I have been truly blessed to know and love many great people of all ages, stature and beliefs from all over the world. At this point, but for one, their names or what they’ve done matters little. What does matter is that this community of ours shares a common bond, a belief that together we can and will make a difference. That we can change this world; that we are fellow travelers in a struggle to make this thing called humanity kinder, warmer, more humane- a community built on shared values, purpose and principle not greed or surrender to power. Today, I learned our community has lost one of its giants, far too soon.
Dennis “Owen” Collins has passed, but not died. Like Joe Hill, he lives on eternal wherever women and men of principle and vision dare to struggle, dare to win. Dennis has not left us, he’s just moved on to another fight in a different place with other folks. I envy those that are now walking with him at their side. They are now so much more fortunate than us.
I first met Dennis about three and a half years ago in Northern California when the Pay Pal 14 appeared together in a federal courtroom to answer charges that this collective of wonderful women and men had not forgotten the lesson of those who protested by sitting in at racist counters in the deep South of this country a half century earlier. To the Pay Pal 14, it was clear that association, speech, protest and yes even a Ddos action was so much more important, indeed necessary, than the unchecked economic privilege and power that is today the multinational corporate and surveillance culture that we have become. It was my honor to be one of the Pay Pal 14 attorneys. For more than three years I looked forward to the frequent red-eye flights to and from California. It was empowering, to say the least, to stand with mostly youthful resisters from all over the United States who refused to go silently unto the night. Although those charged were not required to attend most court proceedings, those that did always recharged my batteries with their smiles, determination and self sacrifice. Collective political defenses are not easy, especially ones with 14 indefatigable voices and 20 some odd lawyers, as our beauty lies not in our many similarities but our principled differences. Needless to say, in the best of times there were differences, even dramatic ones, within our defense. Whenever we knew that disagreement was sure to boil over at an upcoming court appearance, a call was made to Dennis. Though broke, and ill, he would find a way to muster the strength and appear in court. Whenever he arrived, we lawyers would find our own way to disappear during breaks in the proceedings as the “14” would gather just among themselves to debate their dissidence, always under the determined and vigilant leadership of Dennis. Somehow when the collective returned they spoke with a unanimous focused voice. We knew.
Dennis Owen Collins was my client, more important, he was my friend, a truly remarkable, caring, and giving man who never said what he wanted but was always first in helping others to obtain what they needed. When Israel said no to an embattled Gaza, and shut down its access to cyberspace at a pre-announced time, I suspect Dennis said yes- almost miraculously, it returned a minute or so later and remained on – enough said. It wasn’t the first or the last time that he was to help embattled people to resist and did so in creative ways, and did so anonymously :)))))
Dennis made the connections between oppression overseas and that at home. He understood that oppression of one was oppression of all. He knew that the struggle in Gaza was cousin to the struggle in lower Manhattan when Wall Street and later a hundred other places were occupied, as so much inspiration to those who resist worldwide. He saw the connection between corporate violence and that of the police in urban America. Wherever people suffered from isolation, despair, and occupation of the body or the mind, Dennis threw caution to the wind and jumped to their aid. He knew that to be silent was to be complicit. Although ill these last few years, he always had the strength and determination to stand up and be counted. He very clearly understood that our time in this thing called life begins to end from our very first breath. He knew that life is precious, and every moment of it committed to resistance, a gift; that we could, can and must make a difference and set about to do just that. Dennis never waived a flag, sang a pledge or flashed a passport. To him. they were little more than ugly nationalist boundaries created to divide us. Dennis was the internationalist shout in the night that could be heard screaming out ” shit, this is wrong ” and set about to right it!
If someone stopped Dennis on the street to ask him for five bucks and he had but four, he would go and borrow a dollar and give the five to the stranger. Of course, that night, with a shrug he would have to walk home three miles in the pouring rain, ill all the way, because he had no money left for a bus. That’s the kind of guy Dennis was.
Love means many things to many people. To some, it’s that warm intimate embrace. To others, the spark in your mind’s eye that glows when a name is heard, a moment recalled. To Dennis, who knew both, it was also the race to the barricades to right a wrong and do so in a way that no longer requires us to leave our home to weigh in. After all, we live today in an age where the pen or the keyboard is indeed so much mightier than the sword. Dennis understood that better than most and, above all others I knew, was the first to speed to his lap top so that he could roar out, usually anonymously- though folks who knew, knew.
