Students Against Sweatshops held a rally in front of the Administration building last Friday to show President Peter Likins just how serious it is about its request that he withdraw the UA from the federally sponsored Fair Labor Association and enter it into the independent Worker Rights Consortium. The rally came on the heels of a successful United Students Against Sweatshops sit-in at the University of Pennsylvania, where the group had the same goals as our SAS. Last year SAS held a sit-in in President Likins' office, and there are rumors that they may try it again. This may seem silly, absurd, even obnoxious, but if Students Against Sweatshops ever hopes to accomplish its goals, there is no other way but to continue holding rallies, sit-ins, marches and fasts.
For one reason or another, traditional channels of politics have been closed to those who would protest, and so they are forced to open new ones. In this case, in the absence of strident protest, there is no reason for large corporations such as Nike to meet demands for change that are clearly counter to their interests. If watchdog groups don't call attention to corporate cost-cutting human rights' abuses, then why should the corporations themselves? Why should millions of consumers who like Nike products and benefit from cheap production costs?
It would be nice if everybody was personally opposed to sweatshop labor as a point of moral compunction - if they refused to stand for the economic and social degradation of fellow human beings - but people don't work that way. So long as there are affordable, yet stylish clothes on our backs and food on the table, most of us would prefer not to think about how these things got there - even if they got there by some horrible means. So what's an agent of change to do? A smart one resorts to pain. It's a down and dirty truth, but if corporations aren't made to feel economic pain, or politicians political pain or consumers economic or emotional pain, meaning guilt, then they have little, if any, incentive to change their ways. This is the role of the activist.
Additionally, civil disobedience is a venerable tradition in this country going as far back as the Boston Tea Party. Countless citizens have used it as a tool to affect social and political change for the simple fact that it works. In the 1770s, colonists were unable to voice their concerns in Parliament and so arose the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. In the 1950s the political channels necessary to affect change were closed to blacks, giving rise to the Civil Rights Movement the Voting Rights' Act. In the 1960s students barred from these same processes took to protest over a variety of issues from the Vietnam War to co-education, with a pretty good rate of success. In the 70s there were grapes, in the 80s there was tuna, in the 90s, fur. The list of good causes that have benefitted from protest is endless.
As great as that tradition is, there is an equally long tradition of deriding protestors. We tend to look down upon them, even be angry with them for destroying our illusions of civil tranquility. This, however, is where we are wrong. We often blame activists for causing problems because, in a thoroughly capitalist society, it appears that they do. All they're doing is bringing issues of legitimate concern to the attention of an otherwise uninterested, unaware and apathetic public. Begging forgiveness for quoting a bumper sticker, "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention." Quite simply, we don't pay attention unless we're forced to, and activists, with their rallies and marches and other conspicuous activities, do just that.
Instead of castigating activists we should be thanking and supporting them, or at the very least, not mocking them. They fight the good battles we are too squeamish or self-absorbed to fight. They often serve as agents of change, and change for the better no less. Protestors have an important, but unwanted job to do, and they do it well. So the next time there's a demonstration or a sit-in, we don't have to join the fight - though that would be nice - but at least we could honk a horn or pump a fist or slap on a button.