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Sean Penn – The Accidental Activist March 26, 2011

Posted by chezanni in Relief Work.
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by Zoe Heller

Is Sean Penn a lightworker, but doesn’t know it?

On a hot morning in January, at the Pétionville Internally Displaced Person camp in suburban Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a four-wheel dirt bike pulled up outside the tent hospital, bearing an elderly woman with a deep gash in her cheek. While a group of medics assisted the patient inside, Sean Penn ambled over from under a tree where he had been having a meeting with one of his camp workers. He walked with a slightly bowlegged cowboy gait, a walkie-talkie crackling at his waistband, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Having glanced into the tent and ascertained that the situation was in hand, he turned his rather dour gaze on a newly arrived reporter.

Penn has never had conventional movie-star looks, but he does have the arguably superior gift of a magnificently interesting face. When he is in grooming mode, he tends to shellac his hair into a high, rather splendid, Little Richard-style pompadour, but today, as on most days in Haiti, the hair had been allowed to collapse into a dusty quiff. With his big, arrow-shaped nose and his heavy eyelids hanging at half-mast, he emanated the slightly sinister allure of a fairground carny. “You ready to see the camp?” he muttered.

The Pétionville camp, which Penn’s aid group, J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), has been running since last March, sits on the golf course of a former country club. (Some of the old staff can still be found lurking in the clubhouse, gazing out at the devastation like Alpatych, the loyal retainer in “War and Peace,” after the army has laid waste to his master’s estate.)

Since the first homeless Haitians started arriving here in the days following the quake, the camp has grown into a vast tent city of 50,000. It now has a school, a market, two hospitals, a movie theater, countless salons de beaute and its own red-light district. As Penn led the way along the former golf-cart trails, past women lathering themselves up over basins of water and men playing dominos, he delivered a lecture on the issues facing post-earthquake Haiti. It was a rapid-fire, digressive monologue, studded with the acronyms of the aid world — P.A.H.O., W.H.O., C.R.S., O.C.H.A. — and ranging over a broad number of topics: the merits of the controversial cholera vaccine, the report from the Organization of American States on the November elections, the damaging effects of UV rays on tent tarps, the complex but fundamentally noble character of President Réne Préval, the relative merits of guns over fire extinguishers as defensive weapons. (Penn sometimes carries a Glock, but the fire extinguisher, he claims, is a far more efficient tool for crowd control.)

After about 45 minutes, we reached the western edge of the camp and began climbing a series of steep slopes. Penn broke off from what he was saying and turned to point out the view. Before us lay the patchwork sprawl of the camp, the battered cityscape of Port-au-Prince and, in the smoggy distance, mountains and ocean. “Look at that!” he said. “It’s beautiful, right? Right? That’s the thing! You get the air cleaned up in this city, and it’d be extraordinary. And the whole country’s like this — more so, even. That’s why I never have a doubt — nee-e-ver have a doubt — that this country can be successful. It’s too tangible, too containable to not do it. And the change is going to come of this earthquake.”

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