Missed out, but made a friend

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by Rachel Dykoski, 6/6/08 • Tonight’s feature film was a happening – Body of War, a documentary film witnessing the horror of youth stolen in an unjustified, potentially illegal war was due to be screened for conference attendees. Just after the dinner hour at 8 p.m. It sounds totally doable, right? But for many of us in need of sustenance or committed to networking events offsite it wasn’t. Imagine my displeasure, after duly stuffing face at the Market Bar B Que on Nicollet and actually arriving on time for the screening to be shut out of it because ‘the law’ says it’s dangerous to fill an auditorium beyond a certain capacity. Of all the nerve.

But I was not alone. Several of us were politely turned away. I could have come home, but I was too buzzed to drive. It left me with the choice of walking home in platform shoes after dark or, to stay and be a wanna-be viewer. I chose the latter. Soon, I was joined by a young man in a socialist-like fatigue hat. A little buzzed himself, after attending the CODEPINK event for conference goers at The Local he hunkered down beside me and agreed to pass the time by being interviewed.

Gabriel is a 27-year-old veteran of the social justice movement. He’s bilingual and clever and undeniably patient with those who aren’t as quick as him. I divined that it’s his parents’ good breeding that’s imbued him with this spirit and capable, can-do behavior. Just as kids his age were picking out colleges to attend, ten years ago, his parents quit their day jobs at Augsburg College, and moved to Mexico. Chiapas to be more clear.

That’s right. His folks left homogeneous Minnesota for the region caught in civil war on the southern tip of Mexico.

“They started an organization named Cloudforest Initiatives,” he explains, “with an objective to work on fair trade, health and education. Right now it is a fair trade org solely because of funding. But all their work is for the Zapatistas – There’s a health clinic built by them, and we sell ‘cooperative coffees’. Peace Coffee is a for-profit corp that purchases from them while Cloudforest is a nonprofit. They also have an artisan program.”

At that time, and still now, the indigenous people of the region were protesting unfair land appropriations and the institution of a hydro-power plan. A huge one that required a dam. And with every dam comes the destruction through flooding of a region.

“As the first or second state of Mexico with indigenous people, and the primary state for hydro-power and loss of land to dams and power-infrastructure, Oaxaca is the next (power-generating) region,” he says.

Think Tennessee Valley during the 20s and 30s when farmers were in a depression and told what they truly needed to do was to give up their farming ways; when the people lost their land wealth to progress.

This is where the young man first learned about the rights of man. His formative years were spent gazing into faceless rebels.

“They wear masks because their actions are enough – no face is needed to articulate the cries of those oppressed. I’m not explaining this well,” he shrugged.

S’okay. That glass of ‘just red’ I had just prior to our chat makes this all perfectly plain. He shares his familial and personal commitment to their cause. And from 1996, he attended, organized or followed the events of organizers against globalization of their region and states his support for their ideals by donating his time to empowering causes.

Gabriel gave a lengthy recount of his volunteer efforts. But like then, now it isn’t relevant. We’re stuck. Slumped, dejected yet cooled by a well-maintained convention center air system.

I ask him, why did he come to see the movie?

He states he’s a supporter of Phil Donohue, the executive producer and highly acclaimed talk show host. He goes on to say he’s there “because I’ve missed the last two conferences and I want to hear all the amazing work people are doing across the country. I want to listen to key people in the struggle like Amy Goodman; Because, it’s close so I don’t have to travel. Now that I’m working a lot, I cannot go to them in exotic places like I used to do.”

One thing we have in common is that our parents bemoan our over-involvement with NPOs. He set them at ease six months ago by taking a ‘double job.’ True to family form, Gabriel is a laborer by day but also, a sleeper organizer at a place of business that, traditionally, would be under the purview of a union. But, it isn’t. Normally a campaign like his sleeper organizer position requires 24 months on the ground. But the union employing him wants to announce their activities within four to eiht weeks.

“I’ve got work to do,” he says. “A lot. And I don’t know what happens next. But at least my parents are off my back and supportive of my full time job.”

Mr. Donohue, as if on cue, wanders into our peripheral view as we chat on about the 27-year-old’s breadth and knowledge of radical tactics and learning. We rush over to shake hands and coo at Mr. D, but are quick to return to our talk. You talk like a revolutionary, I say.

“I’ve been an activist my whole life. I’ve been a radical since birth,” Gabriel said.

Rachel Dykoski lives and writes in South Minneapolis.