-May 4, 2013 Toronto
“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to every day life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” – Raoul Vaneigem
I pissed-off approximately one thousand liberals today on the campus of the University of Toronto . I pissed them off so completely that they booed me off a stage and threatened to physically remove me from a convocation hall. Many were clapping. But not in a good way. “Get outta here!” they yelled as I regressed from the hall. “We didn’t come here to see YOU!”. And in many ways that was absolutely true.
But from my perspective, Canada’s First Nations National Chief and people (of which I am one) deserved an apology – for what had happened one hour earlier at the event – and for the humiliations heaped upon our ancestors since Europeans (of which I am also one) came to the shores of the “New World”. The event we were attending was specifically about exploring our democratic voice and I didn’t see any good reason to wait on that apology one minute longer.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is some background.
The event, called “Get up! Stand up!” was hosted by Random House and CBC Books of Canada and recorded for a CBC radio special. The docket featured my dream line-up of progressive and radical prophets. I’d indulged myself with the trip last minute to celebrate the end of a semester teaching media arts and peacebuilding at my university in Virginia.
The day’s first speaker was Micah White, co-envisioner of Occupy Wall Street and editor-at-large of Adbusters magazine. I’ve been deeply involved in Occupy in my town of Harrisonburg since October 17, 2011. I visited the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park, fell in love with the radical actions of consensus, direct democracy and The People’s Library and experienced a breathtaking awakening at the articulation of how everything from our bodies, to our spirituality, culture and our democracy is being bought, traded, and sold by global corporations.
Micah was audacious and impressive. “We thought we were coming so close to success.” he said.
“What do you mean by success?” asked the moderator.
“We thought that we had a shot to force Obama to resign (for not prosecuting the bankers responsible for the mortgage crisis).” said Micah.
Many in the audience, including me, gasped. In all my time with Occupy I’d never heard Obama’s resignation articulated as a demand. This was heady stuff.
Micah went on to speak of Occupy as meme warfare saying that ideas, not leaders had pushed a global social movement through Arab Spring, to Spain’s Indignados, to Occupy and beyond. He finished by challenging the audience to direct action.
“Don’t be afraid!” he said. “Be fearless! Who cares about suppression?!”
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges followed with sterling research and stunning delivery. His experience at Harvard Divinity School and on-the-ground reporting from more than 50 countries (many torn by wars begun or perpetrated by the U.S.) revealed themselves in his compellingly spiritual and emotional presentation. Hedges feels that given our current state of bought democracy, direct action is all we as inhabitants of the U.S. and Canada have left to save our humanity and our planet.
Particularly notable about Hedges was his personal stake in the topic of our democratic voice. He talked of his dad, a Presbyterian minister who lost his church in the 1970s over his advocacy for gay rights. In 2003 Chis resigned his job as a correspondent with the New York Times after he was reprimanded for publicly speaking out against the Iraq war (and booed off the stage at Rockford College in Illinois). His dad had died by then, but Hedges acted in honor of his convictions.
Canadian author and activist Margaret Atwood managed to be both coy and acerbic in her remarks. Her main concern was the “duct taping of public scientists” in Canada for their research on environment and climate change and the crowd twittered (both physically and digitally) with glee when she called Prime Minister Stephen Harper a “total micromanaging, megalomaniac control freak”.
After lunch, Canada’s First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo spoke passionately of non-recognized First Nation laws and land treaties and the recent Idle No More protests which rallied Indigenous people and their allies worldwide. He believes young native people have the heart and energy to take on the challenge of Indian recognition and nation-healing as evidence their recent flash mob protests using the round dance to teach relationship and responsibility. Chief Atleo challenged the entire room to become involved in restoring the relationship between first nations and Canada.
And then things turned really personal and extremely confusing.
During the question and answer session following Chief Atleo’s talk, a woman, possibly in her late sixties wearing a pink sweater stepped to the audience microphone. I must paraphrase what she said because her words were so repugnant that the blood began immediately surging throughout my body and sent me into a state of shock. Here is the gist of her remarks:
WOMAN IN PINK SWEATER: I am of European descent and I apologize for what has happened to you and your people, BUT…
(Let me pause the narrative here for just a moment fast forward. Later when a group of people who supported my soon-to-follow use of democratic voice gathered with me outside the convocation hall, one of them said that “BUT” from the woman in the pink sweater was so shocking and so loud that it rung out over the entire hall and then hung over the place like a heavy, impending storm.)
