Karen Ridd works with Peace Brigades International. She is known for her creative nonviolent actions such as refusing to leave a El Salvador prison until a friend was also released. The following article is her address to the International Peace Bureau conference in Toronto.

By Karen Ridd | 1991-11-01 12:00:00

Let me begin by thanking you for the honor and privilege of being here among you today. It is indeed inspiring to be among such a gathering of people concerned for justice and peace. It is especially an honor to be among those who have, truly, "gone before."

I was asked, in this address, to examine the theme of "resistance." When I sat down to prepare my speech, I began, of course, to think of examples of resistance. I would like to share one of those examples with you now. I would like to take you to El Salvador, the country where I have had the majority of my overseas experience.

I learned, of course, many things from many people during my time in that country. One of the groups from which I learned the most, though, was from a group of women. Many of you, I am sure, are familiar with the story of the COMADRES, the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared of El Salvador. They are a group of women who were formed in the height of Salvador's repression, women who came together as a result of running into each other, time and again, in that horrific search for the bodies of their disappeared loved ones-husbands, children, sisters. Again and again they saw each other, at the morgues, the police stations, the jails, the body dumps where they turned over body after body, hoping/not hoping to find their lost one. And in running into each other time after time, their commonality began to draw them together. They saw that their strength would lie in union.

So they formed the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared, one of the groups in the vanguard of the protest against the repression, violence and injustice suffered by the people of El Salvador.

THE STORY THAT I would like to recount to you took place in 1989. In the middle of the night, a bomb placed in front of their office blew open the front of the building. The office is used, also, as living quarters. It is a place where women who are too threatened to stay in their own homes can come for some measure of safety. Women from the countryside bring their families and stay there while they search in the city for their disappeared relatives. So it is a place filled with people, mostly children and women. Bombs such as the one detonated that night are not an entirely uncommon occurrence. They are a terrifying and dangerous one.

After the blast, soldiers gathered outside the building, preparing to storm through the gap created by the explosion and raid the office. Inside the office women moved quickly and quietly, soothing the cries of the children. Then they began to make coffee. The foreigners inside the building were aghast. It is 3:30 in the morning, a bomb has just gone off, the soldiers are about to drag everyone away-and the mothers are making coffee. Have they lost their minds?

When the coffee is ready, the women pour it into cups and take it, steaming, out to the soldiers in the street. They are young, the soldiers in El Salvador. Some of them are scarcely 16 years old. It is the middle of the night, they are tired, cold and miserable. Probably they are a little nervous too. They take the coffee, not hesitating, and drink it.

In that moment, something changes. For having drunk the coffee someone has offered you, having shared that symbolic meal, having partaken of someone's hospitality, it becomes impossible to turn around and raid their office, dragging them away. The soldiers finished their coffee, handed back the mugs, and slipped quietly away. The women began to reconstruct their wall.

I chose to share this story with you because it seemed to me to most truly exemplify resistance in its deepest sense. You see, I looked up "resistance" in the dictionary this morning, and found that it comes from Latin words meaning, literally "to take a stand." Not to oppose, to reject, to refuse, but to take a stand. We often think, incorrectly, of resistance as being simply opposition. And that is only half the truth. For to take a stand is to be grounded in vision in a new way.

Recently I had this facet of the true nature of resistance brought home to me most clearly. I was co-leading a workshop in Calgary with Dean Peachey of the Network for Conflict Resolution, and he gave this example, which I am also going to try to demonstrate for you.

"Asking a volunteer to come forward, I request that they stick their arm out straight before them, and try to resist me as I try to bend their arm. As long as I choose someone who is not too much stronger than I, I can eventually bend their arm. Then I ask them to do it again, only this time to imagine that their arm is a tree, and that their energy flows through it. As I try again to bend their arm, they keep this image in their mind. I again endeavor to bend their arm, but this time, although I push even harder, it is impossible to bend the arm."

When we are grounded in who we are, when we are grounded in what we believe, when we are grounded in what we stand for, then we can truly resist. When we act, not out of opposition, but out of love, then we can most effect change.

Gandhi spoke of this when he talked of how our actions of nonviolent resistance are at base a form of love for the other, even for the oppressor. In this sense, of course, love is not scaled down to the level of Hallmark greeting cards-a wishy washy sentimental kind of false "love. " Rather it is a love that is strength and empowerment, a love that may at times be expressed in anger, a love that leads to true resistance-and change.

