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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reflections on the April 30 direct action

More than one month has already passed since the April 30 conclusion of THE 100 DAYS CAMPAIGN TO CLOSE GUANTÁNAMO AND END TORTURE in Washington, D.C., so now I am wanting to offer some brief reflections about my experience.

Denied permission to risk arrest

While I was grateful that my Jesuit superiors supported and encouraged my work with THE 100 DAYS CAMPAIGN in both early March and late April, it was painful and difficult to be told that it was “not the right time in my formation” to risk arrest in front of the White House with 61 fellow activists on April 30. At the time, I believed that God had called me to resist the injustice of Guantánamo by engaging in civil disobedience. Thus, my superior’s wishes left me feeling quite frustrated and confused. Committed to Jesuit life, however, I also resolved to remain perfectly obedient. Since those difficult days, I have been gently reminded in my prayer that it is Jesus himself who missions (or does not mission) Jesuits, and this has provided me with a great deal of consolation.

That being said, being in D.C. was an extraordinarily powerful and transforming experience of living faith and resisting injustice; how could I possibly do it justice in this humble attempt to share the experience with you? Nevertheless I will do my best.

Inspired by these friends of Jesus

The night before the final action, we listened to several speakers and musicians at an event called “Christian Peace Witness for Iraq” at the National City Christian Church. The Brothers Frantzich moved me to tears with their beautiful song, “The Mountaintop,” which is based on the speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before his assassination. “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land,” Dr. King told his audience. “I may not get there with you,” he prophetically said, but then promised, “but I know that we as a people will get through to the promised land.”

Liz McAlister, member of the Jonah House faith and resistance community, also spoke that evening, reflecting on the prophet Isaiah, who said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone… For every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames” (Isaiah 9:1,7). As we spend trillions on weapons and wars, we drench ourselves in blood. In fear and trembling, Liz confessed, “Our whole way of life is at odds with these Scriptures…and how that truth hurts!” And yet, amid such darkness, Isaiah’s vision “ignites our hope,” she said. Liz’s words inspired me, no doubt; but what gives her credibility is how she lives her life. Her entire life is a testimony to the Gospel.

I feel similarly about Carmen Trotta, who, the next day, delivered a “pep talk” to the 200 activists who would march from the Capitol Building to the White House. A NYC Catholic Worker, Carmen expressed his fear for our nation. We are traveling down a dark path, he said. Have we fully reckoned with the consequences of global warming? Are we prepared for the fallout of the financial crisis? Will we remain silent as our Constitution is ripped into shreds? Only someone who prays, lives close to the poor, and has eyes to see (Mark 4:12), as Carmen does, is able to articulate the indivisible nature of these realities and our corresponding moral duty to non-cooperate with this darkness.

The nonviolent direct action

In front of the White House, 62 nonviolent activists moved into the “non-protest zone” and subjected themselves to arrest for “failure to disperse.” Donning orange jumpsuits and black hoods, the activists represented the five prisoners who died in custody at Guantánamo and the 60 men who have been cleared for release yet remain detained. As hundreds of curious tourists watched the demonstration, the prisoners unfurled a large banner, which read, “JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED.” Dr. King wrote these words from Birmingham Jail to express his impatience with the status quo of segregation and the unwillingness of community leaders to take more immediate action. Related to Guantánamo, we, too, are impatient with the status quo. Some of our brothers have been unjustly detained for over seven years now. Not another day, we say!

As the arrests happened, I used a loudspeaker to tell the stories of the men cleared for release, who continue to be wrongly slandered as “the worst of the worst.” As I read their stories, I felt sorrow, solidarity and anger. But I also felt deep joy and consolation as I watched four friends from Loyola University being arrested. In a small way, they had given up their freedom to be in solidarity with the men at Guantánamo. I am consistently inspired by the depth of their faith and the courage of their resistance.

Did we accomplish anything?

For 100 days, we prayed, fasted, wrote letters, made phone calls, and met with members of Congress. On the final day of the campaign, 62 activists engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience – and now await trial. What, if anything, has resulted from these efforts? In one sense, almost nothing. Since January, only a few men have been released, and currently, about 230 men remain in Guantánamo. Due to fear-mongering and political pressure, it is no longer certain that Guantánamo will be closed by January 2010. And yet, we have seen some progress in recent days: four Chinese Uighurs have already been released to Bermuda, and the remaining 13 are slated for release to Palau. Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Mohammed Al-Gharani has been released to Chad, while longtime hunger striker Ahmed Zuhair has entered the rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia.

We must always remember that we are ultimately called to conscience and faithfulness, not success. And I believe that the campaign has been faithful to the God who desires “the release of those bound unjustly” (Isaiah 58:6). We also have the consolation of knowing that our humble efforts are known and appreciated by the prisoners. Djamel Saiid Ali Ameziane, an Algerian citizen who remains in Guantánamo, sent this message:

I want to greet these protesters. I was moved by what they were doing, and very touched. It makes my heart warm to know that there are still people in America refusing injustice – no matter what excuses – and still fighting, so that there will not continue to be justice for the strong and injustice for the weak, this double standard of injustice. There should be one justice for all. What they’re doing represents real American values – the noble intentions of the founders of the United States. The world is very proud of you, and I express my deep thanks.

How is God calling us now?

When asked about Guantánamo in 2006, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, responded, “Wherever in the world inmates are being held in such conditions, we will not fail to defend them.” Even though the official campaign has ended, we cannot allow ourselves to become resigned to the intolerable status quo. We must continue to defend the dignity and rights of these prisoners. So these days, I am asking the Lord for a deeper understanding of the Guantánamo issues, greater clarity about what to do next, and the courage to respond faithfully to God’s call.

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