My experience with a lone protestor
The other day I saw a man who had chained himself to the ground. He was wearing an anti-CAFTA T-shirt and sitting on the bumper of a police vehicle, where uniformed officers surrounded him discussing the variety of ways they could unchain him from Connecticut Avenue in order to speed him off to the local jail. He sat smiling on that bumper, seemingly aloof from the goings-on around him. A line of police cars, a fire truck, a news camera, flashing lights, sirens, on-lookers ... all that man did was sit on that bumper, and smile. I call him Chain-Man because to me he is a superhero.
I work for a think tank, a few blocks from where Chain-Man played his act of civil disobedience, and I study Central America. I'm a college junior, sort of lost in a structured world of reports, press conferences, red tape, and office attire. I sit at my desk and I research Central America; I try to get the scoop on what's going on so that I can highlight problems and help work on solutions. A lot of the time I feel utterly useless. All I do is read and write. I'm no hero.
Chain-Man on the other hand, now there is a guy who is doing something! He, and a few of his friends, took it upon themselves to stop traffic to highlight a wrong. They acted in violation of the law in order to prove a point. What were they trying to prove? These people disagree with American trade policy; they see the upcoming Central American Free Trade Agreement as detrimental to the indigenous peoples of Central America, and very beneficial to the rich peoples of the United States of America. Chain-Man is standing up for the gender, environmental, and labor rights of poor people who can't stand up for themselves, against their governments, and especially against the United States.
I study Central America through my internship, and have done enough research on CAFTA to know it's probably not the best trade agreement ever written. It might help some people, but it will probably hurt more people than it helps. When I study something I disagree with, it makes me sad. I resign myself to the fact that I can't do anything about it; I can't stop CAFTA anymore than Chain-Man can stop traffic. Chain-Man and I share the dubious distinction of being stopped by higher powers from truly commenting on the ramifications of American foreign policy. The difference between us though is that he's actually doing something about it.
What can a college junior do? Can I really be out there with Chain-Man, getting arrested, fighting for what I believe in? I think I'm too scared. It shows a lot of courage for someone to stand up to the most powerful country on Earth, and smile at its awesome power. That's the thing that made me shudder the most the other day, when I looked at Chain-Man. He just stood there and smiled. He wore his anti-CAFTA shirt, locked to the ground, with negotiations for the CAFTA agreement going on a half a block away, with negotiators probably wondering for a moment before they returned to their ill-conceived work, just what all the noise was about.
Through all of this, Chain-Man smiled. I wish I could smile with that same serenity of mind and peaceful heart. I work against CAFTA in my own way, trying to shed light on its faults academically through dialogue and debate, but never through direct action. I wish I could show the courage to break out of my pre-professional routine and live for a single second, free, knowing that what I was doing was just and right. Chain-Man, though physically chained to the ground, and saddled with prison-timebehind bars, is perhaps the freest man in the entire world. Freedom for him isn't guaranteed by an amendment; it's guaranteed by the courage and strength of his convictions. I see no virtue in idolizing political figures or sports stars; I wish I could have a picture of Chain-Man on my wall.