On activism and social change

[an excerpt from The Road Trip Dialogues, written as Jass Richards]

 

So a couple hours later, they pulled into the main entrance of the university campus. There was no sign of the demonstration. There were no signs to the demonstration.

“Gee, this is a really good way to get the media’s attention,” Rev said. “Don’t tell them where you are.”

“Well, let’s just drive around. The campus can’t be that big. Or the demonstration that small.”

So they drove around and eventually saw something going on at the end of the sports field. They drove toward it and parked in a spot not far away. Dylan grabbed his camera and a notebook from out of his knapsack.

As they approached, they heard music blaring out over a sound system. Several tables were set up with what Rev assumed was literature, petitions, and so forth, and there were a couple large striped circus tents. More tables inside? Rainy day back-up? About a hundred students seemed to be in attendance. Most were standing around in clusters, some were throwing a football back and forth, and a few were rather despondently walking in a circle, carrying signs that said simply ‘NO MORE DEBT!!’

“Well, that’ll make the world a better place,” Rev said dryly.

Dylan took a few pictures, then they walked up to one of the tables.

“Hi there. I’m doing a piece for That Magazine. Can you tell me—” he had his pen poised, “what debt you’re protesting?”

She just looked at him.

“The national debt?” He tried again. “Corporate debt?”

“Student debt.”

Rev was stunned. “Student debt? You’re protesting your own debt?”

“Yeah.”

“But—why?”

“We have a right to be debt-free!” One of them said with gusto.

“On what basis?”

That stopped them.

“What?”

“On what grounds do you claim the right to be debt-free?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, did you inherit the debt—is it a debt you bear through no fault of your own?”

“It’s our student debt,” she said, as if talking to a child.

“I understand that,” Rev replied. As if talking to a child. “But debt is typically incurred when you buy something and choose to defer payment. That deferred payment is your debt. So when you say you have the right to be debt-free, are you suggesting you have a right to get things without paying for them?”

“What?”

“This is hopeless,” Rev said to Dylan. “Let’s go before I shoot her.”

“University should be free!” the other student called out as they turned away. Rev turned back.

“Okay, well that’s something else altogether. Some countries do have state-paid university. Much like we have state-paid elementary and high school. But in those countries,” she couldn’t help adding, “I think you have to have a certain grade point average to get in. Or stay in.” She paused. And saw she needed to say it. “Do you have a—grade point average?”

“What?”

“Let’s mingle,” Dylan suggested. “Maybe—”

A burst of chanting suddenly came from one of the tents. They looked at each other in confusion. Shouldn’t the chanting come from those carrying the signs? As they approached the tent, they heard it more clearly.

“Chugga hugga chugga hugga…”

“I thought that sounded like ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’” Rev said. “It’s a beer tent. They’ve got a beer tent. At a demonstration. This is like a fucking picnic,” she said as they walked toward the tent.

“Do you think they’ve got food?” Dylan asked hopefully. Rev glared at him.

“What? I’m hungry. We buy food and it goes to the cause. Of no more debt,” he added lamely. “That’s what the Americans do, isn’t it?” he resumed cheerfully. “In the middle of every recession, or depression—you know I’ve never really understood the difference—whenever they don’t have any money, they go shopping. The President urges them to do just that. You’ve lost your job? You can’t pay your rent? Go buy stuff. It’s the American way.”

They’d arrived at the tent, and once inside, they saw that yes indeed, there was food. One table was full of extra large pizza boxes, most already opened, and another was full of beverages. They went up to buy a slice of pizza.

“How much is the pizza,” Dylan asked. To no one in particular, since there wasn’t anyone standing behind the table.

A student walked up to the table at that moment, helped himself to a couple slices, then walked away.

“It’s free?” Rev asked. Of no one in particular. “How can they provide free pizza if they’re all in so much debt they’re protesting about it?”

“Maybe it’s coming out of their student union fees or something?”

“I’d be pissed about that. I think.”

“Ah.” Dylan pointed then to the bright banner hanging across the table. “Courtesy of their sponsors.” He took a few steps back to take a picture.

“What? Sponsors? Demonstrations have sponsors now?”

He shrugged. They each grabbed a slice, and a bottle of beer, what the hell, and sat down at one of the tables.

“Chugga hugga chugga hugga!” came from the boisterous table in the corner. Dylan put his slice down for a moment and took another picture.

“No one’s here because they care about changing the world, making it a better place,” Rev complained. “Half the guys are here to pick up some chick and the other half are here just for the party.”

“What, you don’t think that was true during the 60s too?”

Rev’s pizza stopped half way to her mouth. Which was left hanging open. Oh my god, she thought. He was right. All those sit-ins were just parties. Music, drugs, sex. The issues were just an excuse, a cover.

“They didn’t change,” she murmured.

“What?”

“I’ve always wondered what made all those radical idealists change when they got into positions of power twenty years later,” she said. “That they did is what—I mean, if they couldn’t change the world—But they didn’t. Change. They weren’t idealists in the first place. They were just opportunists. All of them. Oh god,” she moaned. It was worse than she’d thought.

“All those ‘Make Love Not War’ signs,” she carried on, into hell. “It was personal. The political is always fucking personal! No one cares about anything beyond themselves!”

“I’ve got to sit down,” she said.

“You are sitting down,” Dylan pointed out.

“Did I just blow your mind?” Dylan asked then, as her pizza lay limp in her hand, forgotten. “You really hadn’t considered that possibility before?”

“‘Course not. I’m not a guy.”

“Oh are we back to that then?” He could get really angry about this, he thought. “You think women are so much better? They weren’t there to get laid too?”

 

excerpted with permission

The Road Trip Dialogues

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