Celina De Leon
Marissa Handler, 30, knows firsthand that the life of an activist is not for the meek. Handler has worked with organizations such as Direct Action to Stop the War and United for Peace and Justice. Her writing has appeared in magazines such as Bitch and Tikkun (where she also did organizing), as well as on Alternet and Salon.
Handler recently published her first book, Loyal to the Sky: Notes From an Activist. The book chronicles Handler’s journey to and through activism and what she knows to be true as a result. From her childhood in South Africa during apartheid, to her teen years as an outsider in Los Angeles, to her treks around the world in the name of social and economic justice, Handler takes her audience on a journey that weaves the personal with the political. She is currently on tour with “Loyal to the Sky,” as well as her first full-length album, Dark Spoke. WireTap caught up with Handler recently while she was on the road.
WT: The title of the book comes from a song you wrote. Can you talk about what you mean by being “loyal to the sky,” and why chose that as a title?
Marisa Handler: Sure. The lyric comes from a song that I sang during the anti-war protests of March 20, 2003, when 20,000 people set off for the streets of San Francisco and shut the city down in protest of Bush’s declaration of war [in Iraq]. I wrote the song during the build-up to the war because Bush Inc. was going on about patriotism in pretty vast nebulous terms.
“Loyal to the sky” is really a [way to say] loyalty to something far greater than this country. I think patriotism is good. And I think people who are questioning the war are really strong patriots. But I think, in a globalized world, what is required of us is more than just patriotism. To me, it’s about being loyal to all human beings, to all countries, and to the planet. “Loyal to the sky” is one of the lyrics to express that. “Loyal to all we share; to the love that brings us here today.” Being loyal is what brings us [to the protests] in the first place; what brings us to fight for life and against war.
WT: Your parents moved your family to Los Angeles from South Africa because they did not want to live under the rule of apartheid. Through the eyes of an activist, how do you view that decision today?
MH: I have a lot of admiration for them. It’s ironic because they actually moved back four or five years ago, and now they’re living in Capetown again. In fact, I was just there visiting them. You know, at the time that we left, it looked like South Africa was going to devolve into a very bloody civil war. There wasn’t much hope. My mother, in particular, had a very strong conscience and protested apartheid in college and had been beaten and thrown into jail. It was very hard living in South Africa–living in a segregated country with the recognition that it was completely wrong, something many whites did not have. It’s amazing growing up in a completely segregated society, how it gets normalized. So I think [leaving] was a very courageous thing to do.
WT: When you traveled the world, you realized that social and economic justice is not always clear cut. For example, in Peru you met native people who were torn about how to best meet their community’s needs in the face of gas drilling and capitalism. Can you say more about this?
MH: For me, it raised some really interesting issues, which I explore in the book. The first community I went to was the Sarayacu. The people there had been very, very firm in their desire not to let an oil company onto their land; they were united and won their campaign. They also had the help of European and American NGOs. The Sarayacu are protecting Ecuador’s southern Amazon, and they’ve had the example of Ecuador’s northern Amazon before them, which had been really devastated by 25 years of oil exploitation by what is now ChevronTexaco. So, in the south, the indigenous people are now much more aware, educated and organized. It was really an amazing and very inspiring experience to see this community with virtually no resources organize such a successful resistance.
Then I went to Peru and I was writing about a natural gas exploitation project there, and it’s also in a pretty untouched region–the Urubamba. I found a very different story there. It was actually quite disheartening. The Machiguenga indigenous people were not united; they had very different ideas about what development means and whether they wanted it. It was hard to report on because there were some people who recognized that their culture and their lifestyle was really being destroyed by people who want TVs and tin for their roofs. And who am I, really, as a Westerner, as someone who has access to all of these things, to say they shouldn’t want these things? It raised some very complicated issues.
I interviewed a priest in one community who said that the NGOs are as much to blame as the gas company because they keep telling the people that they should have access to everything. I’m not sure if I agree with him. I think a lot of the NGOs are doing really important work. But this experience took what had been a black-and-white issue for me and made it into a whole rainbow of different colors.