When the history of resistance is written, the name of Dennis Owen Collins will resonate with the echo of the greatness, kindness, and love that was his to all people, in all places, at all times.
The last time I saw Dennis, he and I sat outside the courthouse in California in a peaceful sunlit day knowing full well we would likely not touch each other again, at least not in this lifetime. I was on my way to prison- he his final battle in this world. We spoke of struggle, resistance, and sacrifice. To talk to Dennis was to move from the stage of international geopolitical struggle to a technical cyberspace lesson in how to create a new alternative means of confronting the beast. As if yesterday, I remember him sitting on the courthouse bench that day talking about finding creative, daring ways that gave people hope and comfort that they were not alone even in the loneliest or darkest of times.
Dennis never feared prison: to him, like death, it was just so much a step in a journey of life that gave meaning to its existence. Just before coming to prison myself, I received an unsigned cryptic message from Dennis. I didn’t need a signature – I knew its author, it was an anonymous smile, the kind that said thanks and hurry back we will be waiting for you.
Dennis understood that resistance has its price- justice and liberty never becomes cheap. He understood that evil people, indeed evil governments, do evil things. He knew that all too well, being indicted not once but twice on both the West and East coasts of this country for largely the same conduct which occurred at essentially the same time. It was so much about wearing him down- it always is. Even though sick, it did not. I understand that with his dying breath he was hard at work with his lap top open, his keyboard rocking and his resistance grinning.
Just a few days ago Dennis sent his regards to me through some mutual friends. I sent mine back. There wasn’t much more to be said between us at the time. There was no need. Our respect and love for one another was one of those things that just was. Having fought the good fight together, we were past the point of words. In retrospect, it may very well have been his way of saying it was time for him to move on.
It’s often tough to sleep in prison. Surrounded by a 120 men all wracked with pain and despair with the ever-present stench of untreated illness and institutional brutality, you are far away from those you love- more important, from those who love you. It’s a place and time that daily challenges every kernel of your life, your beliefs, your hopes, no matter who you are or how strong you may be.
I finally fell asleep last night after tossing and turning for what seemed like hours. Not long thereafter I was suddenly awakened by what struck me as so much an odd burst of sunshine- though outside it remained still dark and dreary. Now wide awake and staring up at the cracked metal bottom of the bunk above that is my night-time sky, it dawned on me that Dennis had come to say his final goodbye in his own personal way. Although I had struggled throughout the day with this ode to my friend, suddenly I recalled the first few times that we had met. I smiled. On the first occasion, not long after the Pay Pal 14 and their lawyers including me had entered the courtroom in Northern California, the web site and a separate case information system (ECF) of its parent Court of Appeals, inexplicably went dark. As the last of us left the courthouse several hours later, almost magically, both systems returned. At our next group appearance a month or so later, literally as the last of us entered the same courtroom, all the bells, whistles, lights and alarms went on and off throughout the courthouse forcing a mass evacuation of the building. Milling around outside among ourselves, Dennis and I were cracking jokes with our normal degree of healthy sarcasm when I was approached by the Chief U.S. Marshal. Asking to speak with me alone, I joined the marshal but a few feet a way; in a very soft tone he quipped “counsel, please tell your clients enough is enough.” :))) Surely these unnatural but almost predictable events can, with the passage of time, become the stuff of urban legend- not here, they both happened.
Towards the end of the Pay Pal 14 case I found myself alone at a table with Dennis at our adopted local watering hole where all the Pay Pal 14 and counsel would descend after a long day in court to have some laughs and liquid relief. As we sat reminiscing about the days in and out of court that were very much a roadmap for a successful political defense of very political people, my discussion with Dennis turned to these two events in which seemingly the gods of cyberspace had intervened almost as if to let us know it would be all right.
Dennis simply said “shit happens” as he grinned from ear to ear and finished his beer. Yes, Dennis, shit does happen. I will miss you terribly my dear friend. We all will.
Someone I care very deeply about in Gaza recently sent me a message: ” we live, we fight, we love, but we never die.” Though she’s never met or heard of Dennis Owen Collins, she must have had him in mind when she wrote these beautiful words.
We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget.