Interview: Alice Walker on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the struggle for justice
The Electronic Intifada
17 June 2011
Celebrated American author and poet Alice Walker will later this month be among 38 people aboard the Audacity of Hope, the ship sponsored by US Boat to Gaza as part of an international effort to break Israel’s maritime siege of Gaza.
In a conversation with Ali Abunimah, Walker speaks about her thoughts on the eve of the trip and the parallels between the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the Freedom Rides during the US Civil Rights movement when black and white Americans boarded interstate buses together to break the laws requiring racial segregation. The Freedom Riders were met with extreme violence — including bus burnings, attempted lynchings, jail and torture.
Walker — who has authored more than thirty books, the best known of which is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘The Color Purple’ — also reflects on her recent visit to the occupied West Bank, the role of dancing and joy in the struggle for freedom and the situation in the United States. Her latest book, a memoir, is titled ‘The Chicken Chronicles’.
Ali Abunimah: How do you feel about going on the US Boat to Gaza? Are you excited, fearful? What are your thoughts at this time?
Alice Walker: I’m thoughtful. Because we’re told it could be a quite dangerous journey. And so I am steeping myself in the wisdom and the images and words of people who in my culture have sustained us through dangerous journeys. Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hamer, Black Elk, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Bob Marley. It’s good for me to feel that I am surrounded at all times by the presence of all these people who have understood American empire and who have stood against it.
AA: You’ve made the connection with the Freedom Rides that happened fifty years ago, in 1961. Can you talk about that?
AW: Yes, it means that the baton is being passed on to us of journeying to places in the world where people need us and where our governments are not helpful and in fact are destructive.
Just before my first year of college, the Freedom Riders came down to the South; I was living in Georgia under intense segregation that white supremacists and many black people assumed would last forever. They had become extremely complacent after a hundred years of brutality and subjugation of black people; and so when the Freedom Riders came down we didn’t expect them to survive.
Just as we didn’t expect Martin Luther King Jr. to live as long as he did. But we were very grateful because at least it assured us that someone outside of our own community objected to the repression that we endured every day and it meant a lot to us. It lifted our spirits, it gave us courage, it gave us hope.
AA: I was reading about the Freedom Riders recently and I was surprised by how little coverage the anniversary got in some of our mainstream media. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But one of the things that struck me that I learned was that the Kennedy administration at the time did not look favorably on the Freedom Riders and said that they were being provocative and that they should refrain from what they were doing. And that just struck me as almost a parallel with what’s happening now.
AW: And I think that has been our experience. The government has never said “Oh yes, go out and protest.” It has never said that. It has always said, “we will not support you and you shouldn’t do it and it’s wrong and it’s bad and it’s not good for you.” But really that’s why you protest. You decide that you know what you think is good for you and you go ahead and you do it.
AA: Some of the — let’s call them “Gaza freedom riders” — have been writing or planning to write to their members of Congress or to the State Department to inform them that they are planning to take this trip. Are you planning to do that or have you done that?
AW: I have written a letter to Senator Barbara Boxer [(D-CA)] and Senator Diane Feinstein [(D-CA)] and Representative Barbara Lee who are my representatives to let them know what’s going on and to ask their support and what protection they can offer.
But I did that because I was asked to do it and it seems like a good idea. But I can’t say that I feel that they will be all that effective. I would like them to be but I think that at some point in all of these ventures one realizes that you’re on your own and that this is something that you feel you have to do because it’s a necessary work of the world and it’s a way that our children can stop being tormented and deformed by the brutality they see visited upon children just like themselves all over the world.
AA: In recent weeks we’ve seen a number of protests take place of Palestinian refugees marching to the Israeli-controlled frontiers of Palestine and people being shot at by Israel. The Israelis have said that they are making preparations to stop the flotilla. There have been intense diplomatic efforts to try to persuade those organizing the flotilla not to go. What do you think needs to happen? How can we raise awareness in a way that we can mobilize that kind of support for this flotilla and its goal of lifting the blockade?
AW: I think that we are dealing with people of high irrationality, to put it really kindly. So there is no way of really assuming that anything that we can do will stop them from doing what they have done for sixty years.
The facts are that we are dealing with some very brutal people; people indoctrinated over a long period of time. And a military that obviously is insensitive to the sufferings of other people. That’s the reality. So it would be great if with The Electronic Intifada, you do what you can do, you know, and if other media outlets run by people of conscience raised the hue and cry.
But at the end of the day I think all of us who are committed to being on the boat have the task of soul-searching that Martin Luther King Jr. went through during his time in jail in Alabama, when he wrote his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
There was no way that he could know what would happen because customarily he would have been taken out of there in the middle of the night and beaten to death or lynched or hung from a tree. He had to, in his own soul, acknowledge this very real possibility.
So the people who are going to be on these boats I hope are using these last days — hopefully not the final last days — but the last days before the journey to really determine if this is worthwhile: that if they have to lose their lives, if they have to suffer in some horrible way, that they are ready. That they are as ready as they will ever be.
