This iconic image of Tank Man was captured by Jeff Widener for AP
One person can make a difference, and everyone should try. ~John F. Kennedy
In June 1989 – 32 years ago, now – a man became world famous.
We still don’t know who he is.
In the summer of 1989, pro-democracy protestors occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Students and workers and soldiers and teachers had joined together in peaceful protest, seeking democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. They were joined by more, and more – and still more people. At its height an estimated one million people occupied the Square – and their efforts inspired the world.
But early on June 4, the Chinese government cracked down on those protests in the most gruesome way, sending in armed military and tanks. The government killed hundreds – some say thousands – of protestors, shooting some in the back as they fled.
It’s with that backdrop that we meet Tank Man.
Just after noon on June 5 – the day after the brutal crackdown had begun – a line of eighteen tanks began snaking down Avenue of Eternal Peace. Lumbering along, the tanks themselves embodied governmental power – impenetrable, unstoppable, able to squash a person like a bug. They continued their parade down the Avenue, toward Tiananmen Square.
Until one lone man stood in their way.
Dressed in a simple white shirt and black pants, holding two shopping bags, he strode into the Avenue and stood directly in front of the lead tank. It stopped.
Then it moved right; he countered.
Then it moved left; he countered again.
The interaction between the man and the tank lasted only a few minutes. But, as Time Magazine later described it, “[a]lmost certainly he was seen in his moment of self-transcendence by more people than ever laid eyes on Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and James Joyce combined.”
Whenever I look at those photos, or the video that shows his standoff with the tanks, it makes me wonder about him.
What do you think he had for breakfast that morning?
What do you think he bought that day at the store? Something for that night’s dinner? A gift for his daughter? Perhaps there was a sale on undershirts at the store that he’d pass on his way to work.
I wonder those things about him because the photo makes it clear – his day was not built around a protest. He was not planning to inspire the world and stand down a tank.
He went shopping.
Like many of the protestors, he appears to have been just an everyday, regular person. People have tried for decades to figure out who he was – and one report suggested that he was the son of factory workers – a blue collar guy growing up in a blue collar family in a blue collar neighborhood.
And because of censorship restrictions in China, if he is alive (some reports say he is … others that he is not) he may not even know about the images of him, or that Time Magazine named him one of the century’s “top revolutionaries”.
But, most importantly for our conversation today… he was just a guy, who appears to have finished his shopping.
Blocking a line of tanks.
And that’s why he’s so inspiring. He’s the embodiment of an everyday person’s ability to stand up and say “no more.”
Since 2016 I have been electrified and inspired by the thousands upon thousands of everyday Americans who stood in the face of a behemoth government that has the power and intention to bulldoze them.
Without formal training, without experience – without a blueprint to work from, we have stood shoulder to shoulder and pushed back.
Nobody thought we’d make it very far, frankly.
But we blocked the effort to end the ACA. We took the House in 2018. We defeated Trump in 2020.
We’re just regular folks – like Tank Man – who sat up one morning, had breakfast, and then decided to stand up for what we believe in, even when success was doubtful. (Or seemingly impossible.)
That the anniversary of Tank Man’s standoff was June 5 is fitting, because his story is more poignant right now. The signature voting rights legislation that experts on democracy proclaim to be our best defense against authoritarianism is being blocked by an ancient Senate rule and a few Senators who are either living in the dreamy past when bipartisanship was the norm, or are oblivious to the danger facing our democracy right now.
We know that for sure because on Sunday we heard from Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who said he’d not support that legislation (the For the People Act) – which protects our right to vote that is being attacked by one party – because protecting the right to vote shouldn’t be partisan. (No, you’re not crazy, it doesn’t make sense to demand that the party taking away your rights agree to legislation preventing them from taking away your rights. But it’s where we are.)
Either way, we’re at a crossroads again, friend.
Pundits and “people in the know” all across the country threw up their hands on Sunday and said – “Welp! That’s a wrap. The For the People Act is over…”
We’re going to go down like that, are we? With a whimper and a shrug and a nod to the impossibility of it all?
We are doing nothing less than defending democracy.
That’s so big it doesn’t really feel real, does it? But it’s the God’s honest truth of the moment. (Don’t believe me? Here’s a Statement of Concern signed by over 100 democracy experts: https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/statements/statement-of-concern/)
But this time, defending democracy doesn’t require you to shoulder a weapon or stand in a line of tanks.
It requires you to simply pick up the phone. Or attend a protest. Or join a text bank, write some postcards, or chip in $5 a month.
It requires simple, 5-minute actions taken by hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
That means you, too.
