How Activism Taught Me the Zen of Failure
But there was a time way back, many years ago in college, don't laugh,
But I thought I was a radical.
--Dar Williams, "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed"
Like a zillion other people who went to college in the late 1980's, I was an anti-apartheid activist, trying to pressure the Board of Directors at my college to divest the college's financial holdings from companies that did business with South Africa. It was heady and exciting: we held demonstrations, wrote letters, and stayed up late in countless meetings, planning strategy. We even wrote our own protest songs; I remember one sung to the tune of "Down by the Riverside" that went, in part, "We won't rest till we divest/Out of South Africa[3X]/We ain't paying for hate no more." You get the picture.
I was completely caught up in it, fired with the feeling that this was actually important,that we were part of a huge international movement trying to do something that really mattered. Also, frankly, (and this seems to be a continuing theme of this blog) I was thrilled to be part of what was definitely the Cool Group to Be In. The two leaders of our campus movement were seniors who had been to the International Women's Conference in South Africa the year before on a college grant; they were smart, savvy, and totally intimidating, and could be quite cutting and sarcastic. I was only a sophomore, on the outer edge of the inner circle: not one of the leaders, but one of the people who went to all the meetings and helped draft the protest letters and put up the leaflets. I really, really wanted to change the world and end apartheid. I also really wanted the Cool Kids to like me.
I remember only snippets of the whole protest movement; I think most of it took place over the course of one semester. There was the silent vigil outside the Board meeting; when the rumor went out that they'd decided not to divest, we agreed to stand silently with our backs to them when they came out of the meeting. The only problem was, we didn't know when the meeting was going to end, so we had to stand with our backs to the door for a looooong time. I was standing facing a window ledge, next to a junior nicknamed Jane Eyre. She'd brought her flash cards for Greek class, and was drilling through them while we waited in silence. Ancient Greek words in green marker, shuffled and reshuffled on the white windowsill that long afternoon as the Board met.
It was decided that we needed to do a Big Action. We made fliers announcing a campus-wide action on a particular date, but keeping the actual event and venue secret until the day of the action. Because we were going to... oh, guess. Go on, guess!
I bet you didn't guess that we were going to take over the Administration Building, did you? Because that's so wild and unpredictable, and no one else ever does it when they have a big college-campus protest.
Well, we thought it was a big secret, anyway. Our meetings were extremely hush-hush. We planned events for the day: There was going to be a teach-in, and we would get volunteers to make symbolic coffins of people who had died under the Apartheid regime and put them out on the green, and... oh, I don't remember what else, but there was lots. And we would BRING THE COLLEGE TO ITS KNEES!
The group brought in professional activists from Philadelphia to do a workshop in protest-organization and civil disobedience. The main thing I absorbed was that we should never lie or try to weasel out of anything when confronted by authority: it was imperative that we stand up for our principles, that we stick to what would now be called our talking points. That sounded a little scary-- I was no good at standing up to authority-- but on the other hand, I was doing everything in a pack of other students, so chances were I would never have to deal with that sort of thing on my own.
The night before the takeover I packed a backpack with necessities: flashlight, leaflets, masking tape, pens. I woke up in the dark early morning, totally wired. We were supposed to converge on the Administration Building at 7 AM, but I was so eager not to be late that I got there at 6:45.
It was still dark, and completely quiet. I stood outside the building and thought, well, maybe they're inside already. I'd better go in and see.
This may not be true any more, but at that time the public buildings at this small liberal arts college were rarely locked, even at night. Students roamed around at all hours like we owned the place. One night the year before, feeling restless, I had strolled over to the cathedral-like Great Hall at 2 AM to study, and flipped on the lights so I could do my homework. It hadn't for a moment crossed my mind that I was lighting up half the campus out of the row of huge, three-story-high windows so I was very surprised when a security person showed up fifteen minutes later to find out what was up.