WOMAN IN PINK SWEATER: I am of European descent and I apologize for what has happened to you and your people, BUT… why don’t you handle the poverty and educational problems in your own communities and then then take your protests to the national level?
I think the woman in the pink sweater repeated this sentiment at least two times.
I felt my blood surge, my adrenaline jacked, my head began reeling. The shocking reproach of Canada’s National Chief from this sweet-looking, pink-clad older woman had the most remarkably visceral effect on me. The entitlement. The blindness. The humiliation. The victim-blaming. Colonialization. Imperialism. Dehumanization. Horrible. My own family’s struggle with regaining our lost Mohawk rights in Canada mingled with the woman’s mega-scale denial of the systemic identity theft and generations of genocide done to First Nations people in Canada and the U.S.
I was paralyzed in my seat as I tried to remind myself I was in a room of my peers who were concerned with democracy and engaging ideas of direct action. I’ve been involved in protests against Bank of America for nefarious banking practices, the Supreme Court for Citizens United, and participated in protest that helped release unfairly held undocumented workers. But this was different. Those protests were against abstract and evil-seeming forces. Those in the convocation hall were “my people”. Just as First Nations people are “my people”. I didn’t want to expend the energy I knew it would take to say something, anything. I just wanted to wallow in the tremendously dynamic ideas of the day.
Chief Atleo addressed the woman admirably, dodging her question a bit, reiterating that we all bear responsibility for poverty and education. But for me it I was realizing this wasn’t enough. I felt we in the audience needed to take on some of the outrage, to stand with Chief Atleo but I still could not move. What we were experiencing were forces so much larger than a remark from a woman in a pink sweater.
Then it was half an hour later and we’d moved to another topic. I struggled with my own inaction juxtaposed against the topic of the day and tried to draw inspiration from the speakers. One hour after the offending remarks I forced myself to stand up and move within just a few feet of the audience microphone. I wondered if it was on. I wondered what I would say if it was on and I spoke into it. I felt silly because so much time had passed since the woman’s remarks and we were then in the midst of a gorgeous landscape photography presentation by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis. Maybe others were not so impacted by the woman’s remarks. What could I possibly do? What difference would my outrage make to these strangers beyond providing an annoying distraction in the midst of their perfectly sculpted public event?
But my shock and anger did not subside. My blood continued to careen through my veins as essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul stepped to the podium. Through my internal cacophony, I heard snippets of Saul’s talk. He spoke of the importance of putting your job, your body, your reputation on the line for what you believe. I found myself writing the words of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis imploring us to “pray with our feet” on my program.
I thought of Tim DeChristopher, recently released from two years in prison for bidding on 116 parcels of beloved Utah land at a Bureau of Land management oil and gas lease auction. I remembered my friend Robb who is in danger of losing a lucrative consulting job in Washington because he refuses to travel by plane from the west coast in order to ease the stress on our poor planet. I meditated on my mother’s life-long humiliation around her Indian identity and the forces – embodied in this woman in the pink sweater – who set the stage for her to sell off our entire family’s Mohawk rights through Canada’s Indian Act.
“Don’t be afraid,” Micah White had said earlier.
And I realized how small, and easy and non- threatening it should be for me to interrupt a polite talk by polite people in a very polite country to simply ask for an apology and perhaps even reach out to the entitled, ignorant woman in the pink sweater. Chief Atleo and my family and the First Nations people of Canada demanded from me a moment of acknowledgement, an expression of the outrage. It may be uncomfortable and inconvenient, and borderline crazy to all involved, including me, but compared to centuries of what First Nations have suffered this was going to be next to nothing: tiny blip on the cosmic timeline. The event was called “Get Up! Stand Up!”, I reminded myself.
