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I MAINTAINED a very romantic image of activists during my childhood. They were gypsies of a sort, living on the fringes of society and constantly reminding the mainstream of its wrongs. Their protests against war, against racism, against injustices of all kinds were justifiable. Who wouldn't want to eliminate these evils? Yet, the demonstrators were always wrong in the eyes of many adults I knew; they were contemptuously described as "hippies," "radicals," and "subversives." The idea that these people were not exactly right with the establishment only intensified my admiration of them, since, at age 13, I was carrying out a one adolescent rebellion against society. These rebels were different, however, and I wanted to be like them whenever I grew up.
By the time I reached high school, my rebellious tendencies subsided and I began the business of compiling a good academic and extracurricular record for myself. I was inquisitive compared to other students, and I found an outlet for my curiosity in newspaper reporting.
Once I began looking for news in areas I wasn't supposed to touch, such as the faculty lounge, I received signals from many adults not to rock the boat. When questioning principles-or principals-I quickly realized how people could be unnerved by that sort of thing.
But I didn't understand the faculty's reaction to my truth-seeking. I wasn't a troublemaker, just a kid doing my job. As I saw it, I was no activist. At the time, I had a friend-the principal's daughter, no less-who was a veteran of several peace marches in the 1960s. To me, she was the exotic ideal I had once admired. But we weren't alike at all, I thought.
The same ideas about activism followed me into college. I drew clear distinctions between those who believed in certain principles and those who marched to prove their beliefs. The latter were louder, more agitated, and perhaps braver-and I certainly wasn't one of them. I went through freshman year without taking a political stand on anything. After all, I wasn't yet able to vote, and I had enough problems with everything else to keep me busy.
THAT IS WHY my participation in my first march, earlier this fall, seemed so uncharacteristic. I had read and heard about the injustices against black people in South Africa for many years, and by principle I was opposed to the white minority government there. Many students I knew were passionately committed to supporting the freedom of black Africans, and through listening to them I began to understand why they were moved to demonstrate. Aside from their political commitments, these people were very much like me, with courses, exams, and papers to worry about, jobs, parties and personal relationships to deal with, and very little time in which to do it all. The difference between us was that they acted upon their concerns, while I just mouthed mine. Realizing this, I could find no reason not to become involved myself, since I cared about the apartheid issue as much as any of them. Instead of asking myself, "Why march?", I found myself asking, "Why not?
My first demonstration, against the advertisement of the Krugerrand on television station WBZ (Boston), was not the exciting mass rally I expected it to be, but it left me with a lot to think about. The demonstration was held on the day of the Princeton-Harvard football game, and during the protest we encountered many alumni and students on their way to the game. Most of the people passed us by, trying not to notice. Among those who did, the reactions varied from amusement and curiosity to mild contempt.
I was glad we communicated to some people by demonstrating-after all, walking in a circle for two hours shouting myself hoarse was not the most exciting thing I'd ever done. But what struck me was that, aside from the simple act of marching. I was not very different from the people in the stadium that afternoon. I would have been there too had I not felt that the demo was a better way for me to spend my time.
It was then that I realized that I didn't have to change in any drastic way to be an activist. My decision to march that day was almost an unconscious one, motivated by my desire to do something, no matter how small, to show that I cared. I was still my apolitical self, still poorly read on the issues, so if I was at all radical, it was because other people, non-demonstrators, saw me that way. I hadn't changed my opinion of myself at all. I only felt better, because I was involved. For me, the transition was wonderfully simple.
So I have demonstrated since, and I will again when the spirit moves me. It can actually be fun, because activists, being ordinary people, have a sense of humor. For example, when a recent antiapartheid march came to a standstill in freezing cold weather, someone in the crowd cried, "Jump if you're not a racist!" Without a second thought, 50 people in the group, including myself, began to jump. I like to think we weren't doing it just to keep warm.
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