The stress of activism

Sam Smith – In an article on the stress of activism in Black Lives Matter, John Eligon of the New York Times noted that over the past two years, five activists have died – two of them in suicides, one of a heart attack and two in homicides.

It brought to mind something I had just discovered a few days ago while preparing to be interviewed about Marion Barry. Between 1990 and 1997 four of Washington DC’s great activist voices had either committed suicide or gotten into drugs.

The suicides included John Wilson, a 1960s black civil rights activist who had eventually become chair of the DC city council. The other was Mitch Snyder the remarkable white leader of activism for the homeless in the city. After his death, I did a piece on his life for the local public radio station, in which I noted:

This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragement it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.

“The voyage of the best ship” said Emerson, “is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

I can not comprehend Mitch’s last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times — yes — aggravating, this one scruffy amalgam of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore — the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.

Lately we’ve been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Initiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.

What effect this had on Mitch I don’t know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cynicism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.

Then there was Ernest White, the host of a highly regarded TV talk show on which I was usually the only white on the panel. The station was sold and Ernest no longer had a job. I remember finding him virtually incommunicable sitting in a car downtown. He would eventually  die homeless.

And finally there was Marion Barry for whom I had handled media  during civil rights days, before power and drugs got him off on new and sadder routes.

It was not the best of decades. The sincerity and energy of the previous ones were gone. There were fewer leaders who inspired or amazed.  I realized belatedly what this must have been like for someone like Ernest White, Mitch Snyder, John Wilson or Marion Barry.

Then I started wondering, what kept you going? There was no doubt but that I was thinking of leaving DC, but in retrospect I realized that  even for someone in a much less visible position like myself, activism depended in part on a philosophy that dealt with failure.

In retrospect, I realized how blessed I was to have gone to a Quaker high school. Quakerism was an early form of existentialism, the philosophy that says that even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows. The Friends meeting that ran our school had come out against slavery in the 17th century and while the Quakers repeatedly failed in their efforts, they just kept going until it worked.

It wasn’t until late in life that I realized this influence on my life, but even as boy – thanks to the literature and comics I read – I had somehow come to learn that good folk don’t always get to enjoy the fruits of their work. In fact, as a young boy I sometimes imagined myself dying before 30, aboard one of the storm-struck ships that I never grew tired of reading about.

The funny thing about this is that I am seldom credited with optimism. As Marion Barry told a friend of mine, “Sam’s a cynical cat.” But my optimistic premise is that the world changes best when people act as best they can without reference to whether they will be the living victors. Too often, we can only make it easier for a coming generation.


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