Monday, October 31, 2005

Thank you, Rosa Parks!

Luck would have it that I was in Washington DC the weekend that Rosa Parks lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the first woman and only the second black person ever to be accorded this honor. The line to get in to see Ms. Parks' coffin on Sunday night Oct. 30 stretched for miles, and after waiting for more than two hours in a queue that barely moved, the cold D.C. night got to my temperate California constitution and I gave up. But I was back the next morning and this time I got in without delay. Her simple wooden closed coffin lay between two floral arrangements and a military honor guard in the center of the lofty Rotunda. As I walked around, the words "Thank you!" came to my lips. In a few seconds, it was over and I was back outside the Capitol in the bright morning sun.

I never met Ms. Parks, but the movement that her courageous act inspired touched my life. As a college student at Wesleyan in Connecticut, I answered an appeal from a group called the Northern Student Movement to come down to the D.C. area and help integrate lunch counters and other public facilities along the main Washington-New York highway. A handful of us assembled at the home of historian Howard Zinn in New Haven, and then drove to Howard University in D.C., where we learned freedom songs and received training in nonviolence. The next day we matched up with pairs of black students from Howard and set out for Glen Burnie, MD, a Baltimore suburb. At this time -- it was 1960 or 1961, I don't recall exactly -- the national chains like Woolworths still had separate counters for whites and blacks, and in the local movie theatre, blacks had to sit in the balcony. At the first lunch counter, when our integrated group of four sat in the white section, the place emptied within minutes and all the serving staff seemingly disappeared. We waited for what seemed like an hour. Eventually someone came and took our order: coffee. After a long time, it came. We tasted it carefully, wisely -- they had put salt in it. Still, we counted it a victory: we got served. We moved on to other restaurants, got served in some, got refused and told to leave in others. In the afternoon, about ten of us formed a picket line in front of the movie theatre. Under darkening skies, about 20 to 30 local rednecks gathered around and taunted us. Two sheriff's deputies came and watched. The rednecks took to throwing pennies at us and spitting. It looked like it was going to get ugly. Just then, the clouds opened up and a deluge defused the situation. We all scattered.

A few years later, in 1964, after the civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered in Mississippi, there was an appeal for more volunteers to go south to replace them, to send a message that terror would not deter us. I was part of this second wave, arriving on election eve 1964. I stayed until the next spring. I've written something about this experience elsewhere. All the countless scores of us civil rights activists, locals and Northern volunteers alike, were in some measure the children of Rosa Parks.

Marx wrote somewhere that the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it. Social change does require people who merely interpret the world, because they help to prepare public opinion. It requires philosophers, preachers, pundits, and many others who act in words. But all these words are nothing, and may be sheer hypocrisy, worse than nothing, without the crystallizing power of a strategically chosen direct action. After all the ink is spilled and the sermons have stopped ringing, someone has to put their body on the line. That was Rosa Parks.

It was particularly delicious to think that here in the Rotunda, the highest place of honor that the capital city knows, the president, prominent senators, and many others from the ruling establishment came to pay homage to someone for breaking the law. In this post 9-11 era, when the Patriot Act and the president's "war on terror" zealots have whipped much of the American public into a sheeplike trance, it was like a breath of fresh air to celebrate someone who was an outlaw in her time and place. This feeling ran strong among many of the more than 30,000 people who waited in the cold and the dark outside the Capitol on Sunday night. Yes, there are laws and customs that are stupid, dishonest, and unconscionable. Yes, it is much easier to obey them and blend in than to stand up to them. But those who have the vision and the courage to challenge the cruel and stupid laws and customs of their time do sometimes receive respect and recognition -- even if it takes fifty years.

The example of Rosa Parks shines far beyond the civil rights movement and the race issue in America. The disability rights movement, for example, acknowledges her act as the inspiration for wheelchair activists fighting for access to buses and other public transportation. Thoughtful advocates of social change generally -- in a broad range of domestic and foreign policy arenas -- cite Rosa Parks as a model. It is a sad but important truth that progress in important matters only comes through acts of resistance and disobedience to entrenched authority. Thank you, Rosa Parks.

We who are in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse should also join in honoring Ms. Parks and in learning from her example. This is true in two senses. Addiction is a stupid and cruel authority entrenched within our own minds. It is surely no coincidence that the words addiction and dictatorship share the same root. To live in an addicted mind means to serve a ruthless despot that manages our lives. Addiction governs what we do with our time, how we choose our friends and associates, how we view and evaluate reality, how we feel and react, virtually everything about us. Addiction is a 1984 of the mind; it is a Big Brother whose self-propaganda turns white into black, lies into truth, down into up, pain into pleasure, death into living, and defeat into victory. Against addiction, sermons and lectures are powerless. Making promises to yourself, making good resolutions, massaging yourself with words of good intention has no effect, and can even delay your liberation. The only thing that begins to work against addiction is a planful act of disobedience. Put the drink down, pour it out; flush the drug down the toilet, take a hammer to the pipe and other paraphernalia and throw them into the trash. When you stop drinking and using, and only when you actually stop, then you begin to sit in the front of the bus of your own mind. Thank you, Rosa Parks.

Another brutal and stupid dictatorship that many people encounter in early recovery is the "my way or the highway" recovery authority. Whether a self-appointed guru or a paid professional, they think they have The Answer and they're going to push it down your throat, "for your own good." They may pose as helpers, gurus, and wise counselors, but they are psychological thugs and cutthroats who know next to nothing about recovery and care nothing about you. Inside their soul burns a big ego fire, and you are nothing but fuel. When a newly recovering person encounters this sort of bully, the easiest and most natural response is to go out and drink and use. "If this is recovery, I prefer addiction." Please, friend, don't go there. The best revenge against recovery gangsters is to stay sober. Ignore them, or tell them off if it makes you feel better, but by all means stay sober. If you relapse, they'll gloat: "I told you so!" If you stay sober without them and despite them, you challenge their world view in the most fundamental, irrevocable manner. If you stay sober, you deflate them and shrink their malignant flame. If you stay sober, you help others like yourself who come after you to recognize that recovery must sometimes begin with defiance of established authority. Thank you, Rosa Parks.