I served in the US Peace Corps from July 1, 1999 – September 9, 2001. We were told the country was largely peaceful, and that as long as we weren’t stupid, we’d be safe. We started out service blissfully ignorant of the fact that the country was being run by a pretty bad dictator, Yahya Jammeh. Living under a dictatorship was disturbing and eye-opening. Living in a third world country wasn’t easy. I saw the ravages of disease and starvation. I saw wildfires destroy the land. I saw mothers being handed dead babies at health centers. But I held on with the hope that I and my fellow volunteers could do something to change things.
As I served, I began to see more and more of the political situation. Newspapers and media sources would be attacked and burned to the ground. Reporters would disappear. Being a member of an opposing political party got you labeled a “traitor.” Political opponents were arrested. People constantly warned each other to watch what they said for fear of the security forces.
People know that I am not one to back down from a fight, especially when it involves protecting others. There is nothing that leaves me feeling more helpless than to know someone is being hurt right and I am being prevented from doing anything to stop it. I found out about the riots when I returned to my hut after my daily work trip to a neighboring village. I was given the order that was the first part of the emergency evacuation plan: stay put.
I was safe, but I worried about my friends. I had no contact with the other 80 or so fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who were my countrymen and comrades. My normal inclination would have been to ignore the order and start trying to make sure my friends were ok. I had previously put myself in danger before to protect a few friends from a mugger. My hut, however, was a designated safe house and meeting point for phase II and III of the evacuation plan, and I would be putting people in danger if I left it to play superhero. So I was forced to sit and wait with my worries and concerns, waiting and listening for updates.
When all was said and done, my friends were ok, but 14 children had been murdered by Jammeh’s Army.
By the time I was finishing my service, I could have no greater love for the Land of the Free. This was more than American jingoism and rhetoric. Nothing gives you more appreciation of our rights in the American Constitution than living without them for a few years. I lost my entitlement, and gained my true love and respect.
But like I said, I finished my service on September 9, 2001. The America I returned to was not the country I fondly remembered. The free speech zones, the attacks on the media, and the accusations of “treason” for any opposing views and political speech was all frighteningly similar to the words that were coming from Jammeh’s government. The nation waived the flag of freedom, and then took step after step to trample those freedoms. Most people did it because they were scared, and willing to sacrifice freedom for safety. “Freedom isn’t free!” they would cry, not realizing that the path they were choosing could lead to a place were freedom wasn’t there.
I fought the only way I knew. I spoke out, I joined protests and protest groups. As social media expanded, I did my best to educate. I was what Malcolm Gladwell would call a political “Maven,” trying to push America past the tipping point towards freedom again.
The nation pulled together and ousted the political regime of President Bush, and with the new President promising hope, we thought the trends would be reversed. But with the financial crash revealing the immoral practices of the business world, and how it was profiting off the suffering of the American citizenry while manipulating the government to secure its power. Most people are still willing to allow their rights to be trampled. They know it was wrong, but once again, there was the fear, and people are often willing to deal with the devil they know than the devil they don’t.
And then the Occupiers emerged. Standing up for all of us in a mass movement of peaceful protest, thousands have gathered to fight the system that is stripping us of our freedom and government control through economic manipulation.
Which brings me back to April of 2000. Right now, the NYPD, regarded by Mayor Bloomberg as his personal army, is engaging in brutal and abusive tactics against the peaceful Occupiers. The NYPD has not killed a protester yet, but they cuffed a women and allowed her to convulse while having a seizure, put a protester’s head through a window, knelt on protesters, broken ribs, etc. The police violence is escalating, and if the escalation is allowed to continue, someone’s child will probably die soon unless someone holds the NYPD accountable to the law.
I have friends in the camps. But I also have a job providing psychotherapy to patients in Philadelphia. I’m afraid for my friends, but I can’t neglect the health of my patients. So I am back with the feeling of helplessness, fearing the tragedy that may unfold. A tragedy that can be averted, but people need to stop trading their freedoms for fear.
So here I am. I thought I was home, but it seems more like the alien world I thought I had left over a decade ago.