On Jan. 28, two people who inspired me died. One was the well-known historian Howard Zinn. Zinn was the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” a book that changed the way millions viewed how change takes place. The other was Francis Pratt of Pittsfield, who was not well-known but who demonstrated to me what Howard Zinn wrote about. Howard Zinn gave me a history of the U.S. that included ordinary people such as Fran Pratt who had worked with others to bring about change and whose voices had not been acknowledged nor included in my high school history books.
I first met Fran, and his wife ,Jan, shortly after 9-11 when there was a great deal of flag waving and calling for the bombing of Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Center (even though the terrorists lived in Germany, took pilot lessons in the U.S. and almost all were originally from Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan). Fran and his wife came to a peace vigil that fall and brought poster board and magic markers along with American flags of all sizes.
He told us he was a veteran of the Korean War. He said that peace was patriotic and that we needed to take back the flag. So together we made signs for the vigil with flags and phrases calling for peace. Fran redefined patriotism for himself and continued to join with others who shared his concerns and his vision.
In March 2007 a nor’easter didn’t stop Fran and a hardy band of neighbors in Pittsfield from standing in the driving snow with signs calling for peace along with others from nearly 100 towns around the state. Shortly after President Barack Obama was elected, Fran wrote a letter to the president urging him not to continue the policies that had led us into a quagmire in Iraq by escalating the war in Afghanistan.
Howard Zinn helped many of us to affirm our own definitions rather than accepting those of pundits and politicians. When he spoke right after the 2008 presidential election in Binghamton, N.Y., he said: “We have to redefine these words, like ‘national security.’ For some people, national security means having military bases all over the world. For other people, national security means having health care, having jobs.” Zinn helped us to trust our own experience and pointed to the past when people found their own voices and worked with others in the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and others to bring about more equality and justice.
Some will say that recent history shows that we can’t really challenge corporate power, the super-rich and the military-industrial complex. But Howard Zinn helped me to learn from the history of those other struggles that building a movement is a long-term activity and that the small part that Fran Pratt and you and I contribute is significant even if results are not immediately visible.
Howard Zinn consistently reminded us that democracy is not simply casting your vote at the ballot box. “Democracy is the people. Democracy is social movements. And what history tells us is that when injustices have been remedied, they have not been remedied by the three branches of government. They’ve been remedied by great social movements, which then push and force and pressure and threaten the three branches of government until they finally do something.”
Today, we can take heart from Howard Zinn and from Fran Pratt and join together to affirm the need to change the priorities of this government. A group of Mainers from around the state have formed a coalition to “Bring Our War Dollars Home” and fund our communities. We plan to reach out into our neighborhoods and talk with others who feel that we could use the billions spent for war to provide health care, education and jobs to create environmentally safe technologies and to update our infrastructure.
Join us on March 20 for a Bangor teach-in co-sponsored by l4 organizations, as thousands gather in Washington, D.C., to call for an end to the militaristic policies that threaten our real security. Together we will explore how we can build this movement for changed priorities and bring our war dollars home. The free teach-in will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bangor and is open to the public. For more information call 942-9343 or visit www.peacectr.org.
Ilze Petersons works with the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine.