Leah Kuenzi: The Legacy of Activism
During the first weekend of airstrikes and ground force invasion into Afghanistan in 2001, my mother was camping in Montana during a horrific thunderstorm. I was only 11 at the time, but her story of that weekend still gives me chills when I think about it. The thunder boomed so loudly that the ground under her sleeping bag shook, the tent poles rattled, and the lightning flashes penetrated the thin mesh structure. She sobbed all night, thinking of bombs raining over Kabul, the moment that they hit the ground, spreading fear, confusion and panic across the city. My mother has never accepted the idea of civilian casualty during war. So when she cried that night, she was crying for everyone who had been or would become a number on a long list of civilian deaths at the hand of Operation Enduring Freedom.
She has always felt deeply the plight of others for the simple reason that she sees parts of herself in everyone. At 11, I had trouble grasping the fact that she could cry for an Afghani mother she had never met who lost a child in a car bombing for the simple fact that she, too, was a mother. Her empathy for others shaped her politics, and incited radicalism into her daily life. I dreaded her picking me up from school, knowing that “Charge Bush as a War Criminal” was plastered in vinyl on the back of our car. When Bush was reelected in 2004, eliciting cheers and excitement from many of the parents at the barn where I took horseback riding lessons, I lowered the brim of my riding helmet as she stood up from the bench where she was sitting and lamented: “You people ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” When I was 14 (and 15, and 16), each of her ill-timed political outbursts was an opportunity for me to feel embarrassed and hush her as quickly as I could.
Back then, I didn’t understand the severity of what she stood for. I didn’t understand her stance on activism. I didn’t understand why it mattered to stand on a street corner with a drastically unpopular opinion hoisted above her head. I didn’t understand why she insisted on telling people in parking lots with “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers that if we wanted to support our troops, we would bring them home.
But I know now that I can never go back. I know I will never again cover my eyes in the face of an opportunity to present my opinion (which, if you’re wondering, is not far off from that of the mother I used to roll my eyes at). A couple of years ago, I held up my first sign at an anti-war protest. The thing I remember most was the mix of terror and exhilaration as people walked or drove by, waiting to see their reactions, fearing judgment, eye rolls, middle fingers, or even shouts of anger. But standing in that protest exceeded my fear of judgment, embarrassment, and unpopularity. It was about embracing the legacy of activism, empathy, boldness, and “hell-raising through sign-raising,” as my mom would say.