The anti-Vietnam War demonstrators slowly walked back and forth on the sidewalk of the Grand Boulevard overpass above the I-70 expressway, a couple of blocks south of the campus of St. Louis University, my undergraduate alma mater.
Their placards, carrying simple peace messages, faced down towards the morning rush-hour traffic below. The drivers did the rest. As they slowed down to read the messages or just to better see what was happening up above, the motorists created a chain reaction which resulted in a 10-kilometre traffic backup.
This simple direct action back in 1969 was motivated by the outrage of the Kent State massacre the week before, which galvanized similar student protests acroos the U.S. against the bloody and increasingly futile war in Vietnam. As a protest, it drew on a rich, non-violent tradition reaching back through the Civil Rights movement of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and the de-colonization efforts of leaders, like Mohandas Gandhi. Its roots lay far deeper though.
Prophets have consistently arisen across human history to call out, often angrily, to the peoples of their times to break through their complacency and tolerance of oppression to build just societies. Humanity has slowly, and at times very painfully, advanced towards this goal. It has been a journey that has demanded confronting contemporary principalities and powers hell bent on maintaining their power and prerogatives.
We certainly have got plenty to be righteously angry about today. Wars, environmental arrogance and disasters, the great and growing gap between the one per cent uber rich and the mass of the poor, globally, can easily be cited. In the Yukon last summer, the housing crisis sparked a tent city beside the legislative chamber. This non-violent direct action certainly elevated awareness of the need for action in this area.
Has the territorial government’s recent action that makes a similar demonstration on government property illegal just criminalized protest by the poor instead of aggressively addressing the problem of housing for those most in need in our community?
We do not lack prophetic voices today either. I recall one such voice from my generation, that of Rev. William Sloane Coffin who wrote, “Jesus was angry over 50 per cent of the time, and it’s very dangerous to try to improve on Jesus.”
Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, Sloane Coffin served as Yale University’s chaplain for almost two decades, during which he rose to national prominence as an outspoken civil rights and antiwar activist. He noted in his The Heart is a Little to the Left, a 1999 collection of his sermons and speeches, that the anger he talked about “needs to be focused, but anger is what maintains your sanity. Anger keeps you from tolerating the intolerable.”
Rev. Sloane Coffin states in his Credo, a book published in 2003 three years before he died in 2006, “What we need to realize is that to love effectively we must act collectively, and that in collective action personal relationships cannot ignore power relationships.”
By quoting St. Augustine -“Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside of yourself”- he calls on us to also recognize and address the roots of the problems which we, ourselves, have internalized.
The reverend pointed out that “compassion demands confrontation” with ourselves as well as with the structures of injustice around us.
A free day-long workshop on nonviolent direct action will be held on Saturday, May 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Hellaby Hall of Christ Church Cathedral at Fourth Avenue and Elliot Street.
Harjap Grewal, a non-violent direct action trainer, who is a Vancouver-based organizer and activist working with the Council of Canadians, will lead the workshop. For more information or to register call Tory at 334-7252.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.