Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

I was a freshman in college during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Many of my suitemates had relatives in the Los Angeles area. They tried to call home to find out if their families were safe, but they couldn't get through the busy phone lines. So we were reduced to watching the TV with bated breath, to see if we would catch a glimpse of our home neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Blanca (another suitemate) ran down the hall, whooping it up about the coming "revolution". She was excited that "white people" were going to pay for some sins or other, and she didn't seem to notice the mortified looks on her L.A. suitemates' faces, only one of whom was white. Their families were in real danger, and she was all excited because "the Man" was getting it stuck to him.

Later that day I was walking across campus and my route, by necessity, took me past a demonstration. I walked as far around it as I could, and as I passed a rock was thrown in my direction and missed my head by only a couple of feet. After that, I tried not to stay out after dark, and if I had to be out after dark, I kept my hand on my knitting needles at all times, lest someone mistake me for a "white" person and proceed to perpetrate the "revolution" on me personally.

Every so often, students would march on the university offices and sit in demanding an end to tuition increases. They would chant and hold signs. They would chain themselves to chairs. They would sit there ignoring their studies and missing the classes they had already paid for, until the university officials would say the right words to them to persuade them to go away feeling as if they'd spoken truth to power, which in the end was what they'd really come for. And the next year, tuition went up as scheduled.

Blanca and the protesters sicken me. These people have no idea what a revolution is really like. I know this because I know about their upbringing; it is quite a lot like mine, and I have no idea what a revolution is really like. But at least I have the humility to acknowledge when I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I have never seen a real honest-to-goodness revolution, but I imagine they're not near as exciting as running down the hall whooping, or throwing random rocks at "the Man". From all the accounts I've heard and read, real revolutions are actually pretty scary, with people really getting shot at instead of just imagining they're being oppressed. And they last for years and years, not months or days; or else they don't make the headlines as revolutions, but are only called revolutions by history books.

My best guess is that these self-proclaimed revolutionaries were very excited by the prospect of a "revolution" because they wanted to change the world without putting in the hard work necessary to actually do so. If you could hitch your wagon to an up-and-coming movement, get in on the ground floor so to speak, and ride it all the way up to power, you'd be set-- and you wouldn't have to think up a single original idea or accomplish one meaningful thing. All you'd have to do is make up a clever sign or think up a new way to shock people.

It is very exciting to protest, to feel like you're involved in something big, to feel like you're making a difference. I'm not saying that everyone should just submit powerlessly to whatever the government decides, or that they should just sit down and shut up if they don't have large amounts of power. But let's not confuse protest with actually making a difference-- and let's not confuse a nationwide navel-gazing party with a real revolution.