Is This Thing Working? Is This Thing On?

Is This Thing Working? Is This Thing On? By Steve Clemens. March 11, 2009

In a recent album, Peace Queer, by singer/songwriter Todd Snider, there is a haunting parable delivered first as a spoken word piece and then sung. It is about a schoolyard bully who repeatedly beats up on younger or smaller kids. One kid decides he’s had enough and tells the bully that if he’s going to beat up someone else, he has to beat him up first! Day after day this boy gets beaten and after a while, the bully tires – it has become a burden to him. There is no more joy in his triumph; it has become a job, a duty. The bully’s admirers, followers slowly desert him. The “victim” has exposed the true nature of the bully.

The spoken word begins with tapping the microphone: “Is this thing working? … Is this thing on?” It is the perennial question of public speakers, entertainers. Is my message getting out? Can you hear me? Is anybody listening? We need feedback from our audience to acknowledge we’ve been heard.

“Is this thing working?” can also be asked of whatever efforts we embark upon. Are we being effective? Is change occurring because of what we’re doing? Does anyone care; does anyone notice? In the story above, the bully’s tactics were no longer working: instead of generating fear, he began to generate disgust. Certainly the parable has application to the on-going occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and increasingly the answer to the question comes back in the negative – it’s not working. Or at least the desired result, “Shock and Awe” has come back on the imperial bully with a worldwide sense of shame and disgust.

But, let’s ask the question of our own “work”. This morning 13 of us stood for an hour on the sidewalk in minus 12 degree weather. That’s before you add in the wind chill factor. It was so cold the cops (who are paid by the weapons manufacturer to “monitor” our presence by their driveway entrance) quickly went back to their heated vehicles as soon as our vigil group “circled up”. [Each week, as we have done for the past 13 years, we stand with signs, flags, and banners in front of the corporate headquarters of Alliant Techsystems, Minnesota’s largest war profiteer. We sometimes march on the sidewalk, parade across the driveway entrance, or merely chat amongst ourselves hoping to be “present” to the ATK employees arriving to their workplace. At 7:30 AM, we “circle-up” and, after repeating our “Commitment to Practice Nonviolence”, we go around the circle to share concerns, announcements, or whatever is on the hearts and minds of the viligers.]

As I’ve said, we’ve been doing this for 13 years! Is this thing working? Is this thing on? Are we being heard? Is our “message” being heard? Has anyone quit their job making cluster bombs, landmines, depleted uranium weapons because of our presence? Have large stockholders divested themselves of the spoils of war and conflict? Has ATK become a pariah within the community to the extent that individuals are ashamed to let it be known that they work there? Is this thing [our vigiling] working?

Let’s frame the question another way. What if there was a company in your neighborhood that consistently produced a product that poisoned others, or caused serious injury or death when their product was used or consumed. Would you want people to ignore it and let it continue to operate unmolested? Or would you want at least a few people to occasionally (or regularly) to hold up signs in protest, occasionally sit in the driveway or in front of the company entrances to obstruct “business as usual”? If your kids, or family members, or friends, or neighbors were the victims of this corporate abuse, would you feel comforted knowing that no one cares enough to protest, however meekly?

Some members of our AlliantACTION vigil group want to explore finding ways to sue the company for violating International Law in their profiting from the sale of indiscriminate weapons which have been regularly outlawed by the international community. Others have bought a symbolic share of stock (1 each) in order to attend the annual stockholders meeting – but they’ve been stymied each of the past three years when they have been arrested when they try to attend the shareholders meeting with their written invitations in hand! [When they go to court to face the trespass charge, it is finally dismissed and they don’t even get a chance to be heard in court.]

What would happen if, instead of 13, we had 130? 1,300? (Normally we average between 20-50 so this weeks numbers were unusually low.) Maybe we all can’t travel to Eden Prairie, MN each week to add our “No!” to Alliant Tech. What if all those with a conscience took it upon themselves to find one corporation or institution in your own community, a place where wars are planned, the poor and vulnerable are crushed, people are routinely marginalized. Places where, for Christians, Jesus is re-crucified on a daily basis. Maybe you can make this your Lenten discipline – it might become a weekly habit.

One certainly does not have to be a Christian to have a conscience! In fact it is refreshing that there are still some who are willing to identify at all with an institution (the Christian Church) which itself has often sponsored or encouraged such marginalization. Our AlliantACTION group includes atheists, pagans, agnostics, Muslims, Christians, Jews. We may differ on theologies but we agree that what goes on behind the closed doors of ATK must be resisted. We take our pledge of nonviolence as a self and group discipline to not let our anger at injustice cloud our judgment and get in the way of calling those workers to live up to acting as humans rather than making inhumane weapons.

Is this thing working? Can you hear us? Do you care? Will you join us – or find your own time and place to reassert your own humanity by saying “no” in a public way?

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