Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Old South, New Ways: Arun Gandhi Teaches Nonviolence in Alabama

Arun Gandhi, grandson of M. K. Gandhi, came to the Walnut Grove Methodist church near Birmingham to guide 50 people through a three-day retreat on nonviolence. With a quiet presence and a humble demeanor, this world class peacemaker and advisor to global leaders speaks with clarity and authority on the principles and practice of nonviolence.

As a young teenager living in South Africa, he was often ridiculed and attacked — by blacks for being too light skinned and by whites for being too dark. Arun was filled with anger at the humiliations and oppression he experienced in the apartheid system, so his parents sent him to India to learn from his grandfather.

One theme that Arun repeated during the weekend is how anger is a natural emotion and can be understood like the energy of electricity – that it can be good or bad. When used intelligently, anger can be channelled positively as a power for good. In a “culture of violence “ such as exists in our world today, anger causes 85-90% of that violence.

The retreat was organized by Jim and Shelley Douglass of the Mary’s House Catholic Worker, as part of their lifelong practice and promotion of nonviolence. Though many in attendance were Catholic, including some Benedictine sisters from the monastery in Cullman, Alabama, many other faith traditions were represented.

Rev. Ken Higgs of Birmingham’s Methodist Church of the Reconciler, noted that “Alabama makes North Carolina look like a Socialist state.” Through his ministry, Birmingham’s thousand homeless persons are served. At least half are veterans, he said. A van load of high school students from a private Episcopal school in Austin, Texas, checked into the dorm the day before we arrived and their spirited interactions went point-counter-point with their elders’ insights throughout the weekend of discourse and exercises.

Coleman’s technical assistance with the sound system and our help setting up the breakfast service during the weekend kept us active. As we had expected, the event drew a diverse group from Texas, New Orleans, Alabama, North Carolina and even Mexico. Our eclectic literature table attracted the students, and our interest in learning about the ways people do peace and justice work in Alabama, a bastion of the old south, kept us engaged in many lively conversations.

This past January Arun Gandhi was asked to resign his position as President of the Board of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. The Institute has been located at the University of Rochester since 2007. Gandhi had written two paragraphs on the Washington Post blog, On Faith, titled “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence.” Within three weeks, according to reports, Gandhi was forced to resign as Director of the Institute he had founded after a storm of criticism that he was anti-Semitic by pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-DefamationLeague (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, and by pressure from the President of the University of Rochester, Joel Seligman. When questioned about the situation at the weekend retreat, Gandhi said that Jewish funders threatened to withhold money from the school as a consequences of his remarks. His apology, he said, was not for criticizing the use of violence by recent Israeli governments, but for any unnecessary hurt and anger caused by the way he made the criticisms.

Another perspective on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was embodied in the presence of author and former CNN Middle East correspondent Jerry Levin. His capture in July 2002 and eleven-month imprisonment by the Hezbollah, ending in his escape, becomes a human narrative of commitment and transformation in his book West Bank Diary. Jerry, a Jew, has now converted to Christianity and is teaching nonviolence to Palestinians. Both he and his wife Sis brought their own form of giving to the dynamic of the retreat. Dr. Sis and Jerry Levin, founders of community Nonviolence Resource Center in Birmingham told us about their upcoming Conference Workshop: Teaching Creative Nonviolence- Education’s Missing Link, to be held at Birmingham Southern College in November.

“We have translated religion into meaningless ritual,” Gandhi told the mostly faith-based group. “Get to the essence and use the essence to build yourself and make a better human being of yourself.” Addressing his remarks to the students, Gandhi said “the whole education system is based on creating technocrats for industry. The ambition you young people need is not how to make millions but how to become a better human being.” Gandhi continued, “Life is not about moving in circles, but more about climbing a ladder. Every day take time to consider how to be better today than yesterday; each day a rung, climbing higher and higher.”

“Nonviolence is more than just not fighting; this does not equal peace,” Gandhi said. There is both physical and passive violence – conscious and unconscious. Ignoring how the products we use daily are made would be a passive violence against nature. Ignoring our affluent society and wasting our resources is a passive violence against humanity. If you were to plot your daily experience of physical versus passive violence, you will discover that the passive greatly outweighs the physical. It is this passive violence, which is mostly unspoken, that fuels physical violence or the need to strike back.

