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Stillness is a Political Act

Opinion | October 28, 2019

“Political work does not always need to be set to the speed of emergency, or to historical time…At times political work looks like a hushed subject submerged under water in a cramped bathtub; still and patient, this human learns to wade or wade against the political current. At other times this human rises from the bathtub, stands erect outside its depth—tall, firm, and clean—and then courageously goes under again.”

  • Sandra Ruiz, Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance

 

Just three days before the first draft of my article for the Observer was due, I was on the Red Line returning from a weekend in Montreal with my family. As the train approached Harvard Station and I read through the group chats and emails that I had been neglecting, I felt the vibration of the train travel up from my feet. I could feel the engine pulsing through the metal machine: the speed, the momentum, the force. I had the overwhelming urge to break out in tears, crying for the train to just stop. Wanting to be still. 

 

I want to illuminate this experience that I had on the train because it is the embodied experience of many students of color in revolutionary movements. Currently, I am one of many student activists responding to the lack of intentional student involvement in the hiring of faculty for the new Tufts department of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora

 

It is imperative that students be fully respected agents in this hiring process, considering that it is the students who fought for departmentalization and the creation of various ethnic studies tracks. I started writing this article as a way to inspire action and traction in this burgeoning movement of students. However, I won’t elaborate more on this mission. Instead, I will turn toward healing, sustainability, and stillness. Because we are beautiful enigmas suspended in a movement of currents. And our stillness is a political act. 

 

We, student activists, do “political work” according to models passed down to us by generations of revolutions and activists, such as the Black Panther Movement, Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., and Grace Lee Boggs. We tabled, organized rallies, organized strikes, wrote op-ed articles, wrote countless emails, made multiple Facebook Messenger chats, made numerous Facebook groups, held strategy meetings, debrief meetings, community meetings, all kinds of meetings, shared Google documents with anonymous animals that marked their territory into the night. 

 

We have this beautiful impulse that we owe to our ancestors from past activist movements to mobilize and fire up the engine of revolution using our bodies and souls as fuel for the greater marginalized masses. And though at times we feel overwhelmed by the fast movement of “revolutions,” we are too afraid to express these feelings because we feel indebted to our revolutionary ancestors and communities of color. Student struggles—our struggles—are vital to communities of color to find our space and voice. They have the potential to save lives. My community saved mine. That’s why we decide to organize and mobilize.   

 

But revolution and activism come at a deadly cost for us students when we center progress and structural results, such as departmentalization or new faculty. In the wise and eloquent words of philosopher activist Grace Lee Boggs: “Don’t diss the political things but understand their limitations.” When we engage in political acts against the RCD department and the Tufts administration, we have to be conscious that these departments and institutions have a colonial foundation. This is to say that they actively work against marginalized people. And so when we fight within and against these structures—without understanding their limitations and history—our revolutions ironically take on a colonial rhetoric of progress and productivity that focus on speed and action as opposed to community and healing. 

 

I am not saying this as a criticism of our political actions. I am saying this out of care. Because when we center structural progress in our revolutions, it is not a coincidence that we, the students of marginalized identity, are the ones that absorb its violent trembles and get left behind. How many times have these new departments, studies, and centers that we fought for left our hands and became beyond our control? How many times have we been gaslighted and patronized in meetings with faculty and staff? How many times have we been pitted against other student groups? How many times have we been asked “How are you?” and have wanted to reply “I’m burned out” or simply cry. 

 

Organizing. Working groups. Scheduling meeting after meeting. I am proud of this work, but it  drains me. And everyone is so stressed and nervous because we feel like the time is ticking; the train just keeps chugging. So when I see you, my friends, and myself break down in tears from anxiety or cast ourselves out of the community for not being able to “keep up,” I’m taken back to my experience on the Red Line, desperately wanting the train to stop its mechanical march. Because I feel like I’m going to crash—like we’re all going to crash. And I love you all too dearly to watch you combust in a muck of black oil and metal debris. We are so much more than parts of an engine that will eventually be replaced in a four-year cycle. 

 

So I am asking for us to center healing instead. To slow down. To breathe. To be still. By focusing on stillness, I am speaking directly against the urgency that often characterizes these movements. I want to listen to our souls when we feel crippled and overwhelmed in our fights for structural and institutional revolution. I want us to recognize how we feel ashamed to admit these feelings because our sacrifice is for a “better future.” I want to ask what this “better future” is if it is marred by a colonial rhetoric of structural progress—and at what cost.

 

How can we think of “stillness” as resistance? Slowing down, being able to say “no” to this rushed movement and focus on healing and care amongst each other in community, is an act of stillness. What does stillness look like? There is no one answer. The beauty of stillness is that its form cannot be found in our colonial institution. There is no model for stillness. Stillness can be letting go of the “speed of emergency” of these RCD faculty hires. Stillness can be craft nights in cramped common rooms. Stillness can be responding to “I’m burned out” with “It’s okay to do less.” 

 

Stillness feels counterintuitive. Stillness feels generative. Stillness feels sustainable.