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Martin Sheen's Lessons in Old-School Activism

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Martin Sheen laughs as he remembers the judge sighing in resignation, "Whatever can I do with you?"

It was 1989, and Sheen was facing trial for blocking access to the Federal Building in Los Angeles to protest U.S. support for the war in El Salvador. Every Wednesday for weeks, he and others showed up and chained themselves to the doors, effectively shutting down the building until the police showed up, cut the chains and dragged them off to jail. Sheen had racked up 13 arrests even before his first scheduled court appearance.

Peering down from her bench, the judge said, "I don't know if it's going to do any good to put you in jail, is it? You're just going to go back."

"Probably, your honour," Sheen replied.

In the end, she sentenced him to 400 hours of community service at a local soup kitchen. He did his service, and for the past 24 years has remained a volunteer there.

From the war-weary commando in Apocalypse Now to everyone's favourite TV President, Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing, Sheen has been a recognized name in entertainment for decades. He has also become one of our most regular speakers at We Day events -- not for his acting résumé but for his cred as an inspiring social activist who has protested everything from the Vietnam War to nuclear weapons to the war in Iraq, and has been arrested 66 times.

Although the Internet and social media have significantly changed the nature of communication, social interaction, and even activism, we believe there are still lessons to be learned from old-school activists like Sheen. We talked to him about some of the valuable lessons he has to share.

The first lesson is that anyone can find the courage to be an activist. Sheen has confided to us in past interviews that even he suffers from powerful stage fright, and he must work as hard to find the strength and courage to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested as to get on stage and speak to 20,000 young people. There was still wonder and joy in his voice as he recalled overcoming that fear.

Although an activist since the 1960s, he never took it far enough to be placed in handcuffs until 1986 while he was in New York shooting The Believers. Some friends were involved in a protest against President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" defence plan to place nuclear weapons in orbit , so on a break from filming he joined them to blockade the entrance to a government building. When the police arrived they arrested anyone who refused to disperse.

"I began to feel a sense of euphoria that I had done everything I could with non-violent resistance, and I had stepped into a place I was terrified to go."

Sheen told us he has also learned not to take himself too seriously when protesting.

In 1987 at the Nevada nuclear test site, Sheen was among the first to be arrested for trespassing on the site to protest nuclear weapons testing. He was placed on a bus to await transport to jail. He was feeling very sombre, he told us, until he glanced out the bus window and saw a line of women, side-by-side, doing the hokey pokey! The police could only arrest protesters if they actually set foot on the facility grounds, so the women danced up to the property line and wiggled their feet teasingly over it, singing, "Put your left foot in!" while the police looked on in frustration.

"I was thinking that's the way to do it: Disarm them! That was such a lesson. Do it lighthearted."

We asked Sheen why he places such value on civil disobedience and being arrested as part of his activism. This is perhaps the most important lesson he has to share:

"If you're going to make a contribution, if you're going to do anything of value, it's got to cost you something," he replied.

In the age of Internet activism, with web sites like Change.org and iPetition.com, you can quickly make up your own petition on any cause and spread it virally through social media. International social justice group Avaaz rallies millions of signatures on e-petitions for causes like supporting education for Pakistani girls after the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai.

This "clicktivism" does help raise awareness of issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, and can even sometimes create change. But how much of yourself did you really invest in the cause? We don't mean that everyone has commit civil disobedience like Sheen. But if you truly believe in a cause, perhaps you owe it more than just a click.

The old school protesters of the '60s have become almost a cultural joke in the 21st Century, but even in the Internet Age we believe the next generation still has something to learn from them.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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