My education in activism began before I was able to read.
As a child, I marched on Washington, attended peace vigils and participated in rallies involving nuclear proliferation, civil rights and world hunger, trailing wide-eyed after my father, my young mind attempting to make sense of the hoopla surrounding me.
While other kids wore shirts featuring Mickey Mouse or Strawberry Shortcake or the Smurfs, my first-grade wardrobe included T's boasting "Build Homes, Not Bombs," "End Hunger Now," and one of my favorites, a shirt depicting rows of decimated trees juxtaposed with a lone mushroom-cloud emanating from a nuclear bomb.
As I grew older, I began to learn about the issues that had brought my six-year-old self to the nation's capital, and longed to follow in the footsteps of my father, who was active in the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and the Vietnam War protests in the following decade.
The activism of those periods was synonymous in my mind with concrete political and social change - not simply long-haired, tie-dye-wearing, peace-sign-toting, free-loving, disgruntled hippies with too much time on their hands and too many chemicals in their bloodstreams.
Student protests during the Vietnam War contributed directly to the United States' withdrawal from Indochina, just as the bus boycotts and civil disobedience in the '60s culminated in landmark legislation protecting civil rights from encroachment by states and places of public accommodation.
When I came to UB as a freshman, I searched desperately for grains of such activism, and was quickly disillusioned. When I joined The Spectrum, I took on the activism beat, hoping to participate vicariously in student activism through the eyes of a reporter.
I attended speeches, rallies, teach-ins and protests on issues ranging from the dangers of hormone-laden milk and the benefits of vegetarianism to prison expansion and free-trade agreements.
As I covered more and more events, my idealistic view of activism slowly eroded, leaving me ambivalent to, and rather skeptical of, mass activity.
I began to notice that the same core of 10 or 20 students was present at every event I reported on, whether it dealt with a crusade against chicken-wings or an indictment of the private prison industry. While some overlap in causes is to be expected due to the common underlying themes, many of the protesters seemed to be activists for every season, pouncing on any and every cause placed before them.
These perpetual activists were almost always minimally informed. After all, what human could possibly be well-versed in free-trade law, the damaging effects of cattle ranging, the ramification of prison expansion and sweatshop abuses, along with the entire gamut of complex issues currently facing the world?
When asked what concrete action should be taken to combat the injustice in question, these individuals were almost universally speechless. The same students braving the cold to wave slogan-bearing signs or storm campus buildings were often absent from polling places, administrative committees and other channels for effective policy change.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Charles Kernaghan, the anti-sweatshop foe now famous for bringing Kathy Lee Gifford to tears on daytime television. Regis' counterpart threatened to sue Kernaghan for charging that her Walmart-based clothing line was manufactured by child labor in sweatshops. Kernaghan made sweatshops a household term, leading successful campaigns against Nike, Gap and the Walt Disney Company to name a few.
While Kernaghan's tireless advocacy of the rights of workers is to be much-admired, his behavior at UB's rally against sweatshops last Monday was less than admirable.
At the conclusion of the rally, one passerby questioned the motives of the crowd, taking issue with the demands articulated by the speakers. Within seconds, the student was surrounded by a taunting, swearing crowd which drowned out his questions and attempts at speech. Kernaghan led the fight, screaming that we should send the gentleman to Bangladesh.
The suffering poignantly expressed by the Bangladeshi garment workers who accompanied Kernaghan was overshadowed by the dramatic antics of the rally itself.
What could have been an opportunity to dispel ignorance and possibly recruit a supporter to the cause, turned into a mob-like confrontation, with rally participants channeling their anger against a man who was simply uninformed.
When the crowd began to disperse, a union member present at the rally took the gentlemen aside and engaged him in a rational, reasoned discussion - performing the job which should have been undertaken by the sign-waving, chant-shouting rally organizers.
After wading through scores of individuals at the rally who were there simply for something to do, some cause to act out against, I found a handful of truly motivated, passionate and knowledgeable students who had done their homework and thoroughly understood the issue.
Those students were not merely raising their voices in residual teenage angst, but had actually written letters to UB administrators about the issue, and were in the process of gaining public disclosure of the whereabouts of factories manufacturing UB-logo clothing.
Marches, rallies and protests are powerful tools in combating social wrongs, but they must be backed by knowledge and concrete efforts at change. Too often, the real message of acute suffering and injustice gets lost in the whirlwind of fanfares and parades, leaving the people most desperate for our help in the dust stirred up by stampeding feet and hot air.