Years ago when I was in Lima, Peru I was in the right place at the right time. I’ve made a conscious choice to see it that way. I was wandering the perimeter of the Plaza de Armas, soaking in the sun drenched history, and the pleasant Peruvians as they plodded along the perimeters, sidestepping through their afternoon. I had begun to study the bars and restaurants, considering where I might sample my first Pisco Sour, Peru’s signature cocktail when all at once, with the speed and formation of a swarm of army ants, I was swept up in a sudden, spontaneous uprising. Hundreds of people engulfed the Plaza. It happened so fast I had little time to react.
I won’t forget the feeling: predominantly fear, but spiked with adrenaline. The mood of the crowd swept over me. Carried along in the wavelike motion of the mob, I had no choice but to move in sync with them. What seemed like a very long ten minutes later, I found myself deposited onto a side street as if spit out by the current. There I retreated to the fringes while the crowd surged forward. Later, I would read that the protest hoped to block a plan to nationalize the banks. And later still, when I had returned home, I would read that the protests were successful.
The experience is as close as I’ve come to attending a protest march; as close as I’ve come to activism. The spirit of it was mesmerizing. But, as I’m so much the introvert, the experience, though exhilarating, did not prompt me to become an activist, at least not by showing up for a protest march. Though I came to admire those that answer that call.
We all know Rosa Parks, and the brave action she instigated. She quietly pushed for racial equality, carefully planning the action that led to her arrest. More than a symbol, she was an agent of change. We have all heard of Suu Kyi of Myanmar held for decades under house arrest, and winner of the Nobel Prize for peace in 1991. Recently she was elected to office, at long last, a vindication of her long stance against the military junta that has ruled her country for too long.
From the Civil Rights era, though men more often held the stage, women strode steadfastly forward.
Septima Poinsette Clark, a teacher and activist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1940’s and 50’s, was often called the “queen mother” of civil rights. Most well known for establishing “Citizenship Schools,” she taught literacy skills to adults in the Deep South as a means to empower Black communities.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper, was beaten and jailed in 1962 for attempting to register to vote. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and delivered a fiery speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was borne out of their heroic struggles, demonstrations and boycotts.
During the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam) the many protest marches surged as the draft conscripted upwards of 30,000 young men per month. The Civil Rights activists coalesced with the Vietnam activists, as the majority of the draftees were young men from poor communities who couldn’t buy their way out.
Though it was a long slog as the protests continued and intensified, the draft was abolished in 1973. With the passage of the 26th Amendment all those 18-year old young men we sent off to fight, and be killed for their country, earned the right to vote.
Now taking center stage is Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Europeans against imposed austerity measures, and like the Tiananmen Square activists that came before him, Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese human rights activist recently sequestered in the American embassy in Beijing.
Mr. Guangcheng, for the last seven years, has either been imprisoned or under house arrest for his exposure of forced sterilizations and abortions carried out as part of China’s one-child policy. What will happen to him, and to his cause, we don’t yet know.
Injustice, large and small, will always be with us, and so fortunately, will the activists, from the single voice to the many, ready to fight it.
To my way of thinking this is one of the greatest songs about protest ever written. The lyrics are timeless. Listen.
Is there anyone you admire for taking a stand? Or a piece of music?