Olympia conference remembers Rachel Corrie and Rafah


Naomi Klein addressing the Peace and Justice conference. Note the batik hangings, which feature anti-globalization images.Naomi Klein addressing the Peace and Justice conference. Note the batik hangings, which feature anti-globalization images.Naomi Klein addressing the Peace and Justice conference. Note the batik hangings, which feature anti-globalization images.

The Second Annual Conference of the Peace and Justice Studies Association [PJSA] took place from October 9-12 in Olympia, Washington at The Evergreen State College [TESC].

The mission of the PJSA is promotion of peace studies for all ages — from pre-kindergarten to university level and beyond. Their work is based on forging alliances between peace practitioners, participating in wider activities of ‘education, research and action’ and discovering ‘innovative solutions to violence whether it manifests itself in our home, schools, streets and/or foreign policy.’

The title of the conference, ‘Fostering Alternatives to Violence,’ was deeply felt by the participants whose talk frequently turned to the post-September 11th world, the Bush administration and the conflicts in Iraq and the Occupied Territories [OT]. International educators, students, artists and activists joined to discuss progress and problems within the movement, challenges in politics and policy and the rampant resurgence of war and militarism.

Remembering Rachel Corrie

Wall of photos at the memorial for Rachel Corrie at The Evergreen State College.

Another subject on many minds was the legacy of Rachel Aliene Corrie, the Olympia native crushed to death in Rafah in Occupied Gaza on March 16th. Her influence was undeniable, her spirit never far away as she was talked about, given tribute to and physically present as her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, joined in several events.

Many conference organizers and participants had personally known or worked with Rachel and had been touched by her. Rachel’s name and image was invoked out of a collective pride and grief that was homegrown as opposed to the government and media manufactured story of Jessica Lynch.

Live from Rafah

There was a direct physical connection to the city of Rafah as well during the conference. Over the weekend, the Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] raided Rafah with 80 tanks along with armored bulldozers and Apache gun ships. In a disproportionate show of force codenamed Operation Root Canal, the military sealed Rafah off in all directions, initiating strict curfew while commandeering and illegally demolishing over 100 Palestinian homes.

News of the incursion and the subsequent destruction filtered throughout the conference. Saturday afternoon, during the speech by Naomi Klein, Craig Corrie and Emma Pearlman [of the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project [ORSCP]] were in the PJSA offices live on the phone with friends in Rafah. Dr. Simona Sharoni, Executive Director of the PJSA, interrupting the conference, said ‘These things happen all of the time — they just don’t happen as we are gathered and in near real time as we get eyewitness reports.’

Craig was shaken as he updated the audience with news of the devastation, he had been in Rafah just weeks before when the Corries had visited Israel and the OT to learn more about Rachel’s experiences.

Craig Corrie spoke of hearing the fear in his new Palestinian friend’s voice, a man he said was not easily upset. Craig described the unending sound of the bullets in the background of their conversation. He also sadly informed the audience that Raja Salah Omer, the medic who had taken Rachel to the hospital, had come under fire and was seriously injured. They had also befriended this man in their travels.

Emma spoke of the difficulty obtaining medical help for the injured, they were not being allowed to leave Rafah under any circumstances and there weren’t adequate resources to care for them. Emma reported on the lack of electricity and water and that ISM international Laura Gordon was attempting work to get water and power restored.

Olympia’s sister city

The Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project, envisioned by Rachel Corrie, has fast become a reality because of the hard work of a small group of dedicated residents. The mission of the project is to ‘actively promote and foster friendships between the people of Olympia, Washington, and Rafah, Palestine, for the purpose of strengthening cross-cultural awareness and understanding, international cooperation, justice and peace.’

The point of ORSCP is to make the conflict human, intimate, not just a foreign policy in a distant land. This person-to-person activism is key to raising awareness in the United States of the situation in Palestine, as the picture from the people on the ground is quite at odds with portrayal of the situation by the mainstream media.

“Blood is blinding”

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Line in the Globalization Debate received a standing ovation for her talk on the privatization of Iraq. Speaking to Olympia directly, Ms. Klein spoke of Rachel Corrie and her popularity in Argentina, where Ms. Klein has been on location working on a film project. She said that the people there consider Rachel to be a ‘hero’ and ‘a martyr of the movement.’

She focused on Rachel to illustrate her point that activists should try to ‘not be blinded by the blood’ because ‘blood is blinding.’ Ms. Klein explained that we must not forget the fundamentals, the ‘softer’ issues and root causes.

Rachel was in Gaza to protest the brutality of the occupation but two of her goals were protecting the water supply and building a pen pal program between the children of Rafah and Olympia. She did not completely turn from the mental and physical traumas of war, after all, she died on the front line. The point was that she was also interested in the less sensationalistic stories of connecting children and economic domination.

Dispatches: The Killing Zone

The British documentary Dispatches: The Killing Zone films the aftermath of Rachel’s killing, the subsequent injury to ISM peacemaker Tom Hurndall and the murder of British cameraman James Miller all by the IDF. This documentary is rarely shown in the US but has gained grass roots person-to-person distribution in the Northwest. This showing was special as it was hosted by Rachel Corrie’s parents along with Will Hewitt, an Olympian who was on the ground with Rachel in Rafah. Emma Pearlman also gave photo presentations of her recent trip, which occurred during the relative peace of the hudna.

The Killing Zone is haunting and disturbing work that doesn’t flinch in showing the trauma of war. The intimacy is unsparing as you watch a Palestinian girl awake from unconsciousness to find out she is blind or the tension in the hospital as Tom Hurndall’s friends fight to get him the medical care that might save his life. The ambulance wants a written guarantee from the British embassy that it will not be fired on, the medics fear risking their lives for a patient whose brain is exposed and is not likely to live.

In other scenes the sound of the gunfire in the background of the interviews is like popcorn, relentless, persistent. Reporter Sandra Jordan comes under fire and tear gas while shooting Rachel Corrie’s memorial and, while visiting a school, a tank shell blast is felt. She was at the school to investigate the death of a girl who the IDF recently shot in the head as she sat at her desk. Her mother shows Sandra the bullet hole in the girl’s bloodied headscarf.

Ms. Jordan interviews an IDF spokeswoman who suggests Rachel Corrie was killed by a falling slab of concrete and it is shocking to hear such a blatant lie. The explanations for other deadly events are just as at odds with eyewitness accounts as this one. ‘People get in the line of bullets.’

Corries threatened in Rafah

In his talk before the film, Will Hewitt stressed to the audience that this conflict should not be viewed as a distant affair that holds little concern for Americans but that this occupation is being made possible only because of American aid. He made note of the economic benefits that accrue to US companies that supply the IDF with weapons and technology that are used daily against Palestinians.

After the film, Craig Corrie reiterated that connection, expressing dismay that despite his tax dollars funding Israel, the Corries were stonewalled by their own government as they pressed for truth and justice on Rachel’s behalf. He noted that individuals he had met had shown them ‘much respect’ and had been quite ‘sympathetic, but powerless’ to help, they did not have the authority or resources to take further legal or diplomatic action. He has not yet received a full, unedited report on Rachel’s death and, furthermore, he has found ‘problems with sourcing and inaccuracies’ in the materials he has reviewed.

Regarding their trip to Israel and the OT he spoke of the people who took a ‘career risk at the State Department to get them in.’ Craig said that they received ‘incredible privilege’ on their journey and that they had direct phone numbers for officials in the IDF. Incredibly, despite this special treatment, while visiting the house Rachel was saving from demolition, bulldozers and armored personal carriers approached the home and stationed themselves nearby in a threatening manner for the duration of the Corrie’s visit.

The film’s attendees also received an update on the medical status of Tom Hurndall. He has never regained consciousness and his parents plan to remove him from life support in the near future. They have promised to keep the community informed and plan for international memorials to be held 48 hours after his death.

Rachel’s Memorial

Shaheed memorial for Rachel Corrie at The Evergreen State College.

A tangible reminder of Rachel Corrie is the room-sized memorial in a corner meeting area in the Library Building on the TESC campus. This tribute is a shrine for the community to show its love and respect and has evolved as visitors add to it — photos, writings, artworks, candles, origami peace doves.

There are donated photographs of Rachel from baby to punk rocker, dance diva to teacher. Someone has made color copies of Rachel’s Palestinian shaheed (“martyr”) posters.

There is the news article when Rachel, as a 5th grade schoolgirl, worked on a campaign for children’s rights and gave a presentation before the Washington State legislature.

A copy of Rachel’s ambitions from the 5th grade. This list was read at her memorial service in March. This was posted on the wall of photos at Rachel’s memorial space at The Evergreen State College.

Educational materials on Rachel, the occupation, ISM and ORSCP fill a literature display rack. Fresh flowers are placed in several places. A dove costume and other dove artwork and ephemera from the Procession of the Species parade are displayed. Baskets hold papers bearing messages to Rachel and there is a lovely blank book for visitors to read and contribute to.

There is a moving display of artwork done by local children on the first anniversary of September 11th. Rachel had led the group in peace and tolerance activities. Underneath this grouping of art is another group of pictures by the same children, expressing their grief when they learned Rachel had died.

Girl writing in book at memorial for Rachel Corrie at The Evergreen State College. Note the display of memorabilia from the Procession of the Species, that is Rachel in her dove costume from the first year the doves converged. Also note the copy of one of Rachel’s Palestinian martyr’s posters in the center of photograph.

Shaheed poster of Rachel Corrie at the Evergreen State College memorial.

Live from Palestine

The cover of Live from Palestine. Click here to learn more about the book on Amazon.com.

An author’s reception included Laurieann Aladin, editor of the book Live From Palestine: International and Palestinian Direct Action Against the Israeli Occupation — a collection of essays containing first person accounts of life in the war zone.

