I met Starhawk in the first week of September 2001. She and I were part of a group of San Francisco activists planning to travel to Washington, D.C., to protest meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It was to be my first large-scale “direct action”: an act of protest — such as forming a human blockade around a building — whose aim is to obstruct the workings of an institution.
In the aftermath of September 11, many progressive groups chose to lie low, but Starhawk poured even more energy into mobilizing for the Washington protest, which turned into a peace rally as the U.S. prepared to go to war in Afghanistan.
Starhawk has long been identified with earth-based spirituality and the modern Pagan movement. Like many neo-Pagans, she has taken back the tarnished title of “witch,” which originally referred to those Europeans — women and men — who practiced pre-Christian spiritual and healing traditions.
Though Starhawk represents a unique group with its own perspectives, her approach to global activism is all-inclusive and has drawn a diverse audience. “We’re not just preaching to the same old crowd in these anti-globalization actions,” the fifty-two-year-old activist writes. “People coming to our training sessions range from college professors steeped in the theory of nonviolence to teenagers clutching skateboards . . . and everything in between.” Corporate globalization affects everyone, she says, and opposition to it begins with the simple question “What kind of world do we want to live in?”
Starhawk’s new book, Webs of Power, chronicles her post-Seattle experiences and outlines her vision for a world dedicated to democracy, diversity, and sustainability. She’s written a number of fiction and nonfiction titles, including Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (HarperSanFrancisco), Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (Beacon Press), and The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. She is a founding member of Reclaiming, a San Francisco–based network of Pagan groups. She has also just completed, with filmmaker Donna Read, a documentary about Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian archaeologist who uncovered the existence of a prehistoric Goddess-oriented culture in southeastern Europe.
Starhawk divides her time between a collective house in San Francisco’s Mission District and a hut in the wooded hills of Cazadero, California, where she writes and gardens. When we met for this interview, she had just returned from teaching activism workshops in Europe and visiting Palestinian refugee camps as a global witness for peace. We spoke in the “ritual room” of her San Francisco home, a peaceful, artfully painted room filled with musical instruments, cushy chairs, and artifacts from around the world.
In the past year, I have spent many long evenings here, developing strategies for direct actions and hashing out disagreements with other activists. I am still not sure what we’ve accomplished with our hours of protesting and letter writing, but my conversations with Starhawk give me hope that, little by little, such efforts do bring about change.
Thompson: Some people think that the best way to change the system is not protesting in the streets but working from within organizations. Why have you chosen to push for change from the outside?
Starhawk: Systems don’t change from within; they are too good at maintaining themselves. Systems change from the outside in, like ice melting.
I certainly respect the efforts of people who try to change institutions from within, and I think there are opportunities to make improvements. But systemic changes are very hard to make from within the system. To be there, you have to accept so many of the system’s terms and values that you tend to be changed by it as much as it is changed by you. When you’re outside the system, you can think outside its terms and imagine how things could operate differently. Many who attempt to bring about change from within organizations quickly burn out. Real change often requires bringing outside pressure on an institution. And sometimes the institution doesn’t just need to change; it needs to disappear.
Thompson: But don’t we need institutions in society to bring about change?
Starhawk: It depends on the institution. Certainly, institutions do a lot of things that need to be done. We need sources of energy to power our homes, for example. But did we need Enron?
Right now the earth’s basic life systems are in jeopardy because of our use of fossil fuels and pollutants. We have the technological answers to our problems. We could shift to renewable, nonpolluting energies in the near future if we put our political and economic will behind it. But we aren’t doing that, because there are deeply entrenched interests whose power and money are dependent on the status quo.
I used to have hope that systems could evolve easily and painlessly; that capitalism would see the light and corporations would voluntarily change. I’d still prefer a gradual evolution, because sudden and catastrophic changes are often the most painful for the people who have the least resources. But I don’t see any signs that we are going to have gradual, peaceful change, because the powers that be are so deeply invested in the structures we have now — particularly the oil interests, who are currently running the country, and, in turn, the world.
Our ability as citizens to hold these corporations accountable and responsible to communities has been eroded by international trade agreements that override local laws, and by international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which impose devastating economic policies on impoverished countries. Meanwhile, corporations are free to move anywhere in the world in search of the lowest labor costs and the poorest environmental standards.
