Meckfessel fights through activism
By Lezlie Wolff - Staff Reporter
English professor Shon Meckfessel says people need spaces which to communicate and learn from each other. Highline can be one of those places.
"I've been really interested in social justice movements and youth movements for my whole life," he said.
It was the high school missionary trips to Mexico that opened Meckfessel's horizons to connecting with people he encountered in unfamiliar situations.
"I feel like a lot of us Americans have a limited imagination about things because we don't travel that much," Meckfessel said.
After high school, he went backpacking around Europe. It took him seven years to complete college as he'd go to school, then drop out to travel, back to school, and travel, he said.
"I hopped freight trains," he said.
A lot of people hop trains following the agricultural circuits, Meckfessel said. He knew some who had lost their legs doing it.
While travelling in the US, "a lot of the political tension and polarization that we're really seeing openly right now, I think I saw back, in the '90s," he said.
Connecting with people is obviously a motivator for Meckfessel. He was constantly waving and smiling to people passing by in the Campus Bistro.
"I have been studying languages because it's a way to connect with people," Meckfessel said.
Because writing is so time consuming and such a "pain in the butt," Meckfessel said,
"you do it if there's a point that you feel people aren't getting."
"My first book, Suffled How It Gush: A North American Anarchist in the Balkans, was when I was traveling in in the Balkans," he said.
"The US and NATO had a bombing campaign in response to the Kosovo War, and I thought it was a very bad idea," Meckfessel said.
He said when the war started he realized that the people protesting it were siding with the side the US was attacking.
"I found that people felt like they had to support that because it was the other side," Meckfessel said.
"I thought that was a really dangerous way of thinking about the world."
"I wrote this whole book trying to get people to think beyond that. It's a lot of crazy travel stories and human interactions that I had," he said.
"I had friends who were being tortured, when I was there," Meckfessel said.
"I was trying to push people to realize that these are human beings in the situation. And that maybe their government wasn't their spokesmen anymore that ours is for us a lot of the time," he said.
"I just assume that all states are not necessarily looking out for the people under them. I'm interested in what people do to win their own freedom," he said.
"I'm also an anarchist," he said.
"Anarchism is a political idea that goes back hundreds of years that believes in freedom and equality," Meckfessel said.
"One of my favorite quotes from Bakunin, the granddaddy of anarchism, is 'Political Freedom without economic equality is a pretense, a fraud, a lie; and the workers want no lying,'" Meckfessel said.
Meckfessel's book, Nonviolence Ain't What It Used To Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance, explains why people could be violent in a protest.
"I spent five years interviewing about 50 people and reading a couple hundred books to give a theory of why I think that happens," he said.
"People like what I have to say about it," Meckfessel said, having recently come back from an East Coast book tour. "A lot of different sorts of people sort of agree," with his theory on violence, he said.
"In this culture we value property so much that it gets mixed up with valuing life," he said.
"One of the things like May Day is they're showing a public disrespect for corporate property. And at the same time, actually, a respect for people and bodies. I think the point they're trying to make is the system we have does the opposite. They're trying to suggest another arrangement of things," Meckfessel said.
In Baltimore, during a big riot around Black Lives Matter, the police had taken into custody this guy they killed in the back of a police van by breaking his spine, Meckfessel said.
"It wasn't remarked on," he said.
Then they rioted and businesses like CVS were set on fire and smashed up, he said.
"People in Baltimore were spray painting on the walls, 'Why do you care more about broken windows than broken spines?'" Meckfessel said.
Meckfessel is concerned about the economic divide in the Northwest.
"King County has the highest racial segregation in the country if you index it by wealth," he said.
"It's that the computer industry has brought in so much money for a particular demographic. And a lot of the populations that we have down in the Highline area, are left out of that investment," he said.
"You have to grow up in a rich neighborhood to get a sufficiently funded education," he said.
"I think what we're seeing is that we're taking from people who have had a better public education in Bangladesh than in South King County," he said.
"This ties to what I teach, rhetoric and I teach how to make meaning when we're writing," he said.
A lot of people don't understand how protests work and so they mock them, he said.
Protests shines the light on issues and get people to talk about them, he said.
"Like the women's march," he said.
"Maybe the biggest march in US history, was a very clear way of saying there are many people who are not OK with the policies that Trump is talking about and with the kind of personal behavior that was validated by him getting elected," Meckfessel said.
And workplaces when people are talking about things, he said.
"Change happens when people decide to do something in their daily routine instead of something else," he said. It also happens around the dinner tables when families are fighting with each other, Meckfessel said.
"I believe that the way that poor and marginalized people have a say is in how things work, if their interests are not being represented, traditionally the only means that such people get leverage is through disruption," he said.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil, he said. "Especially if the wheel stops turning."
Meckfessel found out how important it is to know where you are hiking in foreign countries.
In 2009, Meckfessel and three friends, Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer were studying Arabic in Damascus. To get out of the city and experience nature, Fattal, Shourd, and Bauer went hiking.
Meckfessel stayed back, nursing a fever.
The three hikers unintentionally crossed into Iran and were arrested for illegal entry.
"We were all activists in the Middle East and I am sure that if we'd emphasized those things that would have embarrassed Iran into releasing them much, much, sooner," he said.
He thinks if he'd been with his friends, they would have been killed as, "it was an intense situation." The captors were very threatening, Meckfessel said.
Meckfessel said he felt a huge responsibility to get his friends out.
"In these situations, there's always different approaches and I ended up feeling a lot of frustration about the official approach taken to getting them out.
"The US government wasn't enthusiastic to have us talking about that stuff because it's embarrassing," he said.
He did get the word out and two years later they were released.
Today, he said, his friends are doing amazing stuff.
"I'm in touch with all of them, and they're leading happy, amazing lives. But it was a hard time," he said.
Teaching, Meckfessel said, is the No. 1 way he practices his activism at present.
"I think the same exact things that make for good academic writing are the same things that make for good, empowered citizens. Critical thinking, ability to question authority, and established positions," he said.
Teaching the world about Syria, Meckfessel runs a resource website that informs readers about what's happening there. For more information, go to syriasources.org.
Meckfessel said, we're going to look back on Syria and realize that was at the center of all this stuff happening, including the right-wing swing.
The tragedy he said, is that "the original Syrian revolution was some of the most amazing beautiful ideas about human freedom and dignity that we've seen," he said.
When he's not working on his website, writing books or travelling, Meckfessel is making music.
He plays bass, both electric and some standup.
He was in the band Cake and wrote a lot of Cake's bass lines that they still use, he said.
"They're nice people, but I've taken a different direction," he said about his musical interests and leaving the band.
He's into underground punk and underground hip-hop music, he said.
It's easier to make music on his own, than to have to schedule with people, he said. "Although, it's a bit lonely," he said.
Writing, he said, like music doesn't just happen, it comes from talking to people and generating ideas from that.
"It's hard to find each other in spaces like this [Des Moines] because we don't have a lot of cultural and public spaces," he said.
"I think Highline has a place in that already and has a lot of potential," he said.
"It sounds like this [Federal Way Performing Arts and Events] center could be a really great place for the area because we're the people who are going to be doing the interesting stuff, he said.
"Especially communication across differences," he said.
"The important part is that we're all participating," Meckfessel said.