WT: In one chapter, you talk about preaching compassion for the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis, and how you faced a lot of hostility from both sides for this stance. Do you think compassion is truly possible, and that peace can be gained without making one side good and one side bad?
MH: Not only do I believe it’s possible, but I believe that for authentic and lasting peace, it’s vital. It’s a requirement. I think the power of nonviolence has been amply illustrated through Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I think the Palestinians’ cause would be far better served if they used nonviolence. There are individuals and communities within the territories that do. But I would argue, and I’m not sure if many people would disagree with me, that the violence and the suicide bombings have done a huge, huge disservice to the Palestinians.
On the other hand, the occupation, the institutionalized violence of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, is inherently violent. The existence of the occupation prevents peace. Again, within both sides, there are people calling for nonviolence and pushing very hard for peace in that way. But I think that, until it’s been taken up by the majority of people, it’s going to be hard to see it.
WT: As an activist, have you ever faced generational differences?
MH: Yes, I have. Sometimes the younger people think the older activists are peacenik hippies. And the older activists sometimes feel the younger activists are a little too radical, too militant. I’ve definitely seen people work together in ways that are really admirable when we open up to each other’s wisdom. I think the older generation brings a whole lot of wisdom and knowledge when it comes to organizing. Really, these people were around during Vietnam, during the anti-apartheid movements, and some were around during Korea. There really isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel.
Younger people bring a huge amount of vitality and energy. Sometimes that is expressed as anger, but I’ve had it said to me so many times by older people how much they appreciate the younger generation getting involved. It’s hugely inspiring when I meet someone in their 60s or 70s who has been doing this all their life because I keep being told that I’m naive and idealistic, the implication being that I will learn my lesson and stop being active. I don’t think that’s true. I’m well-informed, but nonetheless hopeful. So, it’s hugely inspiring to see people who are 70 and who are still “naive” and “idealistic.”
WT: The life of an activist isn’t for everybody–financially or spiritually. Can you give tips on how individuals who want to live as activists can do so without becoming broke or burnt out?
MH: First of all, I haven’t lived very large. I’ve traveled, but a lot of my traveling has been in nonindustrialized countries and so has been pretty cheap. I’ve worked as a paid organizer in some occasions. But in other cases, for example when I was writing this book, I worked part-time as a nanny. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of other work.
There’s the whole gamut. I see people who work in corporate jobs, and activism is their hobby. My friend is a carpenter and supports himself that way, and then devotes as much of himself as he can to activism. I think it takes real dedication to do this kind of work in a society that doesn’t financially reward it. And courage as well, because it takes stepping out of a certain established path of what you should be doing.
WT: What overall message do you want readers to get from your book?
MH: I think there’s this concept of activists as these holier-than-thou people who stand in the streets yelling. That’s really not true. I think activism can be cliquey and exclusive, and that’s really a downfall. I think as activists, we really need to look at the kind of culture we’re creating and whether it’s open–whether people feel welcomed, because that’s the only way we’re going to build it.
It’s a matter of figuring out where you can take a stand, how you can take a stand, and how you can try to do good even when things begin to look a little murky. So, in that sense I want to inspire people who may be wondering how they can make a difference. Or how much they want to commit to their work. I wanted to really encourage people to continue thinking critically about how they express their activism.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I still think we’re all capable of [activism]. Many people say to me, “Yeah, that’s good, this is great, but then we lost.” Or, “But look how huge these corporations are, look at how powerful the government is. We can’t make a difference.” Well, people are making a difference around the world. The global justice movement is essentially a collection of many small movements that are aligned around the common ethos that puts [people] over profit. And they are making a difference. It doesn’t often make it into the mainstream media.
I actually think the answers need to be small. To me, the most effective counter to imperialist government and massive transnational corporations is smallness and diversity. Unfortunately we don’t necessarily always hear about the good news because it’s small. But [the overall effect] is not small, because it’s happening in a lot of places.
Learn more about Handler’s upcoming tour dates at www.marisahandler.com
Celina De Leon is a contributing writer of WireTap and the interviews editor at Feministing.com who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.