The story starts with a speech Danny gave in mid-November at Princeton University. He was invited by Amnesty International to speak about why he opposes the death penalty. He cited the 98 death row inmates released since 1976 after new evidence demonstrated their innocence; he noted that 43 percent of death row prisoners are African Americans. He observed that 110 nations have abolished the death penalty. And he voiced his opposition to the military tribunals that President Bush authorized to try suspected terrorists without the usual legal protections, making it easier for prosecutors to seek—and get—the death penalty. His speech was enthusiastically received.
At the close of the speech, a member of the audience asked whether Danny opposed the death penalty for Osama bin Laden. Danny replied he opposes the death penalty for all. Danny, who had recently returned from the World Conference against Racism, also noted that people in many parts of the world perceive the US as a major perpetrator of violence.
The result was a hailstorm of attacks. For two weeks the Trentonian, a newspaper based near Princeton, ran angry comments from readers suggesting that if Danny didn't love this country he should leave it—and worse. Ollie North urged his syndicated radio show listeners to call Danny to express their outrage and to boycott The Royal Tenenbaums, a movie that includes Danny among a host of other stars. And the City of Modesto, California, withdrew its support for Danny's planned speech on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.
So, shall we conclude that it doesn't pay to speak out? Is it wiser in this period of grief and anger to just keep quiet and avoid the attacks? Stay with this story.
In mid-December, I sent an email to 110 social change leaders (participants in the State of the Possible retreats we've been holding) explaining what had happened to Danny. (You can find my emailed message, Danny's Princeton speech, and links to related articles at www.yesmagazine.org.) I suggested several actions: fax the city of Modesto with your views about the city's decision to withdraw support from the event featuring Danny; go hear Danny speak in Modesto (some Modesto community groups sponsored Danny's speech despite the city's withdrawal); see The Royal Tenenbaums; celebrate the courage of King on his birthday; and support others who come under attack. I also suggested they pass the message on.
My message was soon forwarded to thousands of people. Within days my email box was clogged with supportive messages. I heard from a decorated Marine; from a man who had watched his brother executed by the state of Texas; from a man whose son was killed on the streets of Trenton; from a woman who had heard Danny's speech in Princeton and felt the Modesto City Council would be edified by attending his MLK day speech. I heard from church ministers, from peace groups, from anti-racism groups, from criminal justice reform groups. I was interviewed by BBC Radio in London. The popular website, Alternet.org, carried two excellent stories on Danny's experience and other examples of the suppression of dissent. Scores of groups wrote asking how to contact Danny to invite him to speak at their events.
The City of Modesto got so many faxes, calls, and emails of support for Danny they began sending out a form letter of explanation, addressed “Dear Fellow American.” The Royal Tenenbaums did fabulously at the box office (though I doubt this effort can claim credit). An overflow crowd attended Danny's speech in Modesto and gave him a standing ovation.
I find myself incredibly heartened by this robust response to the attempt to denigrate a popular figure who doesn't toe the Bush administration's line. At a time when the FBI can track our emails and detain people for little reason, when the US attorney general warns that “scaring peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty” will aid the terrorists, it's clear there are plenty of Americans ready to speak their truth. And as each person summons the courage to speak out, they give courage to others.
Therein lies my hope that we will not be pulled into a McCarthyesque period of repression and witch-hunts. We still have the potential to use these terrible events to deepen our discovery of what it really means to be an American.
Frances F. Korten,
PS: And speaking of signs of hope, in response to overwhelming demand, the previous issue of YES!, Can Love Save the World, has gone into a second printing. We've received requests for multiple copies from religious groups, discussion groups, people who want to share an alternative viewpoint with friends and family. Special thanks to Virginia Mudd, Clifford Burke, and the Fetzer Institute for underwriting the second printing.
Fran Korten is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network.