Three years ago, I attended a political rally on the day of President Bush’s second inauguration. The protest centered on general dissatisfaction with Bush’s presidency and his re-election, but also drew attention to more specific issues, like opposition to the war in Iraq and the need for universal healthcare.
Thousands of people streamed through the streets under a sea of picket signs that screamed for almost every liberal cause, chanting slogans like, “What do we want? Peace and justice!” The excitement and air of adrenaline herded a clueless, slightly apathetic, but malcontented 14-year-old “me” along.
After the inaugural protest, the crowd congregated to listen to speakers. Members of various organizations stepped up to speak about their causes, and each outcry from a speaker was followed by loud, cheering encouragement from the crowd. I found it difficult not to get caught up in the political fervor. When a speaker mentioned an issue that I was interested in, I’d cheer in excitement and try to absorb everything he or she had to say on the subject. But when a speaker argued for an issue that I hadn’t heard about or didn’t understand, I’d cheer for the speaker anyway – just because everyone else was cheering.
Later on, a student at my school drew a mocking comic bitingly critical of students who participated in protests. I didn’t agree, but the cartoonist had a good point: Simply walking out, signing a name or screaming about a cause is not enough. People have to actively pursue change if they want to see it.
I had gone to several rallies, protests and marches by then, but I realized that I enjoyed them for selfish reasons. I thought standing in unity with thousands of others who doggedly supported the same causes that I did was encouraging and liberating. I cared about working for gay rights and abortion rights and ending the war in Iraq, but I never channeled my frustrations into taking real steps toward achieving the goals I rallied for. I hadn’t yet learned how to put down my picket sign and work for real change. The fact that I’d partake in these rallies but not think about the cause outside the event made me feel dishonest.
Gradually, my interest in protest rallies faded. But they had played an important role for me, because they had introduced me to different issues and gotten me worked up about them. At one rally I heard a speaker describe the injustices of the healthcare system in America and I realized how unfair I found the situation to be. I remember being shocked and disgusted by the number of poor and uninsured people who are forced to live without adequate healthcare.
The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I began volunteering at Emory Hospital. As a 16-year-old student, I couldn’t do much more than file papers and visit patients, but by being involved, I felt assured that I was contributing toward a better healthcare system, a cause that I felt was important.
Earlier this year, when Grady Hospital began to seriously consider privatizing, I protested again, this time in earnest – to demand that people pay attention to an issue I believe affects everyone. According to Atlanta Progressive News, 93 percent of patients at Grady don’t have private health insurance, which means that if the hospital were to be placed under private management, the poorer and uninsured patients would have a harder time getting medical treatment. Protesting this privatization was different, because this time I was informed about the issue. Also, I had worked for the cause, and therefore I felt that I had more of an authority to speak on the issue and advocate for it.
I don’t regret all the time I spent attending protests and rallies earlier in high school, because those events molded so many of the opinions I hold today. Although at some point during my involvement I probably supported causes I wouldn’t have supported had I known more about them, I’m sure of what I care about now. In my opinion, everyone should attend at least one rally in his or her lifetime – to hear others speak up for what they believe in, to be introduced to new issues, and just to experience the nearly palpable passion of a protest rally.
But I also believe we should keep in mind that, as clichéd as the saying is, actions really do speak louder than words.
© 2008 VOX Teen Communications