by Mina Hamilton
May 16, 2003
At the Socialist Scholars conference this spring, I ran into an old friend, Abbie Hoffman's partner, Johanna. She reminded me of happier times.
Back in the 1980's Abbie and I had both organized against nuclear waste shipments in upstate New York. At that time Abbie was living under his alias, Barry Freed.
One of the high-points of my organizing career: Barry/Abbie nicknamed me the "radioactive waste queen." Everybody might not aspire to this accolade. Not me, I loved it! I had been busting my butt to get Mayors, City Councils, Sheriffs, and Chambers of Commerce in a gazillion, tiny, up-state towns to oppose proposed shipments of irradiated fuel to the West Valley nuclear reprocessing factory. I was proud as heck of the compliment.
Seeing Johanna these many years after Abbie's death, made me nostalgic. I missed Abbie's inimitable brand of chutzpah and fiery, up-yours rhetoric. I missed his big heart. I missed his zany sense of humor. As Johanna reminded me in a recent email, "He even made his opponents laugh. If you didn't have fun organizing, you weren't doing it right."
At the conference Johanna slipped me a card on which was printed one of Abbie's typically smart quotes: "Democracy is not something you believe in or hang your hat on, but something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles and falls. If you participate, the future is yours."
"Something you do. You participate."
Democracy is hanging by the slenderest thread in the US. A good case could be made that it's in a coma and on life-support. It's headed for the morgue.
The big question: what do we do now? Probably lots of folk reading this essay have been, in the last eight months, to an astounding number of demonstrations. You may have written letters to US representatives, sent money to peace organizations, attended speak-ins, bought peace buttons, signed newspaper ads, spent hours reading dissidentvoice.org., Zmag.org., alternet.org, truthout.org, and, perhaps, engaged in civil disobedience.
These are useful and important things to do. Yet all of us are wondering what next? What would Abbie say?
Abbie was famous for his dramatic moments: throwing dollars onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, enraging the judge at the Chicago Eight Trial and surrounding the Pentagon with 50,000 activists in order to levitate it. Abby always objected if people used the word 'attempted' in describing this action. He countered with, "What do you mean, I saw the Pentagon rise, didn't you?"
Less well known was that Abbie was a brilliant strategist and tactician. Less commented upon was his dedication to the hard, patient work of organizing; getting out there on the hustings and mobilizing folk around peace and justice issues.
I think Abbie would be beating down the doors of City Hall over the USA Patriot Act, which he might have dubbed the Traitor Act.
There's a burgeoning movement throughout the USA to oppose this 342-page atrocity. Thanks to our yellow-bellied representatives in DC, the Patriot Act zipped through in 2001 with virtually no debate and no public hearings. Many of those voting had minimal comprehension of the new law's devastating scope.
Citizens are correcting that crime. Over 104 cities have passed resolutions against the Act. With some of these resolutions city officials throw down the gauntlet; they will not abide by the provisions of the Patriot Act. Other resolutions are tamer. All are a patent recognition that the Nazification of America is proceeding apace. One more terrorist attack and the right of assembly, of protest, of dissent may be a goner.
Luckily, to make our organizing easier, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a website at which one can obtain sample resolutions, download a press release and get the names of the cities, thus far, on the bandwagon. Check out www.aclu.org/Safeandfree/ and then click on Pass Community Resolutions.
Some folk will shudder at the prospect of testifying at a public hearing. Will those bozos listen to us? Local government is one of the few places left where one can still find politicians of integrity who actually do care and do listen. Besides, add in some Abbie-esque creative hi-jinks and the process can be both effective -- and fun.
Reasoned, rational arguments are necessary. Let's clearly lay out why it's not okay to trash the Bill of Rights, why we abhor the wrecking of lawyer-client privilege, why preventive detention must be stopped, and why search warrants are a necessary part of our civil society. (A quick-read book, Silencing Political Dissent by Nancy Chang and available from www.sevenstories.com details the pitfalls of the USA Patriot Act.)
But, along with sober testimony, isn't it time to cut loose at City Hall? We need theatre and drama: people wearing duct tape in odd places, citizens carrying puppets, folks refusing to be decorous.
When I went to the New York City Council hearing on an anti-war resolution in March I did something I thought I would never have the nerve to do. I screamed. It wasn't a wimpy or tentative scream. No, I took a deep breath and screamed as loudly as I could. (I practiced in my apartment in advance - much to the alarm of my partner.)
I reckoned I'd paid my dues. I've testified before the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, before City Councils and State Legislatures, before the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of Energy, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Delaware River Basin Commission. For over three decades, I've testified and testified - and often seen powerful results.
Now it was time to scream. In this case I had a very particular reason for screaming.
On September 11, 2001 at about 11:00 AM I was, as usual, at my Manhattan apartment banging away on my computer. (I'd heard a bit of the news, but didn't yet know that both towers were down. The TV was on the fritz and I'd tuned out the radio announcers who all sounded like something out of War of the Worlds. Thus, for about 45 minutes, not knowing what else to do, I went back to work.) Then I heard this man screaming. It was someone in a nearby apartment with the back window open. His agonizing cry ricocheted from building to building.
Actually it was a sound more animal than human, like a wounded bear howling. It was a primal roar; the sound a man would make if he witnessed the blood spurting, the brains spilling as the head of his child was split open by a 'smart' bomb. This yelp of rage and despair sent shivers into the marrow of my bones.
I would never know what loss my neighbor had sustained. Who had been burned to a cinder? Who had jumped? Who had been crushed by the imploding WTC? A wife? A sister? A brother? A daughter? He bellowed for days. He bellowed at 3:00 AM. He bellowed in the afternoon. He bellowed at dawn.
I grew to hate that bellow. Then one day he stopped. With the perversity of human nature, I almost missed the sound, in part, because I knew this stranger and I were already beginning the long process of returning to normal, a normal that seemed obscene given the suffering of the dead and the grieving.
To convey my sense of the urgency of New York City passing an anti-War resolution, I tried - amidst the gilded and marble splendor of City Hall -- to imitate my neighbor's bellow. I warned the assembled crowd: "This is the sound I heard on 9/11…" Then, I screamed.
Amazing! The Committee Chairman, the marshals, the legislators, although obviously stunned, listened. Nobody threw me out or even asked me to be silent. I then went on to testify in my usual measured, rational manner.
I take this as a green light for more screaming. Isn't this what Abbie would want?
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.