Presentation at Marymount University, April 7, 2005
Crystal asked me to come here because I had some connection to the hunger strike for a living wage at Georgetown University. When I told her that I was not a hunger striker, but primarily a reporter who wrote about it, she was kind enough to still ask me to speak, but asked if I could bring a hunger striker too. I couldn’t.
So, instead of hearing from one of these admirable young people who put their health and their lives on the line for the greater good, and many of whom did so for very Catholic reasons, you’re stuck with an atheist reporter and photographer. Nonetheless, I will try to tell you both why I reported on this campaign and why some of the students told me they did what they did.
My background is that of an activist as well as a reporter. I was active in a living wage campaign at the University of Virginia, where the workers now have a union, and where we initially didn’t say the word “union” aloud. I’ve worked for ACORN, the roots of which include Saul Alinsky’s organizing methods. And I served as press secretary for Dennis Kucinich for President. Congressman Kucinich is another Catholic with a progressive vision for this country.
As you may have heard, we lost that campaign badly, but Congressman Kucinich has lost more campaigns than he can count. Those losses appear to have about zero impact on his conviction that he’ll win the next one. There’s a mystical element to his thinking, a sometimes magical belief that by envisioning success he will make it real. If I could follow Paschal and choose to believe religion, this would be one reason I might do so – in order to have that degree of conviction, because it increases your chances of success, even though it doesn’t actually guarantee it.
And this gets to why some of those students at Georgetown didn’t eat any food until the university administration agreed to a living wage policy for workers. Their reasons were very different from my reasons for covering the story and for admiring them. A number of them told me that they saw sacrifice as a positive contribution to the world. They referred to Jesus Christ as their model.
I wrote about the students’ motivations, but it wasn’t my focus. My goal was to make the students role models for others, including others who do not share their beliefs. These students may have believed that were they to die they would go to a better place. I know that if I believed that I would be strongly tempted to put my life at great risk for the social good every day. But many do not believe that or are only able to partially believe it. And they, too, need to learn to sacrifice, because sacrifice is recommended to us by more of history than just the days of Jesus Christ.
On my way over here I saw a large federal government building with a huge banner on it that read “Separate Is Not Equal.” What a great thing to see. If we’re paying attention, we know that employers discriminate on racial and other grounds, that lending companies and insurance companies discriminate, that our government provides the worst schools in the neighborhoods that need the best ones, that environmentally damaging projects are disproportionately sited in poor and minority areas, that a black person convicted of killing a white person is far more likely to be killed by our government than the reverse. What a great banner!
But the banner was on the National Museum of American History. It was supposed to be about something 50 years old, from a time when injustice was shoved in people’s faces by young people willing to lay their bodies on the line.
My motivation is not sacrifice but frustration. Why are so few of us going to jail for justice or going on hunger strikes? It’s not the lack of injustice. We’re engaged in an illegal, aggressive war, using napalm and depleted uranium, confiscating other people’s resources. Why is there no uproar?
One of many reasons, I think, is the decline in our mass media. I wanted to report on the Georgetown hunger strike because I was afraid that the corporate media would not do so or would not do so honestly. To my pleasant surprise I was largely mistaken. A few days after I published an article on an internet magazine called Counter Punch, the Washington Post published an article that was well above its usual standards.
I’m inclined to speculate that the Post’s coverage was improved by the nature of the protest. What if one of the students had died? What if that story had become the next Terri Schiavo – Michael Jackson – Paris Hilton obsession of the media? It would not have looked good for the Post to have slanted its reporting in favor of poverty wages and against those doing what most of us never manage.
I’ve worked for the labor movement. There are leaders of the labor movement being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, just like the president of Georgetown. Union staff often work 8 hour days in luxurious offices. It can be much more of a career than a movement. And there are plenty of justifications: If the staff jobs are too hard, then it will be harder to recruit members to become staff. If the staff don’t model the work life that we want for everyone, then they’re being hypocritical. Etc.
But, when you come down to it, that’s all nonsense. And it’s revealed as nonsense by the hunger strikers.
The workplace rights that we are losing were won by people laying down their lives. The right to time and a half pay for overtime was taken away from millions of Americans a few months ago, without the media making that clear to anyone, and without a single union member going to jail for civil disobedience. When that’s the trend, do we really care that union staff set a good example by going home at 5 p.m.?
But they aren’t asked to sacrifice. And none of us are asked to sacrifice. When our current president speaks to the country in a time of crisis (a fictional crisis, but still a crisis) all he asks of us is that we relax and go shopping – oh, and be terrified.
It’s a long, long way from “relax and go shopping” to “be engaged and give everything you have for the greater good.”
And it’s too far for me.
Before the war started I wrote a column urging people to go to Iraq as human shields. But I myself did not go. And I had lots of justifications: I can’t do that to my family. I can’t disrupt a career aimed at social uplift. It’s no good going if everybody else doesn’t. I’m more useful as a writer urging others on. Etc.
And because it’s all nonsense I wrote about the Georgetown hunger strikers.
And what they did has inspired others. And we are seeing a burst of activity on college campuses. There’s a sit in right now for a living wage at Washington University in St. Louis. Another university is seeing many of its students and professors conduct an alternative school in tents on campus called Tent State University, the goal of which is to demand funding for education, not for war.
We need this kind of action to grow to the point of being national and addressing national issues effectively.
Next week, instead of this week, because of the Pope’s funeral, the US House of Representatives plans to vote on a bankruptcy bill that would make it impossible for millions of families to ever get out of debt. There will be protests in front of congress members offices all over the country at noon next Wednesday. Go to www.debtslavery.org and get involved.
Tomorrow (Friday) evening at the University of DC there will be a gathering of a new group called Progressive Democrats of America. Go to www.pdamerica.org and get involved.