Clare Hanrahan


The Sacrificial Life: a conversation with Clare Hanrahan

The Indie  January 16, 2007

Clare Hanrahan, photo by Andrew WayneAt this beginning of a new year it seems appropriate to pause and take stock. For Indie loyalists this probably means something other than enduring the harsh judgment of a bathroom scale. It’s time to reflect on who we are and how we relate to the world. Western North Carolina is rich with people who consider such questions year round. I recently sat down with one of Asheville’s most doggedly persistent active citizens, Clare Hanrahan, to get her take on where she is, where we are, and what’s next.

The assumption of personal responsibility for peace and social justice has been a lifelong calling for Clare. Born into a socially committed Catholic family, she grew up in the Memphis of the Civil Rights movement. “We were taught that patriotism and love of country demand personal risk,” she says. Two of her brothers volunteered for the Marines and were wounded in Vietnam. “As a young teenager it was a real shocker for me about war and the aftermath of war. [My brothers and their buddies] were kicked to the curb and discarded. It had a deep effect on me.” So did the assassination of Dr. King. “I didn’t know how to effect change in a large way, but I didn’t want to be a part of [racial apartheid and the destructiveness of war]. Tolstoy, or someone, said noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. That rang true for me; I decided to try to live that.”

Twenty years ago, with a young daughter in tow, she landed in St. Petersburg, Florida. Confronted by the problem of homeless mothers and children in that city, she founded a homeless shelter. ASAP Homeless Services is still in operation, complete with some of the original volunteer staff. Clare has deeply mixed feelings about that. “It’s gratifying that it’s sustained, but it’s sad that it had to, because the problem hasn’t gone away. Those women and children need homes not just a band-aid.” ASAP volunteers tell her the number of homeless people and the amount of need in St. Petersburg continues to increase.

Despite some real social gains during the past thirty years, Clare believes inequity and injustice in America have worsened overall. “Are we in our lifetime going to see justice prevail? I don’t think so. Maybe only in those circles and communities where we can effect change directly. I think we have to relinquish some of the privilege we enjoy in this country. Individually we need to be about realizing our slice of the world resources is too big. These wars persist because we’re not ready to give up that big piece of pie. Insecurity is what we impose on the rest of the world to maintain what we have, but we’re not willing to live with much of it ourselves. Insecurity is not comfortable, but I think it’s the truth of the world. [Security] is an illusion we’re loathe to give up.”

Her long-term war tax resistance and voluntary poverty cut against conventional wisdom. “I’m disturbed by all the wealth,” she says. “It seems like there’s an awful lot of people just trying to get theirs now. They feel a sense of chaos coming, an unsettling and shifting. Instead of the big question of how we can collectively deal with this it’s, “Oh, man, I’d better get mine.’” Not long ago a trip to Texas revealed how severe the problem has become. “I visited households where there wasn’t a single piece of alternative literature, where there seemed to be little interest in world affairs beyond who would win the talent contests on TV. It was a total disconnect from the horrors of the war and degradation of the environment—concerns that always stay in my mind. It was disturbing to realize that these global threats are simply not on their radar. They’re busy with making money, shopping and spending the money, and entertaining themselves with whatever is being put through the television. And I was like, no wonder things are as they are. It’s very different from Asheville, where people find their niche of activism and invite others to join them in working on it.”

I asked whether some of our fellow Americans might be trying to build personal security capsules at the expense of community. “Can you blame folks? Part of me wants a security capsule. Everybody wants a personal security capsule now and again. And that probably only comes in relationships and in community with one another.”

The notion of security through community rather than things or privilege may seem odd to some people. “I believe our wealth is in our relationships and the building of trust with each other. When I go down to the School of the Americas (SOA) gathering, I’m among 20,000 people. . . . We may not agree on every detail or class privilege, but we all agree on the need to spend part of our life and resources to make the world a better place. That community of people is a good one to be in.”

Clare is best known for opposition to the SOA (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute on Security Cooperation or WHINSEC). Housed since 1984 at Ft. Benning, the SOA has trained Latin American soldiers in subjects including counter-insurgency and torture. Several graduates have gone on to infamous careers in military or paramilitary death squads. In November 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador were murdered by a death squad with SOA connections. Since then a group called SOA Watch has gathered each November at Ft. Benning for a mass protest demanding WHINSEC’s closure. As a consequence of her third trespass arrest during these annual events, Clare served a six-month federal prison sentence. Since then she’s written two books about the institutional evils she encountered inside.

I wondered whether the increasing political clout of Asheville’s progressive community might be a positive sign for change at the national level. Might we be seeing the dawn of a bottom-up political movement similar to the one the right wing began creating forty years ago? Clare wasn’t optimistic. “With the corruption on the national level, I’m not sure electoral politics has any impact. I wish I did. There are forces in control that are not going to be moved by who votes for whom. . . . I don’t think there’ll be any fundamental change. The war isn’t going to end until the funding for it is cut off. That’s where individually we make choices. Getting back to personal choices I’ve made; to not support war physically has definitely had an impact on the direction of my life. Has it made an impact on changing the war scene? No. But we do have collective power if we only believe it. Voices for Creative Nonviolence is organizing the Occupation Project, a campaign of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at ending the US war and occupation of Iraq. The campaign begins early in February with occupations at the offices of senators and representatives who haven’t pledged to vote against additional war funding. I hear this call and ask myself do I really . . . is that effective, will it wake anybody up?”

