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Mural reveals the many similarities between Olympia and Rafah—an occupied city in Palestine

An olive branch for peace:  First in a series

Desdra Dawning

Did you know that in the very heart of Olympia, Washington lives an olive tree of peace and justice, whose branches reach out to us, growing leaves as diverse and colorful as the world in which we live? Did you know that this mighty tree, misunderstood and taken for granted by many of us in Olympia—who walk or drive by it every day—is known, loved and supported by many distant brothers and sisters who travel their own streets, hills and valleys across our lovely Earth? Have you ever wondered why sometimes folks gather around her trunk in the parking lot at her roots? Did you know that they come there to tend to her leaves, and to share stories of their passionate work to make this world a more loving and conscious place to live? And are you aware that the precious seed from which these many branches and leaves have grown was once a sweet young woman who died standing firmly—holding her ground for what she felt to be just and true?

I speak of a most amazing mural—The Olympia/Rafah Solidarity Mural—that graces the 4,000 square foot, 100 foot-long wall on the north side of the Woodruff Building, also known as the Labor Temple, on the corner of State St. and Capitol Way, in downtown Olympia. At first glance—and often that is all it gets—it is a huge and lovely piece of artwork. Great solid trunk reaching out with gnarly branches to over 150 colorful, 6×4 foot leaves, representing local, national and global issues ranging from immigrant, indigenous and prisoner’s rights to racism and environmental justice.

I spoke recently with Cindy Corrie, mother of Rachel Corrie, the young woman who was killed in Palestine as she committed an act of civil disobedience. Her death sparked the creation of this mural. Shortly after their daughter’s death, Cindy and her husband Craig founded the Rachel Corrie Foundation For Peace and Justice (RCF), which, over the past ten years, along with the Break the Silence Media and Art Project, has brought forth this vital-for-our-times symbol for peace and justice. The project has many supporters including the Middle East Children’s Alliance, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and the Left Tilt Foundation. The hope was, from the beginning, and continues to be, that Rachel’s courageous stand to protect a Palestinian family and their home in Rafah from demolition will not have been in vain. This community-based, collaborative art statement, ten years later, stands testament to her belief that we humans must come to understand how very connected we all are to each other, let go of our dislike of differences, and get on with the work of taking care of each other and this planet we call home.

I asked Cindy to give me a little background history on how the mural came to be. She told me that shortly after their daughter’s death, she and her husband Craig were invited to speak at various events around the country, addressing the Israel/Palestine conflict. Among those in attendance at a talk in 2004 given at St. Joseph of the Worker Church in Berkeley, California, sat mural artist, Susan Greene. In 2001, Greene founded Break the Silence Media and Art Project (BTS/MAP), an international interdisciplinary project that maps global solidarity and resistance—focusing on Palestine as a fulcrum. “Susan wrote to me,” Cindy told me, “that she had heard us speak at Berkeley and knew at that moment that she wanted to try to organize for a mural in Rafah.” By 2005, the Rachel Corrie Children and Youth Cultural Center had been established in Rafah, and Break the Silence was able to paint their mural on its walls.

Meanwhile, a bonding was happening between the cities of Olympia and Rafah, eventually creating an informal Sister City connection that continues today–one that recognizes the common themes around water, resistance, borders/walls/containment/displacement, return and the great need for reconciliation. (These themes are the foundation for the meaning and color of the many leaves now growing on the mural.) In late 2006, Susan came to Olympia, excited to propose a mural for Rafah’s Sister City. (At that time, formal recognition of Rafah as Olympia’s Sister City was on the docket with the city, however the initiative was voted down after many community members spoke for and against it. The RCF had then, and still has as part of its mission, the recognition of the connection between these two cities.) Cindy and Craig, and others from the Rachel Corrie Foundation, met with Susan to brainstorm the connections between these two cities, coming up with the above themes. The conversation drew parallels that not only saw connections, but also questioned how these were affected by war and/or occupation, and how they were linked to corporate and economic interests and war-profiteering.

Comparing Occupied Palestine and Washington State, the following parallels were drawn:

Water
In Rafah, water is scarce, highly salinated, and heavily controlled. (Rachel once wrote about a well she had protected there.) The sea, that once made Palestine an important trading area, is now inaccessible. In Olympia, comparisons were made with the native people in mind, recognizing that the livelihood of the Squaxin Island and Nisqually tribes is inseparable from the salmon and waters of their Salish Sea (Puget Sound), which now suffers from environmental degradation and pollution.

