Tom Andrews had to laugh at the question.

The day after organizing a demonstration at the Chinese Embassy in New York at which movie star George Clooney, Martin Luther King III and four members of Congress were arrested for protesting Chinese support of the genocidal government of Sudan, Andrews was being interviewed by the BBC.

Then he got the question.

“Isn’t this just a publicity stunt?”

Well, yes, the former Maine congressman had to admit, you could say that.

“But I don’t think we would be talking about genocide in South Sudan this morning if we hadn’t done it.”

It’s a question Andrews has gotten a lot in the last 30 years since he brought an army of people with disabilities to protest in South Portland and Westbrook, fighting to make the Metro buses accessible a decade before the Americans with Disabilities Act was the law of the land. Andrews is still using the same techniques and applying the same pressure, but now he’s doing it on a global stage.

“I’m an advocate,” he said. “That’s what I do.”

Andrews was in Portland this week to address the statewide model United Nations, a world affairs program for high school students meeting at the University of Southern Maine.

Andrews lives in Washington, D.C., these days, where he runs United to End Genocide, a coalition of human rights and religious groups that raises public awareness about abuses, pressing the governments of the United States and other countries to keep up pressure on the repressive governments that use mass murder and terror to maintain control.

In addition to Sudan, Andrews has also been active in Myanmar, where he sneaked accross the Chinese border and witnessed sham elections that were closed to foreign observers and the media.

Relentless activism – OK, publicity stunts – can make a real difference even in closed societies in remote corners of the world, Andrews says, and he says it with so much enthusiasm it can make you think so, too.

“We don’t have to condemn ourselves to another century of genocide after genocide after genocide,” he said. “It doesn’t have to happen.”

Andrews looks a little different than he did in 1994, when he gave up his relatively safe seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to run for the U.S. Senate against Olympia Snowe, the election that ended his career as an elected official.

His hair, thinning then, is all gone now, and he wears T-shirts instead of button-down collars and ties.

But his voice, a rapid-fire staccato softened by a fine-grain sandpaper rasp – probably a result of never running out of things to say – is still the same.

Not much has changed in his approach, either.

Andrews, who lost his right leg to cancer when he was in college, was hired to be the director of the Maine Association of Handicapped Persons in the early 1980s. He turned the group from a direct service provider to a civil rights organization that brought people with different disabilities together for the first time and forced the media to cover the discrimination they faced.

Once they went to testify at a meeting in Westbrook where the council met in an inaccessible room. With TV cameras in tow, they protested outside the meeting (with signs that said “We’ve been left out in the cold too long”) until the meeting location was changed.

When South Portland went ahead and bought a fleet of new and inaccessible buses, group members attempted to drag themselves on board, handing out literature that said, “If you can’t walk, you can’t ride.”

They filed a suit against the bus company, and when the hearing was scheduled in an inaccessible courtroom, they sued the court.

The activism led Andrews to run for the Maine Legislature (sponsoring a bond issue to upgrade the state’s buses) and for the U.S. House in 1990.

When former Sen. George Mitchell surprised everyone by retiring, he encouraged Andrews to run for the seat. It was Andrews’ first loss at the polls.

But he didn’t retire. His work against genocide has taken him all over the world, and he has worked in cooperation with disparate groups, from evangelical Christians to the expressly secular People for the American Way.

He is constantly reminded about how people can make a difference.

On a recent visit to Rwanda, Andrews visited a genocide memorial on a site where the bodies of 259,000 people killed in the early 1990s are buried.

“I saw that and I thought, my God, I was in Congress when this was going on,” he said. “I was on the Armed Services Committee. Where the hell was I? Where were we?”

Maybe things would have been different if Andrews the Congressman had had Andrews the Advocate to tell him what to do.

Fortunately, the current Congress doesn’t have that problem.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]