The Truth About Lisa Fithian

Friday, October 14.  I come back from two days on the ranch, where some rodent had chewed up the internet cables, and learned that Fox News had done a hit piece on Occupy Wall Street and targeted my dear friend Lisa Fithian.

What do you do when a friend is slimed by Fox News?  If you respond, do you simply feed the venom?  But if you don’t respond, do their lies stand, unchallenged?  Or is it a badge of honor to be called out by Fox, however nasty it feels?

I’m not sure what the most strategic course of action is.  But I can’t stand by in silence when a good friend is smeared.  So I want to put on record some of what I know about Lisa Fithian.

I first met Lisa in Seattle, in the run-up to the 1999 blockade of the World Trade Organization.  I saw her across a sea of young, dread-locked activists in the warehouse we used as a convergence center.  Lisa was facilitating the meeting, smiling, cheering, moving like a dancer, infusing the group with her energy and positive vision.  “Wow,” I thought, “I could do that!”  My own style of facilitation was much more low-key, neutral, dull.  But in a crowd that size, I saw instantly that her style was much more effective.  That was the first thing Lisa taught me—but not the last.

A few days later, we met in jail.  In some of the interminable shuffling and transferring of groups, we ended up together for a short time, and had a moment to meet and talk.  I liked her instantly—she was smart and funny.  I had showed up a few days early to help with trainings, but Lisa was one of the core organizers for the blockade, and I was struck with the depth of her insights into the strategy. But we ended up in separate cell blocks, and that was the end of our conversations for the moment.

We met up again in Washington, DC, at the April blockade of the IMF/World Bank.  Later that year, I and Hilary McQuie decided to form a training collective.  Hillary had also been a core organizer in Seattle, and she suggested we ask Lisa to join.  We created Root Activist Network of Trainers, or RANT, which later became Alliance of Community Trainers, or ACT.  http://www.trainersalliance.org/.

The following spring, Lisa and I trained groups together in Quebec City for the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.  We ran together through streets choked with tear gas, helping to maneuver a Pagan cluster of up to ninety people and an unwieldy giant water puppet through streets that resembled a war zone, offering our energy, our impromptu rituals and spiral dances.  At the end of a long, exhausted day, Lisa was still eager to go out and see what was happening.  I realized that I’d finally met someone who had far more energy and stamina than me!

Lisa and I have now worked together, trained together, and run in the streets together for over a decade.  I continue to learn from her.  For one thing, she is far more courageous than I am by nature, willing to push the edges.  In New York City in early 2002, we helped to organize a march against the World Economic Forum which met in New York after 911.  All the usual union groups and progressive groups were scared to organize in the climate of fear after the attacks, but some of the local anarchists managed to pull together a legal, permitted march.  But on the day, the police controlled the space, ‘kettling’ people by fencing us off block by block and holding groups for long periods of time.  A planned rally was abandoned.  Dispirited, our Pagan Cluster retired to the Food Court at Grand Central.  A group of the local organizers found us there and asked us to come upstairs and help them create a spiral dance.  We trooped up, and began spiraling and singing:

“We will never, never lose our way,

To the well of liberty.

And the power of her living flame,

It will rise, it will rise again.”

I was drumming and leading the spiral, Lisa at my side.  After a turn or two, I was ready to stop.

“Keep spiraling,” she hissed.

“I’m on probation,” I reminded her.

“Just keep spiraling,” she insisted.

So we did.  I looked up at one point and realized we had invoked a perfect circle of riot cops.  We had hundreds of activists in the spiral, and commuters hanging off the balconies, watching.  Finally, one of the security guards had had enough.  He waded in, throwing his hands up in frustration.  We took that as our cue, raised our arms and turned the chant into a long, solid tone, a cone of power.  In the stillness as it died away, a woman began to sing “Amazing Grace.”  Hundreds of voices took up the melody, and it echoed back from the starry vault above our heads.  “I needed that,” one of the police murmured as we ended.

So many stories!  For more than ten years, I’ve been in situations with Lisa ranging from the absurb to the terrifying, from the inspiring to the devastating.  In the last few years, my focus has shifted somewhat, to other kinds of teaching and writing.  But Lisa has kept on teaching, training and organizing.  She has helped janitors to bargain for better pay, and students to organize their college campuses.  She’s mentored anti-nuclear activists at Los Alamos and made alliances with indigenous groups defending their lands from contamination. She’s worked with all kinds of people from all walks of life.  In the last years, she and others have worked tirelessly to help ordinary people organize campaigns against the corrupt banks and greedy financial institutions.  While no one person can claim credit for Occupy Wall Street, Lisa has certainly made a huge contribution.  The thousands of young activists that she’s trained and inspired bring a level of skill and understanding to the movement that surely have helped it grow and spread.

Lisa trains people to confront abusive power with nonviolence.  She believes in the power of ordinary people to organize, take action, and change the systems that oppress them, and works tirelessly to support such efforts wherever she finds them.

Her work hasn’t brought her a big car, a fancy house or even a pension and a retirement plan.  It has brought her the satisfaction of knowing she’s made a difference, that she’s put her life at the service of justice, and because of her work, there’s a bit more of it around.

She’s no saint.  She can be pig-headed stubborn, and we’ve had our arguments over the years.  But I want her by my side, when it all comes down.

Here’s what I’ve learned from her:

Think about the whole.  Anticipate needs, and how to fill them.  Be strategic.  Push the edges in the cause of justice.  Take space boldly, and hold your ground.  Take action not just from anger at injustice, but out of love for all you cherish.  Never waver in your faith that we, the ordinary people of the world, can shape our fate and take our future into our own hands.  Just keep spiraling!

In the end, no lies or smears can stand against the power of love brought into action.  Lisa lives her love, every day, and so we love her back, and that love stands as a shield of protection and a beacon of truth.

I’m so proud to be her friend.

Lisa’s website is http://organizingforpower.wordpress.com/

ACT’s website is http://trainersalliance.org/

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