Courageous Resisters 1999

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1013, July 4, 1999

"In these times of cruel politics, it is extremely important when people stand up against injustice and repression. The value of such acts of resistance is immeasurable, inspiring others to resist and pointing the way toward a different future. When people take such stands, risking their livelihoods and even their very lives, it is vital that others stand with and support them. Refuse & Resist! exists to build a climate, culture and community of resistance to today's politics of cruelty. We consider it our responsibility and privilege to rally people to honor those who stand up against attacks, to show them they are not alone and to encourage others to refuse and resist! We hope you will join us in our efforts."

Robert Rockwell, M.D., National Secretary,
Refuse & Resist!, from the Courageous Resister Awards program

On June 20 I had the privilege to attend Refuse & Resist's Courageous Resister Awards, which drew more than 200 people from around the country to the United Methodist Church in New York's Greenwich Village. The place was packed. I looked around me and saw students, Native Americans, parents whose children had been murdered by the police, teachers, immigrants, artists and many others. I saw people who never knew they had a common struggle sitting side by side, people who could only have imagined how others would support them when they dared to challenge the status quo. I knew we would look back on this day as one that made a real difference in the struggle to build a better world.

The event was hosted by downtown New York comedian Reno, who has performed at the Lincoln Center Serious Fun Festival, the Public Theater and done shows for HBO. Calling herself "the lightweight on the program" Reno injected her irreverent comedy between award presentations. Dread Scott from the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! spoke about the Horace Tapscott Cultural Resister Award. Calling Tapscott "a brilliant jazz musician who gave his heart to the people" Dread said, "The Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! was created because we wanted to create a culture of resistance. We know that for many, many people having art or music or films that challenge the downpressing politics of cruelty is more necessary than food sometimes."

Reg E. Gaines, poet and author of the Broadway show Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, read a piece he had just written about the police murder of a Black man on a subway platform. Universes, a group of five Black and Latino youth from the Bronx whose music fuses theater, poetry, hip hop, jazz and salsa, performed a moving a capella piece about police brutality.

Dr. Robert Rockwell announced a Courageous Resister Award for poet Adrienne Rich. Rich was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1997 and refused to accept it. A portion of a letter Rich wrote was read: "I could not accept an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art as I understood it is incompatible with the cynical policies of this administration. Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are growing at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored." Frances Goldin, literary agent for Adrienne Rich, Barbara Kingsolver and for Mumia Abu-Jamal's first book, Live from Death Row, accepted the award on her behalf.

It's All One Attack

The program brought together people from many different streams of struggle in society. And they came together in a church that itself has a rich history of resistance to injustice. Robin Small-McCarthy and Mary Padilla welcomed people to the United Methodist Church. They accepted a Courageous Resister Award on behalf of Rev. Gregory Dell. Dell was removed as a minister of the United Methodist Church after he performed a marriage ceremony for two gay men. Padilla told the crowd: "When they do those kind of things it should wake us all up, especially me as a lesbian and a Christian. Well, I can say forgive me. I've been a little too complacent recently. I needed to be here today. This is really waking me up. And we're just sitting back too long. It's time to refuse and resist!"

People's lawyer Stanley Cohen, who was a negotiator during the confrontation between the Mohawk Nation and the Canadian government in 1990, took the podium: "No group in the Americas has struggled longer or harder in refusing and resisting genocide than the Indians of America." Cohen explained how the Mendota Community and Earth First set up a camp to stop a highway from being built that would have destroyed a Native holy site and a working class community in Minnesota. He called up two men who accepted a Courageous Resister Award for this struggle: "It is my pleasure to introduce these two warriors. Dare to struggle, dare to win!" The award was presented to the Minnehaha Free State, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community and Big Woods Earth First.