Thompson: But aren’t people opposing the World Bank or the IMF like ants trying to face down a steamroller?
Starhawk: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, but we need to remember that all of these systems rest on the compliance of millions of ordinary people like you and me. If we withdraw our consent, if we stop feeling isolated and helpless and start reaching out to friends and neighbors who feel the same way, then we have enormous power.
One of the key ways these institutions take away our power is by making us think our voices are small and worthless. It’s an important political and spiritual act to say, “My voice is worth something.” We have to take civic responsibility and not be stopped by fear or a sense of powerlessness. Democracy is like a horse: you can’t keep it healthy when it’s locked in the barn; you have to exercise it regularly.
Thompson: How do you define “direct action”?
Starhawk: Direct action is any action that openly confronts oppressive power. We often think of demonstrations or civil disobedience or other attempts to disrupt the operations of an oppressive system, but it could also be providing an alternative. I was involved with an extremely successful needle-exchange program started in 1990 by a San Francisco group called Prevention Point. We gave drug users an opportunity to exchange used needles for new, clean ones, to help prevent the spread of AIDS. At that time it was illegal to hand out needles, but we knew it would save lives, so we did it anyway. After a few months, the media finally did a story on our program. When interviewed, the mayor and the police said they didn’t really want to arrest us, because we were doing something necessary. In the end, local officials managed to do an end run around the state laws and legalize the exchange. It became a model program.
Now that these institutions can no longer base their legitimacy on promises of economic prosperity, they are basing it on fear. Their message is: if you don’t go along with the system, the terrorists will get you. We have to . . . resist fear and act with courage and vision.
Thompson: You’ve said that you went to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle reluctantly, the way you went to synagogue as a child. During the protests, you were arrested and spent five days in jail. It became a turning point for you.
Starhawk: In my forty years as an activist, the Seattle blockade against the World Trade Organization (WTO) was the single most successful action I’ve ever been involved in. Yes, I went a little reluctantly, mainly because I was so busy doing local political organizing in the Cazadero hills, where I live: working on land-use issues and contesting timber-harvest plans. But I felt pulled to Seattle. It was clear that the WTO could make anything we achieved at a local level irrelevant, because it has the power to override U.S. laws. For example, a law was passed banning the import of shrimp caught in nets that kill sea turtles; but the WTO ruled against that law, calling it a “restriction of trade.” There have been many, many such rulings that undercut our labor and environmental laws — not to mention our national sovereignty.
The WTO is part of a larger move toward globalization with a very clear agenda: to give corporations unrestricted access to the world’s resources and to privatize all the resources and services that have traditionally been public. Proponents of globalization claim that this will somehow create so much wealth that everyone will benefit. In reality, it has resulted in a huge transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich. In the U.S., 1 percent of the people own 40 percent of the resources. Even if you invest in the stock market, you’re not necessarily part of the wealthy class: the top 1 percent of stockholders control nearly 50 percent of the market. Small investors are at a huge disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Americans work more hours than the citizens of any other industrial country on earth, even Japan. On average, we work four hundred hours more a year than Germans. We all feel it. Everyone I know is working harder just to stay afloat. We have less time to spend with our families, less time to spend being citizens and actually exercising our democratic rights. That’s not an accident or a personal failing.
Thompson: What have the protests really accomplished?
Starhawk: In Seattle, we set out to blockade the WTO meeting on the grounds that it was illegitimate, because there was no way for citizens to have input. The WTO’s decisions are made by secret tribunals, it doesn’t keep public records of its meetings, and its members are not appointed or elected in any public or democratic way. This is an entirely undemocratic institution that impacts all our lives. We have a right to say that it shouldn’t exist, that its trade agreements should stop right now.
Direct action takes away the aura of legitimacy around these institutions. When they can have their big summits with limousines and fancy dinners and the media hanging on their every word, it reaffirms the notion that they are the experts making decisions based on what’s best for all of us; that they are safeguarding our economic good. But when they start having to meet in remote places like Qatar, or to erect fences around their meetings, it makes apparent the lack of democracy and the inherent violence in the system.
