Ascending heights for a favourite cause

June 05, 2006, volume 36, no. 3
By Marianne Meadahl

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Omi Hodwitz goes to great lengths - and heights - to get her message across.

The young activist is a seasoned climber who has scaled building fronts, rappelled off of roofs and dangled from bridges and cranes to hang protest banners. Her targets have included the World Trade Organization, U.S. Democratic and Republican conventions and the World Bank. She trains others to do similar climbs of such heights as the Eiffel Tower.

Hanging and dangling aside, she'll march into convocation mall on June 7 to receive her bachelor of arts with honours in criminology.

Raised in the rural Kootenays, Hodwitz went to work for Greenpeace after high school, eventually becoming a helms woman on the protest ship Rainbow Warrior. Her involvement as an activist led to several arrests, a handful of convictions and a brief jail term.

Hodwitz's first high profile hang was in Seattle in 1997, when she and other climbers rappelled off the Aurora Bridge and blocked several factory trawlers from leaving the area on their way to Alaska to start the fishing season. “We hung there for three days in a stand off with the ships. It came to an end when we were taken into custody,” she recalls.

“That campaign was successful. Several months later factory trawlers were banned from Alaskan waters.”

Hodwitz became interested in studying criminal behaviour after serving a short sentence. She returned to school to begin a research that challenged the outdated ideas that activists were inherently psychologically or sociologically different from the general population. “For decades, researchers have been searching for that elusive trait that makes individuals choose to engage in civil disobedience,” she says.

“Rather than focusing on individual differences, I theorized that activists and non-activists are not necessarily demographically or psychologically different, but have instead been exposed to external instigating factors (threat to health and livelihood) that non-activists have not.”

Hodwitz conducted nearly 80 interviews and found that individuals who met non-activist criteria would be significantly more likely to engage in civil disobedience if faced with such threats.

Hodwitz will spend the summer in Indiana, Germany and Asia training activists in non-violent civil disobedience. She starts working towards her master's degree in criminology at SFU in the fall.

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