The Courage to Speak Truth to Power
Activism is healing, spiritual growth, self-defense, and it’s protecting our future.
I gave the following speech as the homily for the Capital Unitarian congregation. January 10, 2009, Victoria, BC
Thank you for the opportunity to launch my speaking career. Some of you may know me as a writer and an advocate for social and environmental justice. I’m also available for workshops, interviews, conferences, writing and editing, cat-sitting, domestic help, and other odd jobs. (Laughter) I knew when I started out in this line that I would never be a millionaire and I was right. But I have a certain freedom and flexibility that your average millionaire might envy.
The market demand for social justice advocates is huge right now. It’s a growth industry. And the job security is fantastic – there is no shortage of urgent issues demanding our attention. Experience is not necessary, people come to activism at every age and stage in their lives. It’s that easy!
OK, it’s not actually that easy. (Laughter) But it is a fascinating time to be a “radical” here in British Columbia.
There is a great tradition of courage and action here on the island. There is a great potential for future action as well, and we are doing everything we can to nurture that potential. Building community, linking up networks, teaching, learning, coming together, healing – this is all part of the movement.
I came to Vancouver Island three years ago from Vancouver, where I was born. But I started working for social and environmental justice over 20 years ago, when I was still in high school. In the past ten years, I’ve also been working as an educator. I’ve led a couple dozen workshops on everything from direct action to media relations.
For most of my adult life, I suffered from social phobia. I was afraid of authority, filled with self-doubt, paralyzed by anxiety. I still am. :-> Getting interviewed live on national TV doesn’t make that go away. But hiding under a rock doesn’t cure it either. So my insecurities and I just have to get out there and do our best.
What compels me is the knowledge that we’re rewriting the script – the one that says “you don’t make a difference. It is what it is, you can’t fight city hall, the big guys always win.” We get to reprogram that message. We are not powerless. And when we choose to stand up, it is a huge adrenaline rush – bigger than national TV or swinging from a tree top. That’s the reward – that flood of excitement that comes from actually doing something.
And then there’s the love letters from friends and strangers who want to thank me for standing up for the things they value, and who get inspired to take action themselves.
But it’s not all warm fuzzies and celebratory toasts.
I led a workshop for new activists this year, and I asked them Who are your heroes?
They named a few dozen. Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Tommy Douglas. Rosa Parks. These folks did amazing, heroic things – but they also had to cope with a ferocious backlash. When the BBC reported about Gandhi while he was challenging British rule — and when white Southerners reacted to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus — It was vicious. “Uppity and no-good” was the least of it. It was hate speech. We see the same thing now when we look at what Robert Colville, the whistleblower on prisoner abuse, is going through. Or Barack Obama, with health care reform. It’s nasty and frightening.
Because the more we challenge the status quo, the more the entrenched powers resist and attack us. Fortunately, social justice is not a popularity contest.
Every campaigner finds their own way of dealing with this counter-attack. Some laugh it off, Some pray, some cry on their friends shoulders, some go on the counter-offensive, some compose songs, some write long academic papers deconstructing their opponents’ logic. The important thing is, they don’t give up.
We take care of each other as a community. Because we are all so fragile. Because there is so much trauma and despair everywhere and it affects everyone.
It’s humbling to note that the economic downturn has done more to preserve habitat and stop climate change than all of our conservation efforts of the past two years combined. Is it enough to recycle and turn down the thermostat when we know the scale of destruction at the Tar Sands? That project is the equivalent of turning all of Vancouver Island into an gigantic smoldering crater. It negates everything we could hope to do to fight climate change. How do we deal with that? I couldn’t, for the first year of the campaign at least, I didn’t want to look at the pictures and hear the news stories about the water and air pollution and the rates of illness among the Lubicon Cree people. The scale and the horror of it were too great.
I’ve worked on toxics campaigns and I dread them. Old-growth campaigns can be wonderful – where the action is, the forest is still standing, it’s beautiful and magical and we’re defending nature’s cathedral from the bulldozers and chainsaws. The good here, and the bad, here. It’s clearcut, so to speak. But once a toxics campaign is underway, the landscape is poisoned and people have cancer and spontaneous abortions, and the birds, the fish, the animals, are dead and dying. It is a scene of despair.
If it sounds traumatizing, it is. But then, we are all traumatized.
Look at the landscape – concrete, pavement, bricks and mortar, toxic chemicals, but underneath, the earth is still there. We have whole ecosystems slashed and burned without so much as a by-your-leave. We’ve lost whole communities of spruce, marmots, murrelets, arbutus, sea otters, and geoducks. These are terrible losses.
And we humans suffer on every level. Is there anyone here who doesn’t know someone who’s had cancer? Who hasn’t seen the damage caused by diseases of civilization? Who here hasn’t been forced to do without for lack of money? Are there any women here who have never been sexually harassed or raped or assaulted?
