His wounds are still fresh, bruises of purple and scars red and inflamed. His eyes still water from the noxious gas flooding the air around his claim.
“You’re crazy,” his friends cry. “Stay home where you’ll be safe.”
“You’re foolish,” his opponents laugh. “You can never win.”
But this is his battle, this is his war. This is his generation.
Day after day, he runs back in, side by side with his people. The faces change. Some harden, some disappear into prison or illness, fear or apathy. Some faces are fresh and fierce and new. Some days the crowd swells, other days it’s just a few holding each other tightly, using their bodies as a human shield. His skin rips and is a patchwork quilt of colors. He’s arrested again and again. Still, he fights. His knows that his cause is just.
“The arc of history,” he reminds himself, breathing heavily as he runs, “bends towards justice.” Every beating, every jail sentence, every mocking article, is just another step in that long, slow bend.
His arms ache from the hours of holding a sign above his head. His fingers are numb, blood fleeing extremities to protect his core in the dropping temperatures. His feet throb from supporting his body so long on the unforgiving earth. His ears burn as he listens to the whispers. Rioters – who are they to take advantage of the roar of righteous anger to loot and raid and wreak havoc, delegitimizing his cause with their chaos? His cheeks turn red: with windburn? Sun? Or fury?
He stands his ground as the authorities rush in. His heart races as he thinks of Martin Luther King. He, too, is breaking the law for justice. His phone – his connection to the outside world – is off as he tries desperately to spread the word in ways not so easily hacked, not so freely targeted. When what is normal is wrong, when what is right is illegal, he must become all that he lacks the strength to be. He must become a part of something bigger.
He needs the court of public opinion to shift to his side, dragging the forces who persecute them out of the shadows. But for the world to change, it is his flesh on the frontline. It is his record marred by arrests, misdemeanors, or felonies for being too close to the flame. It is his bank account drained, his relationships severed, his reputation spat upon. Oh, sit behind your screens and protest from the safety of your bedroom, but it is his life that he sacrifices. Perhaps not even for his own lifetime, but he fights for the future. He fights for the rights, the liberties, and the hopes of his children’s children’s children.
“Protests don’t work?” he mutters, bracing himself as the fire hoses unleash the torrents in the freezing air. “Look around you.”
He throws himself into the onslaught, praying his life becomes a stepping stone. Oh, how he persists.
This piece was originally written in honor of a friend at the Standing Rock protests from the quiet conversations in the rare moments where he felt safe to call me on public wifi networks. It’s been a couple of years, but I’m watching my friends back home getting discouraged and exhausted.
Go high, my friends. Fight for a better future, a world you will be proud to tell your grandchildren you have created. Be kind. Be courageous. Ask questions. Find answers. Ask more questions. Find more answers. Build the world that you want the next generation to be born into. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Run for office – whether that’s the school board or the Senate. Listen, listen, listen. Be more. Walk through this world with honor and compassion and empathy. Do not let your own anger drown you. Be for something, not just against something.