“We are trusting you to understand what is going on out there – and to become a voice for the voiceless.” That quote is the very first thing I remember hearing while listening to opening remarks of the 2017 John Lewis Fellowship in Atlanta. A voice for the voiceless – something I have been aiming to become since I began law school. Trusting us to understand what is going on out there – that part of the speech hovered over me for the rest of the day. How could I possibly be trusted to understand? To understand populists rising in power in so many countries and targeting human rights in the process? To understand hatred that is overflowing from all the Pandora boxes left wide open without any consideration for the future? I felt overwhelmed. But then I remembered I always feel that way before a new, grand challenge, once it opens its gates to me. And so I gathered all the courage I had brought along and took a step forward. A step into the classroom of Atlanta’s history and everyday reality. Little did I know how much change I would pick up along the way.
I gathered all the courage I had brought along and took a step forward.
The entrance to the main exhibition of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights includes walking by two wall collages. One marked “white”, the other “colored”. Of course, I knew about segregation before I came to the United States. “We learn about it in school” is what almost everyone says. And it is true. You do learn about the historical aspects of it, a teacher might even mention the widespread idea of “separate, but equal” which functioned prominently in fifties’ and sixties’ America. But no matter how many books one may read, nothing – nothing can prepare for the shiver down the spine that will be experienced when participating in the sit-in exhibit at the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
I had earphones on, without the possibility of dialing down the volume. For good reason. When black students fought the established reality of segregation they could not ask for the racist slurs to be said quietly.
I dislike closing my eyes in foreign places, but complied when requested to do so by the attending employee, who asked me to sit at the fake bar on a fake bar stool and put my hands on the glass table space. I had earphones on, without the possibility of dialing down the volume. For good reason. When black students fought the established reality of segregation they could not ask for the racist slurs to be said quietly. There was no tenderness or compassion in the voices of those who called grown men “boy”. The exhibit asked visitors how long would they be able to stand hearing hateful words spoken to them while reenacting a sit-in protest against segregation in public spaces, such as diners. I lasted 1,5 minutes. And then I felt ashamed. Ashamed for ever thinking that I could imagine what it was like to be in the skin of freedom fighters, who would get arrested for sitting at an all-whites’ counter. Instead of getting arrested, I got a tissue to wipe away the sudden blurry vision.
Once faced with a very complex subject I often shift to a legal-studies related method, and focus on specific aspects of the case. When thinking about my time in Atlanta I see four words flashing before my eyes. Hatred. Heat. Non-violence. Restorative justice.
I’m not a racist, but… I’m not a sexist, but… Don’t think I have something against you, but….
Hatred. Sometimes it takes direct forms and appears as the n-word, yelled from the open window of a car with a confederate flag bumper sticker. Sometimes it trembles in excitement within that confederate flag above some rural Georgian homestead. Sometimes it twists up into a swastika tattooed over a heartbeat. But hatred takes on disguises too. It calls itself by the name of gerrymandering, disfranchising and it may even curl up in the corner of gentrification, making it sound more like “displacement”. It screams “separate but equal” sixty years on. It laughs when women call for paid maternity leave or demand action against rape culture. It fidgets to the point when it becomes the “but” in the phrases: I’m not a racist, but… I’m not a sexist, but… Don’t think I have something against you, but….
Heat. I remember writing memories from the first two days in Atlanta in my diary. I commented on the way my thighs melted together whenever I took a seat outdoors. But during the John Lewis Fellowship heat took on a greater meaning. Bigger than discomfort outside of a Starbucks. It began to mean the uneasiness I felt while walking around the Atlanta History Center gardens, where an 1860s farm was set up. I drowned in it when stepping inside a model slave house, whilst passing by an empty chair, standing next to a barrel of cotton. It was the heat that overwhelmed me, while walking outside the stockade in Leesburg, where teenage girls were held hostage by local authorities in 1963, for protesting against segregation. Heat caused drops of sweat to trickle down my spine as I looked at trees. The trees I used to associate with plantation driveways. The trees that I now knew once grew strange fruit.
