Every January for the past several years I’ve joined activists in front of the White House to protest the indefinite detention of 40 Muslim men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This year, January 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening.
I took the train to Washington in January with a mixture of anxiety and dread. Anxiety that no one would show up, because who even remembers that the Guantanamo prison is still open? Dread because this would be yet another year where, regardless of how many people did make the effort to travel to the White House to protest, the protests would be falling on deaf ears: Donald Trump, whose support is needed to close the prison, couldn’t care less.
Still, there was something beautiful in the annual ritual. This year I had a filmmaker and cameraman with me, and the short film they created captures that. It shows ordinary Americans of all ages traveling from across the country to Washington, DC. Many of them fast for several days before the event, in solidarity with the men who’ve undertaken hunger strikes in the prison. They gather and sleep on the floor of a local church until the day of the anniversary, when they put on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent the plight of the 40 men still indefinitely detained, most without charge or trial, in the US military prison in Cuba.
This year, we marched from the White House to the Trump International Hotel.
“I don’t think there’s any futility in that,” Reverend Ron Stief, director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, told us. “Human rights is a long game… We owe it to the detainees who remain there never to stop.”
The president may not have been listening, but the protesters were connecting with each other, while calling the attention of passersby who knew nothing at all about their cause.
“What is Guantanamo?” a young woman who’d recently come to the US from Argentina asked me as I stood among the crowd at the rally, listening to the various speakers. She’d been drawn to the protest while walking through Lafayette Park that sunny Saturday afternoon. I explained what it was; she stayed to listen longer.
Most activists are exhausted these days, and our actions can easily feel futile. But it’s helpful to remember we’re all playing a long game, and that there’s beauty, even joy, in just showing up for it: to support one another, to raise our voices together, and to call everyone’s attention to something larger than ourselves.
In his essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” the historian Howard Zinn wrote:
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.
An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.