Despite widespread opposition to the Iraq war, peace groups have scored little in the way of media hits in recent years. Reporters rarely cover their vigils and call them only occasionally when news events tumble their way.
But local peace advocates hit a media home run last fall after officials at the University of St. Thomas said Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu wasn’t welcome to speak on the St. Paul campus. The decision, taken quietly, attracted little public attention until peace groups organized a concerted push. It made headlines worldwide, and St. Thomas’s leaders were embarrassed into reversing themselves.
Last Thursday, more than 100 peace activists and interested observers met at Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul to analyze and celebrate their success over cookies and coffee.
Margaret Sarfehjooy of Women Against Military Madness moderated. She was, of course, right when she said Marv Davidov of Minneapolis needed no introduction to that crowd. Davidov’s radical trail reaches back through war protests and civil rights marches to the 1950s when he was drafted, then kicked out of the U.S. Army and asked to leave Macalester College.
“They said I was subversive,” Davidov gleefully warmed up the audience. “I sure as hell hope so.”
Among other work, Davidov teaches active nonviolence at St. Thomas’s Justice and Peace Studies Program. Outrage in the faculty offices there ran hot for weeks before the Tutu dustup hit the press, Davidov said.
“In our department, it was absolutely shocking,” Davidov said.
Davidov had tipped a former Star Tribune writer, he said, but City Pages was out in front, ready to pop a story.
Meanwhile, other peace activists spread the word to Cecilie Surasky, the editor of Oakland-based MuzzleWatch.org, which tracks efforts to stifle debate about U.S.-Israeli policy. (Initially, a St. Thomas spokesman had explained the incident by saying that Tutu had made remarks that struck some people as anti-Semitic and against Israeli policy.) MuzzleWatch is a project of Jewish Voice for Peace where Surasky is communications director.
Surasky, who said she grew up in South Philadelphia but “married into a Minnesota family,” was on hand to pick up the narrative after Davidov left the podium.
The news last fall — that Tutu’s alleged criticism of Israeli policy had been the basis for blocking his speech at St. Thomas — was a call to action for Surasky. Her core message, she said, is that there should be room for many voices in debates about the policy.
And so, Surasky waited until the City Pages story hit the Internet, then kicked her global network into gear less than an hour later, she said.
“I stayed up until 3 in the morning pushing out to the media,” she said. She went to the mat with reporters as far away as Jerusalem who repeated claims about Tutu’s remarks that she found to be false.
The resulting media splash reached back to Minnesota where newspapers and broadcast stations ran reports for several days and also editorialized against the decision to shun Tutu. In response, a barrage of emails, letters and calls hit St. Thomas’s offices.
Within a few days, the university’s president, Rev. Dennis Dease, apologized for the incident and invited Tutu to speak on campus. The South African Archbishop already had accepted an alternative invitation to speak for a PeaceJam program at Metropolitan State University when he comes to Minnesota in April.