I consider myself an activist, so this is really embarrassing to admit.
For the past couple of years, I’ve had a recurring wish: I wish I didn’t care. I wish I could shop without thinking about where all that alluring stuff comes from (sweatshops) and where it ends up (landfills). I wish I could ‘take a joke’. I wish I could go to the hip new bar down the street without thinking about gentrification. I wish I could get caught up in mainstream fads like Twilight without thinking about what they teach young people.
I’m just one person with very limited power facing huge systems that perpetuate and protect the status quo. What difference can I make?
Often my beliefs don’t even impact my choices, only how I feel about those choices.
I’ve said to Devin (many times) ‘I wish I didn’t care. I’d be so much happier if I could just shrug and say “Not my problem”’.
I’ve escaped into daydreams of maxing out my credit card, traveling with no thought of my carbon footprint, and never again interrupting a fun conversation with a timid ‘But what about…?’
Only as much as I’ve secretly longed for those things, I’ve never succeeded in turing off that part of myself—the It’s Not Fair alarm.
For the most part, I get it. I’m lucky to have a choice in my activism, and I’m just doing what my conscience demands (and being accountable to myself when I don’t live up to my values).
What hurts is the doubt. Does any of it make a difference? It’s all wasted energy. What is the point?
A couple of weeks ago, at the XL Dissent protest, I wasn’t plagued by those questions. Devin and I joined over a thousand young people to demand that President Obama not approve a dirty oil project that climate scientists have called Game Over in the fight against climate change.
My favorite sign read ‘IS THIS WHAT’S BEST FOR SASHA AND MALIA?’ I really hope the president sees that one.
We marched from Georgetown to the White House. When we got there, Ben Thompson, along with a few other remarkable activists, spoke. He talked about how activism should be an act of love.
It makes no sense not to love everyone if you’re standing up for everyone. That’s just logical, but I’d never heard it put that way.
After the speeches, we walked to the White House. There, 398 people—most of them college students—committed an act of civil disobedience. The majority tied themselves to the White House gate while others created a symbolic oil spill complete with models of the animals that die in those 100% preventable disasters.
Soon the police, some on horseback, some on foot, erected a barricade between the protesters willing to get arrested and the rest of us.
When you are arrested, every glove, scarf, piece of gum, and dollar bill in your possession has to be catalogued. The more you have the longer it takes for everyone to be processed—and the longer it takes for everyone to be released. When the protesters tied themselves to the fence at noon, it was sunny and relatively warm, but as the day progressed, the temperature dropped, clouds covered the sky, and fat drops of rain began to fall.
Most of the protesters were underdressed, and we watched them shiver helplessly while their coats waited in piles by our feet.
The police glared at the crowd while other cops processed people at a snail’s pace (I learned that this is a discouragement tactic, so people won’t be willing to get arrested again).
We were yelling our normal protest chants about the pipeline when someone started yelling ‘I love you! I love you!’ Soon hundreds of people were yelling ‘I love you’ across a police barricade. We were yelling it to the people tied up to the gate, and they were yelling it back. Some were even saying it to the cops themselves. The cops couldn’t help looking a little less fierce.
Then, someone brought out a guitar and someone else, a harmonica. Two kids had empty trash bins that they turned into drums, and we began to sing. I sang hoping that our voices could provide some sort of comfort against the cold and the pain of standing for so many hours.
I felt an overwhelming sense of solidarity signing ‘This Land Is Your Land’. And no cop could keep from grinning when everyone, on either side of the barricade, erupted into the ‘Na nana nanana nanana’ verse of ‘Hey Jude’.
It took over seven hours for all the protesters to be arrested.
The next day, running to the subway after five hours of sleep, I reflected on the protest. I’d been so cold; my feet hurt; I couldn’t feel my nose. Despite that, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life.
I finally realized I do know the point of my activism.
I want to stop the powers that be from perpetuating the horrible systems we’re trapped in, but even if I never make any sort of difference, even if I never get to live in a society that values people over profit, lives in harmony with the land, and never again wages war, my efforts will have been worthwhile. They will have made a difference in my life.
Change is the goal, but it is not the reason. I am an activist because it makes me happy.