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The Role of a Single Activist



Most of you already know about the awesome event of this morning, when an activist by the name of Bree Newsome climbed up the flagpole outside the South Carolina capitol building and took down the Confederate flag hanging there. This fantastic episode of direct action ramps up the pressure on South Carolina to get rid of the flag and continues placing the anti-flag movement in the public eye where it has been since the attack on the Charleston church last week. Newsome and her companion James Dyson were arrested for–wait for it–defacing a public monument. That’s the best possible charge she could face since it then invites discussion over whether the American swastika is really a public monument that should have legal defense. Not to mention whether simply taking down the flag is actually defacing anything.

What’s also interesting about this to me is the outsized role single activists can sometimes have in moving conversations forward, setting off new movements, and exposing the power structure that oppresses people. Most of us are simply not going to climb that flag pole. But we probably should. In Out of Sight, I discuss a woman named Liz Parker, who took it upon herself to go to a store of the British department chain Matalan with a signboard shaped like a coffin that read “Matalan Pay Up! Long Overdue for Rana Plaza Victims.” Local newspapers reported her protest, providing a bit on insight for readers on the horrors of global production.

Again, any of us can do this kind of thing. Sure we might be escorted off the property at our nearest Walmart, but it will take at least a few minutes before the police arrive. We might even be charged with trespassing, which is why it certainly helps to have a group of supporters rather than be a lone wolf. In other words, it’s more useful to be Rosa Parks and have an organized movement behind you than be James Meredith and just start a new action like the March Against Fear. But even Meredith, in no small part of course because of the role he played in desegregating the University of Mississippi and because he was subsequently shot, could force a movement to move in a particular direction through his actions.

The point is that we do have it in all of us to take an action that creates a positive change in society. The psychology in not doing those things is perhaps less interesting than in those who actually do them since that is so much rare. We are social animals, fearful, worried about how it will affect us in the future, lazy, whatever. I’m no better at this than the average person. But what Bree Newsome did today was once again show that the individual can do fantastic things to make the world a better place.

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