Saturday, August 3, 2013

Justice for Whom...?

The limits of "Boutique Activism."

The recent efforts of the group Justice for Mary raise legitimate questions about the nature of activism and civic engagement.

Justice for Mary seeks to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of 18-year-old Kennebunk resident, Mary Tanner in July of 1978. The teenager went missing one weekend and was never seen alive again. Local police discovered Tanner's beaten body in Lyman. An autopsy revealed she was three-months pregnant. The killer has never been found, though many of Tanner's relatives believe the individual may still be living in the area.

The story is undoubtedly tragic and one certainly must admire the way the community has rallied in support of Mary's memory. Having grown up in Kennebunk, I cannot recall a similar outpouring of support. (I did not know Mary. Her murder took place three years before I was born.)

What I do know, given the small size of my hometown, is those spearheading the Justice for Mary campaign are not at all what I would call political activists. I have no doubt they faithfully show up to vote once every two years or so. But if they are involved in additional forms of civic engagement, I am unaware of it.

Which leads to my question: Why will otherwise non-politically motivated people rally behind an admittedly noble cause like Tanner's, but not that of say, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Trayvon Martin? Yes, I realize none of these individuals live in Maine. Yes, I understand those supporting Justice for Mary have likely never met any of them. Let's momentarily put all questions of local proximity and personal intimacy aside and just focus on the broad, general concept of "justice."

Why justice for Mary Tanner but not for any of these individuals? It is a valid question and one that, again, is in no way meant to discredit or dishonor the memory of Tanner.

Here is one possible explanation:

Justice for Mary, like other popular social activist campaigns like Komen for the Cure, The Dempsey Challenge and Mary's Walk (named for a different Mary), represent the corporate co-option of traditional activism. They are what Chris Hedges calls "boutique activism."

These events and causes, while well intentioned, do not threaten systems of power or authority in any manner. They do not lead to violent police raids, as Occupy Wall Street and its various sub-groups did. Participants are in no danger of being arrested. And they ultimately require no personal risk or sacrifice on the part of supporters.

Indeed, many of these campaigns are funded by some of the wealthiest Fortune 500 corporations. Komen for the Cure, for instance, lists as its sponsors General Electric, Dell, and Bank of America. The major sponsor of the more local Dempsey Challenge is the Amgen insurance corporation.

Liberal, upper-middle class socialites can pat themselves on the back for supporting these causes without ever threatening the slightest bit of societal change. Incidentally, Tanner's immature joke about stealing cigarettes so she could pre-smoke them for the homeless, as recounted by her brother during her recent memorial gathering, suggests she was brought up in just such an affluent, morally indifferent household. Again, having grown up in Kennebunk, I can attest such classist attitudes are all too common among residents.

Participants will often claim breast cancer or Disease X is a "horrible illness that needs to be cured." This is undoubtedly true. Yet the same could be said of war. Where were these people back in 2003 when the U.S. was gearing up to invade Iraq? Why were they not invested in "saving lives" then?

What's that you say? "Justice for Mary is not intended to be a political group"? I would argue the murder (and possible rape) of a young woman in a traditionally patriarchal society is a highly political issue. Then, of course, there is the issue of the media's longstanding obsession with missing, young, attractive, white women...

What, for instance, are Justice for Mary's supporters intending to do to prevent further acts of violence against women in the community or nationally? As far as I can tell, nothing. Their singular focus is on securing judicial justice for Tanner's death. Assuming the killer is someday found and imprisoned, the group's work will apparently end there.

I reached out to Tanner's brother, Charles Tanner, a resident of Portland who has spearheaded the efforts to solve his sister's murder. I posed these very questions to him. He responded by merely referring me to the group's Facebook page.

What is most frustrating about organizations like Justice for Mary is their missed opportunity. Groups such as this could potentially serve as an introduction to social/political activism for otherwise apolitical citizens. But their narrow, myopic focus often prevents participants from branching out into broader issues.

I do hope Mary Tanner's case is eventually solved. I hope the murderer(s) is brought to justice. But I also hope Tanner's legacy does not end there. I hope supporters of her cause will, perhaps feeling awakened and fulfilled from their burgeoning civic lives, continue to fight for justice for others beyond Kennebunk's town boarders.

Unfortunately, given the largely self-imposed limits of boutique activism, I fear this particular cause will remain something of an aberration in supporters' otherwise apolitical lives.

Runners at a 2012 Pink Ribbon marathon.

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