We don’t live in a perfect world, Gandhi said. So until we have created the perfect world we will be forced to occasionally accept some lesser form of violence in order to avoid a greater amount. When asked about abortion, Gandhi was treading on contentious ground with this group. His clear and firm response that abortion is “not a societal matter or a matter for government…it’s a woman’s choice,” diverted the conversation for awhile as the group attempted to listen, both to those who appreciated the moral complexities of the issue, and those who could not accept it as a woman’s choice.

Other themes discussed throughout the weekend included:

  • Trusteeship: We each have talent and think we own it to exploit for our own gain. We don’t own; we’re in trust of these talents and need to share them with and for the betterment of others.
  • Constructive Programs: The sense of making others self-sufficient. Providing assistance, not out of pity, such as giving the homeless money just to make them go away.
  • Greed of American Capitalism: As a society, our behavior is counter-intuitive to self-sufficiency, decentralization, and community. That we’re seeing the effects of our living beyond our means through the current recession. Materialism and morality have an inverse relationship and that materialism makes for more greed.
  • Anonymity of Mega-cities: Neighborhoods in our cities are just localities and do not automatically produce community. It’s not enough to just live somewhere. Humans must have an understanding of who else is around and how folks are interconnected.
  • Living with Violence: Until we have created the perfect world we will be forced to occasionally accept some lesser form of violence in order to avoid a greater amount, such as defending yourself if you being attacked.

In a group exercise, Gandhi listed what his grandfather named as the SevenDeadly Sins:·

  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without humanity
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without Sacrifice
  • Politics without Principles, and another Arun added:·
  • Rights without responsibility

How do these lead to violence? What would the opposites mean as well? In our next posting, to really do justice to the Gandhi retreat, we will expand on some of the themes and exercises that have deepened our understanding of the practice of nonviolence as a lifetime pursuit.


Sweet Home Alabama: Revolution and Reconciliation in "Bombingham"

Not knowing where to go in Birmingham didn’t seem to matter. She just grabbed us with several turns onto one-way streets that placed us right in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Echoes of dogs and fire hoses, children screaming and bombs exploding reminded us of the historic importance of this city in the struggle for civil rights, human dignity, and social justice for all people. The museum is opposite the four-acre Kelly Ingram Park, a staging ground for the civil and social unrest of the 1960’s. The park, the original point of massive demonstrations and confrontations, including a children’s march from the adjacent church, is laid out to create a circular Freedom Walk which takes the visitor through a series of sculptural sites and structures depicting the assault by police dogs and fire hoses that shocked the world and led to passage of major civil rights legislation throughout the country. The four fountains at the center of the Freedom Walk commemorate the ghastly deaths of four children murdered in the 1963 KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, opposite the park entrance. As soon as one leaves the Civil Rights Museum, an excellent historical tour itself, you’re immediately drawn into the park where you can’t help but reflect on the struggles, the indignations and ultimate success of the will of a people to overcome generations of oppression.
As we paused at the sculpture of a police dog attacking a terrified child held by an officer, we introduced ourselves to a tall black man also captivated by this scene. Norman Hatley, a military veteran, was raised in North Memphis, in a neighborhood near Clare’s childhood home. With the images and history of racist oppression fresh in our minds, we apologized for the white racism in our shared history. We parted with greater sense of appreciation for the power of this special place where people can encounter one another in the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Before we left the Freedom Walk, two long-time Birmingham natives called us over and beckoned us to join them at their vantage point from a park bench. Guarding a black plastic bag that held some of their possessions, Sam Owens, who said he was a nephew of 1936 Olympic track star Jesse Owens, reflected on the condition of the park before the civil rights movement. With a pointed reminder that “You know what all you folks did to us,” he recounted the high weeds, the snakes and dirt, and the huge shade trees that framed their original park.

