December 3, 1970: I was 19. I knew enough about the US war in southeast Asia to know it was wrong. I had protested since 1968, and especially after it became known in April 1970 that Nixon had secretly bombed Cambodia, I was outraged along with the world. But here, 7 months later, I was in The White House, about to receive the “Young American Medal for Service” from Richard Nixon.
There’s a longer story to why I was being awarded, and the conflict I felt at the prospect of receiving a humanitarian award from the commander in chief of a genocidal war. I felt responsible to global humanity, somehow knowing that what I did could have an impact, but weighed down by the prospect of going against my own conscience by even going to the White House. That morning, the Blue Room was jammed with press and politicians. What would I say or do? After months of anticipation, I still didn’t know.
But Nixon helped me find my voice. He gave a pat, patronizing speech about “these are the good youth — they’re not out protesting.” Oh, hell no! We WERE protesting, getting beaten, jailed, and some killed for opposition to the war and the system of white supremacy. Just one year earlier, on December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader slightly older than I was, had been shot to death in his bed by Chicago police under federal direction and J. Edgar Hoover’s goal of eliminating – literally – the Black Panthers. I had toured the apartment where Fred & Mark Clark were killed, days after the murders. And here was Hoover himself hovering behind me (that’s half of him in the photo). I was shaking with indignation and rage at these arrogant, evil men.
When Nixon came to hand me the medal, I said, “I don’t believe you are sincere in giving this award because you’re responsible for killing millions in Vietnam.” His face drained of color and he sputtered. He couldn’t answer, because the government he led didn’t have an answer. I would have said more, but he raced out of the room. The news story all over the world was “Girl Tells Nixon to End War.” In the days before social media, getting thousands of letters meant millions of people had seen it, and many felt the message spoke for them. There was also plenty of hate mail and threats.
In the interviews I did at the time, I see a consistent moral theme of caring about humanity; I already saw myself not as an “American,” but as someone in solidarity with people of the world. I aspired for “revolution” to end to the lopsidedness of rich countries over poor, and identified with oppressed people, which is why I did what I did as a teenager in working for justice. But even then, I recognized the vastness of what I didn’t know. Good works were not going to solve these systemic problems, and I wanted to know how to change the world.
It was my good fortune as a very young person to have, by the time I met Nixon in 1970, mixed with and learned from religious activists who put their lives in service to the poor and were arrested for anti-war actions; Native people on and off the reservations; young Black Panther revolutionaries and civil rights leaders; draft resisters, anti-war veternas and student protesters; radicals and reformers from many countries; and to have had the great Fannie Lou Hamer as the friend and house guest of my parents, opening my eyes to Mississippi share-cropping life and the power of words and history to move people. That was the tumultuous and great part of the 60’s!
What put my life on a committed course to know and change the world was meeting Bob Avakian and others who went on, 45 years ago, to the form the Revolutionary Communist Party, and from whom I have learned, among many other things, the basics of looking objectively at the material economic base underlying global, systemic injustice, and the importance of how people think as the essential part of emancipating humanity. And most importantly that the world doesn’t have to be as it is. I have kept learning, challenged by the vision in a Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, and the complexity of making such a revolution as a contribution to people across the globe. Over the years, I have worked to keep the aim of a world without exploitation, white supremacy, patriarchy and xenophobia in the forefront, as I have organized people to stop numerous U.S. wars; defend abortion providers; stop police murder of Black, brown & native peoples; and most recently to stop the open “American” fascism led by Trump & Pence, which nearly consolidated power, did huge damage, and remains an existential threat to humanity.
If you appreciate this history, join in a virtual gathering Sunday at 5:00 pm EST. See below.
I’m collecting donations for two causes close to my heart & being:
>> Donate to RefuseFascism.org on my personal page. Support a movement of people coming from diverse perspectives, united in our recognition that the Trump/Pence Regime poses a catastrophic danger to humanity and the planet. We, fighting for a just world, need to be mobilized, taking to the streets, non-violently, but determined, to this hateful American fascism.
>> Support the RNL (Revolution – Nothing Less) Show, weekly on YouTube and rooted in the new communism forged by the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian, hosted by Andy Zee along with other members of the Revolution Tour. The world is a nightmare for the masses of people worldwide, but it doesn’t have to be. Revolution and a whole better world IS possible.
I always thought, one day, I’d have a party to thank all the people who have taught, helped, and joined in with me along the way. When it occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that anniversary is 50 years TODAY, and with the pandemic as bad now as ever, I decided to invite you to a virtual gathering. All friends, long time & new, and everyone else interested… stop by to chat on Sunday.
Sunday December 20
5:00 pm EST with Debra on Zoom
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with info on how to join by video or phone.
AUDIO Highlights from recent RefuseFascism.org forum, and a short interview with me:
>> On the Inside with #OutNOW podcast this week, Indi Samarajiva (@indica, author of viral piece I Lived Through A Stupid Coup. America Is Having One Now), Jeff Sharlet (@jeffsharlet, author of The Family, now a Netflix documentary and This Brilliant Darkness), Andy Zee (The RNL Show, co-initiator of RefuseFascism.org), and Coco Das (@Coco_Das, editor of RefuseFascism.org) about the Trump coup and what’s next. Sam Goldman interviews Debra Sweet (@Debra__Sweet) about confronting Richard Nixon face-to-face 50 years ago.
Debra Sweet, Director, The World Can’t Wait