To Friends Marching in New York

We know the critiques of the People’s Climate March. We know the choice is not march-or-don’t-march, and we cannot prevent climate destabilization. We know our struggles are connected – to the stolen land many of us live on, to the copsprotecting” the march, to the oligarchy who’s robots rain death. Our generation’s choice is between potential survival and certain death.

It is easy to be overwhelmed. It is easy to seek safety and a normal life. When I lived in Ohio, my most meaningful work was built on relationships with people who had made their lives there, but I was too quick to jump and work on the latest project – whatever crisis could fit my “radical critique.”

My friend Matches was not like me – regardless of what I was doing, he made sure he kept up with our friends in Youngstown. He called them up just to talk. When one of our close friends could not pay his electric bill, Matches organized a benefit concert. While I was busy running from issue to issue, Matches built personal relationships.

Thomas Merton, a radical Trappist monk, wrote a letter to an activist friend in 1963, where he said,

[A] great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it.”

Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are drilling for oil. Near villages like Hajji Ahmed, a tiny town up in the mountains where Exxon built a rig in the middle of their farmland and the soldiers pushed the farmers off. If toxic gases are released during the drilling, an alarm sounds and all villagers are expected to get in company buses and drive away. The government gave inadequate and uneven compensations only after months of protest. The villagers accepted them (though they weren’t allowed to read the papers they signed in the process). Some work security at other drilling sites. Others drive those buses.

We talk about “solidarity” and “allyship.” The more time I spend here, the less I can define those words. Often enough here, our work is drinking tea with friends and helping them brainstorm. In some ways, to practice allyship is to abandon causes.

This is not to say that building relationships will save us. We need organizers and policy people and artists and people breaking the law and everyone. I am tired of the argument over what strategy will save us. Nothing will save us.

But, to my friends marching today – I hope you are there because someone you love needs you there, and I hope you leave to go build the kind of power that will actually protect and heal the place you call home. I hope you are marching because a part of you hurts.

I keep using the word “hope.” A friend of mine here calls his organization “the second generation of warriors” – his parents’ generation fought Saddam, he fights Exxon. When I have tea with him on his porch, surrounded by the incredible beauty of his mountain village, I have some hope. I hope you are marching because you know someone who gives you hope.

[Originally written back in September 2014 during the People’s Climate March]


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