We had enough people in Seattle that we were able to surprise the police, block the meeting, and stop that round of negotiations. I think our success empowered a lot of smaller, poorer nations to resist pressure from the larger industrialized countries. It also focused attention on a system that had not been much publicized. Most people didn’t know what the WTO was. Direct action puts a spotlight on issues that people haven’t noticed before and creates a sense of urgency about them. People think, Maybe I should pay attention to this. Maybe this actually has some impact on my life.
Over the last three years, we have interrupted every single international economic or trade meeting around the globe. It’s an amazing achievement when you realize that there isn’t some central coordinating committee bringing people together for these actions. Groups have spontaneously self-organized.
I think that, in those three years, the once unquestioned global economic system has seriously lost legitimacy, in part because of our efforts, and in part because reality has caught up with it. We’ve seen Enron, WorldCom, and other business scandals. We’ve seen Argentina, after it implemented the IMF’s policies, go from having one of South America’s strongest economies to having a nonfunctioning one.
Americans work more hours than the citizens of any other industrial country on Earth, even Japan. . . . We have less time to spend with our families, less time to spend being citizens and actually exercising our democratic rights. That’s not an accident or a personal failing.
Thompson: So how can we take advantage of this rise in public consciousness?
Starhawk: Now that these institutions can no longer base their legitimacy on promises of economic prosperity, they are basing it on fear. Their message is: if you don’t go along with the system, the terrorists will get you. We have to call upon our friends, our communities, and ourselves to resist fear and act with courage and vision.
The first step is to reassert the value of community. We need human enterprises to make, create, fix, and transport things, but we need those enterprises to be rooted in and responsible to communities. Most people on this planet value human life above profits. Our enterprises need to serve those values. We need to work for something meaningful, not just to enrich somebody else. The enterprises we engage in have to be in balance with the natural community, too, and with all the various races, genders, cultures, and religions within the human communities.
We need a world not just of sustainability, but of real abundance. We don’t want one of those grim, gray economies where the commissar tells everyone what to do. We need abundance, and not just of food and shelter and clothing, but of beauty and joy and pleasure. That abundance can come from our enterprises if they’re in harmony with the natural world. We can’t sacrifice clean air, water, wilderness, and habitat in order to make ourselves happier, because without those things, we can’t sustain happiness — or life.
Thompson: When you’re organizing a campaign against a corporation, do you try to engage its executives in a dialogue before resorting to direct action?
Starhawk: Direct action is usually part of an ongoing campaign that begins by educating yourself about an issue, then educating the public, then seeing if you can solve the problem through negotiations, legal channels, or regulation. If those all fail or aren’t open to you, then you take direct action.
For example, last year in Sonoma County, we organized a campaign against forced spraying of pesticides to eliminate the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a vineyard pest. The state had a protocol that allowed it to spray anybody’s home or farm — even an organic farm, even the home of someone with environmental illness — if they found the sharpshooter within a certain radius. The group opposed to spraying went through all the steps: we did research, organized public meetings, and pressured the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Finally we told them we were prepared to nonviolently blockade any land that was going to be sprayed and whose owner wanted our help. This threat was enough to convince the wine industry to negotiate with the environmentalists and the local people, and together they came up with an alternative solution, which was to educate people to recognize the glassy-winged sharpshooter and keep an eye out for it, and to find organic alternatives for getting rid of it.
Thompson: It all sounds so civil.
Starhawk: It can be very civil when the people in power are actually willing to listen to others’ concerns. Sometimes that willingness comes about only because the alternative is to face an aroused, organized, and determined population. It’s unfortunate, but to get the people in power to listen, you have to confront their power; otherwise they have no incentive to listen.
Those of us who come out of a spiritual background may try to apply the methods we use for dealing with individuals to our interactions with institutions, but it doesn’t work. If you and I have a problem, we can sit down and listen to each other and work it out, but if you are functioning as an agent of a system, it’s no longer about you and me as human beings; it’s about all the different pressures on the system. The right thing doesn’t happen just because of goodwill, even when it exists. I’m sure there are many vineyard owners in Sonoma County who would never go into someone’s home against their will and spray it with toxic pesticides. But until public pressure was brought to bear, they had no way to act morally within the system.
Thompson: How do activist groups continue to grow without creating bureaucracies?
Starhawk: One of the most exciting challenges is finding forms of organization that will allow us to coordinate large numbers of people without simply reproducing the kinds of systems that we’re trying to eliminate. It’s something we’ve been wrestling with for decades in Reclaiming, our network of groups that practice earth-based ritual and spirituality, which has grown from a small collective in San Francisco to an international organization with members in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.
So many models of organizing are hierarchical. Because it’s the form we’re most familiar with, we tend to fall into that pattern habitually. We go into a new situation and want to know who’s in charge, what are the rules, and who’s going to tell me what to do — either whom do I obey or whom do I rebel against, depending on your inclination.
Thompson: Some people naturally dominate and take more power than they should. How do you train people to avoid this?
Starhawk: We coach people to think, when walking into a new situation, How do I share my skills and experience without simply consolidating my control? We encourage everyone to develop their leadership capacity, and we make sure that leadership roles are passed around in the group. When I’m directing a group, I keep track of who’s talking and who’s not talking. Sometimes I will consciously alternate between calling on a woman and a man, just to make sure that neither gender dominates.
Of course, not everybody wants to talk all the time; some people are happier saying less and listening more. It’s not about forcing everyone to speak; it’s more about making sure no one feels left out or unheard.
Thompson: How did you become an activist?
Starhawk: My father was an activist, but he died when I was very young. My mom remained politically aware, but she never did much about it. Still, we discussed politics. It was always in the air when I was growing up.
My family strongly supported civil rights in the sixties. My mother’s best friend had an African American daughter who was one of my closest friends. When Karen and I were just twelve, we would watch the news about Martin Luther King Jr. and beg our mothers to let us go to the South and become freedom fighters.
During the Vietnam War, I got involved with a political group in high school. When I was fifteen, I got arrested for “soliciting donations without a permit.” It was Christmastime in Beverly Hills, and we were handing out balloons that said, “Peace on earth. Stop the war in Vietnam.” I went to college during the height of the antiwar protests. At that time I was not so much an organizer as a follower.
In the early 1970s I got involved in the feminist movement. I was an art student, and I’d noticed that 70 percent of the art grad students were men (compared to 30 percent of the art undergrads) and that there was only one female art professor, who taught weaving. I didn’t think it had anything to do with oppression or social structure, though. I didn’t understand yet that the reason so many of the grad students were men was that the male teachers nurtured, advised, and mentored only them. I remember one professor said that he hated teaching female students, because they were just going to get married and paint in their garage. And I thought, Yeah, those stupid women. I’m not going to be like that.
Around that time, women were starting to form consciousness-raising groups to talk about our oppression. In these groups, everyone got a chance to speak without argument or interruption. It was a life-changing experience for a lot of women, an opportunity to examine things they’d never thought about before. Much of the agenda of the women’s movement came out of these consciousness-raising groups. Some public issues we now take for granted, such as rape and incest, were taboo before that. Battered women’s services had never been on anybody’s agenda.
We also reexamined religion and spirituality. I was raised Jewish, and it’s still a culture and tradition with which I deeply identify. My mother used to complain about how her parents favored her brothers — they went to Hebrew school and were bar mitzvahed, and she was never bat mitzvahed. I remember thinking, Oh, Mom, just get over it. But later I saw that Judaism is a very patriarchal system. I went looking for something outside of it and discovered these ancient goddess traditions that no one had ever told me about. A lot of women felt empowered by the female image of the sacred. We began re-creating rituals that had very old roots, but that could take on new forms to meet the needs of a different world than the one in which they’d originated.
Reclaiming was born out of that and has been merging earth-based spirituality and political activism for more than twenty years. We were very much involved throughout the 1980s in nonviolent direct action against nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and U.S. militarism. So it was natural for us to go to Seattle and get involved.
Thompson: Where do magic and political activism meet?
Starhawk: We have the Pagan Cluster for people who want to bring ritual into a direct action. For example, in the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City, the authorities erected a nine-foot-high fence around four square kilometers of the city to keep us out of the meeting. A battle was raging there between the activists, who were trying to push down the fence, and the police, who were throwing tear-gas canisters. The Pagan Cluster’s response was to “hold” the energy with a spiral dance: You start in a circle, spiral in, and then turn the spiral out. While you’re doing this, everyone looks into each other’s eyes. It’s a way of collecting energy, taking the energy of despair and transforming it into a moment of beauty. All day long, we would go wherever the energy was fragmented and drum or sing or chant or dance to help regroup the energy.