“…One night some rich white folks brought us a load of gravel, some picnic tables, shovels and wheel barrows. That’s how we got this park straightened up,” he told us. With Shorty looking on, Sam continued to detail his having been a local body guard for Martin Luther King, Jr. during his time in Birmingham. He explained that while they were setting up for a Barbque in the park for later in the day, the bomb went off in the church across the street. We’ll spare the reader the graphic details of how the bodies of the four little girls were carried across the street and laid out in the park for identification. At the end of Sam’s story he asked if we could help them with money for a meal. For a moment we wondered if this was all a well-orchestrated ploy for sympathy, but decided his story was real; the stark details and the tears on Mr. Owens’ face told us that he was recounting his personal experience of a tragic history that left deep marks in his psyche. Real or not, this encounter pointed to the need to let everyone tell their stories, to listen without judgment and to pass on the spirit of that moment. So we gave them our lunch money and went on our way.

Our next stop on Thursday evening was Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker house in the nearby Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham, home of Jim and Shelley Douglass. As we arrived Shelley was packing food and supplies for the Lenten Retreat they were facilitating over the weekend with Arun Gandhi as the guest speaker. Jim returned later that night, after being delayed by a flat tire. He had been speaking in Kentucky at the Trappist monastery where his friend Thomas Merton had lived. Jim was on tour promoting his new book JFK and the Unspeakable.

During a spaghetti dinner we talked about our mutual journeys surrounded by iconic images of Ceasar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and St. Frances of Assissi. As we settled in for the night in one of the hospitality rooms, usually filled by family members with loved ones hospitalized nearby, we were startled awake by what we thought was a burglar alarm. It wasn’t until the next morning over coffee that we discovered it had been a tornado warning.
“We don’t pay much attention to those,” Shelley said. “We don’t have anywhere to hide from one anyway.”
As we drove toward the retreat location along roadsides draped with lilac-hued wisteria, we were thinking about how far we have come in the South in the struggle for equality of civil rights. We were shaken by an anti-immigration sign, a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done. The wisteria that softened the harsh urban landscape seemed no more than the thin veil of hypocracy covering the deep racism still eating at America’s core.


Nashville: Green Revolution in Music City!

We arrived in “music city,” to the Nashville Greenlands, the Catholic Worker Community and WRL affiliate founded by long-time activists and war tax resisters Karl Meyer and Pam Beziat. It was late afternoon and Karl was conducting a tour for students visiting from Chattanooga, in town for a lobby day called Catholic Schools on the Hill.” Karl was explaining the Catholic Worker movement and the “Green Revolution” philosophy advocated by Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin, who hoped to place scholars and workers side-by-side on farming communes. Nashville Greenlands is helping to revitalize the economically depressed neighborhood where Karl is the only white member on the neighborhood association. The community has purchasesd and repaired five houses and has openings for youth interested in a constructive program of radical politics.

Veterans for Peace member Joey King, just back from serving as an observer in the recent elections in El Salvador, joined us on the porch to share his report. He also talked about the counter-recruitment work of the Nashville VFP. “We prefer the term ‘truth in recruiting,'” Joey said, using the term coined by Chuck Fager and Quaker House in Fayetteville, N.C.

We arrived early at out next stop in the spacious home that serves now as the Nashville Peace & Justice Center. We were warmly greeted by staff and offered space to sort out our box of WRL literature and other materials we have been distributing along the way. Center Coordinator, Krystal Kinnunen-Harris, talked about the growth of the Center and the work of some of the member organizations working for long-term sustainable social change on a variety of issue areas, including Cumberland Greens Bioregional Council, NOW, Nashville WRL, and Tennessee Immigration Refugee Rights Coalition. Krystal was especially appreciative of the way member groups came together and worked successfully to defeat Nashville’s “English First” proposition. “The heart of the message is a basic human rights issue,” Krystal said. “We came together to keep Nashville as a place where immigrants feel welcome and protected.” Another project the Center is considering is a Peace Summit where groups in the region can come together and discuss how we can collaborate, discover what are the issues, and how can we support one another, Krystal said.

Also visiting the Center while we were there was Mana Kharrazi, a field organizer in the south with Amnesty International.

