When I was a kid, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a comic book artist. I spent hours alone in my room trying to copy the characters I adored, creating my own and building stories around them. Truth be told, what I really wanted was to be the superheroes I drew, but that was unlikely. My crime fighting abilities were capped off by a general lack of athleticism, and my green belt in taekwondo won’t be foiling many villains.
But I could draw — so I sketched out characters and told my own stories, where I would invent new powers, build new teams of super people and flip the roles of villain and hero.
Much to my father’s relief, as I got older my interests shifted from comic books and superheroes to politics, law and civil rights. I had my future law school pegged down at 17, around the same time I found a new standard for heroism in the writing and speeches of Malcolm X.
Coming to college, I knew exactly where I was going: I’d find a life as a lawyer and a public servant, while — like Malcolm —I would become a leader on the vanguard of the fight for civil rights. Hell, I even ran for Central Student Government with the Defend Affirmative Action Party.
Like the comic heroes I drew as a kid, the heroes of social movements — current and former — do not have an easy life. Everyone wants to be Superman when he’s vanquishing villains and basking in the glory of saving planet Earth, but the life of a hero requires constant sacrifice that often becomes a burden.
Malcolm X is an icon today, but near the end of his life his home was firebombed, his friends turned against him and he was vilified by people Black and white, liberal and conservative. Activists commit their lives to a cause, and the most heroic activists fight the most challenging, polarizing battles. Even for lawyers at well funded NGOs, the hours are long, the victories are few and the defeats are many. The people who do this kind of work often feel compelled, and they have a combination of fervor, talent and optimism.
For a while, I thought that I was one of these people.
I fell in and out of various causes, all of which fit vaguely into the same, elaborate daydreams where I command a massive crowd of protesters or argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. I’ve been to my fair share of protests while I’ve been in college, typically serving as half demonstrator, half spectator.
As a junior, I traveled with other Daily writers to Washington, D.C. to cover a landmark case on affirmative action, an issue still close to my heart. Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, Aarica Marsh — now my editor — and I looked out onto the slew of student protesters in red shirts chanting for justice. After taking a few photos, I reluctantly agreed it was time for some interviews and wandered nervously into the demonstration. Writing my column later that night, rather than a screed for racial justice, I tried to weigh my support for affirmative action with my disillusionment toward the radical group BAMN.
Several months later, walking through a mostly empty campus, I heard chanting and came upon a vocal demonstration against the ongoing war in Gaza. The protesters demanded Palestinian liberation and a boycott of Israel. One sign stuck out, thanks in part to its neon color and liberal use of swastikas.
To protest a Jewish country.
I wanted to know why, and there was only one way to find out. My heart pounding, I wandered nervously into the center of the demonstration, found the man, and we spent a few minutes arguing. I wrote about it in my column, and despite my frustrations, I felt more knowledgeable because of it.
On March 26, on my way to a lecture, I heard the familiar sounds of chanting and saw people on the Diag holding signs. Following my intuition, I wandered over to the demonstration, nervous as ever.
The rally was a warm up for an event on the 50th anniversary of the Teach-In Movement, this time the focus aimed firmly on climate change. I knew I had made the right decision when I saw a disheveled, unstable looking older man (this is an archetype of the protest genre) walking around with a sign labeled “Israel nuked NY City on 9/11.” I bit my knuckles trying to hold back my laughter, especially as he wandered from the crowd and directed his sign at a nearby campus tour group. I don’t know what this guy was thinking, or if he realized that the demonstration was about climate change, but if his sign was serious it really didn’t matter.
I regained my composure to listen to the speaker in the middle of the crowd, University alum and former campus radical Tom Hayden. I had wanted to meet Hayden since I came to Michigan, as he was a legend in both student activism and the editorial pages of the Daily. After we made our way into the auditorium, I cornered Hayden and asked him for an interview, hoping my invocation of the Daily’s opinion section would help me along. After a short conversation, Hayden was told he had a place reserved in the front. I told him I was almost finished, but instead he invited me to continue the interview among the other VIPs.
We talked for a while about his time on campus, then sat and watched an almost two-hour event featuring “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman. As the program ended, he gave some parting words about the line between activism and journalism, and then he was off. I walked home with my adrenaline pumping, shaking my head and laughing as I thought about what just occurred.
Just like I’ll never get super powers, I will likely never be a Malcolm X or a Tom Hayden. But there are stories to be told, and I enjoy writing them. And deep down, I enjoy that feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I put one foot in front of the other and wander nervously into the unknown.
James Brennan can be reached at email@example.com.