What motivates those very rare individuals who demonstrate on the street day after day, often over many years, facing extremes of weather and often abuse, for a cause they believe in? This is the first of two articles exploring the personal beliefs and motivation of two such campaigners, one in the US and one in the UK.
Very few people in the UK are likely to have heard of Alan Dornan. I first became aware of him on Twitter and was intrigued by his rather terse daily tweets, always along the same lines: “Walking/sitting on the corner this morning for DREAMers, immigrants and all people. I will be on the street tomorrow morning.”
And he is, without fail. Come rain, come shine, at 81 years old, with multiple and severe health problems. Over the months, I became increasingly awed by his evident courage and endurance.
What motivated him to walk the streets of his small home town, Wethersfield, Connecticut, for over 1,000 days to date, with his placard advocating for immigrants and DREAMers?
Dornan is an unlikely social activist. He grew up in New England, the son of a Scottish immigrant father and Canadian mother, a ‘cradle Catholic’, and spent his 41-year career in the insurance industry. And yet from his early adulthood, alongside a life that appeared to be a conventional, comfortable suburban existence, there was another Alan Dornan. One who demonstrated outside nuclear submarine facilities and who was a big fan of Philip and Daniel Berrigan, the radical Catholic priests imprisoned for their attacks on the draft during the Vietnam War, and of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s.
White male with faith
When we meet on Zoom, it becomes apparent that the story of his life is a story of self-recognition, and reconciliation between the radical activist and the typical “privileged white, male American”, as he describes himself, of his generation. His Catholic faith has always been deeply important to him, and it has shaped his values and campaigns for the underprivileged and those on the borders of society.
“I’m a Catholic for social justice, and I believe in the human side of Jesus. I look to him in my religious life as the great social activist, the great protector of poor people, people who need help and assistance.”
He is outraged that the Catholic hierarchy in his diocese has never once spoken out for immigrants, nor about the separation of children from their parents and the caging of young infants at the US/Mexican border.
The inner voice commands
So, at the age of 78, how did he become a street campaigner? Dornan says the catalyst was the airing of the 2018 US Senate debate that would have given a legal status and a pathway to citizenship to DREAMers. “Congress had been trying for 18 years to pass this bill, and I watched as these senators debated riders that they knew had no chance of passing. They were using these young people as pawns in a shallow battle for political leverage.
“That was what pushed me over the edge. I said here I am, a 78-year-old man with spinal stenosis, scoliosis, and unfortunately a high squeaky voice. I can’t make speeches. So what can I do?”
The answer, he says, came from a voice deep inside him. Many others would claim that this was a message from God. Dornan, with typical lack of self-aggrandisement, ducks this interpretation. “It was probably my conscience. It was really saying: ‘all your life you have been trying to do the right thing, and now it’s time to step across the line’.”
Any Star Wars fan will recognise the words of the Yoda, Jedi Master, that came to him. “Do. Or do not. There is no try. Just walk.”
So he did just that. “I got up, picked up my sign, and I started to walk in my neighbourhood for DREAMers and immigrants. That first walk was pretty scary for me. I’m someone who is a little bit worried about what people think of me, so it was hard for me to walk out and wave a sign around.”
The response has been mostly positive. His worsening back prevents him from walking his original two-mile route but he is determined to continue. “I now sit on the corner of a busy intersection with my sign, and then I walk on half a mile, meet my dog friend Benby, feed him four biscuits and return home.”
Searching for lost time
He is driven both by outrage at the treatment immigrants have received, and by wanting to compensate for youthful complacency. “I’ve come to realise that as a young boy I was the recipient of white male American privilege. I thought that everyone had the life that I had. I’ve become acutely aware that that isn’t the case. So I would like to die believing that I did some little thing that made this world a better place. That’s what keeps me going.”
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