One way I like to think of it is that a tornado could come and suck me out of my car. A person could be lost in a flash flood. A tsunami could drown you in your sleep. A fire could burn down your entire community. These are all realities of how people transition from this existence. You could die miserably from cancer.
So these are ways of looking at it realistically because we are moving into a situation where you cannot tell what will happen.
And that is why I am steeping myself in the words of the people before me who have been in the same position and who have decided: “Well I love this world. I love it. I love these little children. They don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve to be abused; they don’t deserve to be frightened. I’m an adult. I’m an elder. So, how can I let this happen to them without some kind of resistance?”
AA: This will not be your first time trying to go to Palestine or going to Palestine. You were previously in Gaza and you wrote an incredibly beautiful short book about it, Overcoming Speechlessness — we had the opportunity to publish part of it on The Electronic Intifada before it was a book. And you recently were in the West Bank. What was your experience in the West Bank?
AW: Well, the wall. The wall. When I was looking at a snippet of the Senators and Congress — people applauding [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu I just had to wonder if they had ever stood in the shadow of that wall.
That wall is such an insult to the soul of humanity. It’s so enormous. It’s so threatening. And they are building it right in the faces of people and stealing their land in the process; so not only are they walling in the people but they are taking their land and then shooting at them when they try to work their land so they can have something to eat.
This is such a crime against the soul of humanity. We can’t stand this. Who are we as human beings if we can even bear this? We cannot bear it. And we must not. So that was one of the amazing impressions, just the enormity of the wall, how much of it there is.
And then the other thing was the settlements. The settlements are huge. They are unlike anything I had expected. And they are everywhere, everywhere! And so I realized that this whole long drama, the charade called the peace process, was simply a diversion, a shadow play, so that people wouldn’t realize that there was never going to be any peace.
It was always about taking the land. Religion had nothing to do with it; or it was used as an excuse. On some level I knew that, but seeing it made it really clear to me that “Aha! This is what this has been about from the very beginning.”
On the upside, I loved being with what I considered my tribe. Anywhere in the world your tribe is, well for me, it’s poets and writers and musicians and dancers and people who, you know, want to enjoy this planet. The planet is about enjoying it. It’s not about bombing it and beating it and forcing it to do what you want.
AA: There was the beautiful scene in Overcoming Speechlessness where you described dancing in Gaza. You talk very eloquently there about the role of dancing.
AW: Well, it’s just that we must never forget the liveliness and reciprocal joyfulness of this world, its dancing nature, when left in freedom to demonstrate itself. It’s important to model for children that they don’t have to continue to live in fear indefinitely and that this is a really graceful and beautiful planet.
When we were driving along in the West Bank we were shown all of these fields where the Israelis had cut down the olive trees. There were acres and acres of black stumps. I had to weep because trees are innocent and all they do is stand there and they give us whatever they have — we reap the benefit of their existence and that anyone would cut down even one without being sorry is painful.
And to cut down two and a half million. I hate to think of the soul that would even think of that as nothing. Who is this? So the earth is for joy, and dancing is a big part of that. And you dance with nature. Nature is always dancing. If you’re not harassing it and killing it and mutilating it, nature is dancing. That’s what the leaves are doing when the wind blows through them. We live in a magical wonderful universe. And to just spoil it while thinking we can at some point go to heaven or some other planet is ridiculous.
AA: You’ve connected the struggle for justice, for freedom in Palestine with the Freedom Riders and you’ve often talked about the importance of connecting these struggles. Can you reflect on how you see the situation in the United States today? What’s our condition? What are we struggling for here? What are we up against? What ought we to be doing? We have an election coming up and I’m not necessarily asking you what you think about the election, but this is supposed to be a highly political moment. Are we fighting for the right things here?
AW: I think that we should be working to deepen and spread the awareness that we see blossoming in Wisconsin and Ohio in some of the struggles around the union movement. The fight to have unions and representation about one’s work and one’s pay and one’s benefits.
But the awareness has to be, also, that we have just about lost our country and that we need to think about it in terms of saving not only democracy but the land itself. Of really protecting the land, which is being ravaged by oil and gas drilling, coal mining and other invasive pursuits of profit. It will take millions of years to grow our top soil back. Even longer before we have the pure water that used to be everywhere in abundance.
The election that’s coming up, I think is obscene if it requires a billion dollars just on the Democratic side, to re-elect the president. If I were President Obama I would speak to the nation and say: You know what? I don’t have time to raise money for re-election. If you want me back, it’s up to you to bring me back. I’m too busy working on America’s many problems. Housing, wars, economic disasters, climate change, tornadoes, etc. That’s what I would do. I wouldn’t spend one day or one cent trying to re-elect myself. This stance would force Americans to take responsibility for ourselves and I think we’re capable of doing that.
