Thoughts on a Night of "Unconventional Heroes"

by C.J

Revolutionary Worker #1252, September 19, 2004, posted at

When Rachel Corrie was two and a half, she asked her mother if being brave is part of growing up. I thought.really good question. It could be.Except for.think about all the official and unofficial signposts in this late-imperialist society that tell you instead to be craven, to be fearful of the people in (or from) other countries or even the next town over; fearful of the unknown, the uncommon, the new, of change itself.

But people don't always do what the powers tell them to. And so 500 of us gathered in New York University's Skirball Auditorium on August 26--a week before the coronation of the most-hated and least-brave President ever--to honor more than a dozen "unconventional heroes" who had shown remarkable courage in their resistance to the dictats of this regime.

Rachel Corrie was not with us that night--her mother and father, Cindy and Craig, accepted her "Courageous Resister" award. 23-year-old Rachel was murdered by the U.S.-supported Israeli Defense Forces in 2003--bulldozed to death while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home.

Rachel's bravery was a thing that grew and grew during her short life as she found her place with the oppressed of the planet. She went to Palestine as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in the Occupied Territories. Her mother recounted, "I remember distinctly her voice when she first called from Gaza. I believe she was in the house that she died in front of. Her voice was trembling, and she was saying, `Can you hear that? Can you hear that?' It was the shelling that was coming from the border. And then I remember talking to her for the last time, about five days before she was killed. Her confidence had grown along with her conviction that she was doing absolutely the right thing. I think about the courage that she drew from just being among the Palestinian people who are living with that situation."

Cindy Corrie's recollection was included in a beautiful newspaper filled with stories and interviews created by artist Ann Messner for the "Unconventional Heroes" event. The evening was produced by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! and the newspaper was one of many inspired notes struck that night as an extraordinary group of actors, musicians, poets and artists found poignant and telling ways to honor the resisters.

The award plaques themselves were the result of a collaboration conceived of by the well-known sculptor John Ahearn. As the resisters arrived in town, they were brought up to his studio in East Harlem and he created individual pieces with them--casting their hands--for each award.

* * *

I've only started here with the story of Rachel Corrie and I will have much more to say about that night. When it was over, I wanted to run down the street and tell the world about every story, each resister, and the great hope that spilled from that stage. I think everyone in the audience felt the same.

Look at the list of resisters. Taken together, they faced down the brutality, bigotry, know-nothing ethos, arbitrariness, and terror that is the hallmark of this imperialist democracy hellbent on conquering the world and laying down a police state at home. They set a standard for fighting this tyranny; they demonstrated the only honorable way to live. And it is no small thing that they were brought together by a national organization, Refuse & Resist!, which is taking responsibility for joining with millions to not just resist, but to build A Resistance--and not a moment too soon.

Each of these resisters decided to take responsibility for how they think society should be. Their visions--and how we could get to a different future--are widely divergent from each other, and from my own communist view. But you could feel electricity and a deep longing from every corner of the room when Vijay Iyer delivered his haunting "re-mix" of John Lennon's Imagine on the grand piano. No lyrics were sung, but fragments drifted through my head.

Imagine there's no countries.
It isn't hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too.

The evening made me ponder deeply how people actually can create a new world we would all want to live in. How we are in a race against time to take over our toxically twisted planet now controlled by a small obsolete class, and how this will require conscious action by the rising proletarian class leading and uniting millions from all walks of life to make revolution, including millions who do not now see things this way.

Cindy Corrie talked about their first press conference, two days after Rachel was killed: "I remember the fear in taking that first step. But there comes a time when people need to make a decision, there comes a point when people need to do more than just think about it or talk about it. People need to take a step. It's real momentous when people do that."

What if many more people took that step--confronted this monster in this urgent moment and said, resistance starts here, with me. What if more people, as Bob Avakian has put it, followed their aspirations, their beliefs, all the way out to their logical conclusion. What could we together learn then about what it'll take to realize our dreams. We got a taste of how this might look by week's end in NYC: hundreds of thousands had rejected the "fear factor" incessantly pumped by Bush and Mayor Bloomberg and came out in widely embraced protests. It was the Republicans who had to conduct their fascist extravaganza behind barricades and barbed wire.

We all know this is just the beginning, and each of us will be tested many times. Sometimes we will be alone, like Toni Smith, the basketball player who protested the Iraq war by turning her back on the flag as the national anthem was sung in packed arenas. Sometimes we will be reviled and punished, like James Pendergraft, a late-term abortion doctor who, after withstanding born-again assaults and seven months in federal prison, continues to this day to provide this essential service for women.

