Fear is the problem. In an age when wealth and power have thoroughly corrupted the machinery of democracy, civil disobedience is one of the few strategies that offer any hope of advancing the cause of social justice.
The system, however, does not take such disobedience lightly. Karen DeVito, a Canadian member of the flotilla that tried to break the siege of Gaza in the summer of 2011, knew this before she joined the Tahrir in Greece.
The 2011 flotilla followed in the historical wake of the Mavi Marmara. Israeli forces stormed that ship on May 31, 2010, killing nine activists and wounding dozens more. A number of people were shot in the head at close range. DeVito signed onto the flotilla knowing that what befell the Mavi Marmara's might conceivably befall her ship, the Tahrir, as well.
As it turned out, the Tahrir never reached Gaza. Under Israeli diplomatic pressure, the Greek government used unending and legally dubious bureaucratic hassles to keep the ship docked in the town of Agio Nikolaos. When, at last, the Tahrir made a break for international waters, it was boarded by the Greek Coast Guard. The passengers were given a suspended sentences and token fines of 80 euros. The price they paid was ultimately small, but it might have been much higher if circumstances had played out differently. I wanted to know what motivated someone to take such risks.
A child of the '60s
DeVito described the trajectory her lifelong career as an activist. "I'm a child of the '60s," she told me. "I came of age during that time. As a young child I saw what happened during the civil rights struggle. I have really abiding memories of taking the bus downtown in Rochester, New York, with my mother, and my mother commenting how tragic it was that there was this kind of separation between black and white people. When African-American women approached her to talk to her they were so hesitant and almost fearful seeming and she would remark on that afterwards.
"I was educated by nuns who did not let us forget that there was injustice and there were inequalities and they taught us that all human beings are equal. And so, right from grade one this was impressed on us. The Sisters read from textbooks from the South about how even black and white chickens are separated in the barnyard and they don't have anything to do with each other and that that's natural, and the sisters said 'that is preposterous. This is wrong. This is what children are being taught in the South and it's wrong.'
"In the '60s, most of us became really aware of the civil rights struggle because during that time many American cities went up in flames. People can only wait so long and be oppressed for so long before someone decides to take more aggressive action. This is how it happens."
DeVito was part of the anti-Vietnam war movement: "I did draft counseling in New York State, just telling people what their options were. Keep in mind that people could be drafted [as soldiers] before they could vote. So this was another issue of social justice I was involved in in a quiet way. I did march with groups. I don't believe I did anything quite as active as joining the flotilla. I see that as a real action, it was a bigger effort. Recent reading and studying... and meeting people who are involved in human rights and social justice and learning how to talk about it in a neutral way without anger, is what led me to the flotilla."
You will be brutalized, and what will it do?
DeVito was pressured by well-meaning friends not to join the flotilla. "One of my colleagues said, 'Well I hope you won't go. Leave it for the young activists. You will be brutalized, and what will it do? You'll be banned from going to Israel. You should go there, you should write,' and that's a valid criticism, and I thought about that very carefully."
Her participation was contingent on a commitment to non-violence by everyone on board. "It's a moral argument between violence and non-violence," she explained, "and if it starts out with one side claiming non-violence and the other side using force or even militarism, if the non-violent side makes a gesture that looks violent, then it loses that argument. It's an excuse for ordinary people to no longer listen to them. And we've seen this happen. It happened during the civil rights movement. It sowed fear in people who weren't really well versed in what was going on. And it keeps happening."
DeVito and her shipmates underwent extensive non-violence training during their days in Greece. They gathered in groups and role played "scenarios of what might happen when our ship is boarded, when we're taken from the ship in a port in Israel, when we're taken to prison and questioned, and when we're asked to sign deportation statements that we are being willingly deported after entering Israel illegally."
She and her compatriots overcame their fears by developing empathy for the marginalized and oppressed, and by committing themselves to collective solidarity grounded in compassionate non-violence. That solidarity required long preparation, deep self-reflection, and profound ethical consciousness: there was no impulsivity, bravado or hatred aboard the Tahrir.
