Debra Sweet is a career activist and organizer who first got involved in political activism as a teenager living in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1960s. She helped organize a March for Hunger that raised $400,000, some of which went to civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who at the time was aiding poor farmers in Mississippi, and the rest helped fund a water pump project in Africa. In 1970, at the age of nineteen, Sweet was a youth delegate to the World Food Congress and was also recognized by the Nixon administration for her public service. She left college that year to pursue activism full-time and ever since has worked for better health care and access to social services, and against police brutality, racism, imperialism, and sexism. She is currently the executive director of World Can’t Wait, formed in 2005 to protest U.S. militarism and theocratic infringement of individual rights.
The Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association presented Sweet with its Humanist Heroine Award at the AHA’s 71st annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 9, 2012. The following is adapted from her remarks in acceptance of the award.
I think this may be the first time I’ve received an award without feeling conflicted about it. Some forty years ago I was awarded a Young American Medal for Service from President Richard Nixon, and for many years after that—even though it was a huge news event because I told the president he was responsible for “killing millions” in Vietnam—I felt very conflicted about taking the award at all. That was in 1970, the year we learned that Nixon had secretly invaded Cambodia. The award ceremony took place exactly six months after that, on the first day he made himself available to the international press. (Nixon had essentially been hiding for half a year, refusing to do press conferences.) At nineteen, I was naïve enough to think all the coverage was really about me and the three other medal recipients.
I hadn’t planned on saying what I did. My original inclination had been to refuse the award flat out, but then there was some pressure from my family and others who said, “We don’t like Nixon either, but he’s the president!” So we went to Washington, DC and rode to the White House in a limo.
I was the last of the four recipients. The drill was a simple handshake from Nixon, who would present the medal, pat each kid on the arm, and smile for the cameras. It was almost over when he grabbed my hand. This is what came out of my mouth: “I can’t believe you’re sincere in giving this award for service, when you’re killing millions of people in Vietnam.” Nixon, despite make-up, turned completely white, and stammered, “We’re doing the best we can.” Then he pivoted, looked at his watch, muttered something about an appointment, and walked out. We hadn’t been microphoned and I spoke quietly, but the press saw Nixon’s reaction, and some caught the word, “Vietnam.” I was interviewed for hours, the planned White House tour was cut short and we were hustled out, and my encounter with Nixon became the lead story on the front page and network news.
I found strength in that moment, and really it was Nixon who had given it to me, ranting on before presenting the medal about how I wasn’t one of those hippie protestors out in the streets. He said I was one of the “good” students, although he didn’t know a thing about me, as in this case the Justice Department’s vetting failed terribly. I had been at many protests against the U.S. war on Vietnam.
What I learned—and I’m happy to convey this to everybody, especially those younger than me—is that the actions of one individual at a specific time can make a huge difference. People need to see you, even if you’re just one person speaking out. It is so important to say what you know is true, and it’s especially important to say it to people in power.
Bill Quigley, who runs the Law Clinic at Loyola in New Orleans and helped set up the legal defense of Guantanamo prisoners for the Center for Constitutional Rights, spoke with me on a panel earlier at this conference titled, “We Can’t Be Silent: Ten Years of the U.S. War on Terror.” We examined the role of indefinite detention by our government, carried out in our name, on a sustained basis, and how Barack Obama’s administration is not closing Guantanamo. In fact, they’re holding some six thousand men in a U.S. prison in Afghanistan called Bagram, where detainees have no habeas corpus rights at all as part of the so-called war on terror. This is an essential feature of what I call the illegitimate, unjust wars, which Obama has chosen not to end.
Talking to the AHA Humanist Media Award recipient, Cenk Uygur, I was reminded that President Obama did not in fact want to remove troops from Iraq. The only reason he did so was because the Iraqi government refused to let U.S. troops stay. What has Obama done in Afghanistan? Of course it’s not him as an individual; it’s in his role as the leader of an empire that he’s expanded the troops in Afghanistan by a factor of three—over a hundred fifty thousand troops. And every year the death toll of Afghan civilians has increased.
I was an opponent of George W. Bush’s and Laura Bush’s argument that the United States should go into Afghanistan to save the poor women of that nation from the Taliban. Now, it’s indisputable that in 2001 the treatment of women under the Taliban and the Afghan warlords was terrible. That year Afghanistan was the second most dangerous country in the world for women giving birth, in terms of maternal mortality. Fast-forward to 2012: eleven years later, billions of dollars spent, Afghanistan is now the most dangerous country worldwide for women to give birth in. The Afghan people will simply have to find ways to deal with the Taliban and the warlords alike, but they can’t do it under occupation. The truth is, they want us out.
The other news of late, in terms of the effect on human beings, is that now, the suicide rate among active-duty U.S. military has surpassed the rate of deaths in combat. It’s one a day—they’re killing themselves because they have been forced to participate in these illegitimate wars of plunder.