Jim Anderson of the Mendota Dakota Nation looked out at the crowd: "When I first heard about Refuse & Resist! I really didn't know what it was, but I see that it's one of the most beautiful things that I've ever encountered." He said if something is not done soon all Native sacred sites may be destroyed, and he spoke of the struggle to save four sacred oak trees: "I was told by the elders that I had to protect [the trees]. I was at a Sundance. And I really didn't know what I was getting into. I'm a pipe fitter by trade and the only thing I really protested before this was the soup was cold or something, you know what I'm saying? It wasn't something that was in my mind. Our illustrious governor [Jesse Ventura] called me a professional protester now and I'm kind of proud of that."

Dave Miller described how Big Woods Earth First was called in to do direct action to stop the highway. "We've been there for 10 months now. When they came in on that night with 800 military personnel, it was called Operation Bolt Snap. They had a SWAT unit for each house. They had laser sights on us. They used tear gas. People were pepper-sprayed. We sat in jail for 36 hours and we talked to each other through the bars with sign language. And the first thing we did when we got out is we went right back down to those four trees and set up the camp again... We're hearing a lot about ethnic cleansing that's justifying a war upon another sovereign nation over this issue. And what's happening in South Minneapolis is ethnic cleansing, absolutely. When you take the bones of a people and you take their sacred sites away you're trying to erase them from memory."

Laura Pagoada accepted an award for the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO). IFCO has defied the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba by delivering aid to the country. Last fall, IFCO received a notice from the federal agency which enforces the blockade. They demanded to see the group's financial transactions for a seven-month period. IFCO refused to turn over the records. Pagoada said, "Since the beginning of IFCO 32 years ago, IFCO has taken a stance on not obeying laws that are unjust, laws that are built on hate and laws that are done to control the poor and under privileged of the world...."

Jana from R&R! announced that the Ohio Town Meeting disrupters had been issued an award: "When the U.S. first started bombing Iraq before they went and bombed three other countries Madeleine Albright decided that she could hold a town meeting in the heartland of America and show that the people here actually do support the U.S. dropping bombs on other countries and this sort of thing."

Special tribute was paid to Dr. Robert Rockwell. Rockwell was an AIDS doctor who worked with patients in Atlanta until he was diagnosed with Huntington's Disease. When he could no longer work as a physician, he dedicated his life to building a movement of resistance and became the national secretary of Refuse & Resist!.

The Fight to End Police Brutality

One of the most moving parts of the program was when the victims of police brutality were issued awards. Reno told the audience, "I felt much safer when the people who were supposed to be after us were the criminals than the situation we're in now with the unbearable amount of arrogance that Mr. Giuliani imparts upon the police department. It's just totally sickening."

Reg E. Gaines introduced and presented a Courageous Resister Award to Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was murdered by a cop for the "crime" of playing football in front of his house. After a long standing ovation, Mrs. Baez said about the award: "It should be for everyone that's been in the struggle. It should be for everyone that has been out there, that has lost loved ones out there and are resisting and are fighting to make a better place. You have to get up and take a stand.... We can make a difference."

Anticipation had been building for the moment when Abner Louima would accept his award. Louima was tortured and raped by police in 1997. Last month--after intense protests against police brutality in New York City--one of the cops responsible pled guilty and another was found guilty by a jury. Dr. Robert Rockwell introduced Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA Gary Giscombe and together they presented a Courageous Resister Award to Abner Louima. Rockwell said, "Abner Louima did not choose to be beaten. He did not choose to receive nationwide attention. But he did choose to become a courageous resister and that's why we are honoring him today."

Louima received a long standing ovation and his quiet voice made the N.Y. evening news, "I accept this award with the hope that as a result of what happened to me there will be change, change so that what happened to me will never happen to my son or any other son... I would like to ask each of you to pray for the family of Dante Johnson. He was the victim of a police shooting in the Bronx who remains in critical condition fighting for his life at Lincoln Hospital." Giscombe embraced Louima: "There are really no words to say for what Abner is going through. But I can assure all of you and Abner, I can assure you that over one million members of Amnesty International worldwide are standing behind you and we will not let the light go out on human rights, but we will stand with you as long as necessary."