Before leaving Nashville, we stopped by the beautiful campus of Fisk University to have a look at the special collections, including many books and news reports from the Nashville sit-in days during the Civil Rights struggles.
The library is a vital resource center for scholars of the nonviolent struggles, and we wished we had more time to spend there.

After a pleasant evening visiting with Michael and Dylan (Clare’s brother and nephew), we headed out to Birmingham where we are tonight looking forward to our time with Jim and Shelley Douglas and others in town for the nonviolence retreat led by Arun Gandhi. Stay tuned for our next report. And, of course, comments most welcome.

Tennessee: Rad Waste, Dead Possums, Coal Sludge & God

We arrived at Lissa McLeod’s Knoxville home early Sunday evening. She was making apple & pear crisp from dumpster-dived fruits, while her partner, Jake Weinstein, cut and painted cardboard props for an Olive Tree Circus performance the next evening, after a morning circus workshop at the elementary school.

Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance organizer and neighbor Shelly Wascomb mixed up Margaritas. Lissa and Jake are back from a solidarity trip to Palestine. At one demonstration protesting the wall, Israeli soldiers lobbed tear gas and other projectiles at unarmed protesters, Lissa recalled. “They looked right into our eyes…I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I wanted to turn and run, but everyone else was holding their ground so I stayed.”

A letter advising confiscation of funds from Lissa’s bank account lay open on the countertop. The IRS had seized her savings to meet its demand for the war taxes Lissa had redirected last year to constructive community projects. As a conscientious objector to paying for war, Lissa is even more determined after her Palestine trip to connect with “people who are ready to take action.”

Our conversations regarding our WRL Dixie circuit riding quickly moved to the perennial issue of how to collaborate with and be informed by concerns of communities of color throughout the South. Lissa has been a southern organizer for years and understands well that traditionally white-led groups are seldom able to attract wide participation from people of color, and without that vital collaboration, the organizing efforts won’t reflect the realities of the region.

Jake’s arrival in Knoxville boosted to a new level the presence of puppets and circus theater to enhance direct action and community education. He and Coleman engaged in the discussion of art as a tool for social change, and Lissa agreed that art and creative actions should be a part of the S.E. gathering and training event.

We spent a few hours on Monday with OREPA coordinator Ralph Hutchison who echoed earlier sentiments about the realities and challenges faced by Southern organizers.
“In the South, where the work is most needed, it is hardest to do,” he told us. And regarding the conversation about how to involve people of color, Ralph talked about the necessity of allowing for the “organic and natural alliances” to grow, building trust over time and across common issues that might take years to bear fruit. “Economics is key,” Ralph said. “It is the lack of job security that is driving young people of color into the military.”

Monday evening in Knoxville our hosts were john johnson, a staunch conservation biologist and forestry student, and Amanda Womack, classical violinist, R.N. and Board President of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. They furthered the conversation about the proposed S.E. gathering. john is a longtime Earth First! organizer and seasoned Direct Action practitioner and trainer. john suggested opening up the gathering with a fire circle to facilitate peer to peer exchange of stories and experiences from the trenches and to work in collaboration with other groups from environmental, social justice and peace organizations. Amanda thought such an event was something her foundation might be interested in getting behind.

As we left Knoxville on I-40 we passed an exit to Oak Ridge and the Y-12 nuclear bomb plant. Soon we came upon a flatbed trailer hauling a large metal box carrying radioactive waste. Further along we detoured to find the site of the TVA sludge pond spill, an environmental disaster 50 times greater than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. A dead possum in the middle of the road was an ominous foreboding of the devastation ahead. At Big John’s Foodette in Harrimon, Coleman talked with Jason, an unemployed father of three, who offered to lead us to what had been his favorite fishing spot, now covered deep in the toxic coal sludge. “People need to see this to understand how bad it really is,” he said. (Look to our next blog for photos).

As we drove through what had once been a bustling downtown Harrimon, we were caught off guard by the number of empty and boarded businesses along Main Street. The late 1800s early industrial American architecture stood quiet watch over this dying town. The toxic spill only added insult to injury. As we left the scene, the church sign added a note of irony:

“God smiles when we trust him completely.”

