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Crying Out Loud for Peace: An Analysis of the Role of Grief in Political Activism
Katherine J. Nigh

The RNC Arrives in New York City

On September 21st, 2001, ten days after terrorist attacks claimed the lives of nearly three thousand men, women and children, President George W. Bush addressed the nation and informed us that the time of grieving was over. (1) Bush established an adversarial relationship between grief and action. Grief, a passive emotion that leaves the nation vulnerable, was meant to be replaced by active emotions and behaviors, including but not limited to fear of Other, hatred of Other, violence against Other, war, the Patriot Act and Bush's reelection. On the eve of the three-year anniversary of September 11th, the Republican National Convention has arrived, of all places, in New York City. Bringing the Republican party to New York City undeniably connects the party to 9/11, as if they as a party alone understand the full implications of that day and in a sense own it as well. Many argue that this is because by taking advantage of the grief of that day, they can justify Bush's actions post-9/11, including going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and creating the USA Patriot Act, which strips away the rights of American citizens in the "war against terror." However, some protesters utilized their grief as inspiration for their activism, proving that grief is a part of activism, and also showing the Republicans that they cannot in fact as a political party dictate to the entire nation what their grief should look like and what it should be used for. Two events that took place during the RNC that incorporated grief into their work were Stonewalk, a group of 9/11 victims' families, and Patriot Act, a performance about the USA Patriot Act.

Stonewalk and Patriot Act

September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is an organization comprised of over 130 friends and family members of the victims of 9/11, which have united to "turn [their] grief into action for peace." (2) Within this group, a smaller group of people and some supporters have formed a protest/performance action, named Stonewalk, which began on August 4, 2004 in Boston, Massachusetts during the Democratic National Convention and arrived in New York City in time for the Republican National Convention.

This group pulled a 1400 pound granite stone honoring, by inscription, all "Unknown Civilians Killed in War." (3) By remembering and honoring these "unknown civilians" they hope to promote peace, not violence. "Through this walk, and through speaking events in thirty-three communities along the way, they will bear witness to the tragic reality that civilian casualties constituted about 80% of the deaths in war in the 20th century, and ask that this human toll be a prime consideration in future policymaking decisions." (4) The group not only remembers those they lost on 9/11, but they also attempt to draw a connection between the suffering and grief that they have experienced and the suffering and grief of all those around the world who have experienced a similar loss. Daniel Jones, who lost his brother-in-law on 9/11, states that if perhaps we publicly mourned the lives of those around the world, we would not be so eager to go to war. "We don't know the names of these people dying in other parts of the world, and if we did, I think we'd do a lot more to end the violence." (5)

Political actions throughout the week, including Stonewalk, incorporate theatrical elements into their work, but there has also been protest within theaters as well. Patriot Act, a play written by Saint Joe Shahadi and The Lovely and Talented Toni Silver, examines the text of the USA Patriot Act. Though Joe and Toni humorously demonstrate the potential loss of rights that occur because of the Patriot Act (one gleefully knocks on the door representing an FBI agent while the other makes a weak attempt to protest the searching of his/her "private" property), it is also quite sad that we are no longer as protected as American citizens as we once were. When I asked Joe about the grief that this loss may cause, he said, "We talked frankly about wanting to feel safe again (post 9/11) and perhaps some of the grief you read in this work is our realization as we studied it that the USA Patriot Act doesn't really protect us from anything (but rather makes us vulnerable to our own government)." Though not a result of the loss of an object or person, there is a psychological grief present in this work.

During the play, Joe, representing his present self, addresses himself in the past. In this monologue he addresses the conflict he will have over his last name and consequently his identity. His last name, Shahadi, which means patriot and flag-waver (a synonym for martyr) in Arabic, will become a source of shame and fear for him during the first Iraqi War and in a post-9/11 America. He tells his past self that there will come a time when he asks his father to take their last name off of the front door. This moment is spoken of in the play with a great deal of sadness. It is clear that Joe is grieving his identity as an Arab-American, which he feels he is forced to apologize for because of the government-enforced fear of Other, in this case Arab-Americans. Although his grief over the events of 9/11 is just as valid as that of someone who is not Arabic, he is not necessarily recognized as an "acceptable" mourner in a post-9/11 American culture. The prejudice that Joe experienced in a post-9/11 America not only disregarded the human rights of Arab-Americans but also failed to acknowledge that they had been victimized on that day as well.