I came across an African saying recently that expresses this another way. "Hatred is like rain in the desert. It is of no use to anybody." Nor is it of any real use in the work to bring about a world in which there is peace and justice for all.

I must confess here that I am only a new convert to nonviolence. The first group that I worked with in Latin America was a group based on principles of nonviolence. But I only committed myself for the time that I would be working with them. I just didn't believe that nonviolence could be anything but marginally effective.

NONVIOLENCE IS OFTEN called "naivete," and its practitioners accused of "idealism" (though I must admit that I can't see what is so terrible about that!). But the less naive I get, the more committed I get to nonviolence. Living and working in some of the most repressive environments in the world have converted me. Too often I have seen first-hand as people have effectively resisted repression-and faced down violence with nonviolence.

Most recently, we've seen the effectiveness of nonviolence, of civilian-based defence, in the successful repudiation of the attempted coup in the USSR. We saw love-love for country, countryfolk, love for a newfound vision of life-overcome tanks and generals, the KGB and the military. There are many images of these last few weeks that will stay in my mind: the crowds gathered around the Russian "White House" sheltering it with their presence, the women in their kerchiefs commanding the soldiers not to shoot. Small actions, all of them, but with such communal force!

One of the things that I often talk about when I give presentations is the strength of such actions. I call it "The Importance of the Futile Gesture." So often when we do something-be it attending a peace conference, writing a letter, organizing a peace walk-we do it feeling that what we have done may have been the right thing to do but rather useless. Futile. I think those Muscovites, standing in the night rain in front of their parliament must have felt equally useless. They must have wondered what on earth they were doing, standing unarmed, expecting the onslaught of the tanks that they were told were rolling in upon them.

But how important, those futile gestures. How far from futile when they come together, in strength.

The voices who have most loudly pronounced nonviolence as "naivete" have often said that it is entirely ineffective against a ruthless nation or leader. Those voices have said that Gandhi's inspirational nonviolence could only have happened in a country such as India, where the "civilized" British were reluctant to shed blood. These same voices have most often been the ones who have called the USSR an "evil empire," the most "bloodthirsty of all nations." It interests me that the voices are very silent nowadays. They haven't commented on the fact that "naive" nonviolence has proven effective, even against the "evil empire."

Those voices are silent on another topic. All through the war in the Gulf, and after, we heard description after description of the weapons used-the bombers and missiles, the tanks and fighter jets-and of the military tactics and strategies employed. Yet in the aftermath of an attempted coup, resisted by active and creative nonviolence, we have heard no similar discussion of the ways and means used. Neither media nor leaders have been discussing nonviolent civilian-based defence, its effectiveness and potential applications.

I'M NOT, I GUESS, surprised by that. The silence is due in large part to the strength of the arms industry. It is hard to make a profit off nonviolence-one cannot mass-produce human courage, creativity, love. As we try to envision the world in new ways, we need to continue to focus on "resisting" that industry, on taking a stand on nonviolent civilian-based defence.

It's not always easy, of course, to take such stands. There are times when the forces of militarism and violence seem overwhelmingly powerful, and our best efforts too small. At a peace walk a few months ago, Stan MacKay (a native leader in Winnipeg) addressed these feelings when he talked about the grass that grows in the cracks in the sidewalk. It's an image that I love, and that I would like to give to you in my words.

I love that grass that grows in the sidewalk cracks. You know what it's like-it sprouts up and people pull it out or try to mow it down. And then, irresistibly, it comes up again. Bit by bit it even forces cracks into the concrete, despite the best efforts of the sidewalk-tender.

Between Kenora and Winnipeg there is a road that has undergone a similar metamorphosis. It was once a major thoroughfare, the Trans-Canada highway, in fact. But fifty years ago a new road was built. You can see the old highway winding alongside the new one. But it is crumbling apart. Bushes and even trees have sprung up, carving open the pavement. Grass is abundant everywhere. In some places it has become impossible to see where the old road once was. Only 50 years have passed, and already the land is reclaiming its own.

During this conference, may we find sustenance for our roots, grounding us in who we are and what we stand for, so that we can leave as blades of audacious grass-strengthened to keep pushing, with our new vision, through the concrete sidewalks of our world, sidewalks of militarism, violence and injustice.

May we keep pushing-resisting-in the knowledge of the communal strength of a world community of many blades of grass.

Karen Ridd is a Toronto based nonviolent activist.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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