Still she chose to return to the gates of Ft. Benning last November at the conclusion of the Living the Dream March, a week of nonviolence education and action from Selma, Alabama, to Columbus, Georgia, where Ft. Benning is located. “Participants included veterans of the Civil Rights and peace/justice movements, US military veterans, students, singers, social workers, teachers, preachers, poets, and engineers coming together to march, learn, teach, pray, and sing—to birth a better world into being. On the march I heard stories from people who forty and fifty years ago struggled against forces that were out to kill them and did kill them, beat them, imprisoned them, and set dogs on them. They were so eager to share. To me the stories were a gift. How that’s going to change me? Hope may not be the word. There’s a sense we are a community that will prevail eventually. Dr. King said, ‘The arc of the universe is wide and bends toward justice.’ I’m convinced that’s the case.” 

What of her own developmental arc over the years? “Asheville is filled with the sort of people that make it a place where it’s easier to be good. It’s easier to live a life mindful of the impact on the planet and other folks. But I don’t have illusions about my thirty years of activism. I used to be very angry. I wanted to save every homeless person in Florida back when I was a younger woman. I thought if I just screamed loud enough and banged enough soup pots in the street I could wake up that city. I woke up a few people, and many are still sustaining the work there. . . . But [our troops are] still marching off to war. I couldn’t bar the doors to the recruiting station. How many people would I stop in that symbolic action?”

I asked about anger’s place in the social justice movement. “Everybody can’t behave as Dr. King wanted. He was one voice. The principle he tried to live out in his life is that violence would never bring about a better world. I don’t think you can choose to be angry or not. It’s an energy you tap into. Until you find a way to transform it—I think that’s what’s happening with me—you continually correct your course. It’s like a sharp edged sword. You have to be careful how you wield it. Sometimes you stow it.”

When I asked her advice to young activists, she began with the words of a ninety-five year old Civil Rights leader she’d met on the Living the Dream March. In 1965, Amelia Boynton Robinson was gassed, beaten, and left for dead on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma as she co-led a group of marchers across the river. “Bloody Sunday” and the worldwide distribution of a wire photo of Robinson’s beaten body were credited with aiding the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “The advice Amelia Boynton Robinson gave us—we were all young people to her. You keep standing up. You keep speaking out. You keep pointing out injustice. You keep not submitting to indignity. You continue. You continue to keep your eyes open and be unafraid to call for a better way and for a better world. And you put your feet and your energy and your body with others that are speaking out. If it means sometimes you go stand in the city square and make yourself visible, go do that. If that doesn’t call to you, if you’ve got to sit in on your congressman’s office to make him listen, go do that. If you’ve got to cross a fence because that’ll give you a journey into our horrendous torturous prison system, go do that. Then come out and talk about it. These are not times that allow us to take the easy road, but there are lots of roads. It’s got to do with temperament. It’s got to do with where we’re placed. It’s got to do with our own woundedness. Where have we been wounded and what does that woundedness tell us about the rest of the world? It gives us compassion, an empathy we may not otherwise have had.”

Clare is shepherding the publication of a new book, We Walk Out, But We Do Not Leave: A Re-entry Anthology From SOA Watch Prisoners of Conscience. Apart from her editorial and publishing responsibility, she’s unsure what’s around the next bend. “As I get older, a sense of wondering what’s next and how I’m going to meet tomorrow rises up more frequently. But when I’m really clear I know the whole truth is: we have the moment we’re in. We step forward in this moment and speak the truth as we see it in this moment. And we hope we can adjust our course as we go. I feel changes going on in my life. I’ve learned to pay attention to that. Right now I’m living with a great deal of uncertainty about next steps. Learning to live with uncertainty is a wealth, a good thing to have. I want to use what I have left to offer the world. I want to be able to focus and give in a way that helps turn around some of these horrors.”

Small unexpected acts can have their rewards. She was in the Atlanta airport recently when scores of young men and women marched past in formation, returning from Desert Storm. “They looked tired. The people in the airport stood and applauded. I was so conflicted by that. What were they applauding? You’ve done a good job over there, thank you? We’re so relieved you’re alive and you’re home? I could applaud that. Did the applause mean it was right to send our military over there in harm’s way to cause untold damage?” She also saw a young man waiting to ship out for Iraq and felt a need to connect with him. “He had the face and sense of dedication and right action my brothers had when they went to war. I told him I was a peace activist and was concerned about his safety. ‘I don’t agree with what you’re being sent over to do. Can we talk?’ We talked for thirty or forty minutes and ended up with a big hug afterwards. That felt so much better to me.”

So the struggle continues. “I’m certainly more humble than I was as a young person and more aware of my limitations. The problems are huger than I ever realized. There’s intentional wrongdoing. People aren’t homeless because other people aren’t aware of the problem. But it’s not black and white. I listened to the WHINSEC commandant, Col. Gilberto Perez, speaking on this last journey. It was a small venue where Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, and my friend Judy Cumbee, co-chair and lead organizer of the Living the Dream week of action, also spoke. Col. Perez is a human being who came as an immigrant from Cuba. He’s not this evil . . . it’s not black and white. Here’s this man who believes he’s paying back this country for his right to live in freedom. I’ve got to think that your conscience is your conscience; that deepest place in yourself is your barometer of right action. We need to be about helping each other to follow it. No one of us has the whole picture.”

Clare Hanrahan is the author of Jailed for Justice: A Woman’s Guide to Federal Prison Camp and Conscience & Consequence: A Prison Memoir. Both are available at Malaprops and Celtic WordCraft.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2007 all rights reserved



Copyright © 2007 michaelhopping.com