Isolat and Miles of the R&R! Youth Network paid tribute to all the families of police brutality victims. Isolat said, "Police brutality is a tool of oppression, a concentration of the criminalization of a generation, particularly of Black and Latino youth. This is all a manifestation of this evil and reactionary agenda that is used to keep us from fighting back, a tool that is used to instill fear so as to keep us from raising our voices...The family members whose sons, brothers, uncles, cousins have been killed by the police, these parents and family members have dared to fight back, have dared to raise their voices and struggled to pioneer a new kind of resistance in the midst of this repressive agenda."

Samantha Courbell read "Sounds Are Louder On the Other Side," a poem she wrote after the murder of Nicholas Heyward, Jr. It is told from the perspective of the dead boy, murdered by police at age 13, as he played with a toy gun. As Courbell left the stage, Nicholas Heyward, Sr. stepped up to the podium with tears in his eyes and announced the award for Art Spiegelman and David Remnick. Spiegelman designed a cover for the New Yorker magazine that showed a cop in a shooting gallery shooting at Black silhouettes and was titled "41 shots 10 cents." The mayor and governor criticized the magazine, and 250 cops demonstrated outside its offices. But editor David Remnick refused to apologize for the cover.

Fighting to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and
Abolish the Death Penalty

David Lester, film producer--White Men Can't Jump, Shawshank Redemption, Tin Cup and Bull Durham--and a member of the national council of Refuse & Resist! introduced Jason Rivera, who presented a Courageous Resister Award to Larry Felson. Felson is an Oakland teacher who initiated a day of teach-ins for Mumia Abu-Jamal earlier this year. Jason organized walkouts for Mumia in Boston area schools on April 16. The crowd clapped and cheered as he spoke: "As a high school student myself, I understand the evils that go in the school from the administrators and the police and how they work together to oppress students and teachers. I led a walkout at my school to support Mumia. I was given eight days suspension, three hours of tutoring and one day of in-school suspension as a result of the walkout. I knew this was going to happen but I didn't give a shit. That wasn't going to stop me, so I did it anyways. And nothing's going to stop Larry either...."

Larry Felson described how teachers in the Oakland schools refused to back down from their decision to hold the teach-in in spite of pressure from city, state and federal officials, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police. "We stood firm... Students learned about political action during the course of this...during this tough period of struggle to free Mumia. And we will prevail. We will. A whole new generation of youth began to rise up." He read pieces written by students that day, including one from Alma Ortiz of Castlemont High who said in part: "In the end it will be people like us, the youth, who fight to determine what is just." Another from Phillip Jones, also a student at Castlemont High, which included this: "I know I refuse to quietly stand aside. I know I must keep Mumia Abu-Jamal alive. I know I must fight for what I believe and what is right."

Next David Lester introduced two Evergreen State College students. Students at Evergreen invited Mumia Abu-Jamal to speak via a tape-recorded message at their graduation ceremony. The authorities desperately tried to stop this from happening. The college was pressured to cancel the speech, the governor of Washington canceled his appearance and police all over the country protested against it. Even Republican Congressional leader Tom DeLay denounced the college's actions on the floor of the House of Representatives. But students, teachers and administration refused to back down and on June 11, thousands heard the words of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Lester said of the action at Evergreen: "It's incredibly important and it really was something that was done from the heart. And the upshot was that a whole lot of people got their knickers in a twist--a lot of people. And it was fun to watch." He read a brief passage from a statement by college president Jane Jervis: "Abu-Jamal deserved inclusion because he has used his free speech rights to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, the disproportionate number of Blacks on death row, the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system."

As the two students came up to accept the award on behalf of the administration, faculty and students of Evergreen State College people were out of their seats, wildly applauding. A student named Jenica said: "I want to describe the moment when Mumia's convictions and passions were heard by thousands of people who were unprepared to be moved so brilliantly by someone so different from themselves... The speech began and there was a silence unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my life because people were hearing what he had to say. Nobody there could have expected what they were feeling at that moment, not myself who had listened avidly to his words time and time again. I had read them, I had studied them, I knew what this man had to say and still there was something erupted inside me that was unreal...And the minute that speech ended, there was a sound unlike anything I have heard before in my life. People were screaming whether they agreed or not... Their hearts were open to something unreal, something they never expected. And I'm not the resister in this, Mumia is the resister in this. He's opened many hearts."

