February 9, 2017—Puerto Rican Patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera is now free! Transferred this morning to San Juan, Puerto Rico, he will not be able to travel, hold meetings, give speeches or statements until his official date of clemency on May 17, 2017. He will serve his last days till then in a US federal facility in Puerto Rico. But he will be able to see his beloved daughter, granddaughter, siblings and family, to eat the foods of his youth, to see “the water’s edge” of which he profoundly wrote during his 35 years behind bars for the thought-crime of seditious conspiracy. He is on his homeland, and though he cannot yet feel the full force of the embrace of the entire peoples of Puerto Rico, he is nonetheless surrounded by that love and solidarity.
The piece “On Our Duty to Celebrate Oscar”—which I (Matt Meyer) wrote some weeks ago—seems more poignant than ever today. It suggests that human rights activists, and lovers of peace and justice everywhere have a responsibility to analyze and understand this case in the most positive and strategic of lights. Seditious conspiracy may have been Oscar’s convicted crime, and he did indeed serve years in solitary confinement and prison for thinking and planning with others how best to liberate his people, but the process and progress of movements for liberation have not been wholly shackled in this period. Oscar’s victory today, and ours, is indicative of a growing momentum as people’s movements take a more coordinated, conscious, and concrete shape. If we do not take time to celebrate advances even in the midst of bleak times, we will not be able to strategically envision or enact other winnable campaigns on the road to ultimate victory. Oscar’s thinking and planning has continued up to this very day, and so must ours.
Someone commenting on my article pulled out a single quote, which she titled “HOW TO DO IT, ONE SENTENCE.”
I wrote that the victory of the movement to free Puerto Rican patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera was based on the “consistently-held, vigorously-fought, simple but stalwart commitment to decades-long, door-to-door, community-to-community, email-to-email (or tweet-to-tweet) building of a massive, grassroots-led single-minded campaign.” The original article explains a lot more, but I now think it is timely to break that one sentence down a bit:
Thirty-five years might seem like a long time, but “IT” can mean more than simply the freedom of a single man. On a related and topical matter, some are saying that we simply don’t have time to do the diligent work of organization-building. If the “IT” we are talking about is getting rid of one figure-head and the only foreseeable time-line is a four-year term of office, we will find ourselves trapped in certain tactics which are designed to fail in the long run. Better to think in long-term arcs, and understand that the phrase “freedom is a constant struggle” is more than simply rhetoric. We are fighting for nothing short of total liberation, and must build accordingly in campaigns which can envision and accomplish actual wins along the way towards bigger victories.
“Simple but stalwart” means that there is no magic potion, important to note given the magical thinking which too much of the left and liberal communities get trapped in. No “angel” among the elected officials or Nobel laureates had enough “pull” in the Obama administration to obtain Oscar’s clemency alone; their impact complimented but couldn’t effectively substitute for a mass movement. No technology made the win possible; one simply had to continue, year after year, to figure out ways of making the campaign exciting enough to broad groups of people. The work of the 33, 34, 35 Women for Oscar helped to do this; the “Oscar in the Street” life-size images of the man which seemed to show up everywhere also helped. But at the center was a never-give-up belief that we could win because we had to, and we had to keep doing the basic, slow, mass grassroots organizing because otherwise we would never win.
“Single-minded” means that, despite tremendous pressure to convert the campaign— especially once it began to show some mass support—into something about independence for all political prisoners or the economy or militarism, the campaign maintained a position that our greatest effectiveness would be in spotlighting our unity, that in our diversity we would speak with “One Voice for Oscar.” It is not that we would give up our principles, or forget the larger political framework which Oscar has steadfastly stood for. It is that we understand that winning campaigns—with their multiple, adjustable, shifting tactics—must stay sharply focused on a basic, unwavering, clearly-articulated goal. One goal will hopefully build towards another: the mass movement currently behind the Oscar “win” must not dissipate now that he is on this side of the walls. But, like any struggle, maintaining a movement—building new campaigns and their appropriate coalitions—will take hard, ongoing work. To wage an all-or-nothing, win-everything, fight-for-everything demand-everything-or-nothing-at-all, all-at-once approach, is an almost sure-fire way of losing. It is our duty to be more creative than that.
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