Will we pass the For the People Act? Honestly, I don’t know. We certainly won’t if we don’t try. And friend, this is not new territory. We were here with the ACA. We were here with the House. We were here when Trump was on the ballot in 2020.
“It’s impossible” has been the precursor to so many of our most inspiring successes.
Don’t deprive us of the joy of proving them wrong once again.
And when you’re wondering whether anything that you do this matters, muster that image of the Tank Man – a regular guy, who 32 years ago stood up against a line of 18 tanks …
because democracy is worth standing up for.
Let’s get to work.
Actions for the week of June 8, 2021
Tuesday: Pass the For the People Act
Okay, so now that we’re raring to go, let’s pick up our phones and call our Senators. Folks in Missouri, I want you to focus your attention on Senator Blunt, who skipped the January 6 insurrection vote because he was too chicken to go on the record against our country.
Blunt was a history teacher before he got into politics. He is not seeking reelection, and he’s not 85 years old. That’s interesting to me. You, too?
Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m calling from ___ because I want to share my support for the For the People Act, and encourage Senator ____ to support it. Over 100 experts in democracy have raised the alarm about voting restrictions that are being passed in states across the country – with non-existent fraud as the rationale for passing them. We are at a crossroads, and our right to vote – our very democracy – is at stake. [If a Republican Senator: I’m calling on the Senator to put partisanship aside and do what’s right for the country. What we need right now are people who put party over country, and I’m counting on Senator ___ to be one of those people.]
Wednesday: Join Indivisible’s Action
Indivisible is mobilizing for a Deadline for Democracy action series. During the ACA fight, Indivisible was an invaluable organizing mechanism for all of us – and while I know that folks have found many homes for their talents, I want to encourage you to sign their pledge to defend democracy so that you will get their updates on actions during the Recess.
So head here to sign that pledge. Apparently on Friday there will be more information sent to signers.
Also: Last night in an activist call a woman said that she now has a regular column in the local paper; she lives in a very conservative district, and her column is giving inspiration to many “closeted” Democrats. That’s so important, y’all!
But you don’t need to write a column weekly – what about a letter to the editor? It’s short, simple, and you can get your message out to a broad audience that isn’t in your social media bubble.
You can create a Letter to the editor with Indivisible’s simple tool; https://act.newmode.net/action/indivisible-project/making-democracy-reform-priority-people-act
Thursday: Justice is a Marathon
If ever there was a time that we needed to take care of our mental health, it’s now. Join Democracy Partners on Thursday at 1pm Eastern for a Zoom Conference entitled:
JUSTICE IS A MARATHON: An Intergenerational Workshop on Staying Healthy for a Life in the Movement
How can activists and organizers stay healthy over a lifetime in the progressive movement? How does one balance health, family, friends, and interests with career and the demands of justice campaigns?
Democracy Partners presents an intergenerational workshop of tips, techniques, and best practices to be effective and happy while pursuing “good trouble” as your life’s work. The sharing will be led by Democracy Partners leaders and longtime organizers Heather Booth and Josh Hoyt, with close to 100 years of experience between them, and exciting mid-career justice leaders Tania Unzueta and Abdelnasser Rashid. There will be time for audience questions and comments.
Friday: Black Voters Matter’s Summer Freedom Ride
I’m a big fan of Fair Fight Action, and I highly encourage you to check out their actions surrounding “Jim Crow 2” here.
One of their actions this summer is amplifying the efforts of Black Voters Matter, which is having a summer Freedom Ride. Beginning this month, BVM will board its signature “Blackest Bus in America” for a voter outreach tour from Mississippi to Washington D.C., making stops in key southern states.
BVM’s Freedom Rides for Voting Rights, which continues the tradition of the original Freedom Rides, comes as more than 40 states consider legislation to restrict voting rights, which would have a disproportionate impact on Black communities. In addition to voter outreach and engagement, the bus tour will raise awareness about this harmful legislation and empower communities to combat restrictions to early voting, absentee ballots, and other important reforms.
Here are the dates and stops:
Saturday 6/19-Jackson MS, Birmingham AL
Sunday 6/20-Nashville, TN
Monday 6/21- Atlanta, GA
Tuesday 6/22- Columbia, SC
Wednesday 6/23- Raleigh, NC
Thursday 6/24- Charleston, WV
Friday 6/25- Richmond, VA
Saturday 6/26 – Washington D.C
Do you live in any of these stops? Check out their event page on Mobilize here: https://www.mobilize.us/blackvotersmatter/event/388916/
DID YOU KNOW YOU’RE A ROCK STAR? I DID. SUPER PROUD OF YOU!
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My deepest gratitude in advance.
P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.
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Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.