Debra Sweet, the Woman Behind World Cant Waitby Eleanor J. Bader
When someone tells you she’s been an activist her whole life, it’s usually hyperbole. But not 56 year-old Debra Sweet.The Brooklyn-based director of World Can’t Wait (WCW): Drive Out the Bush Regime got her start in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s and her current position is merely the latest stop in more than four decades of activism. Under Sweet’s leadership World Can’t Wait has protested the Iraq War, exposed the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and other U.S. prisons, and opposed military recruiters coming to high schools and colleges across the country. They’ve also blasted creeping theocracy, from anti-abortion zealots screaming outside clinic doors to Teen Mania Ministries’ efforts to create what the religious right calls a “pure generation.”
WCW doesn’t mince words. Terms like “criminal,” “immoral,” and “treasonous” pepper their literature as they boldly denounce Bush’s impeachment-worthy crimes. What’s more, while some WCW members support Barack Obama, the group’s website makes clear that they don’t expect him to fundamentally change American government.
“There is not going to be a savior from the Democratic Party,” the site says. “This whole idea of putting our hopes and energies into leaders who tell us to seek common ground with fascists and religious fanatics is proving every day to be a disaster.”
Such tough talk has garnered a plethora of supporters to the organization including celebrities like Margaret Cho, Eve Ensler, Viggo Mortenson, Sean Penn, Harold Pinter, Mark Ruffalo, Cindy Sheehan and Alice Walker.
Yet for all this, Sweet is humble and straight-talking, weaving her own story into the larger fabric of resistance. The daughter of middle-class Lutherans who supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War, her first foray into politics was through a Madison group that raised funds for Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
“Fannie Lou was the driving force behind the Mississippi Farms Corporation which formed right after the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party collapsed,” Sweet says.
“What they did was purchase hundreds of acres of Delta farmland for poor farmers. The farm coops needed money and I got involved in a walk-a-thon in 1967 or ’68 that later evolved into the March Against Hunger. I organized students and we raised about $400,000. Half went to Fannie Lou, half went to buy water pumps in Africa.”
Hamer visited Madison several times a year until her death in 1977 and Sweet’s eyes brighten as she recounts the civil rights icon. “Fannie Lou was not fearless, but she was courageous,” she continues.
It is obvious that Sweet was—and is—awed by the strength of Hamer’s convictions; at the same time, she understands that life creates moments when unlikely leaders simply emerge. “I believe at these times people see things clearly if they have a moral compass,” she says.
Sweet’s own moral compass was tested in 1970 when she received word that she had been selected to receive a Public Service medal from President Richard M. Nixon. “I was a youth delegate to the World Food Congress at the Hague when I got a registered letter from the White House,” she laughs. “The letter came a month after the killings at Kent State and when I read it I thought, ‘Nixon is a war criminal. I can’t take an award from him.’”
Later, however, Sweet decided to use the opportunity to vent her outrage over the war’s continuing carnage. “There I was, a 19-year-old anti-war activist. My parents, boyfriend and I were driven by limousine, underground, to a private elevator in the Justice Department. We got to Attorney General John Mitchell’s office and I learned that four of us were being honored, one posthumously. I had no idea the world media would be there. This was December 3, 1970 and Nixon had not spoken to the press in six months, since the invasion of Cambodia. We were waiting in the Blue Room with John Mitchell and a tottering J. Edgar Hoover, who by this time was unconnected to any present reality. The families were all standing there and the President came in and gave a speech in which he talked about us as fine, patriotic Americans who were not out protesting in the streets. I thought, ‘Hell, no.’ After the speech he took my hand and I looked at him and said, ‘You are killing millions of people in Vietnam and you should stop.’ He turned white, looked at his watch and said he had another appointment.”
The incident made that day’s evening news and was on both national and international front pages the following morning.
Immediately following the White House confrontation, Sweet dropped out of college to pursue progressive social change full-time. Stints as a community organizer followed. At one point she found herself in Cincinnati, fighting for better health care alongside migrants from the deep South and Appalachia. “I learned from them about suffering from things like not having diabetes care, access to abortion and birth control and being illiterate,” she says. The realization that health care was provided for profit, rather than to meet human needs, shook her deeply and she began to understand the breadth of capitalism’s failing. “I learned that the wrong class was controlling things and stealing people’s labor,” she quips.
Since then, Sweet has never looked back, continually agitating for better social services and against police brutality, racism, imperialism, and sexism. Her work has taken numerous turns. She was the first female letter carrier in Louisville, Kentucky and spent ten years managing Revolution Books in Cleveland, Ohio. For 25 years until 2005, she created and sold handcrafted garments, something she could do when she was not on activism’s frontlines.
She stopped sewing three years ago when she took the helm of World Can’t Wait and now spends every waking hour traversing the country to condemn war, aggression and militarism. Eight years into Bush’s presidency, she remains fired up by a host of the administration’s evils, from the use of sleep and sensory deprivation on prisoners, to the establishment of permanent military bases in Iraq, to illegal wiretapping.
While she admits that it’s easy to become disheartened—after all, the war has been going on for five years, over 4,000 Americans have died, 30,000 have been wounded, and more than 4 million Iraqis have been internally displaced or have fled the country—she is proud of WCW’s accomplishments.
“We’ve raised more than $1.5 million and have run anti-war ads in the New York Times, USA Today and on MySpace,” she says. “This has helped millions of people frame the activities of the Bush administration as criminal. We’ve also publicized the crimes done in our name,” from the 2005 massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq to the grotesque abuses at Abu Ghraib.
WCW’s logo, a globe with orange flames shooting out of it, is meant to incite—and it does. Members have chained themselves to the doors of military recruitment centers; have organized countless anti-war demonstrations and participated in civil disobedience; have performed street theatre demonstrating the brutality of water boarding; have pushed for hearings on impeachment; and have publicized racism from New Orleans to New York City.
Despite this, Sweet understands that WCW hasn’t come close to driving the Bush cabal from office. Nonetheless, the group plans to stay on course regardless of who wins the Presidency. “Both Obama and Clinton voted for re-authorizing the USA Patriot Act, with even less burden on the government to justify searches and surveillance,” Sweet says. “Neither Democratic frontrunner voted at all when the recent law against the CIA using torture came up. McCain voted against it because, while he says he’s against the military using torture, he doesn’t want to stop the CIA from using it.
No matter the leader, Sweet will be watching, acting, and pushing us to pay attention. Although she concedes that “we’re up against the strongest government and the strongest military in the history of the world,” she continues to believe in the power of collective action. “Why just hope for change when you can be the change? You have a voice,” she says.
For more information, go to www.worldcantwait.org. Contributions to assist WCW’s work can be mailed to 305 West Broadway #185, NY, NY 10013.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader