Sunday, June 10, 2007

Learning to Walk the Walk: Taking Responsibility

by Kit Kimberly

This weekend, in addition to the first incoming group for the CodePink Peace Surge Summer Trainings, Gay Pride parade and End the Occupation of Palestine march, is the Taming the Giant Corporation conference, sponsored by Ralph Nader. It began Friday, and CodePink has a table with T-shirts, information and a sign-up sheet. Friday night, I told Medea I’d like to staff the table on Saturday; “Great,” she said, “it starts at 9.”

I am up by 7:30, writing and catching up on email, waiting for Medea and whomever else is going to the conference. At about 9:15 I find her in the kitchen. “You slept late,” I say, smiling—goddess knows, she deserves it if anyone does. “Yeah, well, I thought you were going to be at the table at the conference,” she says, clearly annoyed. “There’s no one there now.”

Oops. I hadn’t realized that I was expected to go by myself—it sounds childish; but it gives me a bit of insight into yet another difference between the CodePink mentality and that of much of the rest of US society. At CodePink, the driving forces are personal responsibility and “ownership”—not as in the kind of possessing and controlling that the Nader conference challenges, but as in taking an idea, an action, a belief, and going with it whether or not others are involved. It’s kind of the opposite of the lemming mentality that seems to have affected so many people and institutions in this country—most notably (and dangerously) the US congress. At the last Democratic debate, John Edwards challenged the two presidential front-runners, Clinton and Obama, on their late, though correct, nay-votes on the Iraq supplemental funding bill. Senator Dodd, Edwards said, showed the kind of leadership Congress needs by announcing what his vote would be and challenging others to vote with him. Clinton and Obama (though he didn’t call them by name until pressured by Wolf Blitzer) waited until the last minute, then quietly cast their no votes. I agree with Edwards that this kind of opportunism is not what we need in this country right now; we need leadership and people willing to stand up for and defend their beliefs—whether people agree with us or not.

So rather than apologize and bow and scrape to Medea, I just throw myself together as quickly as possible and dash out the door behind her and Liz. We catch the X2; the bus isn’t crowded and we’re quiet, Medea reading the paper, Liz scoping the landscape, I trying to figure out how to recover from my screw up. As we approach Lafayette Park, however, a sight grabs our attention and that of everyone on the bus: Beside a tent under a lush green canopy of trees stands a man by a bicycle… as I admire his bare chest and well-muscled arms, my gaze moves naturally down his body to his equally toned and attractive …naked!?! buttocks; as we get closer, I realize he is completely nude. Well, except for a condom on his reasonably well-endowed (ie, certainly visible) member. The other passengers pick up on the sight and there is a sudden, massive migration to the right side of the bus—it lurches heavily; if it were a boat, it would capsize. I note one or two other naked men milling around the park and another coming out of a smallish white tent with a logo saying USA. The bus stops and everyone gets off except us—whether this is actually their stop or they're going to satisfy their prurient curiosity, I don’t know. I chuckle to myself—having lived for many years in Europe, I find the US shock and fascination with nudity rather silly; but even I have to admit, this is a surprise. Whether it’s part of Gay Pride or some other event, we never find out.

We get off the bus at the end of the line and decide to walk the six blocks or so to 15th and P. I am uncharacteristically quiet, still recovering from Medea’s unspoken reprimand and trying to digest what it really means to be a fully-participating member of a movement rather than a follower of someone else’s ideology. I walk and listen to the two of them—Medea with her years of experience, a founder of Global Exchange, CodePink, and world-renown activist; Liz, who left her life and family behind to come to DC to stop the war, who spends every waking moment (and she hardly sleeps) researching, making banners, organizing, promoting, cheering others on—and perhaps most importantly, reaching out to every single person she comes into contact with, “Hi, I’m Liz. What’s your name?” and involving them in some way. They are two walking, talking embodiments of what I believe democracy should look like; I am content to shut up and listen.

We come to large stone building, modest in d├ęcor, and notice a row of black luxury cars and limousines parked in front. The drivers are dignified black men in sharp uniforms; Liz pops up, “Hello, Sir, what’s going on here?”

“Here we have the vice president of Guinea, who is visiting Washington for diplomatic purposes,” he tells her politely. Liz looks confused, but Medea immediately clarifies, asking, “Guinea Conakry?” clarifying a distinction I couldn’t even have imagined existed. The driver smiles broadly and immediately warms to her. This is how these women are so successful—they have been all over the world; they have an understanding and appreciation for different cultures (and cultural differences) that probably couldn’t be matched by combining the knowledge of half of Congress. I, who have for a number of years been one of (if not the) smartest persons in the room on matters of cross-cultural understanding and political realities, feel like a complete baby. Why aren’t these women running the world?

As we continue to the conference, Medea and Liz talk about pro-peace (versus anti-war) tactics. Liz’s primary goal is to get people active, on whatever level: “I ask them, ‘Do you call your senator? Do you take part in actions? Do you do anything besides complain?’ I try to work with them, but if they won’t do anything …” At 9:30 in the morning, the air is still moist and cool, but promises to be a typical DC summer day—clingily warm and humid.

Word in the house from people at the conference yesterday was that it was kind of boring, and people didn’t seem to be much into CodePink’s table and activities. But I find a pink sheet full of signatures and email addresses from interested folks; and the speaking hall is packed with eager listeners. In addition to the CodePink table, there are Fair Trade, Public Citizen, Coop America, WTO watchers and critics, and many others. (The CodePink table, with its bright pink shirts, buttons, stickers, books, and colorful staffers, is of course the most eye-catching one in the room.)

Ralph Nader is a long-time hero of mine—in the 80s, my first activist job was as a campus organizer with PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), a Nader-created organization, and I have been a fan ever since (yes, I voted for Nader in 2000, and make no apologies about it). He introduces the speakers—researchers, experts and policy makers from every area of corporate watch and pro-sustainability movements. At breaks, people come out into the reception area for coffee and bagels, and have a look at the tables. We get plenty of interest at the CodePink table—a mother and son pair, Mary and Bob from my home state of North Carolina. I’m thrilled to hear their accent and listen to their critiques of John Edwards—and sell them a T-shirt and couple of buttons. Billy, who works on Capitol Hill, stops by to express his admiration for CodePink’s direct tactics and his frustration with working “within the system.” He reckons it’s nearly time for him to come over to the activist side. Participants from other participating groups stop by also, to find out more about CodePink—many want T-shirts (note: we need more men’s sizes) and all sign up for the CodePink Alerts. Even though I have to leave early—around noon—we’ve already filled two complete sign up sheets. And my guilt at not being there right at 9 am is assuaged by noting that none of the other tables are constantly staffed (indeed, the Coop America table next to us has no staffer the whole time I’m there); and Sarah, a CodePink local, has been there keeping an eye on things since the conference opened this morning.

Still, I’ve learnt my lesson about ownership and responsibility—I’m not sure how to apply it all the time yet, but I will certainly take a more active stance in doing so. So thanks again to Medea, Liz, Desiree and all the other CodePink women for helping me grow and understand a little more, a little better, every day.

1 comment:

JimPreston said...

Nice post, Kit!! What more can we ask for than to learn something new in a day? Thanks for sharing your experience.