The second student, Stephanie, continued: "We had no idea that it would reach New Jersey, Milwaukee, Georgia. Everyone's parents were calling and everyone's uncle was calling in saying they saw Evergreen in the newspaper. People in Paris were calling in. That was amazing. And I think the moral lesson is you don't know what you're starting until you start it but go ahead and start it anyway... People walked away from this graduation ceremony not only with their diplomas and their parties to go to, but with an awareness that Mumia's struggle is not just about one man and his fight but it's about opening up spaces for dialogue and action for the 3,500 people on death row and the over two million people caught up in the prison industrial complex... 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."

Erica Le Borgne accepted the award for journalism professor David Protess and his students. Protess, LeBorgne and four other students uncovered evidence that showed Anthony Porter was innocent of murder and resulted in his being freed from death row. "Professor Protess is constantly being criticized for practicing advocacy journalism. I don't know when pursuit of the truth and being a watchdog is considered advocacy journalism.... [Anthony Porter] was sent to prison and sentenced to death and spent 17 years of his life without anyone questioning the fact that he did not commit those murders. There was no physical evidence against him. There was no motive and he maintained his innocence the entire time and yet all of his pleas went ignored."

The Fight for Reproductive Rights

There were a number of courageous resisters honored for their strength, determination and sacrifice to ensure that women continue to have the right to control their own reproduction. Reno introduced the awards by saying, "If you want to be a doctor and you want to provide health services for women the biggest decision is whether you're really willing to lay your life on the line, because that's what doctors and nurses who work in women's health care clinics do every day."

Ellie Grossman, a medical student and member of Medical Students for Choice, announced a Courageous Resister Award for Dr. Wayne Goldner. When his hospital merged with a Catholic hospital and word leaked that he was still performing abortions, Goldner was attacked. Grossman described the impact of such mergers: "Health services are being cut off for women all over, birth control as well as abortion... Dr. Goldner stood up for his patients' rights and tried to protect them. And for that he lost his teaching position in the public school system, he was viciously picketed at his home, his daughter's school received bomb threats and he's been vilified as a `Jewish abortionist.'"

As Grossman introduced Emily Lyons, a deep silence filled the room. "Emily did not intend to become a national pro-choice figure. She was a nurse doing her job, taking care of her patients every day.... Unfortunately, her commitment to taking care of her patients made her a target for anti-choice violence. She was aware of the possibility of this violence and yet she chose to go to work every day and take care of her patients." Emily Lyons is the nurse who was nearly killed when a bomb exploded last year at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Emily lost her left eye and most of the sight in her right eye.

As Emily struggled to make her way to the podium, people cried, applauded and called out words of support. She began by apologizing that her voice is not as strong as it was before the bombing, then said, "Thank you so much for this honor and for the privilege to be around so many strong-minded women and men today.... People hear and talk about war, I know I do. But I feel my personal war began that fateful day. As long as my body can keep up with my mind I will continue to fight for women's and men's right to reproductive health and freedom of choice."


Jose Palacios received a Courageous Resister Award at a ceremony in Houston in 1997. He is on probation from a felony conviction for violating the California anti-immigration laws. When he worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles he refused to ask for proof of citizenship before people could get drivers licenses. He traveled from California to be at this year's program and said: "When we go through the different ordeals that all of us have gone through, we feel very alone, everybody in their corner of the world, different section of the country... It is gatherings like this and the one that was in Houston last year that we feel kind of like confident that it has been worth it."

Activist Dave Miller told the audience: "It's really humbling to be here with the people who inspired us around the country this last year and in past years with their struggles." Stephanie from Evergreen referred to the people who'd received Courageous Resister Awards and said, "It is inspiring to see a passion and a will to stand up against what is unjust." The program ended when Jana from the R&R! Youth Network and Yusef from the Cleveland chapter led the chant: "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 and resist!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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