A Personal Reflection on Activism
The crowd of a few hundred clamored and shouted, as it wove its way through the city center. Participants called for justice for a young man slain and decried the system that would allow his killer to walk away, "not guilty" on all charges.
This post isn't about Trayvon Martin or his killer George Zimmerman. Instead, it's about the three very different reactions I witnessed as I trailed the group.
I moved to the back of the crowd to safeguard anyone unable to keep up with the group. As we crossed a street, one of the ladies, named Jessica, misjudged the curb, stumbled and fell to her knees, badly scraping her shin. Police officers and those of us near her rushed to help her up. As she began the trek anew, I offered her water, which she accepted. I also asked her if she wanted to sit on one of the benches nearby. Jessica refused saying, "I can't stop now. This is too important." The determination in her face told me more than her words, however. Here was a woman for whom pain was no deterrent.
So often we talk about people's "attitudes" in a negative light. "That person has an 'attitude'." But this is an example of just the sort of attitude we need more people to have...and attitude of perseverance and indomitability. I ask that, as you go forward into the work of creating a just and equitable world, you cherish, safeguard and reinforce this attitude, as it is both the armor and engine for change.
The second reaction was quite the opposite of the first. A group of men, with their own agenda, chose to let the crowd pass...and then mock them behind their backs. They spoke about how rallying and protests would do no good. How their ideas, their methods, were the "only" means to justice.
This, I can assure you, is the worst way to promote the ideals for which we all strive. Undermining one another's efforts is bad...but undermining one another as people, with mockery and derision, is far worse. The one strategy our mutual adversaries have relied on the most is division. To engage in that behavior, to do the work of our adversaries for them, is nothing short of pitiful. We must learn to support one another, even as our methods vary.
The final reaction came at a crowded transit station, where many young men and women had congregated. There, as the crowd passed, I overheard one young man, pants slung low, hat to the side, looking every bit the part of the young hoodlum say, "I hope they march like that when I die!" And, though he said it with a grin, the look in his eyes was anything but jocular. What made my stomach churn was the assuredness of his statement; not "if I die," but "when." As if his fate had already been decided. As if he was half dead already.
It is the duty of every one of us to reach out to young people, not just the ones comfortably in our churches and schools or otherwise conveniently related to us, but those, like this young man, who are on the fringes, isolated and exposed. It's up to each of us to make them understand not only that they are cared for, but that they are part of a whole and that there are expectations of them, expectations they can fulfill. They must know where exactly, in our society, they fit and why they are important.
These three very distinct reactions form a brief look at much of what we, as activists, organizers, or simply concerned citizens face. Whether we see these reactions or not, they are out there, just out of earshot perhaps, but definitely in the wake of whatever protests, rallies, marches and events we create. Be mindful of those people who can be reached, those who can't, and those who fall somewhere in the middle.
In the end, we are, all of us, in this together.