He called on all humans, regardless of faith and personal beliefs, to acknowledge that empathy and tenderness are not signs of weakness. They are a sign of strength and inner power.
Non-violence. “We need in every group a group of angelic troublemakers” once said Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King’s Jr. accomplice. He also said that you have to begin with peace, if peace is what you want to end up with. I remember the blurry vision I had upon hearing those quotes. I was moved. Moved to hear empowering words which spoke of non-violent resistance. I immediately thought of a TED talk given by Pope Francis I recently found online. He called for a revolution of tenderness to sweep through our societies. He called on all humans, regardless of faith and personal beliefs, to acknowledge that empathy and tenderness are not signs of weakness. They are a sign of strength and inner power. By putting all these elements into place I started seeing the possibility of a beautiful revolution. A revolution that would not end in blood on the streets – we, the people of human rights, must rise above than that. We must step out of the destructive circle of violence. We must construct instead.
Restorative justice. During the Fellowship this term has been discussed upwards, downwards and sideways. No precise definition was decided, while more and more questions arose. The word “restorative” clearly implies one would wish to restore something that existed before. Such an approach could possibly be applied when talking about returning artifacts once stolen or rebuilding cities once burned. But can we speak of restoring dignity and lives to those who lost them? Perhaps addressing the current master narrative and changing it, so that it reflects the truth behind world history, may be one way to commemorate victims, honor them, reintroduce their names into our reality? Justice needs truth-telling. It needs acknowledgment of harms done by the oppressors. It also yearns for mechanisms of prevention, so that history will no longer repeat itself, nor rhyme in the least bit.
I am a quotes person. Therefore, when thinking about how I will apply all I have learned in Atlanta into my work back home, I recalled all the voices I heard along the way this month.
“Don’t try to become Martin Luther King Jr. – we already have one. Become you. Become who you are.”
Mr. Derreck Kayongo from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights reminded us of on the very first day. I looked at my name placard. And in that moment I knew that my name has to always stay associated with the group of people I was surrounded then. Contemporary freedom fighters.
“All I can say about that is that we were right. We were willing to pay the price because we were right.”
That is the answer Dr. Roslyn Pope gave, when someone asked her how did she manage to stay strong through all the hard battles she fought on the forefront of the civil rights movement. And I then thought that we must stay strong too. When all those confederate flags, including the ones rising outside of the United States, want to blind societies, defund non-governmental organizations and demand us to sacrifice our freedom for security reasons – we must stand strong. Strong and unmoved – because we are right.
“The system isn’t broken. It is working exactly the way it is supposed to.”
This statement, which I have heard over and over again during this past month, will stay with me for long. I see myself as one of the future policy makers, therefore I recognize the importance of creating an unbroken system, where all of the society, including present minorities, is determined to see it run as smoothly as possible, exactly the way it was thought up to run. The system cannot be controlled by some and feared by many. A modern democracy must be created by an empowered, educated society. Security forces cannot be associated with violence. They should be associated with stability and safety for all.
“There is nothing more powerful than an idea, whose time has come.”
Lonnie King empowered us to move forward by giving us this wisdom. I put it down in both of my journals, so to never feel weak again in challenging times – the times that I know are still ahead. And if I were to ever encounter doubt on my way to seeking justice for the voiceless and those left behind, I know now that I should repeat after Charles Black – “when in doubt, give them hell.” However, what cannot be left unexplained what we, human rights activists, perceive through the concept of “giving hell”.
We know that enemies of the human rights agenda, populists and all others who wish to oppress rather than cooperate, those who want to destroy and not build – all are afraid of numbers. Numbers of bodies marching on the streets. Numbers of roses stuck to police vans. Numbers of books read by those, who they wish would stay illiterate. Therefore giving “them” hell means learning to read, speak and show up.
And wherever they raise their voices – our voices must be louder. Whenever they raise their fists – we must raise the victory sign. Whenever they raise those confederate flags– and they will – our flags must be raised higher.