John Ralston Saul by this time was talking about awaking from our unconscious state to face the global forces putting our planet in peril. That felt like an invitation if I’ve ever heard one and breathed, stopped shaking and walked slowly up the aisle of the convocation hall and onto the stage. I stood next to Saul and looked sideways at him with my hands held up in front of me hinting at a prayerful posture. Saul stopped mid-sentence and stared at me perplexed and impatient.
“Representative John Lewis says we should pray with our feet. And you may notice that I am bare foot.” I began. But Saul was not going along with this interruption.
SAUL: I am in the middle of my talk and will continue with my talk.
“This will take only three minutes,” I replied. “Chief Atleo was insulted and the Chief and First Nations people deserve an apology.”
No go from Saul. He said was just getting to the matters of Chief Atleo and Indigenous education in his talk and that I would have my turn to speak later during the question and answer session. His voice was growing louder and we began talking over each other.
“The talk you are currently giving is about awakening from an unconscious state,” I said. “This is me awakening from an unconscious state.”
By this time event moderator and CBC radio host of ”As It Happens” Carol Off was standing next to me with her arm full around my shoulder “You are being impolite to Mr. Saul! You are being impolite to Mr. Saul!” she said. Her arm around me felt strangely grounding, almost like a support, and it helped me stay on the stage a little longer as organizers ran to the front of the room and the audience began to clap (not in a good way) and yell “Get off the stage! Get outta here! We didn’t come to see you!
No they didn’t come to see me that is true. But we all had come to the event under the auspices of exploring our democratic voice. And my trip to the stage was my awkward and ill-timed attempt at embodying the ideas of direct action we’d been discussing the entire day. Is there ever a right time to get up or stand up? Aren’t our democratic voices terribly impolite and messy and shouldn’t they by nature throw a wrench into our schedules, staging, and precious egos at our well-planned public events?
And where were all of those loud and nasty voices of outrage when the woman from the audience was being “impolite” to Chief Atleo and First Nations people? The hypocrisy was breaking my heart.
I left the podium, walked down the stairs, gathered my bag and shoes from under my seat, and left the building. Outside a few minutes later I stood with five people who followed me out of the hall. They offered great support for my impromptu stand up. They too had experienced the paralyzing combination of rage and helplessness, struggling with how to react to the woman in the pink sweater’s remarks.
We discussed what could be defined as a democratic space (make time and room for real audience feedback, lose the stage and special lighting for the experts. Come to think of it, lose the experts.) We shared appreciation all around for striving to move beyond theoretical to explore moments of doing, stopping, resisting, creating new. These are not the habits of a polite society. We need practice. At first we will inevitably do it badly, strangely and inappropriately, we decided, but there need to be models for figuring out exactly what action means. We will only become more powerful, articulate and appropriate from there.
I was grateful for the hugs and tears these lovely people brought to the conversation. In those moments we got up, stood up and explored our democratic voices.
After about 20 minutes we dispersed and I began to walk back to my hotel. One of the woman called after me.
“Hey! Are you going to be okay?”
“Of course I am okay.” I replied. “I’m really, REALLY okay. I’m free.”
“Thanks for providing us with permission to be free.” she said and smiled widely.
As I walked slowly away from the convocation hall and through the stunning sunlight on this crystal clear Toronto day, I thought of Martin Luther King’s indignant letter from Birmingham jail implicating the Church and white moderates on their silence and inaction on civil rights.
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal,” wrote King. “So must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
My action today was possibly insignificant and probably profoundly silly. Most likely it left those in the convocation hall annoyed, confused or both. My action did not make me look cool, nor will it advance my career or enhance my bank account. But what happened today was undeniably powerful. I got in the way of the scheduling, staging, politeness and etiquette that kept me pinned to my seat as injustice engulfed the gathered crowd. This feels like a beginning, it feels like practice, like the first steps down the big, long road of getting in the way of injustice. Next time I will react sooner and louder. Maybe I’ll stay on the stage longer. Perhaps I won’t leave the stage at all. I’m looking forward to it. Today, this non-violent gadfly got up, stood up and prayed with her feet.
-Paulette Moore is a filmmaker, educator, and non-violent gadfly. Twitter: @storydoula