I think when you reach a point that you need so much money to have an election, there’s no way you can believe you have a democracy. Because a poor person or someone who is even middle class would hardly have a chance to do anything without a huge infusion of money from very big corporations, as we see is happening. So I think many of us feel quite bereft. We had hoped for much better from Obama, even understanding that he’s a single person and he’s been sucked into a machine that is relentless about what it wants and what it intends to do on the planet. But we will miss him. We will miss the hope that we had and we will miss feeling that we had someone who could actually care about us. It’s an interesting place for me, too, personally. My love and compassion for Obama and his family is unconditional, but my support for his political career is not.
I was very disturbed that in his speech to [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] AIPAC he did not mention Palestinian children. That he didn’t mention Muslim children. And, you know, I love all children. I mean to me, actually, I can’t, I’ve never been able to tell a Jewish child from a Muslim child. This was disturbing at a very, very deep level. What does it mean to choose one child over another? Not only that, I am always carrying in my heart the image of a Palestinian child, usually a very small boy, throwing a rock at a militarized Israeli tank that must appear to be bigger than a double-decker bus that might have just demolished his family’s house, with some of them inside. Who stands with this little boy? Are we expected to ignore him, his courage and his pain? To blind ourselves to how deserving he is of admiration and compassion? I cannot do it.
AA: Listening to you, it strikes me that so many of the things that are said about those working for justice in Palestine by the Israeli state, by some of its supporters in this country, are so defamatory and so cruel and so misguided. And so lacking in empathy. Does that get to you? Does it worry you that you may be called all sorts of things for undertaking this journey, wherever it leads?
AW: Yes, well, I’ve been called everything already. That’s a help. We in the South — thank God for my culture in the South, in the black South — because one of our well-used expressions as we preface some horrible thing that we’ve been called is “I’ve been called everything but a child of God.” And that covers it. I’ve been called everything but a child of God. And a child of God is what I am. And that’s pretty much my position.
My God is not a religious God. My God is nature, my God is everything there is. That’s God. Everything is God. I’m a child of that. And so people will have to feel free to express however they connect with me, which might well be more about how they see themselves than how I see them. Because just as I know I am a child of God, I know they are also, whatever madness they may be engaged in.
AA: I know a lot of people are taking inspiration and hope from the stance you’ve taken and your willingness to take this trip. And you go and all the people who go on the US boat and the other boats take their love and their support with them.
AW: Well there’s always something for the people at home to do. As long as they hold up their end of our mutual responsibility and are true to what they need to do, we have a chance.
AA: Thank you very much, Alice.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor toThe Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (Nation Books).
Letter to President Obama
On June 14, the passengers on The Audacity of Hope sent this letter to Pres. Obama. Copies went to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and 12 members of the Administration and Congressional leadership. Call the White House – 202-456-1111 – and tell them you agree with the letter and expect the U.S. to take action to uphold the rights of peaceful citizens to safe passage on the seas.
Dear Mr. Obama:
We are writing to inform you that 50 unarmed Americans will soon be sailing in a U.S. flagged ship called The Audacity of Hope as part of an international flotilla to Gaza.
Our peaceful demonstration will challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has effectively imprisoned 1.6 million civilians, almost half of whom are under the age of 16. The blockade has impoverished the people of Gaza, deprived them of needed materials and supplies to rebuild their lives after the Israeli attack of late 2008 – early 2009, impeded those who are ill or infirm from seeking outside medical aid, and prevented students from seeking education outside of Gaza. 45% of the working age population is unemployed.
In addition to 36 passengers, 4 crew, and 10 members of the press, our boat will carry thousands of letters of support and friendship from people throughout the U.S. to the women, children and men of Gaza. There will be no weapons of any sort on board. We will carry no goods of any kind for delivery in Gaza. Our mission is from American civil society to the civil society of Gaza. We do not serve the agenda of any political leadership, government or group. We are engaged solely in non-violent action in support of the Palestinian people and their human rights.
In our country’s great tradition of citizen activists taking nonviolent action to stand up to injustice, we sail in the hope that our voyage will show the people in Gaza that they are not alone, and that it will call attention to the morally and legally indefensible collective punishment of a population of civilians.
Mr. President, you have noted the unsustainability of the Gaza blockade. And your administration has spoken boldly in support of peaceful demonstrations throughout this “Arab Spring.”
As U.S. citizens we expect our country and its leaders to help ensure the Flotilla’s safe passage to Gaza – as our country should support our humanitarian demand that the Gaza blockade be lifted. This should begin by notifying the Israeli government in clear and certain terms that it may not physically interfere with the upcoming Flotilla of which the U.S. boat—The Audacity of Hope — is part. We—authors, builders, firefighters, lawyers, social workers, retirees, Holocaust survivors, former government employees and more—expect no less from our President and your administration.
Our boat will sail from the eastern Mediterranean in the last week of June. We shall be grateful to you for acting promptly and decisively to uphold the rights of civilians to safe passage on the seas.
The passengers of The Audacity of Hope
Len Tsou Johnny Barber
Alice Walker Medea Benjamin
Gale Courey Toensing
G. Kaleo Larson
Paki Wieland Greta Berlin