Invitation to a Revolution

One day an African American in the South decides to drink at the White Only drinking fountain, to sit at the White Only lunch counter or to ride at the front of the bus and changes the course of history forever. One day a battered woman decides to leave her abusive husband, women create shelters where battered women can be protected, then politicians take notice of women's voting power, changing laws regarding domestic violence. Whether it's racism, the struggle for Lesbian and Gay rights, injustice against workers, women or minorities, I draw hope from all these struggles. They are all about human nature, that part of us that becomes slaves to other people's selfish perceptions and projections of the world, that forgets we have the right to say no. I too have been guilty of being the fool, like the woman who believes her husband when he tells her it's normal for men to get drunk, lose control, beating their wives. I am sure each one of the people who had courage to stand up and say, "enough" were cautioned by people around them, "not to rock the boat!" I am even attacked from time to time by members of other groups for daring to compare my own struggle to theirs. How dare I diminish the importance of their struggles by comparing it to something so petty and unimportant as my own? Many people are like the good Germans who remained silent, the good neighbors who heard the woman screaming but excused their own inaction by calling it "a domestic problem". They are not bad people, they are just swept up in the fear that allows good people to turn their backs on opportunities for change. Their inaction and silence allows the mistake to go on, sanctioned by the popular culture, until someone finally has the courage to say no!

When I sit upon my bed unable to breathe, unable to lie down, unable to sleep because I was unable to escape secondhand smoke from someone's cigarette, I am sure my parallels to other movements are correct! Sometimes I am unable to go into a restaurant or bar, unable to send an e-mail from a cafe, unable to post a letter, unable to use public transportation or unable to buy groceries because of a barrier of smoke just as effective and unjust as a sign that says "Whites Only" or "No Jews!" Many times I am told by management of smoking establishments, "If you don't like the smoke you don't have to come here!" When I am afraid to get a chest x-ray, afraid that my next bout of chronic bronchitis is beginning, afraid I will stop breathing or die during an asthma attack, I am sure of the gross injustice of the acceptance of public tobacco smoking! My body is simply doing what the human body is designed to do, react to the introduction of poisonous substances in order to protect it. I am not the one who is sick, nicotine addiction is the sickness! When there is no secondhand smoke I am a healthy person! When people tell me they are not as sensitive as I am, when they dismiss my pleas for help, when they treat me like a lunatic, I am sure I know the feelings of those African Americans who dared step beyond the boundaries of the White defined culture or the Jews who defied the Nazis! They tell me I'm obsessed with the subject of tobacco in an attempt to silence me. By speaking out each time I'm assaulted by smoke I merely reflect the obsession of nicotine addiction that is pervasive in every culture in the world! Its casual acceptance and the fact that it is so pervasive is the reason many people choose to remain silent.

Like those in past struggles, I am expected to have my life inconvenienced to protect the predominate illusion! I am supposed to suffer in silence, accept my fate, because that's the way it's been as far back as anyone can remember. Like a Black person who was told his brain is not as developed as a White man's brain, I am supposed to believe the projection that there is something wrong with my lungs if they can't tolerate the cyanide, arsenic and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke. The Black man was supposed to believe that all White people are born with superior intellect and I am to believe that the lungs were created by God to inhale smoke! I am asked to pretend that millions of preventable deaths each year are not important as I watch members of my own family die horrible painful tobacco related deaths! I'm supposed to believe that lung cancer is caused by "other pollutants", not by cigarettes! I am supposed to believe that profits are more important than human life and suffering! Just as sure as African Americans in the South didn't have the luxury to pretend they were White, I don't have the luxury to pretend that tobacco smoke doesn't wreak havoc on my entire life. Like all the struggles of oppressed people, my dilemma is how to reawaken the spirit in people like me, who have been beaten down to a point where there is no self-esteem or hope left! What do we need to do to give people the courage to speak up for clean air to breathe? How do we inspire those who mistakenly think it doesn't affect them, as I believed myself many years ago? Our struggle is similar to the struggle of Gandhi when he awakened the spirit of the Indian people to challenge the British presence in his country. The tobacco industry's power over the lives of people worldwide is no less insidious and arrogant! Like the British empire in India the time is up for the tobacco empire. They have to go!

The single most effective element that perpetuates all the myths and propaganda of the tobacco industry is the silence of those who want to breathe clean air. Without our silence and inaction there would be no myth that smokefree businesses lose customers. Without our silence there would be no myth that dividing restaurants into smoking and nonsmoking sections is effective in eliminating dangerous secondhand smoke. Without our silence there would be no myth that all people who go to bars are smokers. Because of our silence the laws that already exist to protect our right to clean air are not enforced! For too long now we have been like the battered woman who keeps going back to her abusive husband because she thinks she really loves him, without realizing she really doesn't love herself. We are like the racial minorities who have never been given the chance to understand self worth because everywhere we look we only see the power and wealth of our oppressor. We think their money and influence are insurmountable. We stay home from restaurants, don't socialize in public places, avoid provocative conversations with friends because it's easier than upsetting The Master, tobacco! We continue to support all the businesses that make profits from tobacco sales because we think there are no alternatives, or it's more convenient and after all, it is legal!

And nowhere is the power of the tobacco myth more evident than in the halls of justice and the chambers of governments. In every debate about clean air the first and foremost thought is usually how to protect the smoker, how to make the transition easier for nicotine addicts at the expense of everyone who wants to breathe clean air. They ignore the fact that any amount of exposure to secondhand smoke is too much! They talk of dividing the world into smoking and nonsmoking sections, pretending that less smoke is better. They pat themselves on their backs, saying it's a step in the right direction. Dividing smokers from people who don't smoke is just as unfair as dividing everything into Black and White. It pretends to be fair and equal while continuing to expose people to secondhand smoke! Imagine the Allies at the end of the Second World War discussing how many Jews they should allow the Nazis to continue to kill so they can withdraw them from their habit slowly. For those of us who are dying, who are sick, who have lost loved ones this analogy is not overstated. We are asked to be patient, to contribute a few million more deaths while the rest of the world takes time to get used to the idea of fairness! As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous Dream speech, "This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism, the time is now!"

The secret tobacco industry documents prove the industry's complicity in tobacco related deaths, the scientific evidence is irrefutable, so there is no longer room for excuses from anyone. It's time to bring the focus of the fight for clean air beyond the tobacco companies to every business, every person and every politician who perpetuates the tobacco pandemic by making profit from it or by allowing innocent people to continue to be harmed or killed by secondhand smoke! Nicotine addiction is a twentieth century disease. The twenty-first century is the smokefree century!

It's time for a revolution! It's time for us to move up to the front of the bus! It's time to claim the right to breathe clean unpolluted air in all public places, no exceptions!

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