Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Rosa, Lois and Cindy: The Power of One

Rosa, Lois and Cindy: The Power of One

Cindy Sheenhan has become a catalyst in a groundswell of opposition to the war and military occupation of Iraq. She is joining a company of people whose actions contributed to milestones in history. Democracy, civil rights, women’s rights and many other hard-won inalienable rights were the result of many years of struggle and great sacrifices. In many cases there is a least one person whose courage, perseverance, and leadership qualities inspired others to devote themselves to the cause and whose relentless attack on the status quo ensured ultimate success. Mahatma Gandhi was able to mobilize the people of India to overthrow British rule through non-violence and non-cooperation.

In recent American history, there are three women whose dedication to a cause has resulted in the redress of an injustice. The three women are Rosa Parks, Lois Gibbs and Cindy Sheenen whose crusades share a number of common attributes. In all three cases they were victims of government injustice or negligence, their victimization or suffering was shared by many others, the government strongly resisted addressing their grievances and they all captivated the public with their cause, strength and single-mindedness to the point where their was tremendous pressure on the government to act.

On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama who was outraged and weary with the racism, segregation, and Jim Crow laws of the time, refused to vacate her seat on a bus for a white man and was subsequently fined for violating a city ordinance. Ultimately, in November 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on transportation systems was unconstitutional.

A number of historians credit her for jump starting the civil rights movement in the United States when the incident on the bus led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association led by the young pastor of the Dexter Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Montgomery Improvement Association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company drawing the attention of the world to the oppression of African Americans in the United States.

In 1978, Lois Gibbs read an article in the newspaper about a dump site in her town, Love Canal, which contained 20,000 tons of chemical wastes that was leaking into her neighborhood and into a school yard which had been built over the site. After approaching local politicians and state representatives without any success, she began knocking on doors and discovered that almost all the families in the neighborhood had experienced cancer, miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects or urinary tract infections. The petition that the residents signed prompted the New York State Department of Health to conduct environmental testing and to finally order the closing of the elementary school that was built over the site. Although the Governor of New York, under tremendous public pressure, agreed to evacuate 239 homes, another 660 families who were also suffering the effects of the chemicals, were not given the option to relocate. National attention was now focused on Love Canal forcing President Carter to visit the town and ultimately to sign a bill authorizing funding to permanently relocate all families who requested to leave.

Lois Gibbs became “A symbol of what happens when citizens, provoked by injustice and emboldened by outrage, stand up for themselves and their families.” According to Gibbs, “Eyes were opened to the way our democracy works—and doesn’t work…It was difficult to grasp the reality—obvious in retrospect—that corporations have more influence and rights than tax-paying citizens. Love Canal taught us that government will protect you from such poisoning only when you force it to.”

The latest American woman on a mission is Cindy Sheehan whose son, Spc Casey Austin Sheehan, was killed in Iraq near Sadr City on April 4, 2004. She decided to travel to Crawford Texas with a few supporters where President Bush was vacationing to demand an explanation for her son’s death and for the “noble cause” for which he gave his life. She was forced to stop about five miles from the President’s ranch where she camps out with her supporters and is refusing to leave until the President personally agrees to meet with her face to face. Suddenly, the entire nation is focusing its attention on this brave grieving mother who is transforming the framework of the Iraq debate from ideology and terrorism to families and the suffering which many of them have endured. Since then a number of important people have written letters to President Bush urging him to meet with Cindy including Representative Cynthia McKinney who asked that he not “…drive by a mother who lost her son in a war you fully support” referring to the road on which she was camped. The media have flocked to Sheehan’s vigil to report on this David and Goliath story although the right wing media and internet sites are doing the dirty work for the administration a la Carl Rove. They claim that she is a puppet of the anti-war movement, of the political left who they claim are exploiting her and of Michael Moore. The Los Angeles Times asks “Why on earth would a loving mother choose to refocus the nation’s attention onto her words and away from his deeds” followed by his message which according to the LA Times was “I love my country.” The Times and other right-wing pundits are attempting to convert the issue from a grieving mother demanding accountability from her government to the son who died for his country. Cindy has been in great demand for interviews and appearances although she is currently at home caring for her mother who had a stroke hoping to return to her post by the end of August.

Cindy is calling the nation’s attention to the price that American’s are paying for the war in Iraq including the grieving parents mourning the loss of a son or daughter who demand accountability from the government and reassurance from the President that their child’s sacrifice was not in vain. She is also raising questions about the honesty and motives of President Bush.

Rosa and Lois have demonstrated the power of ordinary people to precipitate change in government policies and decisions and Cindy is well on her way. The media love human interest stories where a small group of people challenge the formidable powers of the state. The public responds very passionately to just causes. Although the government resisted adamantly in all three cases, public opinion ultimately forced the government to respond. All these women have reminded us that one person can make a difference and that people are not helpless and powerless.


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