One of the most personal moments in the piece takes place when Toni discusses her experiences with September 11th, 2001. This monologue was originally part of a larger piece titled "Booby Traps Everywhere," performed directly after September 11th. Toni describes her whereabouts that morning, in Battery Park City, in an unnervingly close proximity to the World Trade Center. Upon performing this monologue on August 20th, 2004, Toni began to cry. As an audience member, I felt a great sense of grief emanating from her. This connected me with my sense of grief from that day, and because of that personal connection I felt very vulnerable as an audience member. In context of this paper, the important element of this point in the performance is that she simultaneously addressed Joe who was playing John Ashcroft. Her words of grief were not passive, but rather were an active way of attacking John Ashcroft and his words. When I asked Joe about this particular section of the play he said that it was built "consciously to reclaim our grief about 9/11 from the Bush administration. And to question their marketing of its signification." (6) Toni's sense of grief surrounding that day did not belong to the Republican party, and as a form of protest against them and the Patriot Act she demonstrated the fact that although she suffered emotional pain and loss on that day, she did not feel that her grief should be used as an excuse for the Patriot Act and other actions of the Bush administration.

Towards the end of the play, images of soldiers in the Iraqi war were interspersed with pictures of Iraqi civilians injured in the war and pictures of George Bush in various military outfits. While these pictures were showing, Joe lip-synched a version of Danny Boy (7) , a song that is often connected to funerals and mourning. The pictures of the fallen soldiers and Iraqi civilians offered an opportunity to grieve not only for those soldiers whose lives are paying for our perceived freedom from terrorism, but also for those innocent civilians in Iraq who have died as a result of this war. The fact that the play ends with these images lends to the hypothesis that mourning is a major element of this performance. It also shows that the commonality of grief can be used as an inspiration to activate peace instead of more violence; this mirrors the philosophy of Stonewalk, and although different in execution, both Stonewalk and Patriot Act explore the commonality of grief.

Oh, Good Grief!!

Judith Butler believes that the appropriate course of grieving does not involve the eventual replacement of the object we have lost, but rather that "one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation…the full result of which one cannot know in advance." (8) Mourning the loss of our attachment to an object, person or ideology exposes us to our vulnerabilities in this world. We are vulnerable via our connections to each other, and to the actions of others and/or events which are beyond our control. As Butler writes, "Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure." (9) When we become aware of this vulnerability, one might be inclined to withdraw, or to act out in anger, rage and fear. Butler encourages us to acknowledge and accept that vulnerability, and the play Patriot Act shows what can happen when we do not (the loss of civil rights.)

Being aware of this vulnerability may lead us towards actions of peace, "just as denial of this vulnerability through a fantasy of mastery (an institutionalized fantasy of mastery) can fuel the instruments of war." (10) In other words, it is not the awareness of our vulnerability that drives us to war, but rather the fear and denial of this vulnerability. If we allow ourselves to fully feel and recognize our grief, then we will be able to recognize and feel sympathy towards those who suffer in other parts of the world. Turning grief into a "resource for politics is not to be resigned to inaction, but it may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself." (11) Through this identification with suffering, we will begin to identify ourselves with "Other". Through the realization that our own identity is bound to our connection to others, that it in fact consists of our connection to them (a realization that occurs when we lose Other and thereby lose a part of ourselves), we begin to dismantle the borders that exist between our identity and the identity of those that we do not recognize. The identity of "we" that exists within political activism cannot exist without finding the way that we are tied to "you", and "You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know." (12) The representation of grief in Stonewalk and Patriot Act acknowledges this vulnerability.

Pain as a Path Towards Healing

Grief may be difficult to define, but it is undeniable when it arrives in one's heart. Feeling inclined to disappear from the world, or to avenge the loss one has experienced, it is an emotion that seems contradictory towards political activism. However, the scholarship of Judith Butler and the work of the Stonewalk project, the performance of Patriot Act, and the assertions of many others in the midst of this political climate suggest otherwise. They offer the notion that one of the most important elements of political activism, the ability to unite with other, cannot be accomplished without the full recognition of one's grief and the grief of others. In the fight against war, if you do not fully recognize your own grief, you cannot recognize that going to war will only cause more grief. We must grieve, to acknowledge our connection to other, to acknowledge our vulnerability–and rather than fighting against that vulnerability via war and destruction, we might be able to create a new paradigm in which our vulnerability compels us to actively promote peace and justice for all.


Works Cited


Katherine J. Nigh is a graduate of Hunter College and is a current MA candidate at NYU's Dept. of Performance Studies where her interests include social theater, activism and international studies.  She encourages everyone to use ALL their emotions to create social change.