The movement empowers the community: Steven Kanner, In Memomoriam

The fall of 2001 was not a particularly good time for anyone, but it was a particular kind of very bad time for those of us who are pacifists.

I taped a peace sign to the front window of my apartment with masking tape that night; it stayed there till I moved out two years later. It was a patched together thing, uneven, hopelessly hippie-ish, a sign to most, I would guess, that I could not be taken seriously. But I did it anyway, and I kept it up.

Those weren’t easy days. Neal Conan was hosting call in shows on NPR where he’d lambaste anyone who suggested maybe we shouldn’t be bombing Afghanistan. And that was NPR (which my friend, who’d been calling it Neoliberal Propaganda Radio, just started referring to as Nationalist Public Radio). I couldn’t bear to check any other major news source. A group of us met on an upper story lounge of the IMU a few nights after the planes hit to start a group to do something, and Iowans for Peace later did a lot of things — rallies and candlelight vigils and letter-writing campaigns and all the things you do to fight a force larger than you, one you know on some level you can’t stop but that you know you have to resist. And then you wonder at your metaphors — fight, resist, disobey — because all you ever wanted to do was create the beloved community, and here you are in the master’s house with nothing but the master’s tools.

But we met and we marched and we stood in silence, shielding lighted candles, and we wrote letters at a pizza joint downtown, because we cared about stopping the war, but also because we cared about each other. And so sometime that fall when some people started talking about going down to the SOA protest that year, I decided to go along.

Steven Kanner’s sister Rebecca was serving a prison sentence at that time for civil disobedience at the annual SOA march a year or two before. Steven had been going for some years, and likely he was the impetus for the trip that year. I knew Steven as the progressive on City Council, the one who came to Students Against Sweatshops events, the one took us seriously, as he took everyone seriously. I also knew him as something of a doofus, a guy I knew and liked and respected but that I knew no one on Council, and few in town, would ever take as seriously as he took us.

We had a few meetings, rambling affairs held on the porch of the coop house in town, where people would half talk politics and half strum guitars, and then we took off in caravan. My friends Meg and Erica and I took my car, Steven and our friend Karly and a WWII resister whose name I’ve forgotten were in the next, and the rest, whom I can still picture but can no longer name, came in a third.

The times were awful, and the cause was deathly serious, and the drive was long, but it remains suspended, as some drives do, in a magical, out of time place. Meg and Erica and I lost track of the caravan at some point because we got so dreamily distracted singing along to “Rocky Mountain High.” None of us had cell phones yet, but we found each other again somehow. We drove through the night, taking turns, and pulled into a Waffle House in Georgia just at dawn. We stood in the parking lot, dazed, exhausted yet awake, blinking slightly, and Steven — of course Steven — insisted we all do a sun salutation, which he led us in, right there in the parking lot: nine pasty white Midwestern hippies doing poorly formed yoga in a deep South Waffle House parking lot as the sun rose. That was Steven all over.

That night we settled into our rooms at the motel, and Steven — of course, Steven — organized a group to go watch the Leonid meteor shower, and of course I did not go. I don’t remember if it was that night or the next day, but at some point Meg came to me and said, “Oh God, we’re in trouble.” What was it? I asked. “You know Karly rode down all the way next to Steven?” she said. “Well, she just came and told me, ‘Steven and I are in love!’”

We rolled our eyes and sighed, certain we knew better, sure this was going to end in more heartbreak.

We were wrong, of course — or if we were right about the heartbreak, we were wrong about its cause or its timeline. Meg is dead now, and the School of the Americas is still there, and we are still at war. And now Steven is dead, too.

But we were wrong about their relationship, which started that trip and carried on. We were wrong to doubt love and faith and strength, which are the only things, ultimately, that keep us going — the things themselves, and the memory of them. Meg and I talked about that a lot, when she was still here, and writing now I feel her chortling with me still — chortling and then weeping.

This has ended up being more about me, and about Meg, than it is about Steven, which is wrong for Steven but reflective of him, too, and the ways in which he cared for others above himself at all times.

I knew him very little, really, and I learned very little about him. It is my loss. I’ve been reminded in these past weeks of a story someone told at my own father’s memorial service — an old rabbinic tale about “a scholarly and pious man who was repeatedly and brutally rebuffed by those to whom he tried to impart his love of truth. Finally he was asked by a sympathetic man why he persisted in the face of continual failure. He replied, ‘At first I spoke to change people and when I realized I could not change them I kept speaking so that they would not change me.’”

That story is one part of Steven — the part we all know that loved social justice, the part that, as another old friend of our said, was “at odds with a world at odds with justice.” But as I’ve thought about it more I’ve realized it isn’t nearly all of him: for Steven wasn’t simply a person who spoke out against injustice and continued against the odds (though he was that, too). He was a person who in his own life created the beloved community.

We live, I think, by these moments of grace that come in the midst of chaos and tragedy and fear and boredom and nitwittery. Mostly you work and grocery shop and pay bills and do dishes. Sometimes you drive insane distances to protest human rights abuses and don’t get enough sleep and eat too much bad road food and possibly have no effect on the state of the world at all. But then sometimes you find yourself with your friends, doing sun salutations in a parking lot.

Steven lived more of those moments than anyone else I know, and he was better at creating them than anyone I have ever met. I wish I had paid more attention and shown up more.

At the last hootenanny I remember going to before I left town, or before Steven and Karly did, we sang Phil Ochs’s “When I’m Gone.” I’ve always thought of it as the depressive’s social justice anthem, in that it lists both all the pleasures and all the responsibilities that one can’t enjoy or take on when one is dead, so, as the refrain goes, “I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” Steven was a far more energetic and upbeat person than Ochs, or than me, and when I let his spirit in, it’s talked me out of many a funk—as it has many others, I would venture. I guess we’ll have to do it on our own now, but with the memories and moments he created to guide us.