Kevin Neish is as selfless as they come. We meet early on a rainy Friday morning in Halifax. He appears tireless, even after having just taken the red-eye flight from Victoria. Its three in the morning Pacific Time, but it is me, young enough to be his son, who is having trouble keeping my pen scratching to paper as he rattles off the places he’s been, and the trouble he’s seen.
“My earliest memory is standing with my mom at a peace vigil. This was in the McCarthy era. My mom and dad were Marxists. Dad was a hardcore party member, while mom was a Marxist-feminist. They didn’t always see eye to eye on things, as back then the Party was pretty male dominated. Mom’s Marxist roots go back four generations, back to Finland. Her ancestors were among the first settlers in Sointula (a Marxist-styled colony on Malcolm Island, just off the coast of Northern Vancouver Island).”
The man’s activist roots run deep.
“I was a human shield in Guatemala in ’89, I’ve been to El Salvador twice on observer work, I’ve been to Columbia three times as a human shield to protect trade unionists. In Palestine in 2002 I was working with the International Solidarity Movement. I was a human shield, and I also rolled “shotgun” with the ambulances, driving around, picking up bodies. The ambulances weren’t allowed to leave without a white observer on board, so I was that guy, on the front lines.”
I ask Kevin if there is a particular philosophy to which he ascribes, some dogma that makes him so unafraid to put himself in potentially mortally dangerous situation.
“Mom and dad were always off to Cuba, to China, to Nicaragua, so I learned by example.” He pulls up his left sleeve and shows me a close-range shotgun blast that has taken off a significant chunk of his bicep. “I’ve been given some tools, like a Canadian passport, and not to be racist, but I have ‘white privilege’. When I volunteer in Palestine or put myself up as a human shield, there’s less of a chance that I’ll be shot. I’m just using the tools that I’ve got, that I’ve been given, against the establishment that gave them to me.”
Most recently, Kevin took part in the Free Gaza Movement’s international flotilla that was meant to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s ports. He was aboard the Mavi Marmara, the ship that Israeli forces illegally boarded, and massacred 9 people, in international waters.
“I was initially supposed to leave on a boat from Cypress, and join the rest of the flotilla in international waters. But the Israeli government was putting so much pressure on Cypress that they shut it down. I arrived in Cypress, and immediately caught another flight to Crete. From there a group of internationalists left aboard two 70 foot, 2 deck yachts, the Challenger 1 and the Challenger 2. These were American flagged ships with about 14 people aboard each. This was on the 30th of May, 2010. At some point on the 30th, we lost our steering. The Israelis latter bragged about how they had sabotaged our auto-pilot. There was a storm, we were taking on water, and we had no steering. The Mavi Marmora was radioed, and a rendez-vous was arranged for us to leave the Challenger 2 and board the Mavi. You see, I think the reason that the Israelis attacked the Mavi was because they didn’t expect any internationalists to be aboard. It was supposed to be a ship full of Turks and Arabs.”
“There were already about 580 people aboard the Mavi, it was the size of an Ocean-going ferry. About 60 were journalists, about 60-100 women and children, and the rest were older middle-aged men, like me. We were joined by four other ships, and we made up a five-ship line as we headed through international waters towards Gaza. The plan was to parallel the coast, until we came alongside Gaza, and then head towards land. We were in international waters the whole time.”
“Around 11pm of the 31st, I spotted identical lights on the horizon. I thought that that had to be the Israeli ships. At that point there was a plane following us, and we were to learn later that we were being followed by two submarines and an unmanned drone. I didn’t figure that the Israelis would attack. Al-Jazeera was constantly broadcasting, people were wandering around everywhere with satellite phones. Some had a satellite phone in each hand. The captain’s plan was to cross into international waters in daylight on the 1st of June, so that whatever was going to happen would happen in daylight. But the Israelis contacted him, and told him that during the night they had unilaterally extended their territorial borders from 8 miles at sea to 60 miles. They did that that night. We were still 70 miles off the coast, so even with these new borders we were still in international waters. The Israelis had a plan, and it didn’t matter what we did.”
“I went below deck around midnight, as I didn’t think the Israelis would do anything that night. Around 4am, there was enough action going on above me to wake me up. I went on deck, and we were under attack. There were two zodiacs filled with Israeli soldiers on either side of us, and percussion grenades, flash grenades, and rubber bullets were flying around the open stern. Aid workers in gas masks were scrambling through the smoke, trying to put out the flames with fire hoses, using ten foot poles to try to push the zodiacs back. The Israelis had a boarding ladder set against the side of the Mavi, and they were trying to board us. We were repelling pirates in international waters! At this point I figured this wasn’t the place for me, so I took my camera and headed for the internal stairway that connected the decks.”
I won’t play the spoiler here and give you the rest of Kevin’s story. Kevin Neish is on a cross-Canada tour, and was in Halifax for one night only. He shared his eyewitness account Friday, November 5th, at the Loyola Academic Complex on the SMU campus. See the Canadian Boat to Gaza’s website for the full schedule of Kevin Neish’s remaining events on this speaking tour.
This blog post originally appeared in the Halifax Media Coop and is reprinted here with permission.