In the summer of 1964, a group of volunteers arrived at the southern US state of Mississippi to help register black voters in what we now call the Freedom Summer. Almost a thousand volunteers, mostly white students from the northern states, not only worked to get more black voters to the ballot box, but organized Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses and fought against laws in southern states designed to disenfranchise black voters.
Throughout that summer of 1964, local white residents resentful of outsiders trying to “change their way of living,” harassed and intimidated the volunteers with shootings, violence, burnings, and outright murder. When school began again in the fall, four volunteers were killed, eighty were beaten, more than a thousand were arrested, with numerous churches and homes burned to the ground.
The Freedom Summer left more on American history than the tragic heroics of the participants. That summer of 1964 marked the beginning of a new generation of student social activists. Those volunteers, after going through the trials of Mississippi, was reborn into the core driving force behind freedom of speech, civil rights, women’s issues and the other social movements of the 1960s.
In Taiwan, the students who occupied parliament on March 18th had left. But the Freedom Summer of our own generation had only just begun.
A movement with 500,000 street demonstrators, thousands of youth taking turns holding down the parliament and storming the premier’s offices, became our rite of passage. We grew up after Taiwan had democratized, and we inherited the explosive wealth of the 1970s. Our parents’ generation accumulated the fruits of Taiwan’s economic miracle and provided for us a privileged childhood—which led us to believe that we have control over our lives and society. At the same time, a new education taught us to look at Taiwan as the center and origin of our world, and we learned to appreciate time and space as sons and daughters of Taiwan. By default, we identify with Taiwan, with freedom, with democracy; that is our deep subconscious belief.
However, as we grew up, our world has been pressing us more and more, provoking our sense for injustice. Taiwanese firms are stuck with short-sighted cost-down management tactics, the government has nothing better than relying on China, and a unholy alliance between corporate and political interests have oppressed wage-earners in a system where young people cannot find good work, the income gap is widening, and costs of living like housing is running off the rails. Our own experiences with these injustices made us realize that no matter how “competitive” we are individually, systemic inequality means we have already lost, like using stone spears against light-sabers.
In the March 18th movement, the Ma government used its sanction on violence to give birth to a generation washed by blood. In 1964, once innocent, naïve students walked through death and fire in Mississippi and became able and determined to change society. In 2014, for us in Taiwan, we must also walk through the struggle against authorities, police beatings, media distortions, judicial abuses, and the leaders’ ignorance of the people’s will, and become able and determined to take back our nation.
But also just like 1964 started the social earthquakes of the 1960s, our Freedom Summer will also unveil the coming torrential rains. For Taiwan, our movements will not end until the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) goes through transitional justice, until China itself becomes free and democratic.
Looking at the historical trends of the United States, Freedom Summer was built on a series of grassroots civil rights activity since 1955. But going forward, it was a crucial turning point that channeled that energy to all other fields of social change, from speech freedom, to anti-war, to gender rights. In Taiwan, since March 18th, the debates along multiple dimensions have demarcated our social reform battlegrounds. How do we break free from traditional mainstream media, and let journalists report news that is of the people and for the people? How do we pierce the veil of the “economy of happiness” and get to the root of the “economy of politics,” so we can breakdown the political, social and economic conditions that enables happiness in the first place? How do we give fresh air to a judiciary stale with old people and old thinking, prevent the prosecution from helping with political abuse, and reform the conservative highest courts? And most importantly, how do we put back social fairness at the center of economic policy, so that human rights is the baseline for cross-straits relations, and economic development is no longer built on the blood, sweat and tears of Taiwanese and Chinese youth?
Our Freedom Summer will be long. Because, many more battles await us and many more loyal subjects await becoming real citizens. We will have our own UC Berkeley to establish campus democracy; we will have our own gender expositions, where all of the girls who took to the streets will redefine social movement; we will have our own antiwar campaigns, to protest sacrificing our youth in service of the personal legacy of our leaders. This is a war between generations: from Losheng to Wild Strawberry, from throwing a single slipper to an unified Black Island Youth Organization, from anti media monopoly dragon slayers to sunflowers that hope for a new dawn, we have opened our eyes and taken up our battle stations.
Let the storm come fast and hard, because this nation is ours. The rest, is up to us.
(Feature photo of students on the last day of parliament occupation, April 14, by Alysa Chiu)