On June 4th, 30 years on, I ruminated to myself about the “tank man” from Tiananmen Square. I often reflect on the sacrifices that are made in pursuit of peace and justice. I have wondered if I could stay committed to the Poor People’s Movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. did, in the face of death threats. King’s words were prophetic, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” before he was killed the next day. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was also undeterred by threats from extremists; ultimately he was assassinated, but he never backed down from his stance for nonviolence and justice. We have many examples of those we know by name who refuse to step aside. “Tank man,” however, remains a mystery.
His courage was likely fueled by grief and anger. It was, after all, the day after a massacre that shocked the world—live ammunition was used on the protestors. The anonymous figure is a symbol for freedom and peace everywhere, courage in the face of injustice and brutal violence. I wonder where is a tank man for 2019?
It is probably a mistake to look for the hero; none of these heroes wanted the recognition, it detracts from the purpose. But heroes are out there.
Malala Yousafzai, was 17 years old when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, for her part in the “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” In 2019 she is not resting on her laurels, she amplifies the voices of refugee girls with her work in “We Are Displaced.” She has refused to quit, and though the Taliban told her not to return to Pakistan, she persists.
Greta Thunberg, age 16, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of her environmental activism. The Norwegian lawmakers who nominated her said, “We have nominated Greta because the climate threat may be one of the most important causes of war and conflict.” Her movement—Friday for Future—is reflected in more than 100 countries now. Her tenacity in speaking truth to power, “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people,” is a source of hope and inspiration.
Part of the challenge is the scope of our global problems. Too many people are conveniently ignoring the messages of these heroes and so many more because they feel overwhelmed and/or numb. Either Global Warming is fake or hopeless we say from the sidelines. Nothing we can do about displaced persons, human rights violations, or misogyny because… there are too many excuses to count them.
In China some democratic reforms were won and I think we focus on heroes like tank man because he provides us with a vicarious victory. We can imagine being courageous enough to sacrifice ourselves for noble causes, “I would have …” has started many stories in my lifetime. Imagination about what people would do in times of disaster; Donald Trump, after the shooting in Parkland, said: “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.” It’s like my friends who would have stopped the terrorists on 9-11 if they’d been on the plane… But when we lose ourselves in the fantasy of making the difference, I think we tend to overlook the movements, and, ultimately, the sacrifice. Many seem to feel as though they personally are a Marvel comic superhero, and unconsciously discount the real life stars of humankind. Please, let’s not.
When I teach about social justice most of my students know who some of the heroes are. It is rare to find an American University student who does not know who Rosa Parks is, but in 10 years of classes I’ve never had a student who knew that when the Montgomery Bus Boycotts ended on Dec. 20th1956 that they had gone on for 381 days. I bring it up because the sacrifice is crucial and persistence is fully as important as courage. What can you imagine giving up for a year? What would you do to create real durable change?
It is time that people, myself included, really appreciated what young people like these strong women are doing. They’re going to clean up the mess they’ve inherited or die trying—the least we can do is get out of the way and I hope we work to bring in much better leadership who will listen to these real life heroes and back them up.