Something fundamental has been taken from us here. How do we deal with these losses?
I consider myself very fortunate, that after a lifetime of abuse from my family and my partner, I participated in six months of Trauma Recovery and Empowerment at the Battered Women’s Support Centre in Vancouver.
And I got to know the stages of trauma recovery:
Acknowledge the loss, understand the loss, grieve the loss.
And the stages of grief:
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
These steps are a natural and necessary response to the loss of a loved one, and also to the loss of our humanity and the places we love.
I fall in love with places and I want to protect them. I fell in love with the Elaho Valley and some of the world’s biggest Douglas Firs twelve years ago. That forest campaign was a pitched battle, far from the urban centers, against one of the biggest logging companies on the coast at that time. In the third year of the campaign, I walked into my favourite campsite and saw the flagging tape, the clearcut boundaries laid out, and I realized it was all doomed. I could see what it would look like: stumps and slash piles as far as the eye could see. I realized no one was going to come and save this place – not Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, no MP’s private member’s bill, or whatever petition or rally was being planned back in the city. It was as good as gone. All we had to do was stand aside and do nothing, and this incredible, irreplaceable forest would be just a sad memory.
The interesting thing is, after that realization, and after the emotional turmoil that followed, I had a profound sense of liberation. If it is all doomed, then anything we do to resist is positive, right? Anything that stops the logging, even for a minute, or slows it down, or costs the company money, or exposes it to public embarrassment and hurts its market share, is positive – it keeps the future alive for that one more minute, one more hour, one more day. It was a revelation.
Acceptance, for me, meant being able to act to defend the place I loved. It meant standing up to the bullies.
Bur most people gave up, because it was hopeless. So, it was just a handful of people rebuilding the blockades and defying the court orders and continuing the resistance. We didn’t quit when we were called “terrorists” and “enemies of BC.” We didn’t quit even after 100 loggers came and burned our camp to the ground and put three people in the hospital.
It was a horror show. People were in shock. But a small crew was back with a new camp five days later. By then, their raid was national news. And they had nothing else to throw at us. They didn’t know what to do. Short of killing us, what more could they do?
We didn’t know about the negotiations going on behind the scenes. We didn’t realize that we had already cost the loggers more than they could hope to recoup by logging the entire rest of the valley. (They were operating on very slim profit margins.) We found out when the announcement came that the logging would stop. And it never started again. We won. Now the Elaho Valley is protected by the Squamish Nation — and by provincial legislation — as a Wild Spirit Place.
The violence of the mob showed the level of fear and desperation of the losing side. It was their weapon of last resort and it didn’t work. And they lost.
Now we’re at the fourth year of the stand for SPAET – the campaign to stop the Bear Mountain Interchange and save the caves, the garry oaks, and the wetlands on Skirt Mountain. We faced the same tactics – we were called “terrorists,” and two years ago, the resort sent 100 goons to rough up a small rally. And again, most of our comrades are still in shock. There’s only handful of us still bashing away at the next phase of development.
The other side has thrown everything they have at us and they have nothing left.
But there are still sacred sites on Skirt Mountain. The cave is still there, buried under concrete.
Meanwhile, Len Barrie’s little empire is unravelling, either because of our boycott campaign, bad karma, or because he was operating on the slimmest of shady margins, or all of the above. We are challenging the next phase of development in couirt. Our campaign, and the economic downturn, may be enough to scare off investors and cancel the project, at least for now.
These campaigns are difficult, painful, and traumatic. So the first step to courage is to acknowledge that pain and loss. We need to name what has been taken from us. Then we can cry, and rage, and grieve, and take action. That’s where courage comes from.
Martin Luther King used to say, “Justice shall roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.” But I’m impatient. I want to see that mighty stream now – what’s the hold-up? What’s holding us back, when there’s so much to do?
We’re not heroes, really – none of us is smart enough, or tough enough, or connected enough, to take this on alone. We’re not superheroes, we don’t have superpowers. We are only human, we struggle and suffer and sometimes, we win.
Some folks assume I have some vision, some over-arching game plan, some special intel that gives me an edge over the adversary. Not really. Most of the time I am just flailing around on the political landscape, taking potshots any time there’s an opportunity. Sometimes it’s intuition, and it pays off. When we are right, it is amazing. When we win, it sets a precedent for the future. And in order for evil to prevail, all that’s required is for good people to do nothing. Don’t be one of those good people.
Activism is healing, spiritual growth, self-defense, and it’s protecting our future. Thank you so much for the opportunity to tell you these stories today. (Applause)
Guerrilla News contributor Zoe Blunt can also be found at her blog, Wild Coast.