News & Politics

Washington, DC Activists Gather to Keep the Spirit of Howard Zinn Alive

Washington, DC's Busboys & Poets hosted a gathering September 21 to dedicate its Howard Zinn Room, keep vigil for Troy Davis, and plan for the future.

“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me.” -- Troy Davis 

Last week, Andy Shallal, artist, activist and owner of the DC-based grassroots restaurant Busboys & Poets, hosted a special event at his latest location in Hyattsville, Maryland.  In the rear of the newly opened restaurant stands a beautiful room, with a stage, a full bar and most importantly, an enormous mural that takes up an entire wall filled with pictures of world-renowned activists that have inspired and continue to inspire movements for social change. Shallal calls this room the Zinn Room and symbolically chose International Peace Day (September 21st) to formally dedicate it to the late historian and activist Howard Zinn.

According to Shallal, the mural combines Zinn's best-known work, A People’s History of the United States, with Langston Hughes’ famous poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which tells the story of how “rivers carry the power of history with them.”

I am personally grateful to have a community space like Busboys where I and other progressives can eat, drink, and talk with people of like mind, which can be hard to come by in a place like Washington DC, riddled with lobbyists and politicians. That’s exactly why Andy Shallal started Busboys & Poets. He told me that he wanted a space to go beyond “Facebook friends or email friends, I want to see people, I want to look them in the eye, I want to sit with them, I want to talk with them, I want to feel their warmth, and that’s really what transforms people, those one-on-one encounters that we have.” 

The night was dominated largely by the pending execution of Troy Anthony Davis.  In his opening remarks, Shallal said it was “a very sad day for this country and for humanity,” because “tonight, within moments, this country is about to execute a man.” 

Still, Shallal maintained hope, which he attributed to the many familiar faces displayed on the mural along and in the audience. “Hope is in our midst, it’s in our DNA, any activist understands what hope looks and feels like.”

It was an emotional night for all of us in attendance, as we awaited news of whether or not the scheduled 7 PM execution occurred.  Dave Zirin, progressive activist and sports editor for the Nation, was the MC and kept the audience up to date about the status of the execution. 

For that brief moment when the media reported that the Supreme Court had issued a stay, the audience erupted in cheers and applause and Zirin jumped on stage and led us into the chant, “They say death row, we say hell no!”  The momentary sense of victory that swept through the room prompted the composer, singer, scholar, and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, to lead the crowd into civil rights songs.  Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived as we received word that the Supreme Court granted a reprieve rather than a stay, meaning the execution could still take place that night, which it ultimately did.

Even as Zirin appeared disturbed and overwhelmed by the potential killing of a person that was near and dear to his heart, when I asked him how activists could continue fighting injustice in the face of possibly losing Troy Davis he replied, “It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the White House, it matters who’s sitting in,” a lesson he attributes to Zinn.

“The civil rights movement didn’t happen because Lyndon Johnson made it happen, the 1930s didn’t happen because Franklin Roosevelt decreed it, and the death penalty is not going to end with one magic person doing it for us," he continued. 

I would add that those movements included people from all walks of life that transcended class, gender and race, a concept that Princeton professor and author Cornel West spoke of at length. “In this present bleak, dark, difficult, but unpredictable moment,” said West, “keep the spirit of Howard Zinn with you because we got some struggling to do.” He called on “Red, black, brown, yellow, poor, working class, and those who are doing well” to join forces. 

Perhaps the most significant guidance came from one of the country's most experienced organizers, Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the grassroots social justice movement Codepink and featured on the Zinn Room mural.  When I caught up with her after the dedication, I asked what she believes is the path forward given America’s societal breakdown.  Benjamin echoed West’s plea, but took it a step further to include not only a variety of individuals, but movements as well.

“I think for many years now we’ve been in our silos—the environmental movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the economic justice movement—and that doesn’t work,” Benjamin said.  “What we really have to do is connect all those movements together and I think there’s an opportunity now with uprisings around the world, whether it’s getting rid of a dictator like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or getting rid of an economic system that doesn’t work like people are trying to do on Wall Street in New York.”  She went on, “this is our time to make those bridges, show those connections, build those coalitions and I think that’s something that we learned from Howard’s work.”

Kevin Zeese, a long-time organizer, activist, and lawyer who has devoted his life to championing economic justice, civil rights, drug decriminalization, an end to the wars, and just about every other social justice cause you can think of, is attempting to do just that in an upcoming October rally set to take place in front of the White House.  Zeese is the kind of person who genuinely walks the walk, as I have witnessed him do on several occasions at Washington DC protests.

“We have to go where we’re not supposed to go, say what we’re not supposed to say, and refuse to leave when they tell us to leave,” says Zeese.  “The place they don’t want you to go is Freedom Plaza on October 6 where people should join us to protest the war, environmental degradation, and economic injustice.” 

Zeese, along with a broad coalition of progressive leaders and social justice organizations, has spearheaded October 2011 , a rally that plans to occupy Freedom Plaza to “demand that America's resources be invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation.”  This movement is attempting to transform the legacy of Howard Zinn into nonviolent direct action. Rather than the typical protest, where everyone shows up to chant and wave signs (important as that is), the Oct. 6 rally intends to go further by occupying the plaza that sits between the Capital and the White House. People will show up, but, Zeese said, will “refuse to leave when asked to leave.” 

Clearly, Zinn’s lessons aren’t isolated to one particular movement, place or time, rather they transcend history and can be applied to the many struggles we face today. Howard Zinn himself said it best: “we don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @RaniaKhalek.
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