by Nozomi Ikuta
Shortly after Madiba was released from prison on February 11, 1990, he traveled to New York, where he was greeted as an international hero. As the coordinator of a project related to the World Council of Churches – an organization that had stood up for the African National Congress (ANC) in the days when it was widely regarded in the United States as a “terrorist organization” – I was offered a ticket to the event. The jockeying for tickets was fierce, so I magnanimously gave up mine. A second ticket came my way, and I gave that one up, too. Afterwards, I heard the testimonies of the people who attended. They described it as a transcendent, life-transforming experience. I feigned interest, but the embarrassing truth is that even though I intellectually understood the significance of both the man and the moment, in my bones, I didn’t really get it.
Even worse, that was neither the first, nor last, of my missed opportunities to get it. Twelve years earlier, in college, I had attended a meeting of the student anti-apartheid group. They were planning a takeover of the college’s board of trustees meeting; I decided that my parents had invested too much money in my education for me to risk getting in trouble, so I gave it a pass. (Years later, at a symposium honoring the group’s advisor, Paul Wellstone, after his untimely death, the students who had chosen their consciences over their transcripts described the action – the assertiveness of the activists who surrounded the trustees was enhanced by the mirrors of the dance studio where the trustees had been meeting, presumably contributing to their eventual decision to divest.)
Ironically, just a little more than a year later, I found myself assigned to arguably the most radical staff portfolio at the national offices of the United Church of Christ (UCC). I suspect that I was hired primarily on the strength of my credentials as peace activist, having culminated my seminary-era disarmament work with a bike trip from New York to Hiroshima to stop nuclear weapons. When I applied for the job, I mistakenly thought that it primarily served the caucuses of people of color; I did not realize that it involved tough issues like support for farmworkers, refugees, immigrants, and political prisoners.
During my first year, I managed to settle into the work with farmworkers, refugees, and immigrants, launching, I thought, a successful career as a church bureaucrat. I could not figure out how to get the ball rolling in the work with political prisoners, though, as my memos and requests for inter-departmental meetings had gone unanswered.
In the fall of 1992, three fateful events and decisions changed my life. The first was an immersion experience in Hawai’i, where we were invited to visit an encampment resisting the construction of a highway through 38 sacred sites. True to form, I declined to take part, afraid of being delayed and missing a mandatory staff meeting back home at headquarters. Like the people who had gone to see Mandela two years before, the rest of the delegation, who did visit the encampment, came back aglow. Like the other two times, I had once again failed a moral test; unlike the other two times, I had wearied of turning my back on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. When I got home, I began preparing my family, my co-workers, and myself for some form of civil disobedience the next time that God and circumstance required it.
The second was a human rights conference denouncing the quincentenary “celebration” of the “discovery” of the Americas. When a law professor in a blue suit began accusing the United States of genocide and other human rights violations, I found myself trembling, slumping in my chair, and worrying that my children would be kidnapped and tortured while I was out of town at the conference. Instinctively I realized what I had known, all along — that the rights enshrined in the First Amendment were never intended to allow such a naked articulation of dissent.
And third, instead of waiting for the bureaucrats at the UCC to respond to my memoranda. I decided just to write, and then visit, some of the political prisoners. They were truly the most remarkable people I had ever met. Puerto Rican independentistas, former Black Panther, Black Liberation Army, and American Indian Movement members, and white anti-imperialists – they had different histories, backgrounds, and trajectories, but they shared a common willingness to transcend their fears and desires for comfort and security for the sake of the larger quest for freedom and justice. I did not necessarily agree with all of their beliefs, but the risks and sacrifices they had made for theirs challenged me to ask myself what I would be willing to do for the sake of my own. Through the course of many encounters, the line dissolved that had separated them as militants from me as a pacifist. To paraphrase Gandhi, meeting these courageous people as living, breathing human beings helped me see that our common commitment to the pursuit of justice transcended the particular tactics we had chosen to employ.
That same year, in 1992, supporters of the Puerto Rican political prisoners published a booklet entitled More than a Decade, calling on then-President Bush (senior) to release the prisoners in light of the more than ten years they had already spent behind bars; seven years later, President Clinton heeded the call and commuted the sentences of most of them. Now, 14 years since the other Puerto Rican prisoners came home and more than two decades after the publication of “More than a Decade,” only one Puerto Rican political prisoner of that era, Oscar López Rivera, remains behind bars.
Ever humble, Oscar may object to being likened to Madiba. But the similarities are not lost on the rest of us – his nation of Puerto Rico as a whole, the myriad religious leaders, elected officials, and celebrities who have stepped forward to advocate for his freedom, or the friends and family who are privileged to know him personally. We see a similar brilliance, courage, and concern for others. We see the same “terrorist” label and charge of seditious conspiracy. And we understand the true purpose of the labels – to keep the general public from understanding the greatness of these men and women whom the government has locked away, or the history or causes for which they have sacrificed their lives and liberty.
Twenty-three years ago, the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. I wish I had understood more deeply then the significance of that moment. Nine years later, when most of the Puerto Rican political prisoners came home, I did understand the significance of the moment. No tickets were required, but if they were, I would not have given up mine for the world.
The work is far from done. Oscar, Leonard, Mumia, Sundiata, Sekou, Mutulu, Lynne, and so many others have yet to walk through the bars, although most of them have spent more than Mandela’s 27 years in prison. President Obama says he recognizes Mandela’s greatness, as well he should, and as, at long last, I do, too. Only God knows how much longer Madiba will be with us, but President Obama can honor his legacy by exercising his presidential power to bring Oscar and the others home.
After several misses along the way, I finally got it. Let’s hope President Obama does too, and soon.
Nozomi Ikuta is pastor of Denison Avenue United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. She previously worked in the national offices of the United Church of Christ as director of Liberation Ministries, and she has served as co-chair of the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project for many years. Nozomi’s mother was born in Japan and came to the United States in the early 1950s after World War II. After serving in the U.S.Army, Nozomi’s father joined the rest of his family in Cleveland after their release from a concentration camp in Poston, Arizona. Her family’s experiences of war and discrimination instilled in her a concern for racial, social, and economic justice and human rights.