This book contains a selection by Rachel Corrie. Other notable contributors include Noam Chomsky, Electronic Intifada’s Arjan el-Fassad and Ali Abunimah, and scholar Edward W. Said.

Wheels of Justice

On Friday night there was a tribute to ‘our beloved community activist’ that featured members of ORSCP, ISM Olympia and the Wheels of Justice [WOJ] national bus tour.

WOJ’s mission is ‘to build upon and reassert the massive domestic opposition to the war in Iraq and the occupation of the Palestinians’ and do ‘education, outreach, nonviolence/action training, active resistance and community-building.’ The tour includes members from ISM, Voices in the Wilderness, Palestine Right to Return Coalition and the Middle East Children’s Alliance.

The four Olympians present from ORSCP/ISM had all traveled to the Israel/OT in 2003 and have been eager to share their experience with their community in words, works and art.

The Wheels of Justice tour bus.

Ms. Pearlman and Mr. Hewitt were joined by Lucas Claussen and Sam Tsohonis, who was shot in the leg by the IDF on July 28th while protesting the apartheid wall near Anin, West Bank, OT.

Sam is an artist/activist who was deeply inspired by Rachel Corrie and sought financial backing from the community to enable his travels. In recent months Olympia has contributed moral support and travel expenses and for several ISM volunteers.

Our sister city is being invaded

A postscript to the conference, quickly organized by ORSCP in two days, was a 6 hour convergence on October 14th in downtown Olympia to protest the invasion of Rafah. The goal of the event was education and outreach and was, by many measures, quite successful. The next day the Olympian newspaper gave the event front page, above the fold coverage, the headline reading ‘Standing With a City Under Siege.’

A large banner read “Olympia’s Sister City is Under Attack’ and other signs stressed the effects of the illegal home demolitions, the 1500 left homeless and the funding of these abuses by US tax dollars. Thousands of cars passed by, those expressing support far outnumbered those who shouted criticism.

Pedestrians engaged in conversation with activists and took the materials the ORSCP provided, including sets of troubling yet beautiful photographic postcards explaining the project’s mission and work. The group gained at least another sheet of names to add to their mailing list.

Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, participating in a conference session.

Craig and Cindy Corrie lent support, both speaking and standing in solidarity. The Olympian quoted the Corries extensively in their article as they talked about Rachel, human rights in Palestine, suicide bombers and US policy. Craig again talked of being on the phone with friends, the bullets again constant in the background, the Olympian reported ‘The conversation left Corrie feeling more powerless, but his friend felt a lift just knowing that people in the United States were watching and paying attention.’

This convergence was a genuine display of commitment and energy from the activists who were willing to drop everything and take the time to really care about the people in Rafah, to not be blinded by the blood.

It was another effort to not treat the conflict in abstract terms but to connect with people as individuals as opposed to wartime statistics. This effort at humanism works. This is why Olympia has grown such warm feelings for the people in Rafah, Olympia visitors have all been met with great respect, warmth and kindness when in Gaza so those feelings are returned to Rafah.

There is a trust in the witness when she is a member of the community, the truth coming from her mouth is more tangible, more valid than the truth in the typical news cycle. Her words may not be agenda free, obviously she cares deeply about her cause but she is earnest and, most importantly, she is not lying about what she has seen. She can prove it with her photos. It makes the pain of a house demolition a bit more real when you have even the smallest personal connection, even secondary, to the occupants.

Detail of an anti-globalization batik hanging.

This is the ultimate goal of all of the actions that were engaged in this week in Olympia, to make a difference in world affairs, to be a part of the best of what America can be, not the worst. In the first days after September 11th there was tremendous good will expressed to the United States by the world community. The Bush administration squandered that feeling, it is the now the mission of the people in the US peace community to win it back by letting the world know that they are awake, aware and taking action.

Wall of children’s artwork at the Rachel Corrie memorial at TESC. The art on the yellow paper were done under Rachel’s direction on the first anniversary of September 11th and the art underneath is in response to her death.

candio. is a writer, artist, and activist who lives in Olympia, WA. She is from “back east” and has written for many alternative presses and arts newspapers. Her art has been found in galleries, museums, international collections and sometimes on the street. She is currently home schooling for her PhD by writing a book about trauma related illness and recovery.

Related Links

  • Peace and Justice Studies Association [PJSA] www.peacejusticestudies.org
  • The Evergreen State College [TESC] www.evergreen.edu
  • Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project [ORSCP] www.orscp.org
  • Rachel Corrie Memorial Website www.distanceeddesign.com/rachel
  • International Solidarity Movement [ISM] www.palsolidarity.org
  • Naomi Klein/No Logo http://www.nologo.org
  • Dispatches: The Killing Zonechannel4.com/news/2003/special_reports/dispatches_killing_zone.html
  • Procession of the Specieshttp://www.procession.org
  • Wheels of Justice www.justicewheels.org
  • Live From Palestine http://www.southendpress.org/books/palestine.shtml
  • The Olympian - coverage of ‘Standing With a City Under Siege’ www.theolympian.com/home/news/20031015/frontpage/124464.shtml