been responsible for training the military personnel who carried out the torture. I learned that my government had given these military personnel training on the most advanced weaponry that they then used on their own people.
I started becoming very disillusioned with my government.
How could this happen?
We have a constitution. We have laws. Americans helped to write all sorts of human rights legislation.
How could our government get so much out of control?
In 2002, the government that I had once believed in opened a prison for "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo. Everything about it was secret. I wondered what was going on. 
In 2003, President George W. Bush got us into a war after telling us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And, for the most part, Americans believed him. Even members of Congress believed him.
I was absolutely sure that President Bush was lying.
I wanted to emigrate.
I didn't want to live in a country with a president who lied. I didn't want to live under a government that was accused of torturing "enemy combatants" who didn't even get the same privileges as "prisoners of war."
I didn't understand how our country, supposedly the best and most civilized in the world, could stoop to torture. After all, we have computers. We are technologically advanced. Therefore, we must be civilized.
Well, no.
Today, when I was standing in an orange jumpsuit and a black hood in front of the Hart Senate Office Building, I thought about these things. We have technology but it does not make us civilized. In fact, it makes us even less civilized. As an example, we can bomb people by remote control (drone bombing). Is that the action of a civilized people?
Today, I learned that three detainees at Guantanamo, who were said to have committed suicide while in detention, were placed in a secret CIA prison within Guantanamo and were allegedly tortured to death. They died, said Joe Hickman, who had been a sergeant of the guard at Guantanamo in 2006 because they were tortured to death. Rags were stuffed down their throat and they died.
I would like to think that the system would work and that these horrendous deaths will be investigated and the culprits punished appropriately.
But I am not sure that I have enough faith left in the system to believe that it will do the right thing.
So, tomorrow, I will be outside with people from Witness Against Torture and Voices for Creative Nonviolence's Peaceable Assembly Campaign to dramatize to the government that it is time for it and for all of us to be accountable for our actions. 
I hope that someone will listen and that the names of those three men -- Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani -- are not forgotten. 
That is why I will be outside tomorrow, to remind those in government who still believe that the system can work to please, please... make that system work.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Day One in Washington, D.C.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., today after traveling by plane, bus, and train. I settled in at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house, which will be my home for the next two weeks. At about 4:30 p.m., I hopped on the Metro and headed to the White House. As I walked to the White House from the Metro station, the sun started to set. At the White House, I joined the Witness Against Torture group, who were holding vigil. Most of them were dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods. Some of them held up signs demanding that Guantanamo and Bagram be closed immediately. Others carried a huge banner that called for the closing of Guantanamo. Unfortunately, Guantanamo is still open, despite President Barack Obama's promise to close it within a year. That promise was made last year.
I stood with Sister Ichikawa, a Buddhist nun, who comes to many of these events. She has a drum, which she beats rhythmically. I joined in the chanting of "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" with her and with the others standing in front of the White House. I also stood with Buddy Bell, who was part of the Walk for Peace last summer in Wisconsin. That was the 22-mile walk from Camp Douglas to Fort McCoy from August 7th through the 9th. It was a wet walk. That was the one where nine of us were arrested for "crossing the line" at Fort McCoy. Four of us "repeat crossers" were taken ninety miles away to the Dane County Jail in Madison. Strangely enough, Fort McCoy issued a federal hold, despite the fact that all four of us were civilians. I was told that the military cannot issue a hold against civilians. We were held overnight and released the next day, without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. To this day, there are no pending charges against any of the nine of us who "crossed the line."
But that was five months ago.
So today, I am in Washington, D.C., with the orange jumpsuit crew.
News media people came to photograph and interview people in orange jumpsuits.
At about 6:15 p.m., Sister Ichikawa and I followed the group in jumpsuits as they marched down the street in single file. It was a silent procession. The only person who spoke was Carmen Trotta, a Catholic Worker from New York City, who played the role of the guard. He issued the command to the "detainees" to march or to stop and stand still. He also handed out the signs for them to hold up.
The orange jumpsuit vigil and parade was a very striking display under the street lights. The plethora of lights that make the White House glow in the dark also added to the dramatic effect of the group in orange jumpsuits.
I'll write more tomorrow.