WHY AND HOW I BECAME AN ACTIVIST
By MIKE LEVINSON
Originally published by TNS News Service July 30, 2010
It is really a surprise that I have not given up all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything that has happened to me, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
ANNE FRANK Diary of a Young Girl
WHY AND HOW I BECAME AN ACTIVIST
By MIKE LEVINSON
I EXPERIENCED A TREMEMDOUS AMOUNT OF VIOLENCE when I was growing up. Many, many cruel and ugly things happened to me. This led me to develop a very strong empathetic attitude towards other people in the world who were being oppressed and abused–the Vietnamese, Palestinians, blacks in South Africa, American Indians, migrant farmworkers and all others in the world who were being stepped on, kicked around and mistreated. I made common cause with all of these people. I was experiencing the suffering they were experiencing, and I was sharing in their pain.
I AM NOW CELEBRATING THE 52nd ANNIVERSARY OF MY BIRTH and it’s been a long time since I first became an activist at 12 years old. I am proud to say that after all of these years, I have NOT mellowed. In fact, my commitment to nonviolence and anarchism has become even greater. I am now even more of an extremist than before! and anarchism seem extreme, though, only because we now live in a world that is so extremely violent and despotic.
BECOMING AN ACTIVIST WAS NOT ENOUGH. I needed to become a PACIFIST. In order to rid myself of all of the violence in my life, which had already become ingrained in my own personality, it was necessary to denounce all forms and institutions of violence and oppression. All human behavior, political and personal, which resulted in violence and abuse towards others would need to be rejected, delegitimized and declared completely unacceptable. Only then could I move on towards healing. The same is true for the rest of the world.
WE DO LIVE IN A WORLD THAT IS FILLED WITH VIOLENCE, HATRED AND INJUSTICE FOR MANY PEOPLE. If one is to drop out of mainstream society and become a revolutionary for peace, one cannot do it alone. You must become a member of a community of resistance, and join with other activists who are also fighting for peace and justice. This makes sense not only as a political strategy but also as a means towards personal safety. The community of resistance becomes a refuge, and the only place to be in the world.
NONVIOLENCE AND ANARCHISM MEAN EXACTLY THE SAME THING! HOORAY!!! To denounce all of the institutions of violence means to reject all of those forms of human behavior and social organization that lead to bullying, abuse and subordination in political relationships, job relationships and personal relationships. This insight is by no means original. In fact, many activists from the past learned this the hard way. I think of the Russian-American anarchist and feminist , whose ideas about anarchism were greatly shaped by her personal experiences with violence and abuse at a young age. I myself have become very sensitive and very uncomfortable with specific persons, and those people in general, with whom I’ve wound up entangled in imbalanced power relationships. As an imperfect human being, I even find myself at times feeling strong hostility towards those in my life who are selfish, nasty and bitter, and who take out their anger and unhappiness on me and others like me. For instance, I’ve protested, been arrested and done jail time for taking exception to our government’s policy of torturing prisoners at Guantanamo, yet I leave work some days fantasizing about how I might torture some of my supervisors.
THIS LEADS THE DISCUSSION TO ANOTHER CONFLICT, A SORT OF FAILURE, OR HYPOCRISY. I find, as many activists do, that it can be much easier to fight for the human rights of others around the world while not standing up for my own human rights here at home. I find it easy to stick up for the rights of Palestinians in Gaza, but I’m often too scared to stick up for the rights of Mike Levinson in the U.S.A. Here’s yet another related conflict–in New York there were many brave, committed activists who went down South to fight against apartheid, but did nothing to confront racism up in the North. I also remember an activist friend once asked, “How can you expect to talk to the Russians if you are unwilling to talk to your next door neighbor?”
IN 1966 MY BROTHER AND I WERE DRAGGED KICKING AND SCREAMING from my hometown in a rural part of eastern Massachusetts and relocated to the New York metropolitan area. The move had a devastating effect on our lives. We left a nice, small, quiet community and found ourselves transplanted into a very hostile environment where the kids in the courtyard of our new apartment complex greeted us with obscene curses I had never before heard. Things went further downhill. and vandalism to our bicycles led to physical attacks which included me being burned with live cigarettes and my hair being burned with live matches on the back of school buses. Complaints to guidance counsellors were to no avail–these well trained professionals simply chuckled, “Boys will be boys, roll with the punches, it’s all a part of growing up!”
A WELL KNOWN EDUCATOR AND SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR OF BOOKS ABOUT CHILDREN was once interviewed in the Sunday New York Times. He was asked, “You’ve travelled all over the world and visited many devastated countries; where are the most disturbed young people?” Without hesitation he answered, “New York City.” I myself often think that there must be something about crowding so many people together and stacking them up so high that drives them crazy, perhaps even psychotic. I’ve lived with very poor people in the spacious countryside of Nicaragua and found the kids there to be much happier and more mentally stable. Sadly, things often do not change with time, and some people do not mature. The bullies who threw bottles at me from passing cars when we were teenagers are still doing that sort of thing today, even though they too are now over 50 years old.
AN ACTIVIST FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE ONCE SPOKE AT A SMALL GATHERING IN LOWER MANHATTAN, saying that he did not believe that a society’s economic and political institutions can best be built and organized upon cynical foundations such as greed and selfishness. In an interdependent society, you do not act hostile towards your neighbors because you know that next week you may need to borrow their ladder or hammer. In a place like America, however, everyone tries to possess their own ladder and hammer, avoiding any need to maintain friendly ties with other people.
I STILL EMBRACE THOSE WORDS FROM ANNE FRANK’S DIARY–human beings by nature are basically good at heart. In this era, at this time in history and in this part of the world in particular, however, the institutions that control society bring out the worst in people. We must organize ourselves into active communities of resistance, and commit ourselves to turn the world rightside up. As long as there are human beings, there is hope.
SO PLEASE, TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF, AND TAKE CARE OF SOMEBODY ELSE. That terribly exploited young film actress was absolutely correct–there’s no place like home.
THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE POEMS. IT SPEAKS OF THE REDEMPTIVE QUALITY OF AFFECTION. EVEN THOUGH THE POET PRESUMABLY WAS DIRECTING THE REMARKS TO ONE PARTICULAR INDIVIDUAL, I BELIEVE THAT THE THEME CAN APPLY EQUALLY TO A COLLECTIVE GROUP.
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For they sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Sonnet #29