An interview with Ira Harritt, Part 1

To listen to the expanded interview, go here

Ira Harritt, co-coordinator of the Kansas City Iraq Task Force, grew up in New Jersey and lived in Vermont before he moved west to study at the Kansas City Art Institute. He worked as a community organizer for arts and sustainable agriculture programs before he took his current position as program director of KC American Friends Service Committee. In that role, Harritt has become one of the leading voices of protest against American aggression, both with military might and economic sanctions that harm the poor.

With the fourth anniversary of the United State-led invasion of Iraq coming up, KC Olive Branch sat down with Harritt to discuss his work and waging peace in an post-9/11 world. What follows is the first half of the conversation.

KCOB: Were you interested in peace issues while you were doing other community organizing activities? Were you entrenched in that part of the peace and justice movement before you came here?

IH:  No, I started from a place of believing that we get the government and the policies –  at least a part of the source of that is what we’ll tolerate. And so I wasn’t so interested in getting involved in the political side of things. It was more about changing people’s minds and hearts. What came out of my life experience before that time was a relationship with nature and seeing the integration and interrelatedness of all life. Which hasn’t changed, but the human community also needs to see our interrelatedness and interdependence. That which hurts one segment of our community or world population hurts us all.

KCOB: There’s a priest here in town who gave a talk at a, Oscar Romero service a few years ago who said, Pick one thing in this whole great constellation of needs and really drive it home. Do you agree with that?

IH: I think that’s at least a start. I think some people really need to home in, in that very narrow way. But there’s no excuse for not doing something. So some people may be generalists or they may be involved in a lot of different things because they see the need, but I think we have to go with our passion. So we see that something really speaks to us, or we have a vision of how the world should work or how we should treat each other. If that is the passion that you have, then you need to find a way of addressing that or making that real. And it may mean that you work on Iraq or it may mean you work on apartheid in South Africa or it may mean that you work on what’s going on in Columbia or it may have to do with civil rights. And that may change for the person and the time.

We also need people to be the post. There’s a tradition, maybe it’s from the tent post, that you need to hold it up and keep stable and steady and keep things going. So there’s room for both. I guess I do have to admit that it’s very frustrating for someone who has been working on peace and justice issues for 20 years, at least, to see the tide rise and fall. Things go off the front page of the newspaper and people act as though the problems are gone. I certainly understand that you have to take care of your responsibilities that you have as a member of a family or in the workplace. But we do live in a democracy and democracies only work if people participate. And that entails being educated enough and knowledgeable enough about the different issues that face us. And taking the time to weigh in and not allow profit motives to dictate all of our policy.

KCOB: Do you ever feel it’s hard to make a difference, especially when you are dealing with an issue like Iraq, here in Kansas City where you can be so far away from what’s considered the power base of the country? Do you feel frustrated sometimes being the voice in the middle of this giant country?

IH: My perspective is that it’s not going to be the leaders or things that happen just in power centers. But it is really going to take a shift in our communities and our nation’s thinking about war and peace, economic justice, human rights, social justice, for real change to happen. There will be changes that come in. There will be a little success here or success there. And we will leave Iraq at some time in the future. I sure hope it’s in the next six months or a year. But when we do leave, there’s another excuse for going to war against another nation or another people. And another excuse to limit civil liberties, to sacrifice investing in raising up the human condition. There will be an excuse until people see that there cannot be an excuse. And so we need to change those opinions. And it happens here in Kansas City, and it happens in Columbia, and it happens in St. Louis and it happens in rural communities. It should be happening and it can be happening in small churches in small towns all across Missouri and Kansas and all across the country.

KCOB: And that’s what it’s going to take?

IH: The other side of that is that change has always been ushered in by a small group of committed people who have inspired that change to take place. But we do need that ground that is fertile ground for those new ideas to take root.

KCOB: Do you think it’s more effective to address those root issues through single issues that are presently in front of us? Is it easier to get a handle on the bigger issues by taking on an issue like Iraq?

IH: I think we’re making progress. The groundswell against the Iraq war arose much more quickly than previous aggressions and the previous sale of war to the public. And the public is learning. On the other side, you have rightwing people that have their constituents who are easily motivated and mobilized. But while we need to be talking about the larger systemic issues that drive us to choose war and to sacrifice human security, which would include food and housing and health care, the media and public often will not pay attention unless there is a crisis. And so while we need to get people to think beyond the crisis, we need to need to use those critical teaching moments, learning moments, mobilizing moments to further both the opposition to that crisis or move the country in a new direction. And learn to resist the call to arms next time around.

Fear is wielded very skillfully in recent years. But it’s actually not a new phenomenon. During World War II we interned thousands of Japanese citizens. There’s always the demonizing of the enemy to justify abuses and violence that we wouldn’t normally accept. And that is done with fear for the most part. So we need help people become inoculated against pursuing short-term things on the basis of fear.

For information about KC Iraq Task Force and its programs, go here.

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1 Comment »

  1. Ariana Vincent said

    Hi Ira – I’m delighted to see the direction your life has taken. Warmly, Ariana Vincent, Austin, Texas

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