Thompson: How do you deal with younger activists who are motivated mostly by anger?
Starhawk: My activism comes from a very deep spiritual place, but also from a place of rage and anger. There’s a saying: “If you’re not angry, you aren’t paying attention.” I’m fifty-two years old, though, so I’ve had several decades to find positive, creative channels for my anger. Many younger people at these actions are openly angry, and they should be. It’s not my job to judge them or preach to them about nonviolence. It’s my responsibility simply to be there as a nonviolent presence.
I give a lot of nonviolence training sessions in which I try to give people skills and tools to prepare them for a direct action. I don’t tell them what to do, but rather expand their range of options so they can make conscious choices in tense and dangerous situations.
Thompson: The media focus on the few protesters who act violently or irresponsibly. Aren’t those people hurting the movement?
Starhawk: There is a lot of propaganda about the so-called violence at these actions. In reality there’s been almost no violence — certainly not in North America — on the part of the protesters. There has been some property damage, broken windows and such, but even that has been remarkably limited compared to the mythology.
In Genoa, where we protested the 2001 meeting of the G8 — the eight wealthiest, most powerful industrialized countries in the world — there was a lot of window breaking, and people actually set banks on fire. But there was so much infiltration by organized groups of fascists that it was very difficult to determine who actually did what damage.
Thompson: This kind of behavior, especially when it’s blown out of proportion in the news, prevents a lot of middle-of-the-road liberals from sympathizing with the protesters or attending a protest themselves. It also detracts from the real messages and issues, because it allows the mainstream media to focus on those isolated incidents rather than on the objectionable policies of the trade organizations.
Starhawk: One of the biggest steps we can take toward personal and political liberation in this country is to look beyond the major media and explore other sources of information. The major media representatives often have the story already written in their minds before they get there, and if they don’t get the story they want, they simply won’t cover it at all.
After the protests in Calgary against the G8 meeting — which were entirely peaceful, hardly a cross word spoken — the editor of a major Canadian newspaper told Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians: “One more peaceful demonstration, and we’ll just stop sending reporters.”
Thompson: Do you try to court the press and get them to cover the underlying issues?
Starhawk: Before and during each of these actions, we send out press releases, make phone calls, and hold press conferences. A lot of our efforts, though, get no response. After the World Economic Forum demonstrations in January 2002, I spoke with a New York Times reporter who said, “You people say we don’t cover the issues, and you’re right: we don’t. So tell me: what are the issues?” I spent twenty minutes laying it out for him, and the next day the story came out: “Protesters say the Times doesn’t cover the issues.” But they never said what the issues were!
Thompson: What’s the biggest challenge facing the global-justice movement right now?
Starhawk: We are confronting the largest conglomeration of military and economic power ever assembled on the planet, and we’re doing it without huge financial resources or access to media or political power of our own. Many people in the movement in North America are saying we need to root our activism in local issues, rather than just contesting big summits. They have a point, although the summits are the only places where you can confront the system as a whole.
Right now the people who tend to get involved are either young or old; either they don’t have families yet, or their children are grown, like mine. We need to reach out to that mass of people who are working full-time jobs and trying to get the kids to school and maybe even clean the house from time to time. We need to find ways for them to participate and make their voices heard. Not everyone has time to organize a campaign, but maybe they can make a phone call, or send an e-mail, or attend a nearby demonstration.
We are at a crucial moment in this country. We’ve essentially had a coup; we have a man in the White House who was not elected and who is pushing us into policies that the majority of the people don’t support. Around eight hundred people of Middle Eastern descent were arrested after September 11 and held without access to lawyers or family. Some of them may still be in jail. We’ve seen new laws that threaten our civil rights and an Office of Homeland Security that threatens our privacy and liberty. Now George W. Bush is attempting to unleash an offensive war against Iraq that is supported neither by the majority in this country nor by the international community. The question is, are we going to allow him to do that?
I don’t think right now we have the luxury of keeping silent and focusing on our personal lives. If we want to live in a democratic country, this is the moment to stand up and demand our country back, because we may not have the option of doing so later.
Thompson: When I suggest ways for my apolitical friends and relatives to get involved, they tell me that I’m out of touch with the reality of average people’s lives.
Starhawk: I know what it’s like for people who work hard on their jobs and for their families — that’s part of why we’re organizing. But if we are to win, it’s going to require people going outside their comfort zones, pushing beyond what they think they have time for. At a certain point, people have to ask themselves: What is really important to me? Where did I get the idea that I don’t have time to be a citizen, to be active in my community? Am I working for something I don’t really need or want? Is there a way I can integrate my values and priorities into my family life? Could I sit down with my kids and say, “Let’s write to our Representative,” or, “Let’s make this phone call as a family and let the president know what we think”?
Thompson: I had a boss who would give us an afternoon off once a month to write letters to politicians.
Starhawk: That’s a great example of how democratic values can be integrated into the workplace. What if, in our workplaces, we had not just family leave — and we’re still struggling for that — but also citizen leave, time for us to participate in our communities?
Thompson: Many people don’t bother writing to politicians because they feel that it doesn’t make a difference.
Starhawk: It depends on how you do it. E-mail petitions are basically a waste of time, because they are unverifiable. Phone calls are more effective. Writing letters by hand has the most impact. There’s a trade-off between time and effectiveness. It’s better to send an e-mail than to do nothing.
If you have more time, you can gather a group of friends and form an affinity group, which is a small group of people who get together to discuss and act on issues affecting their community. Talk to your neighbors and ask them what the problems and issues in the neighborhood are. The next time you find yourself complaining about something in your town or neighborhood, start thinking about how to change it.
For different perspectives on the issues, you can read alternative news sources. The website www.indymedia.org has links to independent media centers in more than a hundred different places all over the world. A lot of alternative newspapers and journals are online. The Guardian, in England, has more of a left Labor slant than any newspaper in this country.
We need to reach out to that mass of people who are working full-time jobs and trying to get the kids to school and maybe even clean the house from time to time. We need to find ways for them to participate and make their voices heard.
Thompson: You recently traveled to Europe to lead some workshops on activism. How were your methods received by activists over there?
Starhawk: Here in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, there is an openness to bringing spirituality, magic, ritual, drums, dance, art, and so on into activism. In Europe, though, people are often suspicious of anything too emotional or intuitive being linked to political movements, partly because of how the Nazis played on people’s emotions. At the same time, some people are really hungry for it.
Thompson: What reactions did Europeans have to recent U.S. threats of war with Iraq?
Starhawk: People there look at the U.S. with a combination of awe and horror, as if we were a formerly close relative who is having a paranoid psychotic episode. They can’t understand why we would contemplate invading Iraq. There is tremendous opposition to it.
In England, people are disturbed by how much Tony Blair follows Bush’s lead, instead of sticking to the Labor platform on which he was elected. At the same time, I would say it’s not so much a political turn to the right in Europe as a deepening polarization. There is a tremendously strong progressive movement there, in many ways stronger than any we’ve been able to mobilize in the U.S. In Genoa, there are strong Communist parties and a huge traditional left, yet the government is controlled by proto-Fascists — and I don’t use the term loosely; these are direct descendants of Mussolini’s regime.
There is a future clearly laid out for us in which decision-making power belongs to those who have the money. . . . We will have less and less freedom, less and less of the services we need to sustain life and community, less and less of all the things people really care about and love.
Thompson: Have people been more involved or less involved in activism following September 11?
Starhawk: Globally, more people are involved. In Europe there have been huge demonstrations that we don’t hear much about. In the U.S., I think there are certainly more people who are disturbed and discontent, but most of them aren’t quite sure what to do. Involvement has increased in local communities, but that hasn’t always translated into mobilization around global-justice issues. People in this country are more concerned about war and the infringement of civil liberties following September 11, as opposed to economic issues.
Thompson: What do you think the president should have done after September 11?
Starhawk: If I had been president, I would have presented the tragedy as an opportunity for us to show the values that America is supposed to stand for, and the first value is justice, which means we don’t leap to conclusions, or retaliate against innocent people, or target an entire group of people because of the actions of a few individuals. We also shouldn’t curtail liberty and freedom in the name of security. And we should look upon those attacks as a crime, not an act of war, because if we define them as an act of war, then we have made the perpetrators into soldiers and thus potential war heroes in the eyes of some.
We could let our grief and loss bring us together as a community. The only good thing about such a tragic event is that it reveals how much we care about each other. We can never heal the pain of those who have lost loved ones, but we can do everything possible to support those families and communities and share the secondary economic burdens.
Thompson: But what about protecting and defending ourselves?
Starhawk: First we should thoroughly investigate why the agencies that are supposed to be protecting and defending us missed this one. A year later, we see that we did have enormous forewarning of these attacks and that deliberate decisions were made to curtail investigations that could have protected us. Before we throw huge amounts of money at these agencies or set up new ones, we should investigate why they failed. Otherwise we’re just making things worse.
Thompson: Some people think the FBI had prior knowledge of September 11, and perhaps even played a role in making it happen.
Starhawk: We need to clear the air in this country. If we can spend several years and millions of dollars to investigate Bill Clinton’s sex life, certainly we can investigate how this occurred. Was it massive incompetence, or something much worse? Unless we have that investigation now, we are never going to restore faith and confidence in our government, because masses of people will quietly suspect that the FBI and the CIA were actually a part of this, one way or another: either by actively participating, or by closing their eyes to it.
Thompson: What’s next for the global-justice movement?
Starhawk: We need local actions that can bring the issues home. The front lines of globalization are everywhere, because the policies impact every community. It’s time to expand beyond the large summit-meeting protests, although they will always be important. There are several large protests shaping up. The WTO is meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in September 2003, and in November, the Free Trade Area of the Americas is meeting in Miami.
The groups I work with have also been thinking about protest as a way to create a disruptive moment of public beauty as well as a chance to express outrage. In January, around the World Economic Forum, we did a spontaneous spiral dance under the big blue arched dome in Grand Central Station. It was an amazing example of reclaiming a public space. A lot of people joined in, and even more watched in fascination. The police formed a circle around us, and at the end, one cop came up and said, “Well, I feel better now.”
Another possibility is something along the lines of the old consciousness-raising groups, to get people connected to their neighbors and allow them to act locally. Then, at moments of national crisis, they could join together with other groups to take organized action. For example, when the Supreme Court handed the election to Bush, I think most of us were in shock, and as a result, there was no real political response. If we’d had a network of groups organized, we could have blockaded every courtroom and federal building in the country. Then something might have changed. Without networks in place, it’s hard to suddenly shift all your energy to dealing with an unexpected event.
Thompson: What questions should we be asking ourselves right now?
Starhawk: It’s always a good time to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. There is a future clearly laid out for us in which decision-making power belongs to those who have the money, and their decisions will support short-term profit value, making every other human and natural value subordinate to it. We will have less and less freedom, less and less of the services we need to sustain life and community, less and less of all the things people really care about and love.
Global climate change is a reality now. In the future that will mean, at minimum, huge losses from storms, hurricanes, and floods; the oceans will rise anywhere from ten to fifty feet. I was just in Holland, looking at their beautiful towns and cities and wondering if they’re going to end up underwater. Most major coastal cities, as well as those located on great rivers, lakes, and flood plains, will be devastated.
That’s the future that’s laid out for us. We cannot passively drift along and expect that things will turn out well. If we don’t want that future, we have to stand up and say no. We want a future built on values we really care about, those great American values of liberty and justice for all. We know that renewable energies can mitigate the effects of climate change. We know it’s possible, if we put our political, scientific, and intellectual will behind it, to provide for our human needs in ways that don’t pollute the planet. We know that it’s possible to have a system that provides everyone with the means to make a livelihood and the opportunity to spend time with their families and be responsible citizens. That’s the other possible future before us. But it’s not going to be handed to us; we are going to have to stand up and fight for it.
And when we do fight, we can act not from hate or even anger, but always in the service of what we deeply and passionately love. My spirituality and my politics are based on what Carol Christ calls the “intelligent, embodied love” that is the essence of the sacred, whether you call it “Goddess” or “God” or something else entirely. To act with courage in alignment with the great creative forces of the universe is a joyful thing. It’s what we’re here in this life to do. And those same powers will sustain us through whatever troubles arise, no matter how grim the situation may seem. Ultimately, creativity and love will prevail.