Resistance
In Rafah, non-violent struggles against war, occupation and apartheid are overlooked or dismissed by the media. In Olympia, there is still a need to increase the visibility of oppressed people, noting the local protests against the “war on terror” and the war and occupation in Iraq. It was agreed that this mural was to be an expression of resistance, using education to dispel myths and increase visibility for oppressed people.

Borders/Walls/Containment/Displacement
In Rafah, they saw that colonialism has enforced murderous borders in the form of separation barriers, security fences and virtual walls, highlighting the fear and isolation that this brings as governments insist on treating people as ‘the other.’ It was noted that wall construction is a huge industry, profitable to only a few. In Olympia, the comparison, while much softer, was made with police state policies put in place at the Washington/Canadian border.

Looking at the theme of Return
In Rafah, when Israel was made a homeland for the Jewish people, Palestinians were pushed from their homes, becoming refugees, and longing to return. In Olympia, they looked at Native people who were forced onto reservations by the government—their children sent away to “schools” to be assimilated—longing to regain what was taken away.

Reconciliation
The final theme sets the underlying goal for this mural—for the people of Palestine and Israel, for Olympia’s marginalized populations, and for oppressed people everywhere. It is a goal that acknowledges the need for truth to be spoken, wrongdoing to be recognized, and forgiveness to be extended by all those involved. It asks for the acceptance of differences at the same time that it realizes our common humanity. And it offers the vision of a world where children can feel safe, and where all people can have dignity and know equality. It is a vision of the crashing down of all walls. Looking closely at the mural, one can see a wall being swept away by a mighty wave of…what? Intelligence? Compassion? Love?

It was with all of this in mind—extending the olive branch of peace—that the image of the olive tree was born, leading to the huge tree we now see on the wall of the Woodruff Building. Following that chilly January meeting in 2007, Cindy and Craig, along with the group of brainstormers, took a walk around town, looking for the perfect place to put their mural, and discovered that huge wall, finding later that the owners were amenable to their ideas. Cindy felt it significant to point out to me that this building has seen in its history: A US President (Harrison) speaking from its balcony, a Washington Governor (Ferry) reviewing his militia from it on his Inauguration Day, fraternal and patriotic organizations using it as a meeting place, and to this day, the housing of labor unions. “We were pleased, she told me, “to use the wall in this building because it is an historical building in Olympia with a history of labor activity but also, a place where people chose to speak to the community.”
Cindy’s admiration for Susan Greene is apparent in her description as one who “sees the possibilities for mural art and their potential to bring support, healing, awareness, advocacy and movement-building,” adding that “she serves us by bringing the possibility of a mural to communities, initiating a collaborative, creative process with the community and with others who are connected to it in some way.”

Looking back on that time, Cindy also noted that “numerous artists, volunteers, and supporters were critical to the creation of the mural along the way, bringing their ideas, inspiration, time, and labor at different stages.  Some were designers like Carrie Ziegler and Darien Brown. “Darien,” Cindy recalled, “suggested an olive tree and Carrie brought forth the design and was instrumental in realizing that image for the enormous wall, along with Alicia Martinson, Josh Elliott and Boots Brown.” Over time, local, national and international organizations began to find their places on the leaves that cover this mural. Seeing how they each speak to his daughter’s vision, Craig Corrie once commented that, “The leaf does a marvelous job of visually bringing together Olympia and Rafah in a way Rachel found basic to her understanding of the world as a community.”

So now, when you walk or drive past the Olympia/Rafah Solidarity Mural, perhaps it will speak to you in a new way, and you will be inspired to check out their website: www.olympiarafahmural.org. If you do, you will find a key to each of the leaves with information about that organization. Works In Progress has a leaf there! And if you are patient, and are willing to come back, you will find that their audio section will have returned from its current technological updating, offering you an even better exploration of the many local, national and global organizations represented on that amazing olive tree!

Stay tuned for the next installment! An exciting wind of creativity and freedom is blowing through those olive leaves!

Desdra Dawning writes for the Olympia Food Co-op Newsletter and Works In Progress.  She has an MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University.

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