A worthwhile cause? I’m all for it
One day shining brlliantly in my personal memory of life as a protesting activist took place in July of 1995. On that splendid sunshiny morning I enjoyed a job interview in the secreted Washington, D.C. offices of the honorable President of Haiti. The first-ever democratically elected president of that little country not far from our shores, Jean Bertrand Aristide had been ousted from his post and exiled from his homeland in a vicious coup d’etat.
After the interview, and intentionally without changing out of my lovely designer dress (culled from some second-hand shoppe,) I joined a march proclaiming solidarity with Haiti, conducted with permission in front of the White House. Electing to participate in civil disobedience, I refused to depart the premises when Police brought out yellow tapes to shut us down, long before our marching permit expired.
So my fingerprints are on file and I endured time in a cell with wrists manacled behind my back. I’ll always remember the parting words of the officer who processed me out of jail: “Next time you might wear something more casual.”
My parting thoughts: “Au contraire, Monsieur. Next time, I think I’ll also wear a little hat!” I wanted to show clearly that courageous casually-dressed are not alone in standing up for what’s right.
For me, such standing-up came late in life. I wrote the following (edited for space) for the Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal after my very first protest march in 1989:
Thirty-six hours. A portion of an October weekend. Climate-controlled motor coaches with reclining seats and carpeted floors sped us by superhighway to carry banners, chant slogans, listen to speeches and march for our cause: Affordable Housing for the Homeless. Sparkling buses with well-equipped restrooms returned us to Louisville from Washington, D.C.; in just 36 hours, we had covered 1,230 miles.
I was reminded of another recent 36 hours. Half-hour after our 8 a.m. departure, a train attendant poured safe boiled water into tin cups we each carried. We never saw her again. We nibbled on boiled eggs, tiny oranges, flavorless cakes and unshelled peanuts purchased from peddlers in train stations. Dirty air came in, and garbage went out the train’s open windows.
I tried to nap on the slightly padded bench-for-three, while others sprawled under my feet, outside the stinking toilet, on the open luggage rack above my head, on my shoulder and lap. Scarcity of railway equipment demanded we frequently wait on some siding while other trains used the track. When we reached our destination at 8 p.m. the following day, my feet and ankles were badly swollen, lungs filled with second-hand smoke, head pounding in protest. In just 36 hours, we had covered 1,130 miles.
The train had brought us from Shanghai to Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton. I was leaving mainland China after three years of teaching English to university students. Unable to secure plane, train or boat tickets in Shanghai, I had turned to the Black Market, and for thrice the standard price, had bought the privilege of riding “Hard Seat” on the train.
For this same “privilege,” thousands of Chinese line up daily before the 6 a.m. opening of booking offices throughout China. The antiquated system allows purchase of tickets only on the day before travel; no round-trip tickets, no advance bookings.
Communist Party leaders never experience such ordeals; they occupy special train cars, even separate trains, with astoundingly clean and comfortable accommodations. This is but one example of the kind of inequity and corruption that led students to carry banners, chant slogans, listen to speeches and march on Tiananmen Square. They called for an end to corruption among officials, more democracy, and a dialogue with the government.
Last weekend we called for affordable housing for all Americans. This is one thing the Chinese have. An urban Chinese resident gets several square yards of living space, but has no say in what city or which neighborhood. He may have a television set (probably black and white), to watch only one or two government-controlled stations. If he’s fortunate, he has indoor plumbing and maybe even a washing machine, though he must still hand wring the laundry before hanging outside. He may have small appliances, but runs them sparingly to hold down electric bills. He cannot choose his job or his field of study should he be lucky enough to get into college.
We found our nation’s capital gentle and welcoming, with fountains, monuments, trees and vast grassy stretches on which to rest our tiring bodies.
The national capital in Beijing was stone grey and icy cold, with monuments, a massively looming portrait of Communist founder, Mao Tse-tung, and vast stretches of unyielding concrete.
The atmosphere in Washington was charged with hope, tempered by a realistic recognition that the power to change the system truly lay with the non-responding government officials. We were giving 36 hours of our busy lives to advocate change.
Beijing’s demonstrators were also filled with hope. They were willing to give their busy lives for change: willing to wait for the non-responding government officials.
Americans’ freedom shone through to a visiting Chinese businessman. “It’s so colorful,” he told me. “So many people here, and they do everything just as they like!”
We were happy to return to normal diets after munching on quantities of donated food – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies, fruits, soft drinks, chips.
But enjoying quantities of donated food on Tiananmen Square was a treat, a far cry from the students’ normal daily ration of dry rice with greasy vegetables, occasionally augmented by scraps of fatty pork.
A white-haired Washington marcher proclaimed into my tape recorder, “A thing like this becomes a religious experience. It’s community. You wonder how can you have community with thousands of people? Yet that’s what exists here today. Everybody is of one mind, one cause. And everybody is so friendly you think you all belong to one family.”
This same sense of community helped keep the students on Tiananmen Square for seven weeks, and brought workers, cadres, grandmothers and children by the hundreds of thousands to join the students and support their cause.
Dedicated and experienced planners had worked for months with sophisticated computerized procedures to bring together the Washington assemblage.
In Beijing’s spontaneous demonstrations, astoundingly efficient management systems evolved among young people without leadership training or experience.
For months, student leaders remained unidentified. I believe they feared expulsion from their universities more than they feared death. In their country, once you have left for any reason, even illness, there is no hope of ever returning to school. And without education, future dreams dissolve into black despair.
While Washington’s marchers exhibited an air of festivity and exuberance, without question they were serious, as they considered their cause a matter of life and death.
On Tiananmen Square, it was.