Two days after Andrew Pearson returned from a trip to his native Australia, to work for an environmental group and seek out distant family, the Sept. 11 attacks occured. The event thrust him back into the realm of progressive activism that he'd learned, and led, as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill--but now the stakes were much bigger.
Over the five-plus years since, he's marched, organized, been arrested and even stripped naked for the anti-war cause, emerging as a key figure in the success of the N.C. Peace & Justice Coalition.
Remember the rally at the State Capitol in 2003, where 7,000 people demonstrated against the then-impeding Iraq invasion? That was organized by the newly formed coalition—with Pearson as one of its leaders.
And the sit-in at Congressman David Price's office, as Price mulled his vote (ultimately, it was "no") on the Iraq war? Again, the coalition—with Pearson in the lead.
And the protests outside Fort Bragg after the war started and on each anniversary of the invasion, in 2004, 2005 and 2006? That was the coalition too, growing steadily bigger and broader, with Pearson as one of its main—and, for a time, even its paid—organizer.
One of its many organizers, he's quick to say.
Now, with the wheels off the Bush regime and the Democrats victorious in the '06 elections, how much of the credit should go to peace groups like the NCPJC?
Some of it, Pearson thinks. "It's been both a powerful force," he says, "and a limited one"—limited, in his view, because progressives were too slow to make alliances with military families, Muslim-American groups and the few conservative organizations that were also anti-war.
Still, he adds, the peace movement pushed the war issue when the politicians wouldn't, and it forced them to pay attention by building broad opposition to Bush. That's how the political system in America has to work: "There always has to be some kind of an outside, agitating force" before change of any kind becomes a possibility, Pearson says. "In that sense, I think the election results were a testament to the energy that bubbled up from the grassroots all over the country."
Pearson says his "outsider perspective" is rooted in his family's move from Australia to Cleveland when he was 10. Both of his parents are liberal academics. He was—and remains—a little shy, very analytical and driven to figure out the deep and complicated roles that racial, sexual and class identity played in the Cleveland public school system and in the American psyche.
On the other hand, he didn't lack for confidence when he came to Chapel Hill as an undergraduate and, knowing nobody and feeling a little "desperate" at the football-and-frat house mentality he saw around him, jumped into the leadership of the Student Environmental Action Coalition. He started by selling coffee and Bruegger's-donated, day-old bagels to students as a fundraiser for the rain forest. "I was so shocked, standing there on the street with my bagels, and students were actually coming right up to talk to me," he laughs. Three years later, he was SEAC's national coordinator, and in charge of a meeting of 2,000 students from all over the country.
Indy readers may remember SEAC, and Pearson, from their work in support of the UNC-CH housekeepers, who organized a union local to get better pay and working conditions from the university. Or from the Ram Road scandal, when SEAC (tipped by a UNC insider, Pearson tells us now) exposed the state Board of Transportation's decision to spend scarce road-building money on a private road to the Dean Dome—so wealthy contributors could get in and out of Tar Heel basketball games without undue delay.
SEAC is where Pearson learned how to stage protests, build an organization and get the media's attention. He also learned about the limitations of Democratic Party politics when he went to the General Assembly to lobby for better housekeepers' pay, and was told by one (unnamed) leader that the minimum wage was actually "an obstacle to self-sufficiency."
It was also where he discovered that he had a lot more to learn about identity politics. With racial and ethnic divisions in SEAC growing under the surface, Pearson offered to draw a picture for the cover of its national magazine that would help relieve the tension. He's a pretty good artist, but unwittingly, his work just underscored the problem—the black student was holding her baby, the white guy had the megaphone, and, well, Pearson was called out for it at the national conference and "wanted to die."
"I was the racist guy they'd just elected their national leader," he recalls.
In that dreadful moment, Pearson realized his limitations as a privileged young man. He also realized that organizations need structures, not just good intentions, to root out discriminatory attitudes and practices.
Those were lessons he put to good use when, for two and a half years after graduation, he managed Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill. Always a hub for diverse causes and folk, the bookstore was home in Pearson's time to emerging queer, immigrant and fair-trade movements, and he takes pride in how many of his volunteers went on to be leaders in the community.
And when, after his sojourn in Australia, he returned to help put NCPJC together, he worked hard to keep it open to everyone who opposed the war, including such controversial groups (within the coalition) as the Cuntry Kings, a drag troupe started by a transsexual veteran from Durham.
It was, as Pearson says, quite a balancing act, welcoming everyone on the left while also reaching out, finally, to newly formed groups like the Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families for Peace. One measure of the coalition's success is that, after the initial protest at Fort Bragg in '04, NCPJC convinced national anti-war organizers to back the '05 protest. It drew some 4,000 people and such then-unknown speakers as Cindy Sheehan.
"Andrew is a visionary," says Bridgett Burge, a fellow peace activist from Knightdale. "And he has such great people skills, and a great heart. I know movements always take a lot of people, but I feel like Andrew kind of single-handedly pulled the coalition together and was a real initiator of our major events."
As for Pearson's arrest, in early 2003, he and three activists ran onto the basketball court with an anti-war banner during a nationally televised UNC game. He was the only one of the four who pushed his case to trial, resulting in his conviction and a sentence of community service.
And the naked thing?
Pearson smiles about it now, but he remembers it as a product of desperation at the time—also early '03—about what a disaster the war would be and determination to do something, anything, to stop it. That, and the "Naked People for Peace" Web site, which had pictures of folks all over the world forming the peace sign with their naked bodies.
So naturally, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro group did it too, in somebody's backyard. The resulting photo "was very sort of tactful," Pearson says. "Everybody was very careful not to show anything."
What's next for Pearson? After years of $8-an-hour jobs (his pay for running the bookstore) and modest organizing stipends, he inherited money two years ago when his grandmother died, enough to buy his first house—in Durham—and join a national network of young, socially responsible investors. He's doing some foundation-funded consulting, and he plans to attend business school at UNC-CH, where he'll study entrepreneurship and community business models.
He'll probably keep his clothes on for this next phase of activism—no promises, though.