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To Honor Parks, Stand Up, Demand More of America

By Donna Britt
Friday, November 4, 2005

When it comes to activism, some of us are sitters.

Like many then-youngsters, I "experienced" the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War on TV from my living room couch. No one I knew burned a draft card or a bra. As a young adult, I've often sat as others marched for causes in which I believed.

Now I'm a columnist, someone who's paid to comment on what I observe while sitting.

As a personal and professional sitter, I've been intrigued by Rosa Parks's passing. A worldwide outpouring of grief and admiration -- not to mention her lying in honor, a privilege previously accorded no other woman -- resulted.

For sitting.

Staying in that bus seat was a dangerous act, Parks's bold response to racism's daily, soul-crunching indignities. Sitting when the likely result was being cursed, spat on or smacked -- and almost certainly jailed -- was more powerful than any shouted words or cement-slapping feet.

Sitting changed the world.

Today, sitting is something else altogether.

Some sit because it's all they can muster after meeting life's demands. Others sit because it's the best position from which to engage "Lost," friends, newspapers and/or computers. Unlike Parks, they sit not because of the day's outrages but despite them.

Many remain seated even as acts that they feel warrant howls and protestations mount:

A bitter war started in spite of most Americans' objections, based on claims of a hostile nation's weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that not only didn't exist, but that the officials who touted them knew were unlikely to exist.

A president who vacationed as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history unfolded, decimating a venerable American city and killing almost 1,300 of its Gulf region residents -- the same president who months earlier cut short another vacation to defy a grieving husband and the medical establishment to attempt to keep one brain-damaged woman on life-support.

The unmasking of a CIA agent as punishment for her husband's criticism of the war -- and the apparent lying about that unmasking by representatives of the highest levels of government.

Two disappointing choices for the highest court of a spectacularly diverse nation -- one, an unqualified woman whose nomination signaled clueless cronyism; the other, a conservative, Ivy League white man on a court on which all four categories are richly represented.

American servicemen and -women treating Iraqi prisoners abominably in prisons whose operations are only marginally transparent -- and the discovery that secret prisons exist at which anything can be done to prisoners whose identities are known only to a handful and for whose welfare no one seems to be accountable.

Recent weeks have brought more related scandals than I have space to mention. The sheer volume of indignities, the weight of this unbecoming, even un-American, behavior, paralyzes many would-be protesters.

Challenging Jim Crow was risky but simple. Racism's soul-stealing effects made life simply unlivable for millions. That the nation's greatest social movement would dismantle it was inevitable.

Today's obscenities seem smaller, more complex. They seem less urgent, however life-or-death their consequences. I know scores of truly outraged sitters -- and have heard from hundreds more -- whose chief response is to complain.

You'd think they were glued to their seats. You'd think things can't get worse .

You'd think they didn't live in America.

But they do. So I'll pose my fellow sitters a question:

What if the passing of the woman who refused to leave her seat inspired us to rise from ours? The president who understandably flew 4,000 miles to attend Pope John Paul II's funeral -- but who sat out Parks's in Detroit because he was entertaining Prince Charles -- should know how angry America's sitters have become.

More than 2,028 American men and women are dead. I was among the millions of thumb-twiddlers who truly didn't believe President Bush would take us to war -- not after Vietnam's 58,000 American deaths and decades-long recriminations.

Silly sitter.

While people sat, the families of more than 2,000 of our neighbors became forever bereft. Goodness knows how many once-sympathetic Iraqis despise or mistrust the nation whose intervention brought a tyrant's downfall and a new constitution -- as well as tens of thousands of deaths, hunger, rampant joblessness, suicide bombers and an estimated 223,000 citizens with chronic war-caused health problems.

Decades ago, there was courage in staying seated out of exhaustion. Courage today means standing up and shaking off our "Desperate Housewives"-induced stupor to demand more of this amazing nation, which belongs as much to us as to those who shout their every concern.

Early this week, thousands got off their duffs to stand for hours outside the Rotunda. They paid homage to a woman who -- even at age 42 when she kept her bus seat -- seemed like the grandmother whose sweet face belied the don't-mess-with-me mettle that made you sit up straight in her presence.

We can honor Parks by changing our world. By trading griping for meaningful engagement and protest, by fighting a hated war and honoring its dead by keeping its next 2,000 would-be casualties alive and breathing. Folks can even make sitting count -- by writing letters, sending e-mails, making phone calls to Congress and all who will listen while they do it.

Our country is too important for concerned citizens to idly sit out its future. They can stand up and fight.

For Rosa.

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