Last August, I was standing on a wooden bench in Montreal taking photos of the Gay Pride parade. A huge truck rumbled past with LE STUD marked all over it, and a group of big, beefy men carrying construction tools were standing in the back, waving at the crowd. One of them bellowed at me, "Yes"yes"your shirt is perfect. STAY HUMAN. That's what it's all about".thank you"thank you."
I was wearing a T-shirt that said STAY HUMAN on the front, one of the shirts that two women, Laurie Arbeiter and Sarah Wellington, had designed for us. We were the U.S. contingent, sailing on the Audacity of Hope along with representatives from 23 countries sailing to Gaza last summer to break Israel's illegal siege on the Palestinians living there. Only the mendacity of the dying Greek government prevented us from going, as Israel and the U.S. outsourced the occupation to the Greeks. Our boat was hauled into a U.S. compound and, to this day, has not been released.
So, since Greece prevented us from sailing, we joined the Greek activists and protested every day for four weeks in the streets of Athens. In Syntagma Square, and at press conferences, we wore shirts that said LET US SAIL TO GAZA in Greek and English, UNARMED CIVILIAN, STAY HUMAN and WE WILL NOT BE SILENT in Arabic, Hebrew and English. The shirts went as fast as we unpacked the boxes. Even our Greek captors guarding us in the compound begged to have the shirts LET US SAIL TO GAZA in Greek and said over and over. "We are so sorry. We are only following orders, and, by the way.... can we have a T-shirt?"
The beauty of these shirts is you can see the message many meters away, and they become a topic of conversation every time we wear them, whether in Syntagma Square in Greece or at the many Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
On the first night of the Occupy Wall Street protest in Boston, Ridgely Fuller, one of the passengers on board the Audacity of Hope wrote and said, "I just want to give the loudest and continuous shout out for Laurie and Sarah for providing me with a continuous-use wardrobe. Tonight is the first night of Occupy Boston so, of course, I am wearing my GREED KILLS shirt. For the continued occupations, I will constantly wear STAY HUMAN and UNARMED CIVILIAN."
Where did this idea come from for these simple messages?
"WE WILL NOT BE SILENT" was born as a student-resistance movement in Nazi Germany called The White Rose to inspire acts of resistance and dissent against the Nazis.
The students attended the University of Munich and became known for an anonymous leaflet campaign from June 1942 until February 1943 calling for active opposition to dictator Adolf Hitler 's regime.
The six core members of the group were arrested by the German secret police and all were executed in 1943. Today, the members of the White Rose are honored in Germany as some of its greatest heroes, since they opposed the Third Reich in the face of death.
Fast forward 60 years, to the beginning of the Iraq war, when protestors began to wear WE WILL NOT BE SILENT again. In 2006, an Iraqi-Palestinian, Raed Jarrar tried to board a JetBlue Airways plane at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to go home to California. He was wearing a simple black T-shirt that said, WE WILL NOT BE SILENT in Arabic and English. All his baggage had been checked, and he had been through all security checkpoints. As he was ready to board, two Transportation Security Authority (TSA) officials as well as JetBlue Airways employees surrounded him and prevented him from boarding, until he agreed to cover his shirt. They then forced him to sit at the back of the plane.WWNBS
Within 48 hours after Jarrar was stopped from flying, four women, including Laurie, bought tickets on Jet Blue airlines one way to Washington D.C. wearing WE WILL NOT BE SILENT T-shirts in Arabic. Tremendous media and public attention to this egregious case of racial profiling followed. A year after Jarrar was so rudely stopped, the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, and, in 2009, TSA and the airline agreed to pay him $240,000 to settle charges that they illegally discriminated against a U.S. resident based on his ethnicity.
Since then, the shirts have given birth to a movement of over 50,000 people, all wearing those inspiring words emblazoned across their chests.
One of the most poignant stories unfolded in July 2006 when Laurie traveled to Germany to protest against George Bush as he arrived to meet Angela Merkel in Stralsund. The night before, Israel had begun a bombing campaign and invasion of Lebanon. Within an hour of arriving in Stralsund, over 50 people in the town, from a thirteen-year old boy to an eighty-six year old woman, put on the WE WILL NOT BE SILENT T-shirt.
Months later, a young Israeli activist traveled to New York City and sought out the artists behind the project.
She was given as many shirts as she could carry back to Israel, with WE WILL NOT BE SILENT in Arabic as well as Arabic and Hebrew together. Soon after she returned home, the Israeli activist, wearing the Arabic T-shirt, went to a protest against the apartheid wall in Bil'in, Palestine. Standing next to her was a German woman who had also traveled to protest against the Israeli occupation. She was wearing WE WILL NOT BE SILENT in Arabic. The two were instantly connected by the message on the shirt and forever linked in solidarity with the non-violent protestors in Bil'in.
The message WE WILL NOT BE SILENT has now become a rallying point for the 99% around the world, whether they are challenging Israel's occupation of Palestine or the bankers occupation of Wall Street. The website http://www.wewillnotbesilent.net/ now has over 35 T-shirts, one for every message that needs to be imparted.