How did you first become interested in social change?
Growing up, my dad was a teacher and teacher’s union chapter leader, and my mom was active in community-based social service projects. But neither were very activist oriented beyond that; they gasped as the television images of the war in Vietnam were blasted across the screen, but attended no demonstrations. For me, when I was a senior in high school, and co-editor of my school newspaper, I began to look at some of the political issues facing my age group. Foremost amongst these was President Carter’s re-institution of registration, the first stage in the process of drafting people into the military. We ran a poll of students (who were, of course, overwhelmingly opposed), and an editorial, and then – when my high school sweetheart broke up with me the day before graduation – I plunged into the only thing I found consoling: political work! That summer, the Democratic National Convention was held in my own home town of New York City, and I volunteered to help get a four-star mother (someone who husband and son had been killed in Vietnam) nominated for vice president, just so she could give an anti-registration speech. We got enough delegates to sign, then on the final night the organizers somehow got some press passes so that those of us who had worked the hardest could view the convention from the inside. On that fateful night, it did not matter that I was sitting in the far-away seats at the top of Madison Square Garden. The sitting President of the United States was right there before me, giving his acceptance speech to run for a second term. When he mentioned his policy of registration, a grouping of us booed him, an act heard by millions on national television. The idea that after only a few weeks of social change activism I could boo the President on national TV seemed too good to be true. I wondering what I could do if I remained active for a bit longer!!
How do you define social justice?
For me, social justice is defined by people’s empowerment–a constructive space filled with equal opportunities and equity, with a communalism that suggests not simply that people should “live and let live” but rather “live and help to live.” I was taught that by an old leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, so I guess it is important to say that social justice includes an end to all colonialism and neocolonialism, and end to imperialism, an end to racism, sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy. But for me, it also means an end to militarism and the violent ways in which we treat one another–both personally and structurally through poverty created by capitalism and the drive for unchecked profits.
What has been your most exciting experience as an activist?
This is a tough one; I have had so many. Could it be when, weeks after the above-mentioned experience, I decided to become a public draft resister, refusing to register when I turned 18. At the press conference, I was greeted by a sweet little lady who was feeding me apple strudel and asking how I was. Turned out this woman, who emceed the press conference, was none other than celebrated author Grace Paley! I met Abbie Hoffman within the year, and ended up doing some secretarial work for him. It became clear that the “left” was much smaller than I could have imagined, and I would end up meeting many very inspiring people over the years: from Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, to Assata Shakur, in exile in Cuba; from my mentors Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party leader Mawina Koyate, and Puerto Rican human rights elder Luis Nieves Falcon; from my partner and companero Meg Starr to all my comrades in Resistance in Brooklyn; from so many icons of the War Resisters League and peace studies communities…I am always excited about meeting the wonderful people also working so hard to re-shape the world for the better. Perhaps the experiences I’d have to rate as most exciting are the countless creative demonstrations, from when the huge puppets of Bread and Puppet Theater led one million of us into Central Park for an end to nuclear power and arms in 1982, to when hundreds of us blockaded the Liberty Bell to demand that the jailers Let Freedom Ring for death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, to just a year ago, when I went with my 11-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to a street action in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street. They are all my most exciting, along with all the ones still to come.
What is the most interesting project in which you are currently involved?
I spent three weeks in South Africa this past July and August helping put together a new network, now calling itself the African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network. Along with the War Resisters International and other groups, we will be putting together a major Pan African gathering in 2014. Building up for that, across the African continent and throughout the Diaspora, is the most exciting thing I am currently involved in.
ALSO, I am proud to be part of growing efforts to shine special attention on two prisoners who deserve and demand immediate release. One is Russell Maroon Shoatz, serving close to forty years behind bars, with over thirty of them in torturous solitary confinement. If the US is to even come close to living up to its image of “justice for all,” it must unconditionally release old men who are in prison largely due to the fact that they joined the Black Liberation movement (Panthers, etc) in the late 1960s. Though he is convicted of various “criminal acts,” no common criminal spends this long in solitary or behind bars. The fear is that, once prisoners like Maroon are released, they are going to do what Mandela did when he was released: lead revolutionary movements for massive and radical change. We know, of course, that movements are made by more than just leaders, and our social justice movements must be at least string enough to help these warriors of past struggles get out of jail before they die.
Similarly, the case of Oscar Lopez Rivera, in jail for the thought crime of “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the US government’s control of his Puerto Rican homeland, must be given full immediate attention.
What are your plans for the future?
A book I have been working on for six years, as co-editor and contributor, is about to be released. We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America contains a foreword by Cornell West, after-poems by Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez, and a host of amazing essays by scores of activists. So I will be doing some work to promote that book, which Maya Angelou has graciously said “is so needed” at this time. More information about the book, including how to order it, is here: https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=433
I am a full-time teacher, and also a full time (or as much as is left) father, and I take those two responsibilities very seriously, as a central part of my commitment of working for a better world.