Walk the talk — people are protesting to save their lives

Walk the talk — people are protesting to save their lives

Protesting is not a mere means of communicating one’s cause. It may be the way we stay alive.

The growing movement for gun reform culminates in “March for Our Lives” protests on March 24 in Washington, D.C. and hundreds of cities across the country.  The mission is to pressure our state and national representatives about passing sensible gun laws  and also to increase voter registration among the youth, while fostering a culture of empathy.

At Northwestern University where I am a professor, the campus recently was on lockdown following alerts that a person with a gun was reported on campus and that we should seek shelter.  I nervously looked out my office window at the students and visitors below walking around oblivious to the threat. I moved a trash can under my desk aside so I could duck under it if needed.


Some colleagues teaching nearby that afternoon huddled quietly with their students in darkened rooms or found ways to barricade classroom doors that would not lock. After the threat was deemed a “swatting hoax,” students the next day talked about where they were when they received the frightening emergency alerts and shared their residual feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness.

Earlier that day I walked out of class with students in my theatre and social change class. We joined a long line of students marching to Deering Meadow chanting, “No more silence, end gun violence.”

In a sea of young faces, I stood in the bright sun listening to moving speeches by students, such as by freshman Maddie Gaines who recalled relief at discovering that her best friend was safe at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida after the shooting.

 “It was just supposed to be a normal day at school,” she said. “School should not be a place where kids fear for their lives.” Little did we know when she said those words that our school would become a place where people feared for their lives only hours later. 

At Northwestern we joined a nationwide walkout of thousands on March 14 inspired by survivors of the Parkland school shooting who have been demanding stricter gun legislation. From rousing speeches to “die-ins” at the White House, these student protesters have turned to performance or embodied modes of expression to rally against gun violence.

Some critics falsely claimed that the most vocal student protesters in Parkland were paid “crisis actors,” and of course they were not. It is no surprise to me and others though that many of these youth protesters are involved in theatre where they have learned and experienced the necessity of empathy, the power of their voice, the magic of being present in a shared space, and the potency of collaboration.  

My research is on the relationship between histories of gender-based violence and contemporary performance in the United States and South Korea. I study how activists, survivors, and artists draw on performance-based means such as protests to advocate for justice.

With a keen awareness of their interaction with audiences, these protesters strategically utilize public space, physicality, costuming, and rhetoric. The protests in South Korea have become a site for the street education of history, the cultivation of social bonds among survivors and their young supporters, and the kindling of the urgency to combat cycles of impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and to tackle structural gender-based injustice that places women’s lives at risk. 

Earlier this month on the campus walkout, I did not know personally everyone standing around me, but I felt a closeness to them and a stirring that I too had to take action. The walkout reminded me of why people protest: To make space physically and metaphorically for themselves and their struggles and to be in the presence of a collective galvanized around a common fight.

I am reminded that a protest is not a movement, it is the beginning of one that should pervade our everyday life.

We can walk together because our lives are on the line.

Elizabeth W. Son is an assistant professor of Theatre at Northwestern University, where she is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She is the author of “Embodied Reckonings: ‘Comfort Women,’ Performance, and Transpacific Redress.