Tank Man

Written in August, 2013:

As part of an undergraduate capstone course entitled Effecting Change, we were given prompts and asked to journal a response that the instructor would read and to which she would provide feedback. Here is one of my favorites.

If you had to name one person (past or present) that you thought has made an important / profound difference in the realm of social justice / equality on this planet, which person would you pick and why? Some examples are Martin Luther King or maybe Gandhi or maybe his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama or Howard Zinn. There are no rules on who you can choose, and it could even be an artist type like Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan…

So many names come to mind, in reflecting about people who’ve successfully or not-so-successfully, impacted the realm of social justice on this planet, but when I reach for one name outstanding, for me, there are no clear front-runners. They have all tried so hard, our famous and celebrated warriors for change, and the world is so big, so full of disorganized and organized oppression—it’s striking when the deeds of a few people stand out in dazzling contrast against the blur of injustice. As I meditated upon this exercise, one person comes to mind, by whom I have been greatly inspired, and he has actually gone unnamed, literally. We only know him as Tank Man. [click the link to see 1989 video and read about Tank Man:25 years later]

tank man close

The brave anonymous man who stared down and then jumped atop a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, after 1000’s were killed protesting in China.

I have discovered that his identity has never been successfully uncovered, and, for me, that’s part of what makes him an icon of social justice change. Video footage has him just walking along alone, carrying a bag of groceries and as he passed the tanks, he halted, turned, and then walked out into the street, and stopped the procession. He was not part of the mob. He was not waving his arms and screaming, nor threatening, nor was he engaging in any other overt action. He just put himself in the path. As the tanks gunned their engines, he was unmoved. And then he jumped atop and banged on the hatch, was seen speaking to the soldiers inside, and got down. Two bystanders came out and pulled him out of harm’s way, then. He was never rewarded. He may even have later been arrested and killed. No one knows. His actions have rung in my heart and mind again and again, since I was a girl watching him on the news, to now, every time I see that image. I can’t read or write about him without shaking and nursing a lump in my throat.

His singular, anonymous move to change his trajectory and place himself in the path of a fucking tank such that he would stop a military procession, is a simple and elegant inspiration to any who may feel that one person is not enough to make a change that might impact the realm of social justice. One nameless person can damned-well be enough to make some kind of change.

tank man uncropped


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