by Samuel James
by Samuel James


I went to the Women’s March in Portland. Seeing those 15,000-plus people gave me a lot of hope. I really needed it. I talked to a lot of people who hadn’t marched before. More and more people are starting to stand up. They’re having conversations. They’re contacting their representatives. They’re joining organizations. If this is you, and this is new to you, let me tell you a story…

When I was in college I was obsessed with Tibet. I watched every movie. I read every book. Eventually I even met a Tibetan Buddhist nun. I saw her playing with some kids and they were all giggling and having the time of their lives. It was a pure kind of joy I rarely see in adults. After awhile she asked the time and explained that she had to leave. She had an appointment at the U.N. to find out if she had been granted asylum. If she was not granted asylum she would be sent back to China. It was widely known then that Chinese soldiers were cutting off the breasts of Tibetan women and raping them with electric cattle prods. That’s what being sent back to China meant for her. Try to imagine the kind of emotional strength it takes to be facing that and still find joy in the world. I’d never seen that kind of strength. It’s absolutely inspiring.

Soon after that I joined Students for a Free Tibet. I made phone calls, I marched, I did everything I could, but I never felt like it was enough.

And then came President Clinton’s trade deal.

Clinton was pushing for China to be let into the World Trade Organization. To me, that meant the U.S.A. putting its stamp of approval on the systematic torture and murder of the most peaceful people in existence. My congressman was going to vote for this, so I wrote to him, called him and eventually met with him.

Going into the meeting I thought it might be difficult to make him care about Tibet, but I also knew something else: there were at least a couple thousand union guys who were already pretty vocal about this issue and we were on the same side. I figured their voices meant something, and if mine could just push him over the edge…

But it didn’t. My representative looked me dead in the eye and said that our economics would influence China, naturally leading to a more American standard of human rights. (A quick aside: as a black American, a descendant of slaves, it is immediately exhausting to have a white man in power brag to you about the standards of American human rights —especially in relation to economics.)

Anyway, we talked for some time. I told him about the nuns and the torture. He said he was still chewing it over. I didn’t believe him, and he voted to let China into the W.T.O.

I couldn’t figure it out. At this point I was used to losing battles over Tibet, but why would a congressman so deliberately vote against his state’s interests? Did he have meetings with other Mainers who hated Tibet and wanted to get rid of union jobs? Did he think he was letting China, Maine into the W.T.O.?

The answer is: politics. Some kind of meeting, some kind of deal, some kind of something I’ll never know anything about.

Of course, now we see the results. We see the demolished factory towns all over the country. We see the ever-widening wealth gap. We see who is in the White House.

And the Dalai Lama remains in exile.

Now, I’m not telling you this story to dissuade you from taking action. Not at all. I think you should take action. I think you absolutely have to take as much action as you possibly can. I’m telling you this story because after China was let into the W.T.O. I was devastated. I felt powerless as a citizen. I dropped out of S.F.T. It was years before I could even read anything political. I was new, I had put too much of myself into a battle that I lost and I burned out.

Don’t do that.

I stopped helping because I had overwhelmed myself. Fortunately, many others didn’t. And because of their help, after many hearings and postponements, that Tibetan nun was granted asylum.

The current administration wants to overwhelm you into silence, but that’s not their choice. That’s your choice.

So, please continue to call your representatives. Go to their offices. Make yourself heard. Just don’t scream so loud you lose your voice. There’s a lot of yelling to be done over the next four years.

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