DeVito said that "the training was sensitive not to demonize the people who were going to be coming onto our boat wearing masks and carrying heavy weaponry, but to understand that they're very young men, probably been up all night, probably taken some kind of amphetamine to be able to carry out the drill, frightened, excited, nervous, and this is what we would be facing. Not someone who really wanted to do us harm."
The training sessions also prepared them psychologically for being separated from friends and what to do without escalating the problem. The training helped them unite as a collective.
"Even in the training, when we could see that this happened, each person had something to offer. There were a couple of people who would surround the person who looked panicked and breathe with them or put their hands on their shoulder. This is how trust was developed. It was really quite remarkable," she said.
"Some people had more experience than others. Some people had been with the Christian peace teams. One of the doctors had been to Gaza before, had been to Iraq, had treated traumatic injuries. People had varying degrees of experience. But they all understood the need for us to act as a collective."
Once you've made the commitment, you put the fear aside
Knowing the dangers they faced, many of the passengers prepared or updated their wills. When I remarked that DeVito must have been frightened, she replied, "Once you've made the commitment, you put the fear aside.... I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Abuelaish who wrote 'I Shall Not Hate'. He said... if he were my mentor, he too would express the personal wish that I not go, but that he felt that the flotilla was important work.
DeVito put her own fears into context.
"How did [Abuelaish] do what he did? How did he go through that border with his injured children, after three of his children and his niece were killed in Operation Cast Lead? How did he go through while the bombs were still falling? The small amount of fear that I might have felt was very small compared to what people in Gaza feel when drones fly over and they don't know if there's going to be firing from them, and military aircraft fly over and break the sound barrier, this is very fear inducing...And, to be fair, let's say people who live near the Gaza border and have rockets flying over, I'm sure they feel fear as well."
I asked if the flotilla had succeeded in any of its goals. She replied, "Let me say this: we raised upward of $470,000 for this project, and I do not think it would buy the kind of international attention and media coverage we received. Plus, we still own the boat. As for stopping the flotilla, if you take into consideration what it cost Israel last year and this, they jeopardized an economic relationship with a very large economy and thriving economy that's a multiple of Israel's, Turkey. I know there's still trade, but it's not what it was. They've traded it for a pal that's an economic basket case, Greece... Not to mention all the patrolling leading up to it, all the effort, all the bloggers, all the hoopla, all the press trying to denigrate and cast dispersions on the intentions of the persons in the flotilla, all of it, and what happened in world opinion, and how it's slowly shifting."
DeVito insisted that even small acts for social justice are important. "Once someone lifts their head and sees another person's humanity and recognizes that they are in a tragic predicament, that it is something really serious, something undeserved, then that's when they begin to say, 'You know, I think there's another side to this.'"
Boarding the Tahrir wasn't an isolated act of heroism. DeVito's activism has been a lifelong and cumulative process marked by a series of thresholds of engagement: small acts laid seeds in DeVito's character that eventually sprouted into extraordinary commitments.
"I think that the day that you look in the mirror and say, ‘I'm a person who stands up for social justice, I'm a person who will stand with another person who is being marginalized,' there's a shift. It occurs at a different time for everybody... Every person that you meet, every person that you talk to, every person is touched by this. And you're not going to change everybody's mind. You're not going to change the mind of someone with one contact. Maybe you brought a little insight, but it's hard to measure these things. Sometimes, yes, I understand why people feel despair when five years or 40 years or 60 years go by and it seems that things have not changed for a group of people. But sometimes doing nothing isn't an option."
By holding fast to their humanity the crew of the Tahrir fortified their courage and dealt a mighty blow to a powerful opponent. Perhaps by studying their example we can all learn to do the same.
Michael Nenonen is a social worker and freelance writer who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His work has appeared in The Republic of East Vancouver, PopMatters.com, and Information Clearing House.