On Friday, April 16th, on the Campustown corner of Green and Wright, students, townies, and visiting moms witnessed what was probably a familiar sight: a group of people waiting for streetlights to change, and then running into the intersection and "dying." Die-ins have a rich history, and happen all over the world. Champaign-Urbana has had many: A.W.A.R.E holds them to protest the Iraq War; the Campus Greens have had them too.
Friday was the National Day of Silence, and on that day, Green and Wright was the place of yet another die-in. But this one was different; this die-in was made up of mostly high school students, and organized by the East Central Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (eCISSA), which is our local chapter of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (CISSA). eCISSA's goal is to "eliminate all bullying of LGBTQ students" and to nurture a safe environment in which all kids can feel comfortable being themselves, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. In fact, two of the die-in's organizers participated in the November 2, 2009 Illinois Safe Schools Alliance forum on anti-gay bullying at Parkland Community College. eCISSA was one of the forum's sponsors.
The goal of Friday's die-in was "to bring awareness to all the youth and young adults that commit suicide, endanger their lives, and feel unsafe" because of the anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment that occurs in schools on a daily basis. I spoke with Janelle O'Dea, one of the organizers of the die-in, and she explained that many high school students participate in the National Day of Silence, but after school ends around 3:00 p.m., there's not much for them to do until Breaking the Silence at 5:00 p.m., so she and Mitali Purkayastha decided to organize a die-in. This would get the students close to the University Quad (where the LGBT Resource Center's Breaking the Silence rally would take place), and show them how meaningful, important, and fun activism can be.
For a die-in to be successful, it has to be meticulously organized, and the participants must have respect for the law and the traffic. This was never an issue the entire two hours the kids were protesting. At no point was there anger or shouting or cursing. The protestors were always ― every single time ― out of the intersection before the lights changed. No one was rude; no one was disrespectful; and ― most importantly ― no one was hurt.
And though the kids were having a great time, it was very apparent that they also knew why they were there. I confess that it was impossible to have an in depth conversation with them (I should have shown up sooner) because many of them were not speaking, and there was simply no time for anything of substance to be said, due to the ebb and flow of the die-in itself.
But this protest was organized by members of the eCISSA. No matter their orientation, these kids have all experienced homophobia, either personally or by witnessing it happen to friends or family members. As I stated above, Janelle and Mitali had shared personal testimonies during the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance forum at Parkland. They were both harassed to the point of misery in their respective high schools. Janelle, who attended Mahomet-Seymour High School, told me:
I feel that the environment was hostile enough for some students to feel unsafe, especially LGBTQA students. That's why we started the Day of Silence there, and any time I get lazy with eCISSA stuff, I think about the way I saw students treating each other at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I hope no student ever has to encounter some of the things that I heard and saw.
You can hear both Janelle's and Mitali's stories (and many others) by downloading a video of the forum here.
So, they weren't there just to have a jolly good time in Campustown. The constant two-hour-long "dying" was physically grueling, but very few protesters took time-outs. They remarked on the heat coming off the pavement; all of them were perspiring; some of the kids wearing shorts had painful-looking red knees. But they were joyous, and they were all aware that ― though they were doing something that was a hell of a lot of fun ― they were also doing something personally and politically meaningful.
At first, the number of participants was small, though very enthusiastic and determined.
But more kept arriving:
And soon, we had a large crowd — more, Janelle told me, than even she had hoped for.
And with each change of the street light, bikers and motorists would honk and wave as they were riding by. I don't believe there was ever a time when we weren't cheered or waved to by passersby. As far as I could tell, we had 100% positive response from everyone. Champaign-Urbana is, indeed, a great place to live.
It's kids and adults like these that cause my cold, black heart to almost feel human. But enough of my thoughts. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. Beginning, of course, with the die-in organizers, themselves:
And the wonderful adults who helped them:
And all the rest:
eCISSA's schedule will soon slow down, but after summer vacation they will begin working once again with teachers, coaches, and counselors, with eyes toward a possible youth summit. To keep up with their work and activities, check out their website or Facebook page.