first published online at SFBG.com, April 19, 2005
REMEMBERING MARLA RUZICKA 1977-2005 by Matt Gonzalez
ON APRIL 16, WHILE TRAVELLING on a dangerous airport road in Baghdad, Marla Ruzicka was killed in a car bombing. She was the founder of the Campaign to Aid Innocent Victims in Conflict, a group that sought to document civilian casualties in the Iraqi War. Sen. Patrick Leahy has credited her with obtaining millions of dollars in U.S. federal aid for civilian victims in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Though she was only 28 years old, she was already well known in Bay Area activist circles. An activist who got her start with Global Exchange, she was also active in the Green Party.
I met Marla in 2000, when she was working on Medea Benjamin’s campaign for U.S. Senate. In fact, she was at the protest that caused me to join the Green Party. And both she and Medea embraced my entry into the Green Party, even putting together a house party at Medea and Kevin Danaher’s home for me.
I still remember having to plead with Marla because she wanted to give my campaign all of the money she had in her bank account, a couple of hundred dollars, and I wouldn’t let her.
Later I would always see her. Whether it as at a rally against pharmaceutical companies that were making it virtually impossible for AIDS medicines to reach Africa, working on the campaign for public power, or protesting against Enron, California’s energy deregulation fiasco, and the World Trade Organization, she would be there.
Marla fought on a broad front, never allowing her concerns to be myopic. Her mentors, Medea Benjamin and Kevin Danaher, had treated her to a lesson in the politics of progressive change. And she was eager not just to know but to act. She was eager to fix.
How to describe Marla? She had a lot of moxy, and she was indefatigable. She knew how to cajole her way into and out of places she shouldn’t have been allowed to be. Her smile could melt the fiercest opposition. And her optimism was infectious. She fought hard, but she also laughed and knew how to let her hair down.
And of course there were moments of great doubt. In quieter moments, as a gathering died down, she would often be self-reflective, wonder if we were getting somewhere. But she wouldn’t linger there. There was, after all, too much to do.
I can recall a picnic in Golden Gate Park where Marla went off to throw a football with some guys she didn’t know. Then she would dart back and play with some nearby children – and though she didn’t know them either, in minutes she was kissing and hugging them. Then she would hang out, catching up with all the activists there and talk easily and knowingly about the progressive concern of the moment.
She often dropped by the art parties at my office in City Hall. Always with a great big smile on her face, she had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in her life. She loved to talk with Mark Leno and Tony Hall. She loved trying to get to know them and urging them to support her progressive causes.
Her death has caused many to portray her in almost martyrlike language. But at the bottom of it all, she was just a human being trying to make the world better. She wasn’t deterred by rules and obstacles or frontiers and borders. Beneath the girlish smile was a person firmly committed and armed with information.
Selfishly, I’m going to miss getting those late-night phone calls “checking in.” I’m going to miss those calls from across the globe telling me that something I was doing here was so important. She had a way of letting you know that she had her eye on you and that what you were doing mattered.
I must say, Marla would have loved the attention she’s getting now. She would have loved that the issue she cared about was getting noticed. But she would have hated knowing she had put her driver, Faiz Ali Salim, who also died in the car bombing, in harm’s way. She would have hated knowing that his young newborn would be fatherless.
It hurts me to think Marla suffered such a painful death. The New York Times accounts of her car engulfed in flames and Marla surviving for a short time with burns covering over 90 percent of her body, are hard to read.
Marla’s will to live was strong. She died trying to live, wanting to live. Saying “I’m alive” at the very end of her life, according to the medic that treated her, conveys how tenacious she was.
I’m heartened to know that so many are remembering Marla.
Let’s keep her alive.