Divesting Darfur

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If The Devil Came on Horseback was an impassioned plea for the world to do something about the genocide in Sudan, Darfur Now is about people who heeded that call to action. By his own account, Adam Sterling is an unlikely activist, but his story — one of six in the film — is indicative of the grass-roots movement to spread awareness and to help broker a solution through concentrated action.

Sterling was a student at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2004 when the U.S. government declared that the mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan were genocide. Having studied the consequences of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, the African-American Studies major (whose Jewish family members fled Germany before the Holocaust) saw an opportunity to affect history.

His UCLA professors, who had been instrumental in the divestment movement targeting the apartheid regime in South Africa, suggested following the money. So Sterling planted the seeds for what would become the small (six staffers) but effective Sudan Divestment Task Force (SDTF), now based in Washington, D.C.

"To take oil out of a country, you need reserves, money and expertise," explains Sterling, now 24. "The government controlled the country's reserves, but they depended on all these foreign companies to turn reserves into revenue. So we found that these companies had enormous leverage, and it turned out our university and our state had millions of dollars invested in these companies."

After graduation, Sterling worked fulltime as a waiter in Los Angeles, and spent off-days in Sacramento, helping to write legislation to divest the state of California's holdings from corporations that support the current Sudanese government. Four months of Sterling's schizophrenic existence are captured in Darfur Now, and he acknowledges, "for me, ignorance was bliss."

"I didn't spend the time thinking about how intimidating the bureaucracy really was," he says, "but just went full-speed ahead. Now it's been a crash course. I testified in front of the U.S. Senate, and I remember getting nervous about testifying in front of the Board of Regents for the university, so it's come full circle."

Darfur Now concludes with the signing of a targeted Sudan divestment bill in California in September 2006. Since then, 12 other states have followed suit— and HB 4854 was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives in July.

Sterling was briefly in Detroit last month on his way to a rally in Lansing supporting the Dream for Darfur campaign, which links the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with Chinese involvement in Sudan. Most of the companies the SDTF targets are in China, the biggest investor in Sudanese oil.

"You've got to be your own expert," Sterling says, explaining what drove someone with no background in finance to take this route. "Investments and fiduciary risks, we've had to learn on our own. I've always had this idea that if we pushed just hard enough, the experts would come in and shake our hands, and say, 'You done good, we'll take it from here.'" No one did.

Sterling is guardedly optimistic about what's happening in Darfur, pointing to the possibility of United Nations peacekeeping troops, two suspects being named by the International Criminal Court, and the Chinese government slowly recognizing the conflict.

"We're starting to break through. It's tough, it's uncharted territory," he explains. "If we fail here, we can't say we didn't know."

Darfur Now opens Friday, Nov. 9, at Landmark's Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111. Darfur-Darfur: A Photo Essay runs through Nov. 19 at the Detroit Public Library, main branch, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-4042.

Darfur Now opens Friday, Nov. 9, at Landmark’s Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111. Darfur-Darfur: A Photo Essay runs through Nov. 19 at the Detroit Public Library, main branch, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit;
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