‘I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.’ (Malala Yousafzai)
I once had a secret meeting with the political wing of a revolutionary group from Central America, in a dark basement flat in London. But my story doesn’t start there. This was my moment. As I flicked through the pages of a UK newspaper, an article leapt out at me about the brutal civil war in El Salvador. I don’t think I’d heard of El Salvador before yet it reminded me of accounts I had read of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis in WW2. I couldn’t change that terrible history but I could do something now.
I quickly did some research then set to work straight away, creating flyers and posters and circulating and sticking them up anywhere I could think of, hoping to raise awareness and to spur others into action too. I talked incessantly to family, friends and colleagues about what was happening in El Salvador. Most responded with a bemused look: ‘Why get so wound up about a situation on the opposite side of the world and over which we have no control anyway?’ That didn’t deter me. It was my time to speak.
I heard of a demonstration for El Salvador in London so I went there with a friend, both wearing our anti-war combat jackets. On arrival, we were approached by the organisers and invited to carry a banner. To our surprise, they asked us to march at the very front, directly behind a row of children who were carrying a banner too. Some 20,000 people assembled behind us. We raised our voices in safety – while human rights activists in El Salvador were having their throats cut and their bodies dumped onto the streets.
Driven increasingly by vicarious trauma, I joined the El Salvador Committee for Human Rights, a team of 3 activists based in a small room, armed only with a manual typewriter. I had the privilege of volunteering alongside a humble legend, Mike Gatehouse, who had previously been captured and held by the military in Chile during the violent coup that had overthrown its democratically-elected government. My role now was to hitch-hike around the UK, encouraging and resourcing local activist groups to amplify their voice.
As I look back, I realise that I didn’t have sufficient personal resilience to handle the stress, and I came close to burnout. My efforts were driven more by pain, empathy and instinct than by strategy and I’ve learned, since, the critical value of supervision. Yet Greenpeace’s profound slogan expressed our motivations too: ‘The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.’ There are situations in which we have to act, not because we have any guarantee of success, but because somebody has to speak.
[See also: Revolution; Protest; Words; Smoke; Nika; I did try]
‘Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.’ (Martin Luther King)
Few songs convey the pain and potential consequences of protest like the Dixie Chicks’ (now Chicks’) ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’.
Singer Natalie Mains had dared publicly to criticise the then-U.S. President, George W. Bush, during the 2003 run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The group was subsequently banned from being played on many U.S. radio stations and group members were subject to attacks on their character, and even to death threats. ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ is a passionate reflection on that experience, a resounding spirit of unbroken resistance in a near-breaking voice:
‘Forgive, sounds good. Forget, I'm not sure I could. They say time heals everything, but I'm still waiting. I'm through with doubt. There's nothing left for me to figure out. I've paid a price, and I'll keep paying. I'm not ready to make nice, I'm not ready to back down. I'm still mad as hell, and I don't have time to go 'round and 'round and 'round. It's too late to make it right. I probably wouldn't if I could ‘cause I'm mad as hell. Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should.
I know you said, ‘Why can't you just get over it?’ It turned my whole world around – and I kinda like it. I made my bed, and I sleep like a baby with no regrets. And I don't mind saying it's a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger. And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they'd write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing – or my life will be over?’
This experience reflects the spirit of an age in which we find ourselves too. Voices of dissent against a mainstream narrative are often heard with disdain, if at all, in the clamour of polarised and conflicting ideologies, opinions and rage. Platforms that could protect and promote democratic values, ranging from conventional and social media to schools and university campus’, all too often create echo chambers that reinforce the dominant view.
Silence is golden. Silenced is not. When did you last speak up? What have you left unspoken that needs to be said?
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