As Courageous Resister Bill Keys put it, "We have to be prepared to be hated. But to be hated is also to be loved, one does not come without the other. If you want to remain neutral then you can drift through life and amount to very little more than the stripe down the middle of the road."

I think his is a dialectical statement, and a materialist one. For everyone who loves the people, it is an invitation to grow up, learn the truth about the world, and become very brave.


MICHAEL BERG responded to the videotaped beheading of his son Nick, an independent contractor in Iraq, by demanding an end to all violence in that country and around the world. Presented by BLAIR BROWN.

RACHEL CORRIE, volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in the Occupied Territories, murdered by Israeli Defense Forces while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in 2003. Presented by AMY GOODMAN of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now !

BILL KEYS, school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, refused to enforce a state law that makes it mandatory for students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Presented by MICHELLE ESRICK, actor/producer of the evening.

AARON LEBOWITZ, high school student in Darby, Montana, led a fight against a school-board-supported resolution to teach creationism as part of the public school curriculum. Presented by ERIK JENSEN, actor and playwright.

CAMILO MEJÍA, first soldier to go AWOL because of opposition to the Iraq war and the American-inflicted atrocities; currently in prison serving the maximum penalty of one year for desertion. Presented by MICHAEL O'KEEFE, actor.

DAVE MESERVE, city council member who sponsored the Arcata, California ordinance that makes voluntary cooperation with unconstitutional investigations or arrests under the Patriot Act a crime punishable by $57.

DR. JAMES SCOTT PENDERGRAFT, late-term abortion provider, withstood seven months in federal prison and resisted the government's attempts to shut down his Florida clinic. Presented by DEBRA SWEET, revolutionary communist.

BILL NEVINS, fired after refusing to censor the closed-circuit TV reading of an iconoclastic poem by one of his students at Rancho Rio High School in New Mexico; the Write Club/Poetry Team were disbanded by the school's administration. Presented by STEVE EARLE, musician.

TONI SMITH, basketball player at Manhattanville College who, in the months leading up to the war on Iraq, turned her back on the U.S. flag during the singing of the national anthem and continued to do so before each game in the face of threats and protests. Presented by DAPHNE RUBEN-VEGA, actor.

JASON WEST, mayor of New Paltz, New York, charged with 19 criminal counts after he rushed to marry gay and lesbian couples in February 2004; charges were dropped in June. Presented by BARBARA KOPPLE, filmmaker.

JUANITA YOUNG, mother of Malcolm Ferguson (murdered by the NYPD in 2000), continues to be a leader in the movement against police brutality despite threats and brutalization by the police. Presented by TRACIE MORRIS, poet.

Courageous Resisters who were honored but could not be present on August 26:

SANTA CRUZ LIBRARIANS, defiantly opposed the USA Patriot Act by shredding library patrons' records and posting warning signs about the FBI's authority to subpoena patrons' records, setting an example for others in their field. Presented by ELLEN MCLAUGHLIN, actor/playwright.

AARON MCGRUDER, creator of "The Boondocks" comic strip. Published in 300 daily newspapers, McGruder's characters consistently tell the truth about injustices committed by the U.S. government with humor and style. Presented by PETER GERETY, actor.

BRETTON BARBER, high school student in Dearborn, Michigan, who defied school administrators when he refused to take off a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of Bush and the words "International Terrorist." Presented by JOHN BUFFALO MAILER, writer.

MITCHELL CROOKS, in 2002 videotaped the LAPD police beating of Donovan Jackson, a 16-year-old Black man, defied the rightwing media and the police who arrested him on a five-year-old misdemeanor. Presented by PETER GERETY, actor.

MICHAEL NEWDOW, Sacramento physician with a law degree, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the phrase "under god" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Presented by OMAR METWALLY, actor.

LEON GOLUB, the painter, died August 10.There was a tribute to him at the event by artists ROBBIE CONAL and DREAD SCOTT.

The evening included performances by musicians MIKEL PARIS, VIJAY IYER, DAN BERN, STEVE EARLE, TIMOTHY HILL & SETH MARKEL, ODETTA, and by poets BEAU SIA and TRACIE MORRIS. PETER GERETY and BLAIR BROWN co-hosted. JOHN AHEARN, sculptor, designed the awards. NINA FELSHIN directed the projections.