It’s not every day that one goes to jail and have the act called a badge of honor. I had never thought of going to jail for any reason. When I was in law school, any mention of an arrest or going to jail would have meant I was representing someone who’d been arrested and taken to jail.
I was on a peace mission on the Arabian Sea with a group of women peace activists trying to prevent the first Gulf War. About 200 women and I were under “ship arrest” by United Nations military forces for 20 days. We were forced to stay on the ship on the sea in order to prevent our group from breaking the blockade in order to get humanitarian aid to women and children who were hurting as a result of sanctions against their country.
Then came March 16, 2012. We were protesting a blockage of humanitarian assistance at the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C. for the Sudanese people. George Clooney had recently returned from the Sudan and informed us of the atrocities committed by President Omar al-Bashir and his military. George said that the rainy season is less than six weeks away in the Sudan and at that point, the people for whom aid is being blocked will surely experience mass starvation.
Like George, I was a rookie at civilian arrest. But 15 of us joined George and spent the day locked up with him. Among those who joined the protest and submitted themselves for arrest included Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King III, Ben Jealous, Nick Clooney, Nicole Lee (president of TransAfrica), Rabbi David Saperstein, U.S. Reps. Al Green, James Moran, James McGovern, and John Oliver, former Rep. Tom Andrews, and me.
Gregory pledged to eat no solid food until the blockade is broken. That got our attention, since most of us like eating a lot more than he does! He’s a well-known professional with such action, but you don’t have to be a professional to want to help in such dire circumstances.
Call your Members to urge them to do what they can to end the blockade before as many as half a million people – many of who are women and children die needlessly. All of us can do something to help. If we were talking about confessed or convicted people on death row being denied food, there would be an outcry around the world.
When I went to the embassy to express my dissatisfaction, I had no intention of getting locked up. But once there, Nicole and I saw that no women had offered themselves for arrest to avert a potential disaster. We volunteered, despite the fact that both of us had speaking engagements that day. I missed mine because once you’re locked up, despite promises to process you quickly, that message gets lost on the police doing the processing!
Having looked at suffering caused by war in many areas of the world, and having heard of the tragedy about to occur in the Sudan, a few hours in jail to call attention to the catastrophe seems like a small price to pay. We must not stand idly by while saying nothing to help. This is a humanitarian crisis crying out for action immediately.
Dr. E. Faye Williams is national chair of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc.