“Gull gliding against/gray-silver autumn sky/sees a vast miasma of greed/slowly encompass our entire planet …”
Dennis Brutus, once a prisoner of apartheid and now a voice for (among other causes) the environment, read his poem “Gull” via video to a packed meeting room at New York’s Judson Memorial Church Friday evening, September 18.
The event was “Stubborn Hope: Celebrating the Ongoing Struggle for Justice and Peace in Southern Africa,” the War Resisters League’s Annual Dinner and Peace Award presentation. This year, the Peace Award went to Brutus and two Zimbabwean groups, Women of Zimbabwe Arise! (WOZA) and Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ).
During a tribute to the ailing poet-activist (who was unable to travel from South Africa to accept the award), actor and playwright Vinie Burrows read his long poem, “Examining Shaky Foundations,” assailing South Africa’s post-apartheid government for its anemic truth and reconciliation process. Currently involved in a lawsuit against U.S. oil and automotive corporations for reparations to the victims of apartheid, Brutus linked the corporate greed that helped support apartheid with today’s environmental degradation during a live videophone appearance and a pre-filmed acceptance speech. “It’s literally as if the corporations are attacking the earth itself–the planet is under attack, so of course, we must fight back, to try and save our planet,” he said, to the loudly approving audience. Brutus was also able to watch the entire program via videophone and to converse privately with some old friends attending the event. The next day, Brutus sent “a big hug” to everyone connected with the event, and said he had been “very inspired the whole time.”
The room voiced equally ardent enthusiasm when organizer and writer Kenyon Farrow accepted the award for GALZ. “True peace can only come with the presence of justice and human rights,” he said, having reflected on LGBT struggles on the African continent. And when Sadie Healy, accepting the award for WOZA, recounted her experience of a defiant WOZA protest in the face of repression by Zimbabwe’s Mugabe government, her concluding cry of their slogan, “Woza Moya!” (“Come, healing wind!”) brought down the house.
Finally, WRL also presented the first Grace Paley Lifetime Achievement Award to World War II conscientious objector and pan-Africanist Bill Sutherland. Also ailing, Sutherland, too, was unable to accept the award in person, but his granddaughter, Rachel Sutherland-Phillips, spoke stirringly of his lifelong commitment to working for peace and justice.
The award presentations were punctuated by stirring performances of African-themed music and poetry by Mbira New York, Zimbabwean poet Fungai Oliver Maboreke, Mahina Movement, and activist-singer Matt Jones, co-founder of the civil rights-era SNCC Freedom Singers.
The evening also marked the triumphant return of WRL’s Annual Dinner. Longtime WRL caterers—Joanne Sheehan and Rick Gaumer, who are Pacifeast and also the staff of WRL’s New England office—prepared a pan-African feast of Senegalese mafe, South African fruit curry, millet, and corn bread. The food was received with the same enthusiasm that greeted the program and the honorees.
The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Anglican Church of Southern Africa, and Nobel Peace Laureate, may have best summed up the event in the statement he sent. “We have long understood,” he declared, “that militarism around the world is fueled by racism and, indeed, by every suppression of human rights. For the War Resisters League to expand its Peace Award to the international community by honoring WOZA, GALZ, and Dennis [and my dear friend Bill Sutherland] tonight is but another step in its eighty-six-year history of linking efforts for peace with efforts for justice.”
Check out our gallery of photos from the 2009 Peace Awards!