Monday, January 19, 2015

"Selma," Activism, and the Importance of Showing Up

It's appropriate that Martin Luther King Day is when I finally got around to watching Ava Duvernay's Selma.  Having seen the film, I agree with many who feel it's a crime that it didn't get more notice during awards season.  The scenes in which Duvernay depicts the brutality faced by Selma protestors were some of the most visceral, gut-wrenching moments of filmmaking I have ever scene.

Much has been written as to why questions about the film's historical accuracy might have prevented it from resonating with the various academies.  Some object to the less than generous picture of Lyndon Johnson.  Forward took issue with that and the fact that Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights Movement did not get their proper due (given the demographics of the Academy, I have a feeling the latter issue might have been a factor in Selma's lack of nominations).

I tend to agree with those who say that the choice to focus on ordinary black folks instead of white allies and politicians was meant to highlight something specific about the nature of activism.  Specifically, how do you get grassroots movements national attention and keep fellow activists motivated, even when action comes at great personal cost?  With regards to the film's hardened portrayal of LBJ, how do you assure politicians that your concerns are significant enough to warrant their trust and attention?

I thought a lot about the summer I raised money on the street for Equality California in LA.  It was 2009, and the California Supreme Court had just decided to uphold Prop 8, the law that denied gays and lesbians the right to marry in California.  It was an exciting time to be a canvasser because this was an issue everyone was informed and fired up about, for better or worse.

Occasionally, I would run into someone who asked me, "Aren't you mad at Obama for not doing anything about it?"

"Honestly, I don't have the time to worry about Obama," I would say. "Politicians, they act on the issues they think people care about.  And so far the Republicans have done a much better job at standing up for their beliefs than we have.  So if this issue matters to us, we need to stand up and show him that this issue is important to us."

Sometimes it worked and I was able to guilt them into giving me money. Sometimes it didn't.  I encountered similar issues a few years later when I went to Capitol Hill to do some lobbying for J Street, a progressive Jewish group advocating strong US involvement in a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.  It serves as a kind of counter to the more right-wing AIPAC.  While many of the politicians and aides we met with expressed agreement with our goals, we were still a relatively new group.  How could we assure them that standing with us would be worth the risk of alienating the more established systems of voter and donor support that had come with groups like AIPAC?

The point is, change takes time.  My Dad always says, "You can't write history while you're making it."  We may not be able to control the outcome or timeline of national change, but we can take every opportunity to stand up for our beliefs and support those in our community taking large and small actions each day.

For today's Martin Luther King Day, I want to honor those amazing people in my network who inspire me by the way they put words to deed on actions as varied as racial diversity, healthy food, gay rights, and religious liberty.

You are all my heroes.

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