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ON THE SCENE: The spirit of John Brown lives

May 11, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines violence as the use of force so as to injure, abuse, damage or destroy. We tend to think of the use of physical force, but there is a multitude of ways of inflicting violence.

On a blustery Saturday afternoon, May 6, at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, on the 217th anniversary of the abolitionist's birth, John Brown Lives! gave the Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award to Don and Vivian Papson, founders of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Keeseville, Justicia Migrante, a Vermont social action agency, and environmental justice activist Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club. The Papsons, Justicia Migrante and Mair were all honored for their willingness to confront and shine a light on the roots of violence.

Brown believed that people had to shed their blood to end slavery, the then primary economic engine of the United States. Slavery was institutionalized violence on a grand scale. In the decades before the Civil War, slave-grown cotton represented half of all exports and nearly all the cotton used in Northern and British mills. Whether it was producing cotton or other commodities, slave labor generated a lot of wealth for businesses and individuals, and tax revenue for the government.

Article Photos

Aaron Mair and his daughter lay a wreath at the grave of abolitionist John Brown May 6.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Brown decided to demonstrate that those whose livelihoods benefited from slavery-generated wealth were not willing to freely give that up, nor the notion that they as self-described superior beings they had the right to subjugate others. His goal was to force change through sparking a revolt by those living in servitude. His plan failed, but his words and action ignited a climatic response.

The outcome was the Civil War, which even after the passage of the 15th Amendment, didn't result in the fair treatment for all either under the law or as a social norm. An outcome of the latter is exemplified by women yet receiving parity of pay or influence be it in business leadership, government, or other sectors.

As an example, last week U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell established a 12-person ACHA healthcare working group that includes not one single female senator.

Martha Swan, founder, and director of John Brown Lives!, opened the ceremonies. She reflected back on the pilgrimages to the farm initiated by the NAACP Philadelphia, how Jim Loewen, the author of "Lies my Teacher Told Me" described the 1920s and 1930s as the nadir of race relations in America, and how a year ago she "naively" felt our society had started a new chapter.

"I thought that we as a nation and culture had finally come to our senses," she said, a view she no longer holds.

"I think it's right and fair to judge every act of violence," said Swan. "I think it's right, it's fair, and it's our duty, but I think we need to look at what we call and understand as violence." Swan described that while as President George Washington used every power and instrument at his command to track down a female slave owned by his wife Martha who had run away from their plantation.

"Imagine a president using every power of the office to protect and increase his ill-gotten gains," said Swan. "So I ask you to think about what we call and judge as violence, and what we just treat as policy or a legislative act. What is a legislative act that takes away health care from 24 million people that seem to have been proposed without a care? What is that if not violence?"

Swan went on to talk about the unfairness of the high percentages of people of color in prison serving out harsh sentences not even handed out to many who are white or of wealth, and the impact of their treatment on their families loved ones and future prospects.

She gave other examples saying, "I am very concerned that we talk about violence, the many forms, and shapes that it takes."

Swan spoke of a call she had this past fall with the poet Rubin-Jackson, who presented last year. He shared his mom's advice for dealing with adversity, "Bloom where you are planted." For her, all the honorees achieved that ideal by naming violence for what it was and addressing it head on.

"I've often been confronted by violence as a historian," said Don Papson after he and his wife Vivien received the Spirit of John Brown Award. "What I've learned over the years is that we can only heal when we learned what happened and come to terms with it."

Don spoke of how his research has demonstrated that nearly every reform movement has started out peacefully and ended in bloodshed providing the crucifixion of Christ as an example. He feels that our opportunity is to change that dynamic through recognizing violence and addressing its root causes.

Four immigrant farmworkers from Vermont accepted the award for Justicia Migrante, an agency that was inspired by a tragic farm accident in 2009 to fight for safety, justice and legal protections for farmworkers as well as for immigrants. Their efforts have resulted changes in Vermont healthcare laws, and bias-free policing policies and training of police. Currently, they are lobbying Ben & Jerry's to take responsibility for farmworker rights abuses in their supply chain.

The concluding recipient of the Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award was Aaron Mair, whose initiation into climate justice was the struggle to close a solid-waste incinerator that's toxic soot, ash, and other substances were damaging the health and property values of mostly African-American residents of Arbor Hill in Albany. Back then when approaching the Sierra Club for help he was turned away, today he's its president and has led it to become a champion for environmental justice.

Mair spoke about how Joseph Laconte, a founder of the Eugenics Movement in America, was a mentor to John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and how his beliefs of the superiority of the white race influenced some founding policies of the Club.

"If we are talking about an organization that is trying to enlist humanity to save the planet, we must own that history," said Mair. "I have sought to free our agency from its ugly history because you can never have a conversation with communities of color without acknowledging and atoning for what we have done to cause their degradation. Now our planet is in crisis. We are facing the effects of anthropometric climate change, human selfishness. We must rise and come together to address this human cancer. If we are to save the planet, we must deal with the worst forms of human ecology, and that is racism. We must transcend this. We must come together as a collective."

By any measure, it was an intense series of presentations that included inspiring songs performed by the Rustic Riders and concluded with a wreath laying at the graves of John Brown and the raiders that fought alongside him at Harper's Ferry.

Here are three added bits of news: John Brown Lives! has been designated the official friends organization of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site; the Timbuctoo archeology project will be excavating at the farm in late June through July and welcomes the public to observe and discuss the process with the team members; and Mair is returning to Lake Placid to give the keynote address at the Adirondack Research Consortium annual conference on Wednesday, May 24 at the Lake Placid Conference Center.



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