"I'm deeply humbled in the presence of the people who have come before us on this stage. It is inspiring to see a passion and a will to stand up against what is unjust," said an Evergreen College student being honored as a Courageous Resister on Sunday, June 20 in New York City. She and several other awardees had made national headlines with intense controversies just the previous week. The urgency of struggles against police brutality, to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and to resist repression united the 160 people who attended the moving ceremony to honor 15 individuals and groups at Washington Square United Methodist Church. The stories of resistance brought awardees and supporters alike to tears, and to their feet with repeated applause and cheering. Many participants said the moment was a highlight in their political lives.
Hosted by the outrageous downtown NY comedian Reno, with poetry and musical performances by Reg E. Gaines and Universes - a hip hop/poetry group of five Black and Latino youth from the South Bronx - the program showed the breadth of attacks on the people as well as inspiring acts of resistance. Many participants spoke of a heightened understanding of the need to support people who are under attack, the great potential of doing so, and the awe they felt in the company of those "who inspired us around the country this last year and in past years with their struggles."
One of the Evergreen students captured the sentiments of awardees and audience alike when she said "We feel that if the actions that we took on one college campus can reach the eyes and ears of people all over the world, anyone anywhere can raise their voices in creative and beautiful resistance. Anyone can do this. We can all do this. I think I'm really happy to be here because victories like this are scattered and they're so few and far between. We are all working in the same fight but we don't know each other's faces. We don't know each other's names. I'm really very happy to be here and see your faces and show my face."
Abner Louima, whose name has become synonymous with police brutality as well as with resistance to it, made a rare public appearance to accept his award for bravely exposing and facing his torturers in the NYPD despite being threatened with murder if he told anyone what the cops had done to him. The Courageous Resister Award was presented to him by Gary Giscombe, Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and Dr. Robert Rockwell, R&R! National Secretary. Accepting his award to a standing ovation, Abner expressed the hope that what happened to him will change things so that such police brutality doesn't happen to anyone else.
As he presented an award to Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was choked to death by a NYPD officer and who has become a leader in the fight against police brutality, poet/playwright Reg E. Gaines performed a piece about a youth who is shot dead by a cop while minding his own business in the subway. Members of the R&R! Youth Network paid tribute to all the parents and relatives present who had had loved ones killed by the police. Poet Samantha Courbell performed a chilling poem written on the night that 12-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. was shot and killed by police while playing in his stairwell with a toy gun. After presenting her poem, Samantha hugged Nicholas's father, Nicholas Heyward Sr., who then announced an award to Art Spiegelman and New Yorker editor David Remnick. The artist and the editor had stood firm against police protest and high-level political pressure after Spiegelman's cover illustration depicting a cop at target practice taking aim at ordinary people was run in the wake of the New York police murder of Amadou Diallo.
Issues of police brutality and attacks on reproductive rights are not often joined. But in honoring resisters on these different fronts, the R&R! slogan "it's all one attack" came alive. Emily Lyons, the nurse who was severely injured in the bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic in 1998, was presented an award by Ellie Grossman of Medical Students for Choice for her determination - despite nearly losing her life - to become a spokesperson for reproductive freedom. In accepting her award, Emily described how the bombing was an attempt to scare women's health care givers into ceasing providing abortions. Instead, she said, the bombed clinic reopened within a week and rather than intimidating her the attack turned her into a national pro-choice activist!
Some Courageous Resisters lost their jobs for resisting. Dr. Wayne Goldner was honored for continuing to provide abortions at a hospital taken over by the Catholic church, despite intense pressure and loss of a teaching post. Rev. Gregory Dell had his ordination removed by the United Methodist Church for violation of a church law when he presided over the marriage ceremony of two men. Even though Jose Palacios had received his Courageous Resister award in 1997, he came out from California anxious to be part of this program. A California Department of Motor Vehicles employee, he refused to comply with a state law required him to ask all drivers' license applicants to show proof of legal status. He was convicted of a felony and is serving two years of probation. Jose spoke about how alone he felt at the time of his conviction but how events such as this one made him even more confident of his decision of noncompliance!
David Lester, film producer (Shawshank Redemption, White Men Can't Jump) and At-Large Member of the R&R! National Council presented an award to the Students, Faculty and President Jane L. Jervis of Evergreen (WA) State College for refusing to give into demands by politicians and police to cancel the scheduled June 1999 commencement address by Mumia Abu-Jamal. Oakland teacher Larry Felson accepted a courageous resister award on behalf on the Oakland, CA teachers and students who held teach-ins at city public schools about the death penalty and Mumia's legal case. Teachers and students demonstrated what real education could be by raising their voices for social justice. Their bold stances and refusal to give in to pressure from authorities who are attempting to push forward with Mumia's execution brought national attention to his case.
Northwestern University Professor David Protess and his journalism students uncovered evidence that resulted in the freeing of several innocent people from death row, and they exposed the unjust and racist death penalty in the mainstream press. Student Erica LeBorgne accepted the award. In her speech she emphasized that real investigative journalism is where truth and justice are paramount, and issued a challenge to the mainstream press to follow this principle.
Still more battles were represented at this gathering. Resisters from the Minnehaha Free State in Minnesota have withstood police attacks and arrest for their efforts to stop the destruction of Native American holy sites by planned highway construction. The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) received an award for refusing to turn over financial records demanded by the U.S. government. IFCO denounced the government action as a "fishing expedition" and an effort to intimidate progressive organizations. Another award was announced for the Ohio State Town Hall meeting disrupters who challenged Madeline Albright's attempt to win support for the bombing of Iraq.
Literary agent Frances Goldin accepted a Courageous Resister Award on behalf of poet Adrienne Rich who was honored for refusing to accept the National Medal of the Arts. Frances quoted Adrienne's acceptance statement which noted that "the radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate", and asked "how can the government honor one artist when the people as a whole are so dishonored?"
In these times of cruel politics and repression, it is extremely significant when individuals stand up against attacks on the people. The value of such acts is immeasurable, inspiring others to resist and pointing the way toward a different future. When people take such stands, risking their livelihood and even their very lives, it is extremely important that others stand with and support these courageous resisters. We consider it our responsibility and privilege to rally people to honor these Courageous Resisters, to show them they are not alone and that their actions are admirable and invaluable.
Winning the battle against the politics of cruelty requires organization at local and national levels, personal acts of everyday resistance and organized campaigns. Our 1999 Courageous Resisters came from all different fronts of this resistance, standing together to say, "To the racists and women-haters, to the gay-bashers and welfare slashers, to the prison-builders and executioners, we say: The future is not yours! We will Refuse & Resist!"
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