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REAL AWARDS
The 2005 American Patriot Awards

By Nancy Goldstein | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

In honor of Independence Day, I asked a dozen prominent public figures who they would give an American Patriot Award to if they had one to bestow.

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J. Richard Cohen, President, Southern Poverty Law Center, which is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists and its tracking of hate groups:

There are literally millions of American patriots who are standing up for this country's highest values in everyday ways within the context of their own lives. But if I had to select one person to honor at this time, I would choose Ray Ybarra, a young man who has interrupted his law school career to monitor the anti-immigration vigilantes of the so-called Minuteman Project. Ray represents the best of America and his courage is an inspiration to us all.

Dr. Paul Farmer, Cofounder of Partners in Health (PIH), which strives to achieve two overarching goals: to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.”:

If I could bestow an American Patriot Award, I would give it to Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan Stevenson has worked tirelessly for many years to challenge the death penalty and the biases under which it is imposed by providing legal assistance to death row inmates and to the poor. To that end, in 1989 he founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama to provide legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment by the legal system in that state, which does not have a statewide public defender system. He has argued passionately that we cannot understand the immorality of the death penalty without grasping the immorality of racism, or the structures that create poverty, or the power dynamics that marginalize the poor. Bryan and his organization stand in solidarity with the poor, the disfavored, and the disadvantaged, in the belief that equal justice is a right and that the protection of every person's civil and human rights are essential to a fair and just society.

Steve Gerber describes himself as “handsome, charming, single, rich—okay, maybe not rich”—and the creator of such comic book series as Hard Time and Howard the Duck:

I would give Bill Maher the American Patriot Award because I believe love of country begins with love of truth. Truth is best served by an inquiring mind, a relentless skepticism, and the courage to speak the unthinkable. That, and timing reminiscent of Jack Benny.

Hillary and Julie Goodridge, lead plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the ground-breaking case that established the right of same-sex couples to marry in Massachusetts. The Goodridges are the first same-sex couple to marry legally in the United States:

The American Patriot Award should be given to Mary Bonauto, who organized, strategized, persuaded and ultimately brilliantly argued the groundbreaking case for marriage equality before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. She did this while keeping 14 plaintiffs in line and up-to-date, taking on other cases to protect the rights of GLBT people, playing a pivotal role in deliberations by legislators during the Massachusetts constitutional conventions, and giving birth to twins.

Jennifer Gonnerman is a staff writer at The Village Voice and the author of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, which was a finalist for a 2004 National Book Award:

I would nominate Wilbert Rideau, who entered Angola–Louisiana’s infamous penitentiary – at age 19 with a murder conviction in 1961. His formal schooling had ended with eighth grade, but on death row he educated himself by reading constantly. Over the years, he transformed himself into one of the most accomplished journalists in the country. For many years, he published the Angolite, a prison magazine that has won numerous journalism prizes. Life magazine called him “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America.”

Wilbert fought his own conviction for decades and was tried four times for the same crime. Earlier this year, he finally left prison after a jury found him guilty of manslaughter, a lesser charge than murder. By then he’d been locked up for 44 years. Wilbert’s ability to educate himself, to produce amazing work, and to be an inspiration to the rest of our nation’s two million prisoners – for all of these reasons he deserves a Patriot Award.

Todd Hanson of The Onion, “America’s finest news source”:

Off the top of my head, I think I would give said Patriot award to Kurt Vonnegut. Nobody ever talks about him anymore, and he is often dismissed as an adolescent-phase-type writer unworthy of "serious" literary consideration, but as a 36-yr-old I for one still consider him to be one of our country's greatest and most humane satirists, and very funny, if you want my opinion.

Marjorie Hill, PhD, Director of the Women’s Institute at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a not-for-profit, volunteer-supported and community-based organization committed to national leadership in the fight against AIDS:

My choice for an American Patriot Award would be Oprah Winfrey. A great American and an inspiring world citizen, Oprah has enlightened, encouraged and entertained million of viewers for more than two decades. Furthermore, her list of historic accomplishments are astounding; first African American Woman to anchor news at Nashville WTVF-TV; hosting the highest rated television show in Television history; being only the third woman in American entertainment history to open her own production studio.

Through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, she has awarded hundreds of grants to organizations that support the education and empowerment of women, children and families, and created the OW Scholars program, which gives scholarships to students determined to use their education to give back to their communities in the US and abroad. Winfrey is currently in partnership with South Africa’s ministry of education to build the OW Leadership Academy for girls—scheduled to open in 2007.

While all of these accomplishments epitomize the highest of our American ideals, I most celebrate Oprah’s individual determination, unwavering pride and uncompromising honesty.

Irvin Kershner, Director of the American film classic The Empire Strikes Back:

Caring less for personal gain and more for the democratic process, Ralph Nader dared to seek the presidency knowing he would be ostracized for spoiling the election for the democratic contender. This took courage! He offered to debate but the two parties denied him the privilege. He dared to tell the truth about the environment, the full effects of outsourcing, the unfair tax changes, and the lies that were being promulgated. But he could never reach the broad audience. Big money was the lifeblood of the campaigns.

Nader dared to speak rationally to a nation in thrall of faith based politics; a nation unable to maintain a separation between church and state. Exposing lies, half-truths, and secretive government, Nader's honest approach was barely reported. His message was shut out by a media that is part of the corporate octopus.

For Nader, both parties were at fault and he stood up against the tide to hold them accountable. That is true patriotism.

Michael Musto pens the fabulous weekly La Dolce Musto column for The Village Voice:

I would give an award to Janeane Garofalo. The idea of comics as commentators has always made me deeply nervous. You always expect them to interject a "rim shot" or end with a plug to "Catch me on the 12th through the 15th at Giggles in Cincinnati." But in her TV and radio appearances, Janeane has been serious, impassioned, and informed. Far from embarrassing, she's been an inspiration, and her opinions reflect the fact that she clearly loves the freedoms that make this country special. She gives comics a good name—and I would catch her at Giggles if she played there.

Malika Saada Saar, JD, Executive Director of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights—a national policy and advocacy organization for families which seeks reform in the areas of criminal justice, child welfare and drug policies:

Seven years ago, in the shadows of the US Capitol, Jackie tricked to support her drug habit. Not more than four years ago, Lorna was arrested on a non-violent drug felony, one block down from the Russell Senate building. Today, these women are part of Sacred Authority, an advocacy network of mothers in recovery who advocate for fair and just policies on behalf of families struggling with substance abuse issues. These mothers speak the truth of their lived experiences to power, entering into the halls and rooms of Congress to meet with lawmakers on a daily basis.

Most of the mothers were incarcerated for untreated addiction to crack-cocaine, most of them tried for years to enter into treatment programs, but were excluded because they were mothers with children; most of them are survivors of extreme trauma from repeated sexual and physical violence. And they are my choice for a great American Patriot award. Despite being despised as crack-addicted mothers, despite being criminalized for their addiction, despite being left behind in prisons, despite being told that they were worth no more than to be on the margins of this great nation, these mothers claim their healing, their greatness, their voice, and assume their rightful place at the table of national policymaking. They are great Americans, great patriots, because they believe in the democratic process and claim their sacred role in it.

Carmen Vazquez, Deputy Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's statewide civil rights organization committed to winning equality and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) New Yorkers and our families:

Dolores Huerta deserves an American Patriot Award. Cofounder and first vice president of the United Farm Workers union, she has dedicated her life to the struggle for justice, dignity, and a decent standard of living for the women and men who toil in our country’s fields. She has understood justice to be without limit and has embraced reproductive rights and environmental justice as causes to which she must bring her voice and determination. In a climate of extreme political conservatism that seeks to pit communities of color against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Movement for equality and justice, she has declared her support for the right of lesbians and gay men to marry. She understands that there is no justice if we cannot protect those we love. American Patriots defend justice and equality and peace. No one in my lifetime is more courageous an American Patriot than Dolores Huerta.

Look for Nancy Goldstein's return to Raw Story weekly, starting August 4.

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