Listen to Our Hearts’ Song
edited by the Santa Rita Women’s Book Collective
reviewed by Philip Favero
Recently, a neighbor came to my door holding a manuscript. She’s a retired librarian from Berkeley, California, and she handed me a document, titled Listen to Our Hearts’ Song: Women in Jail for Peace.
“Do you think some Quaker organization would want this for their library?” she asked. “Or might someone be interested in publishing it?” I offered to read the manuscript and think about her questions.
Inside the manuscript I found a letter, dated May 1989, which explained the manuscript’s origins. Edited by the Santa Rita Women’s Book Collective – Barbara Fanslow, Karen Engel, Jane Flood, and Deirdre Lashgari – Listen to Our Hearts’ Song is a multi-authored collection of essays, poems, drawings, songs, journal entries, and newspaper clippings. It chronicles the experiences of 507 women jailed on June 20, 1983, for obstructing traffic on roads leading to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco, California. In 1983, the laboratory was a nuclear weapon research and development center, and it remains so today.
The letter expressed the collective’s frustration over their failure to find a publisher for the book. In the end, they resorted to making 248 copies for a list of subscribers; my neighbor had received one of those copies.
The incarcerated women argued that they had broken one law “… in the name of a more urgent concern: averting the danger of a nuclear war.” Being jailed, they said, became an “experience in empowerment.” Refusing to accept “old order rules,” the women worked to transform their perceived powerlessness into individual and collective empowerment. They refused to be bullied by authorities who sought to weaken the anti-nuclear movement by imposing heavy fines, long jail terms, and probation.
During their incarceration, the women drew on various sources for inspiration and methods, primarily: First Amendment Constitutional Rights to petition authority; environmentalism; feminism; Native American world views; and Quaker faith and practice. They worked through various challenges: struggling to recognize tendencies toward hierarchical power relations and replacing them with horizontal participatory democracy and consensus-based decision-making; creating conflict resolution methods; rooting themselves in the concrete and immediate; respecting their diversity and making it a source of richness; and rejecting “the insidious illusion of powerlessness.” Their travails and triumphs were intense but lasted for less than two weeks; by July 4, 1983, all the women had been released from jail.
Listen to Our Hearts’ Song provides lessons Friends can use today: how to organize direct action protests that have local appeal as well as broad public appeal, getting a group together, and keeping it going. It also illustrates the powers of communal singing, arts and crafts, parading, storytelling, teach-ins and workshops, and fasting.
Quaker values – especially peace, integrity, and equality – provide criteria for distinguishing between honorable and dishonorable direct actions to petition government. Listen to Our Hearts’ Song provides an example of an honorable action. The protest was peaceful, using “no violence, verbal or physical toward any person” and not damaging any property. It was truth-seeking – asking, for example, for facts to be made public about the relationship between the laboratory and the University of California. It was respectful and caring for people within the group, between the group and authorities, particularly jail guards, and toward employees of the laboratory.
Having read, enjoyed, and learned from Listen to Our Hearts’ Song, I return to the questions posed by my neighbor and direct them, in turn, to you, the reader: Do you know some Quaker organization that would want this manuscript for their library? Or do you know someone who might be interested in publishing it? Please send your suggestions to me: Philip Favero, 363 Ambrose Lane NW, #L101, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. ~~~
– Philip Favero is a member of Agate Passage Friends Meeting (NPYM).