OREPA is gearing up for the April 4th vigil and direct action at the gates of Y-12 in Oak Ridge. Solidarity and support are needed.
Stay tuned for the Nashville review.

WRL-Asheville along the Tennessee Scenic Highway

With the forsythia blooming golden against the Carolina blue sky, we set out from Asheville Sunday noon. Our first stop was the Sunny Bank Inn and retreat center in Hot Springs, NC where we found Elmer Hall pulling a load of laundry from the washer as other staff sat down to Sunday dinner. Elmer’s mountain Victorian Inn is famous with hikers on the Appalachian Trail, with as many as 800 a year stopping in for hospitality.

“I’ve been a member of WRL since the 1970s,” Elmer told us as we explained our mission to connect with activists and organizers in the S.E. and renew WRL presence on the ground. “Where has WRL been for the past ten years?” he asked. “It’s the veterans against the war that seem to be doing the most work.” He took some literature, and pointed out the WRL pie chart pasted on his kitchen door. Elmer’s not on the Internet but his Inn is a crossroads and his kitchen table a geographic mix of young people engaged in lively conversation. He’s interested in having his Inn serve as a “forward outpost ” for Western North Carolina mountain folks. He asked to be kept up with our work and supplied with literature for through hikers.
Our travels retraced my steps of a few years back on the Asheville to Oak Ridge Buddhist Peace Walk that will this year begin near Newport, Tenn. at the Peace Pagoda and walk to the gates of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. Cherry trees bloomed all along the Tennessee scenic highway and the graceful sway of willow fronds just greening along the river bank. A weathered gray barn cautioned, “Get Right With God,” and a Harley biker”s jacket read “Blood Brothers of Tennessee” sporting an embroidered angel with blood red wings holding crossed pistols with a cross bow slung over its shoulder.

Along the Purple Heart Trail on Highway llE into New Market we arrived at Highlander, the famous popular education center in late afternoon, just in time for a walk about with director Pam McMichael and a dinner at home with Guy and Candie Carawan, ground breaking musicians of the Civil Rights and social justice movements.

Look forward to reading about our Knoxville adventures next post…

Rising South: WRL Asheville On the Road through “Dixie”

It is critical to success in our work as activists for social change to forge new alliances, shore up historical ones, share well-honed skills and develop creative new strategies for nonviolent direct action and community organizing.

The Asheville local of War Resisters’ League has received a travel grant from the WRL national office in New York to carry on with our work in the Southeast identifying allies and collaborators for a proposed WRL S.E. Activist and Organizers gathering in 2010. Through in-person conversations and good listening across the southeast, we intend to pull together a rich mixture of serious and seasoned peace workers with emerging and energetic younger activists and organizers from many fronts in the ongoing wars waged against humanity and the Earth.

Charlotte native Coleman Smith (pictured above organizing with Asheville’s Magnolia Watch) and Memphis native Clare Hanrahan (Bicycling in to join the 7-year long Women in Black Asheville vigil) will begin our week-long “Dixie loop” through Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina on Sunday, March 22. We’ll set out along the backroads and through the mountains of Western North Carolina and into East Tennessee for our first stop at the historic Highlander Center where we will have the opportunity for Sunday afternoon on the hill conversations with director Pam McMichael and old friends Guy and Candie Carawan.

Check in often for our on-the-road journal and meet a wide assortment of folks working for a world free of wars and exploitation.

The Asheville chapter of the War Resisters League was formed in 1999. WRL Asheville members have long been on the ground in the Southeast working with many allied groups and issues. In recent months, we have been refocusing and revitalizing our Chapter providing nonviolence trainings for local and national actions and participating in the WRL national conversation through the Organizing Task Force and National Committee. We are working to build a strong WRL presence on the ground, not only in the Carolinas, but throughout the entire Southeast. By confronting all forms of war and human exploitation, we are keeping faith with WRL’s original mission. Contact WRL Asheville at PO Box 2551 Asheville, NC 28802-2551; Coleman Smith 828.277.0758