Hope in the Face of Injustice
by Erin Niemela
The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict recently hosted the James Lawson Institute in Nashville, Tenn. The first event of its kind, the Institute is an eight-day intensive training for North American organizers and activists, hosted by none other than Rev. James Lawson, himself an iconic figure of the Civil Rights movement. I was among 45 applicants afforded the opportunity to attend, notable activists and organizers from a variety of causes and campaigns (all of them far more experienced and courageous than I consider myself, to be sure). What I went there hoping to learn about civil resistance is nowhere near as important as what I actually gained: a profound sense of hope for the future of this world, this powerful group we call the people.
Our teachers included Rev. James Lawson, an instrumental figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Ivan Marovic, a leader of Optor!, the Serbian nonviolent revolution of 2000, and Mary King, an inspirational woman who worked in the pre-eminent Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement. We underwent four 14 hour-per-day trainings, covering historical cases, strategies, tactics, and movement cultures, among other more sensitive topics such as privilege, systemic oppression in movements, sustainability, burnout and dealing with interpersonal conflict. The intensity of these discussions had been set too high and left there permanently with little reprieve, and I found myself asking some existential questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? Where am I going?
Sitting outside in the sticky summer air of Nashville, a helicopter flew overhead. Helicopters have been flying over this campus area all week, every night. The sound makes my stomach churn. As an anti-war and anti-militarization activist, helicopters symbolize the militarization of our police, domination through surveillance and Patriarchal control through fear. The sounds of helicopter blades agitate my body with thunderous booms of fear and paranoia, over-securitization and violence. Hearing this low-flying helicopter forced me to cringe in the symbolism. And then something amazing happened.
Despite feeling unsettled by the sound, a rush of warmth soothed me as I thought, “But just look at all these change makers!” Instead of feeling that typical sense of despair, I realized, in many ways for the first significant time, that despite the obstacles, despite the opponents, despite my intermittent feelings of despair and powerlessness, I’m not alone in the fight against injustice, the demand for truth.
How many of us have experienced those feelings of paralytic distress while reading or watching news reports of human suffering? How many of us recoiled and cringed at the Bradley Manning sentencing announcement? How many of us have felt helpless in the face of injustice, powerless to stop the wheels and causes of such suffering and oppression? I’m guessing quite a few of us, regardless of ideological positioning, have at some time lacked a sense of agency about our role in creating a better world. I am surely in that camp. That idea that “somebody should do something” has come over me from time to time. Even though I realize I am “somebody,” I’ve felt most powerless when perceiving myself as an isolated individual.
There were only 45 people at the James Lawson Institute, but there are many, many more courageous, dedicated activists and organizers out there working for human dignity and justice. Not just full-time organizers and activists, but also those who support these organizers and campaigns, whether through overt or covert participation, material or service contributions, or — and it may be the most important — emotional and mental support. Families, friends, professors, workers — everybody can play a part and many of us are. There are huge swarms of us working in concert for justice and dignity, even if we call ourselves different names and perform different roles. And we are doing this work in the face of incredible adversity: our opposition will always try to render us incapacitated.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead is quoted as saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” While that remains true, it would do us well to recognize that we are not a small group. We are many, and we are coming for the betrayers, the corrupt power holders, the oppressive systems that have kept so many of us sitting alone some days wondering when our efforts would pay off, or why nobody seems to care.
Let us find one another and raise each other up. Once we realize how many of us are contributing to these incredibly valuable goals, once we realize just how powerful we are together, a surge of authentic hope will rush across this nation with tsunami force, despite our own personal helicopter blades. And, among the many lessons I’m taking away from my experience last week, I’ve learned that hope can be the greatest mobilizer of all.
Erin Niemela is a graduate student in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University, a PeaceVoice syndicated journalist, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.