Behind bars with stars: Protest leader arrested with Clooney has Philadelphia roots

speaking at therally. CLIFF OWEN / AP
speaking at therally. CLIFF OWEN / AP (John Prendergast)
Posted: March 27, 2012

Rabbi Steve Gutow says he's known John Prendergast for a long time: "I've always found him a little off the wall - and a tremendous force for good."

On March 16, Gutow shared a jail cell in Washington with Prendergast, 49, a son of Philadelphia and a globally prominent peace and human rights activist, a mover in government, nonprofit, and protest circles.

They were among a crowd in front of the Sudanese Embassy, protesting the government and alleged war crimes of President Omar al-Bashir. They were arrested and escorted to jail.

Gutow and Prendergast had company behind bars.

George Clooney, for one.

And George Clooney's father.

And Martin Luther King III.

And Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP.

A whole cell-full of prominent people, actually. And from the sound of it, they had a merry old time.

Tom Andrews, president and chief executive officer of United to End Genocide, was also in the clink. "I never thought I'd ever be so happy to get arrested and thrown in jail," he said. "Since we were all there together, we decided to do some organizing."

"The atmosphere was really close camaraderie that came almost immediately," said Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "It turned into a discussion of what we do next, something far deeper and far more important. Suddenly, we were friends, and we were committed to changing the world. And a lot of that's down to John's leadership style."

It is a brash, sometimes slapdash style, courtesy of a man with a knack for getting attention, getting the ear of those who can make a difference, and bringing people together in commitment. Prendergast is a 1986 Temple graduate with a master's in urban studies (after wandering various colleges) who started out as an aide to U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III. In 1984, he saw the Ethiopian famine on TV and found his passion, soon traveling to Africa and investigating issues of suffering and human rights. Washington is his base now, both for tireless advocacy on behalf of human rights in Africa, an interest he has had since adolescence, and for community activism.

He is also author or coauthor of 10 books, two of them with co-activist Don Cheadle; cofounder of the Enough Project, the human rights and anti-genocide organization through which he helped organize the Washington protest; and a former member of the National Security Council and adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He is unafraid to irritate, promote, or exploit a publicity stunt if it means getting more people hooked on the cause.

Arrest? Jail? He expected it, Prendergast said. Part of the plan.

"The vast majority of Americans have no idea about Sudan," he said. "Why would they? Mainstream media don't cover it. But the government of Sudan is using starvation as a weapon against their own people, bombing civilian targets. One way to raise awareness is to take a page from the book of the antiapartheid activists in South Africa, go out, get arrested, and bring attention to the issues that way. We said, 'Let's do that here. We can't let this go on.' "

"John is a phenomenon," Andrews said. "Endless energy, a wealth of knowledge, and commitment as deep as it comes, and a great sense of humor. That is quite an asset for this movement."

Prendergast punctuates a 10-minute phone call with repeated laughter, most often at himself. "The Washington police are nice," he said. "They had stars in their eyes. They don't get an inmate like George Clooney every day."

Actor and activist met at the Save Darfur: Rally to Stop Genocide on the National Mall in Washington in 2006. Prendergast was instantly impressed with Clooney's knowledge, determination, and savvy sense of what works in principled publicity.

"Eventually, we decided to take a trip there together," Prendergast said, "to see if we can join forces, his strategic sense of how to train the public spotlight on an issue, and my experience. We've now taken three trips to the region and written and done a whole range of things to get people's attention."

That includes testifying before Congress, having sit-downs with President Obama, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and current one Hillary Rodham Clinton, and (in Clooney's case) addressing the United Nations.

"Knowing John as well as I know him," Gutow said, "he wouldn't hang out with Clooney if he wasn't committed or was too full of himself. Neither's the case at all."

Clooney is "fearless enough to be willing to go right into the war zone, where active conflict is occurring, and talk to the survivors," Prendergast said, "and to some of the protagonists. He takes the time to go deep into fact- and evidence-gathering."

Which is what many said about Prendergast: He takes the time to go deep. Last year, he published a memoir, Unlikely Brothers, coauthored with a Washington former mentee-turned-drug-dealer-now-gone-straight named Michael Mattocks. The book connected Prendergast's long commitment to neighborhood work with his equal passion for human rights and justice in Africa.

His Philadelphia roots go deep, too. "A lot keeps me coming back there," Prendergast said. His mother, Claire, now battling health issues, lives in Berwyn. His brother Luke and family are in Philadelphia. And a former Big Brothers mentee, Khayree Lane, lives in Germantown.

Prendergast likes Philadelphia for another reason: It is prime ground for the kind of grassroots consciousness-raising he is trying to do, "congressional district by congressional district," throughout the land. "Philadelphia has always been a good place to come to find hearts oriented to service and justice."

Why? "It's a great place for movement-building. It's got that bedrock constituency of people who care about genocide and massive human rights abuse. You have the universities and all the churches and synagogues. Philly students are really impressive with their involvement in activist organizations about these issues." As a visiting professor at Temple University, he found it "extraordinary to see the people who'd turn out for social-justice advocacy for Africa."

Fellow jailbird Gutow said, "John likes to speak of himself as way out there - and he is! - but he's also a leader, charismatic, with a lot of discipline to get the job done. He's the kind of leader we need more of in America."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.

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