Je Suis Viola

As a teenager I thought I was born in the wrong time. Reading Howard Zinn I became obsessed with the activism I saw reverberating through history, especially in 1960s America. Yet from my perch in suburban Oregon I wasn’t sure there was any way I would ever be a part of something so important.

Throughout college I struggled to put my feet behind my emerging beliefs – beliefs I at times could not articulate but knew were the same type of earth-shattering, world-moving efforts. I wanted justice. I wanted peace. But, as we all know, the early to mid 2000s did not make the change I sought.

I marched with thousands against Iraq, joined with hundreds of laborers on May Day, eventually even found myself living in Louisiana marching with Jesse Jackson and meeting with Ambassador Andrew Young.

I even had a t-shirt that (no joke) stated: “This is what an activist looks like.”

But in the past few years, somewhere, I lost that activist spirit.

Throughout the mucky, difficult waters of accompaniment, solidarity became a warped concept. Ego-driven leadership, questionable methods, and haphazard organization were rampant.

Blame it on grad school, getting older, burn out, living in the woods, discouragement – whatever it is, or a combination of everything, my feet are now largely off the front lines.

Yes, I still write, think, value, and promote the central tenets of what drove my activism in the first place. But I’m not out there. I’m not singing in city halls or making witty march placards.

In the wake of Ferguson, Trayvon, Cleveland, New York, Boston, the Paris massacres, and ISIS beheadings, I am anxious.

I cry. I lament. But this is not action. It is groping in the dark for some small shard of hope.

Yesterday, I saw Selma and learned of Viola Liuzzo. Although a small part of this film, I saw a woman I could be – a courage that a large part of me still desires.

When asked, she showed up. And was killed for taking part.

Although not perfect, the film depicts ordinary citizens, who fought long before Martin showed up, and had the fortitude to stand behind him when he called. Viola is shown doing small things, handing out sandwiches, offering greetings, a simple smile.

She displays the type of quiet, humble action I find most important – service that relinquishes undeserved societal power and provides what is most needed: support, resources, and any advantage her fate of birth may be able to provide to those so long denied their rights.

Last week’s Charlie Hebdo killings inspired a saying that has layered meanings. Rather than simply “I am” or a sense of standing with, the phrase can be interpreted as: “Follow until you become.

While I do not want to wade into the waters of debate around Charlie‘s choices of publication material, this concept resonates deeply.

Show up. Pass out sandwiches. Smile.

I’m going to try.

Je suis Viola.


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