Activist or Egotist? Choosing Darfur over Dorchester

September 12th, 2011

by Richard D. Bailey

Coke Sweetens ApartheidI parked cars in the middle of Yale University when I was in graduate school. I was going to Fairfield University some 30 miles away. But I lived in New Haven and had worked in the Mayor’s office after college so I was friendly with and knew a lot of political and social activists who are inevitably drawn to great university towns.

The mid-1980’s was an exciting time to be an activist. The 60’s radicals, beginning to grey, were comfortably ensconced in faculty lounges, ponchos at the ready, railing against all things Reagan. They decried apartheid in South Africa; attended meetings of something called the Greater New Haven Peace Council; and regaled a new generation in bars at night with stories of how they manned the barricades during the “Days of Rage”, stopped a war 9,000 miles away and brought down a President.

During that time, a friend of mine, a committed political activist/operator and all around fun guy was elected to the Board of Alderman thereby forever earning the right to receive mail addressed to “The Honorable.” Marty was a hale fellow well met. He was also an Alderman with a foreign policy. Citing his hard left leanings, he frequently described himself as “pink to the underwear.”

The parking lot where I worked faced busy York Square which was full of eclectic shops, bars and restaurants. The centerpiece was an art house movie theater and Yale’s version of the college bookstore called the Yale Co-Op. York Square was the commercial focal point for Yale undergraduates and as a result was often jam-packed with people.

One day I watched a group of 30-40 students dressed in keffiyeh chic begin to assemble and pass out signs. Then they held up their signs and to the bellowing of a faceless bullhorn waded bravely (York Square is actually an oblong in which traffic rapidly enters and exits from approximately eight separate directions) into the maw of traffic. They then began to denounce the Yale University endowments investment in companies like Coca-Cola who were selling their products in South Africa. If the endowment sold their stock in Coke, the logic went, the victims of Apartheid would be lifted from poverty and oppression.

And there, in the middle of the discontent, bullhorn in hand, was my friend The Honorable Martin J. Dunleavy.

About halfway through the outrage, Marty spied me, handed off the bullhorn and ran over to where I was pretending to work. In his best Tip O’Neill/Ted Kennedy imitation he gave me his classic, loud and booming “HOWAHHYAHH!” He told me that the police should be here in about 10 minutes then everyone was going to Rudy’s, a local dive bar, for pitchers. I told him that I’d be over when my shift was done. He turned and before he crossed the street looked back to me and said with a grin, “You gotta meet us at Rudy’s, there’s great looking girls in this group.” That being all I needed to hear, about an hour later I walked into Rudy’s, ordered a couple of cheap beers and went into the dingy back room where I found The Honorable in a booth regaling his acolytes.

We sat, drank and solved the problems of the world for a while and at some point The Honorable disappeared. I, on the other hand, found myself picking at the demonstrators with questions like, “What was today’s march all about?” “To end Apartheid,” one   answered gravely. “How is a bunch of college kids messing up traffic in New Haven going to end Apartheid in South Africa?” I asked. “Our purpose is to bring down an oppressive regime where the poor are forced to live in shanty towns without food and running water. If Yale sells their stock in Coke, Coke will realize that doing business in South Africa is wrong.” Another with the deep seriousness only a few beers can bring on looked at me and quoted the environmental bumper sticker, “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

I then asked the question that had bothered me all day, “Why don’t you help the poor a few blocks from here with no food and no heat in the winter? Why South Africa? Why not New Haven?”

I sat back, watched and waited but no answer came. Realizing that I had just become the skunk at the garden party, I grabbed my check and left as well.

Then it dawned on me. Outrage at an abstract, far away problem was easy. It was guilt-free. It didn’t require that you be judged by your results, by how many people you helped. You didn’t have to get dirty or risk contracting disease. Your heart didn’t have to break seeing horrid conditions and despair first hand. Tying up traffic on a busy street for 20 minutes created the appearance of action without actually having to take the action. Their whole event was a “look at me” moment.

Twenty years later here in Boston, I read that a group raised $150,000 in one night to “Save Darfur.” The event was held at Boston University. I bet the food was great, the wines plenty, the attendees glamorous and the speakers stirring. But going back to that day in New Haven I keep thinking;

Why Darfur? Why not, say … Dorchester?

Richard D. Bailey is a writer based outside of Boston, MA. His new website, The Accidental, will debut soon. He holds an M.A. in Communications from Fairfield University and a B.A. in Political Science from Providence College. He can be reached at

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3 Responses to “Activist or Egotist? Choosing Darfur over Dorchester”

  1. larry ennis |

    I liked your article. I share your thoughts on “show boating”. A practice that many people in our society are guilty of. We continue to send aid to Haiti while doing little for storm victims in the Gulf Coast region. Can’t you just see Sean Penn working to help some poor dirt farmer recover from hurricane Irene?

  2. Richard Bailey |

    Thank you. I like to write about responsibility and that is what this piece hopefully begins to examine. Outrage is easy. Action action is more impressive. I always thought that the $150,000 raised in Boston could have made a huge difference in peoples lives just a few blocks from the event.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Nicely done. There’s often a big disconnect between idealism and reality. I don’t doubt that those who take action, if only to demonstrate on a public street, have the best of intentions. However, for the most part their actions are meaningless unless large-scale pressure can be brought on governments. And, when that happens, it may be that the steps governments are spurred to take may not be the right ones.

    It’s also true that some activists are a lot more concerned about what’s happening in far-off places like South Africa and Darfur than they are in what’s happening around the corner in their own neighborhoods. That’s not to say that problems in distant places don’t need to be addressed; it does, however, reflect a strange sense of priorities.

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