There are sides to activism that many of us never hear about. More importantly, the younger generation, full of excitement and idealism, often come across narratives chronicling successes from the past but can gloss over the hardships and unpleasant elements of the work. The spotlight usually shines on the thrill of organizing protests, rallies, sit-ins, and the subsequent exploits of those at the forefront. Although activism is, at its core, energized by optimism in the people’s ability to change their circumstances, it must also be known that this work comes with certain risks and requires more than the average person’s dose of courage.
“Going to jail is not the most pleasant thing to do,” commented Sue Taoka, who spoke from experience having participated in many anti-war protests while she was in college. “It’s uncomfortable and scary.”
Sometimes, one can be arrested simply for being in the area, like what happened to Dolores Sibonga. After obtaining her degree in journalism despite being told that there were no jobs in the field for minorities, Sibonga went to a demonstration at the airport to cover a story only to be pulled into the action and put in jail. She later became the first Filipino American accepted into the Washington State Bar Association and went on to be the first Asian woman on the Seattle City Council.
During the 1999 World Trade Organization Conference protests in Seattle, over 600 people were arrested, 157 of whom were released after being held without probable cause or evidence – they were jailed just for being at the protest. The “Battle of Seattle,” as the event was later dubbed, also turned violent when police confronted the crowds with tear gas, pepper spray, and physical force – not the most pleasant alternative to jail time either.
These arrests may not mean much to those who are citizens but immigrants face dire consequences if arrested.
“Sometimes it can result in deportation,” warned Arlene Oki, whose activism has extended to support immigrant and refugee causes. “In the immigrant community, I would be inclined not to encourage people to take actions that might result in jail time.”
While peaceful protests are perfectly legal, they may not get the job done effectively. Actions like sit-ins (such as the Oriental Student Union protest at Seattle Central Community College in 1971; page 8) and mud-flinging at VIPs (as in the case of the Kingdome protest; page 4) could be considered criminal and eligible for arrests. And as we have seen before, sometimes merely being at a protest or rally can result in jail time. With all these potential consequences, it is no surprise that whenever Taoka attended a protest as a young woman, her mom would ask questions such as: “Why are you doing this stuff? Are you going to go to jail? What’s going to happen?”
Taoka’s answer to that is straightforward: You do what is uncomfortable because sometimes that is what it takes and if you really care about moving something forward, you have to take that step out of the comfort zone. It’s yelling. It’s being strong. It’s demonstrating your passion and letting people know that this is something you care about in your heart. If everybody is playing nice, nothing is going to happen.
Many of the veteran activists are stepping away from the scene and younger community leaders are looking to take up the mantle. While no one can deny that working to protect the community is ultimately a rewarding effort, anyone wishing to get into the game must acknowledge the risks involved. Indeed, activism requires a certain level of courage. It requires those with “fire in their bellies.”