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In some part as a celebration after the elections, Lexie and I drove down to Santa Barbara to visit cousins who have shared the trials and tribulations, the calls to action, the anger, the financial contributions and growing hope of the past many months. With them we went to two events that brought to me the chill and tingle of that strange cocktail of grief and pleasure that is part of modern American life.

On Saturday we saw a film about the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s death. That day, in Los Angeles, at the Ambassador Hotel, was a day of massing excitement. California was voting in the Presidential primary and election fever was high. It was the fifth of June, 1968. Robert Kennedy died early in the dark hours of the sixth: bullet wounds to the neck and skull, shot at close range in a jubilant crowd after claiming victory in the primary. 6 others were also wounded, lay in their own blood, in the panic and the fear. A bus-boy knelt and cradled the dying man’s head. It was a day many of us will never forget, never, in a year in which the unforgettable was fighting everyday for our memory: the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam and the shattering of US claims to omnipotence; the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr on April 14; the rage and turmoil in city streets, shootings, rioting, arson fires that consumed acres of homes and businesses.

Did I really want to see a film about this? At a festival? With happy, film-literate people? Should we bring our handkerchiefs is what I wanted to know; could I get an aisle seat so I could bolt?

The name of the film is Bobby and is directed by Emilio Estevez. Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore, William Macy, Harry Belafonte and many others all make significant appearances. Without going into detail I’ll tell you to make room to see it when it comes around, though, for all the fine acting, you will likely be left filmically irritated. But the final crush of people in the Ambassador ballroom, the gun shots and Kennedy’s incredible “The Mindless Menace of Violence” playing over the credits will leave you shaken, and I think, further resolved.

Sunday night we went to one of the multiple annual dinners for Human Rights Watch. More than the film, the dinner served up that mixture of gladdness and grief, anger and pride, that strange cocktail shaken and warmed to body temperature, that takes days to sober up from. Human Rights Watch is the Defense Department for all that lives just seconds beyond our physical lives; rights so elementary that infants seem to know them: dignity, fairness, justice, the right to speak, to not be imprisoned without reason, to not be beaten into pain beyond imagining. And we were in effect, as the old bumper sticker used to say, having a bake sale to support them. Every government, every organization, every person of good will would, in a reasonable world, begger themselves to ensure Human Rights Watch, and a few others like it, are well funded. In the actual world of course, good hearted people tax themselves at dinners to provide a bare minimum of support.

Every year three people are honored. Declared to be Defenders they are brought to the dinners to speak (little) of themselves and (much) of their work. This year, Veronica Cruz from Mexico, Mandira Sharma from Nepal, and Arnold Tsunga from Zimbabwe were with us. No one was eating when their words were heard, the conditions they are trying to change are absorbed, the dangers they are in are understood. When Veronica Cruz spoke about her work with poor women who have been raped, and told us that under Mexican law incestual intercourse cannot be rape a gasp went through the audience. They each told us how important it was they they see us, and know that Human Rights Watch is with them as they confront the dangers of their work. How important for us to see them and to watch our own daily fears and worries spin back down to resonable size. How important for us to know that the little we do is enormously important to others, and to resolve to do more in the days that we have.

More about Human Rights Watch, here and the honorees here.