Meanwhile dozens and dozens of babies died in Afghanistan last winter in the refugee camps because they weren’t kept warm enough. The parents had no means to do so. This is an unbearable situation and we have a huge responsibility to raise our voices against it. The organization I direct, World Can’t Wait, has a slogan that we developed this year: “Humanity and the Planet Come First! Stop the Crimes of Our Government!” And we’re really directing our energies at people here in the United States—citizens and immigrants alike—to take responsibility, to raise our voices, and to take action to stop what’s being done in our name.
This matters because American lives are not more important than anyone else’s. This matters because our president has a kill list now, and we all know about it. Picking out people in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan to be assassinated by drones? Attorneys I’ve met with from Pakistan suspect that hundreds of civilians have been killed in this process and, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, at least 175 children have been killed. Not one of those murders is justified. I don’t care how big a military infrastructure there is to support, it cannot justify the murder of innocent people in our name.
In fact, the U.S. military defines people as insurgents merely by the fact that they’ve been killed in a drone strike. Most alarmingly, there are repeated examples of strikes coming in series, killing groups of rescuers and mourners. There is no hiding from the drones; they have sophisticated surveillance technology, including heat sensors that can see through walls. Buildings and bodies are obliterated.
Since 2009 Obama has increased the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan by eight times what the Bush administration approved. Drones are now fully a part of the U.S. war-fighting plan, so much so that the U.S. Air Force is now training more pilots of unmanned vehicles than of fighter planes. These pilots are based around the world and domestically, controlling surveillance and armed drones eighteen inches from the action on their screens. Of the two U.S. drone programs, the one run by the CIA is probably the larger (the budget is secret) and employs civilian pilots. The argument from the Pentagon is that drones can “surgically target” insurgents, and people in the Obama Justice Department who criticized George W. Bush now defend Obama for doing the same thing.
Now, I am here to accept the Humanist Heroine award from the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association, so I will now connect all of this to the global war on women. I mentioned the attack on reproductive rights around the world. One of the most incredible things to me, in this day and age, is that you probably have 800,000 to one million women being sexually trafficked every year, even into this country. They’re being brought right around the corner from the World Can’t Wait office on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, in Chelsea. We know this from news reports.
In terms of what’s in people’s heads right now, I’m also concerned that seventeen-year-old boys are growing up on a diet of Internet porn, some of it decidedly violent. This only makes more graphic what all of us women feel on a daily basis: that, in essence, women are viewed as sexual objects that should be available to men at any time. This is why pornography and prostitution do so much damage in the service of patriarchy. This is not human nature, my friends. This is trained behavior. It is intolerable, and we can actively struggle against it, especially for the sake of young girls, and yes, of young men too. We have that responsibility. How do we do it? We stand up and say that women’s bodies are their own.
In Louisiana, the governor recently signed yet another law restricting abortion. What is the state legislature telling women here? That if you want to terminate a pregnancy, you’ll have to wait even longer, after a forced ultrasound and a talk with the doctor? Well of course we want to talk to doctors if we’re terminating pregnancies. Do we want to be forced to hear what they want us to hear, as if we’re too ignorant to make our own decisions? Absolutely not! And this is happening in state after state. Abstinence-only education? No, we need sex education. Of course, all of this is coming from Christian theocrats in the government who have taken posts all the way from the local up into the federal government, and yes, Obama’s office of faith-based initiatives has done just as much harm as those years under the Bush regime. This is warping people’s minds and lowering women’s sights so dramatically that all they can focus on is their relationship to a potential fetus. These are things that we can change, and we must.
It’s also worth mentioning, since we’re in Louisiana, that this state has the highest prison rate in the world: eleven times that of Iran, and sixteen times that of China. People are getting locked up and never getting out in this state. Most of them are black, and increasingly they are black women. These are the people who have the least access to education and the least access to good legal representation.
All of this matters because (need it be said?) these women are human beings. I applaud the AHA for having a feminist caucus. Do you know how many other organizations think this question is settled, and have stopped considering the global commodification of women? You are a very special group of people, with whom I hope to work much more closely in the future, and to make friends and colleagues of many of you.
I think these times call for a sharp moral clarity. One of my biggest heroes is the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian, who said that the means and the ends of any movement for revolution must be completely consistent. I refer a lot to something he wrote: “There is a place where epistemology and morality meet. There is a place where you have to stand and say, it’s not acceptable to refuse to look at something, or to refuse to believe in something because it makes you uncomfortable. And it is not acceptable to believe something just because it makes you comfortable.”
We’re living, brothers and sisters, in the biggest empire in the history of the world, with the biggest military might ever marshaled. We’re told it’s in our name, that it’s being done to keep us safe and free. I believe that we in this country have to send a very different message as loudly and persistently as we can: that we care about all the people of the world, and that our government is not acting in our interest or in our name when they carry on these assaults that are illegitimate, unjust, and immoral. And I want to say that it’s been a pleasure, and a moving delight, to meet you, to be in your community, and to accept this award, and I shall do my very best to keep on this mission of standing up against power, and striving to change things for the better.
Debra Sweet is the American Humanist Association’s 2012 humanist heroine and the executive director of World Can’t Wait, headquartered in New York City.