So it didn't even occur to me that the Administration Building might be locked that early morning. And indeed, it wasn't. I opened the door, as I'd done so many times before to go to classes. This building wasn't huge or intimidating; it was one of the oldest buildings on campus, but small, with a breezy, informal feeling. It always felt to me like a summer-camp office. The first floor was all classrooms; the administrative offices were on the second floor, so I wasn't that surprised that none of my comrades were immediately audible inside.
There was someone there, though: a security guard, with a flashlight. She glared at me and asked, "Now, what are you doing here?"
I panicked. My first impulse was to apologize and flee, but how could I? We were taking over the building, and here I was, in the building! I couldn't leave! She might call other security people and barricade it and not let anyone else in, and then our whole day would be blown! The entire enterprise rested on my shoulders!
I hesitated. I stammered. "I...I..." what could I say? What if I told the truth and she kicked me out? All that civil disobedience stuff, that was supposed to work if you were in a group! But what should one lone, dorky protester do?
"I...I think I left a pen in the classroom."
She didn't quite snort, but it was close. "Okay, then," she said. "Go get it." She followed me into the classroom, where I performed a frenzied, bogus search for the imaginary pen, all the while wishing I could sink into the floor because I had just lied! We weren't supposed to lie! And the security guard was African-American! What kind of twisted activism was this, lying to a Black person in the name of anti-racism? What the hell was I doing? Now I'd just compromised the integrity of the entire action! And maybe the anti-Apartheid movement! Plus, now everyone would be mad at me!
"Um... I didn't lose a pen," I admitted after I'd skittered past all the tables.
"Well, what are you doing here, then?"
And I said, in the smallest, meekest mumble imaginable, "I'm here to take over the building."
She didn't look surprised. "I knew that," she said. "You didn't have to lie. What did you lie to me for?"
"I know," I said. "I'm sorry."
It was just about then that the others walked in, loud with talk and surety and purpose. They ignored the security guard, who made no effort to stop them--in retrospect she'd probably been briefed to just let us do our thing, which is its own ugly irony. They brushed off my babbled apologies, and put me to work upstairs leading the coffin-making project.
And that was where my friend Em found me, a few hours later. Em was a senior; the year before, she'd been the unofficial freshman advisor for me and my friends, and she still looked out for us. I was huddled in the corner of the room. Half a dozen volunteers were taping cardboard coffins together and writing slogans on them. A Poly-Sci professor was leading a teach-in in the hallway. Everywhere students milled around, reading leaflets, doing homework, signing petitions. The day was shaping up to be a huge success.
"Els, this is great!" Em cried. "You guys really did it! Congratulations!"
"No, it wasn't me, I almost blew it, I'm a terrible activist!" I wailed, and spilled the whole story of the early morning.
Em shrugged. "So, next time you take over a building, you'll know better," she said in a lilting singsong, channelling an imaginary common-sense Jewish mother.
I blinked. I breathed. Oh! Next time! I know it sounds trite, but in all my nineteen years it had never occurred to me that I could learn from failure, that anything useful could come from a massive fuck-up. I stood up and hugged her and started working on the coffins.
I don't fool myself that my college escapade had any real impact on the end of apartheid, though maybe, maybe it helped a little. Like a lot of activism, it was flawed--what about that security guard? And the Housekeeping staff who had to clean up after our candlelight protests? We agonized about that even then, but kept doing what we were doing anyway, trying to pick up after ourselves.
Also like a lot of activism it changed the participants as well as the intended beneficiaries. Several of those anti-apartheid students went on to become professional or part-time activists in their post-college life, and have made a real difference in people's lives, and I'm proud that I knew them when.
I didn't become a professional radical or anything like it. I didn't protest the inauguration; I haven't done anything like that in a long time. But like Dar Williams, I am older now and know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory: Bush is here today, but our day will come, and I'll do my part to see that it does, however small and bourgeois that part might be right now.
And Em was right: if I ever take over a building again--and who knows, I might--I'll know just what to do.
Thanks to my non-blogging college friend Alice for reminding me of this story.