Gentle Warriors

Remembering Leslie Feinberg

This past weekend, I was on a business trip to Washington, DC. I was fortunate enough to be able to tour the White House (without jumping the fence) and the next day I took a walk around the National Mall. I walked towards the Washington Monument and I could see the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. Just like those flashback scenes in a movie, I could see the faint outline of throngs of protestors with signs and hear faint voices calling for change. In that moment, I thought of Leslie Feinberg. I remembered so many bus trips to DC and NYC, especially in the early 90s, which were part of one protest or another – women’s rights, reproductive rights, anti-war, Native rights, LGBT rights, AIDS funding, etc. In my mind, I was recalling a trip with the Worker’s World Party as we protested the Gulf War. I thought about that day and how it began with chanting daimoku and morning Buddhist prayers ( with my then-girlfriend, Jennifer. It was a chilly morning in Freedom Plaza and the sun was shining. We raced to catch up with our group to proceed to the rally at the Lincoln Memorial.  After a long bus trip and navigating the Metro, refueled with some well-packed sandwiches and chanting more daimoku – we were there in the throng of protestors. 


If you have even been to a protest, you understand the mix of emotions you go through. The exhilaration of taking action, the joy of being with other beautiful human beings that are passionate about humanity, anger at hateful counter-protesters (while understanding they are as passionate as you are). There is also that element of fear. With so much passion, it takes one small twist to cause commotion and for things to go out of control. 


My memory, last Sunday, was of Leslie coming to the microphone and the silence that quickly spread across acres of protestors as we all wanted to hear her voice, to take in her words. Her call to action, her passionate words, her fearlessness and determination…all captivated every person there. She was a gentle warrior, a leader…she was the change we still want to see in the world. Beyond that, she inspired so many to listen, pay attention and to take action. 


At the time, I had no idea she had passed away the day before. It proves to me, once again, the enormity of the impact that one person can have on so many lives. The causes one makes in a single moment can have rippling effects that can last lifetimes. When I found out, I was heartbroken but treasured memories from that time. We had our Worker’s World Party meetings in this little empty store on Niagara Street in Buffalo, NY. Each time I pass that area, I think of Leslie, Betty, Bill, Val …so many passionate people that worked so hard to create change in this world. My fondest memory was of Leslie giving the most amazing lecture on Joan of Arc … in that small, cold meeting space. It was packed to the door …with every kind of person imaginable. That was her gift, her charisma, her mission in this world. 


Her passing made me think of my great uncle, Chief Clinton Rickard. He has a statue in the park at Niagara Falls. His Tuscarora name is RO-WA-DA-GAH-RAH-DEH, which translates to Loud Voice. He was one of ten soldiers detailed to protect Vice President Theodore Roosevelt on a visit to Buffalo in 1901. Clinton spent the majority of his life fighting for Native rights, upholding of treaties, immigration reform and protecting the environment on our reservation. In 1958 the New York State Power Authority announced plans to flood approximately one-fifth of our reservation. Clinton was one of the leaders in the demonstrations and legal proceedings, all the way to the US Supreme Court. We eventually lost the battle and many farms and homes were lost or relocated. My father stood up and voted against the hydro-power plant as well. He took a chance in participating in ‘White Man’s Law’ and unfortunately by doing so, he could never be considered for being a chief. He would have been an amazing Native leader but is an amazing family and spiritual leader. 


As I was reliving the protests in DC, I was thinking to myself, why did I become an activist? Why did I think it was ok to stare down a riot rifle or lay down in front of the White House to demand funding for AIDS research? Why did I stand in front of a women’s clinic after I was told there may be a drive by shooting? It is because of all the others that have gone before me and paved the way. It is because of all those gentle warriors with loud voices that made me believe my own voice mattered and could make a difference in this world. I am changed for the better for having known you, Leslie. We all are.