40 Signs Project
40 Signs Letter To Linda Burnham
"Community Arts Network"
September 24, 2001
Just got in this minute from what turned into a wonderful project. I spent the day asking my neighbors and shopkeepers to write different versions of "We Want Justice, Not War," "End The Desperation That Causes Terrorism," "Justice Yes, War No," "Peace Comes From Justice, Not From War," "We Love Our Arabic and Jewish Sisters and Brothers." I bought 60 colored poster boards and everyone wrote three to five signs of the above in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Indonesian, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian and English. Then bought all different fabrics and decorated each poster sign with it. All at my patented, silly "talking on the phone while cutting fabric as I glue and reach for a pen" breakneck speed, of course.
Then went with a friend up to Union Square where hundreds of people had gathered for a peace vigil organized by that workgroup I was at on Monday. Strangers, friends, co-counselors ... so many people gathered and lined up in two rows, 20 people in the first one, sitting, and 20 more in the second one standing behind, holding the signs for three hours. We had a wonderful time. Hundreds of people stopped and cried, argued, shouted, thanked us, laughed, glared, discussed, hugged. At least 20 of them asked to write their language or message. I didn't bring extra poster board so I was very strict, but OK'd a few signs for "other-side writing." We now have Turkish, French and Bangla. We got to spend time with Palestinians, lots of Jews both Israeli and from other countries, Russians, Chinese, Equadorians ... truly for every language I mentioned above. Many addresses were exchanged. Our spirits were singing pretty much all the way through.
Two of my favorite stories are the Bangladeshi man that I didn't work with on his sign wrote: "War Is Very Bad Except When It Is Against Our Enemies." I figured, "how many Bangladeshi people will be by," but of course very soon some came over, read it and complained to some of my volunteers. They called me over and told me what it said (which I already knew) and I got to explain that that was most definitely going to be our most "complex" sign out of the 45. The other moment was when I walked up to a man who had begun to yell, "I just want to know what you mean by the word "justice!!" Just what does that word "justice" mean to you?!?" It was towards the end of the evening. and I, along with everyone else, was a bit exhilarated and almost giddy. I said hello and thought for a minute and then explained to all listening that justice as far as I could figure, meant that anyone in the world that you didn't know ... had to be nice to you; and that the only people who could treat you bad and mess you up ... were people that you were close to or in your own family. He was the first to crack up, with the rest of us right behind.
Men in particular took the opportunity to both join in and hold signs (from here and all over the world). They also came over and got very upset "at" us. My understanding is that this whole thing stirs up all the ways that men have been conditioned (and have also held on to) a sense of being responsible for the physical safety of others. An armed attack that they were unable to prevent comes in as their own very personal responsibility and failure. This lives inside me in a similar way, just from how I grew up, but last night it was quite clear.
Many men stopped and just shouted at us (for hours if we would have not interrupted them to individually listen). In their words was grief at the attack, extreme upset that their friends and not them were killed, that the perpetrators had to be annihilated (some variation on that one), that we didn't understand (feeling isolated), that we were traitors who deserved to be hurt ourselves, that we should have been at the WTC when it was attacked (and not their friends) and had no right to do what we were doing.
The presence of a lot of my co-counseling buddies made a big difference in how this went for everyone. The power of simply listening and not turning it into a discussion or exchange of views was profound. My conversations in these last two weeks with many men, have frequently included what they would have done (or not done) as a passenger in the plane that was brought down in Pennsylvania. The uncertainty they carry inside about their required "manhood" is like a burden and a bell that has been rung loud by all this.
That's it for now. We're three days to Yom Kippur and the Jews For Racial and Economic Justice organized a very moving Tashlicht (throwing sins/misdeeds into the water) Ceremony at the Hudson River today. Several friends were there, and the service included a statement by 62 young Israeli women and men who had publicly refused to be in the army, due to the occupation. It was followed by a publicly published letter of thanks from 12 Palestinian families who had lost a child to Israeli Armed Forces. We each threw a torn-off piece of bread into the Hudson River as the ducks and seagulls swooped down to nibble our sins into a nutritious snack. L'Chaim.
* Pottenger said she is aware of the signs appearing on PBS and on Canadian, Japanese, French and other nations’ TV stations; talked about on National Public Radio; pictured on the front page of a newspaper in Puerto Rico; featured in an independent NYU documentary, and more.