29. The Protest, Pt. 2: NIANS
20 Jan 2055 | 1500h
Do things really change? Johnna thought, or do they stay the same?
You get used to living in a certain way for so long, in a place like New Idaho, and it feels like it will never change. You forget that 40 years ago, this place didn’t exist at all. You forget that, in that case, it must change. You forget that, if you try hard enough, you can be the change.
You feel like the only changes that ever occur are the ones in your life. You get older. You have a child. The rest of the city doesn’t care. The rest of the city doesn’t change. It doesn’t suddenly give you more money, it doesn’t suddenly give you a day care. It just stays the same, while your life continues to change. The father leaves, immediately, never even knowing the shape of the child in its mother’s womb. The child grows up without a father. And that—that situation—will never change.
But the child changes. The child grows kinder and smarter and more insightful day by day. The child enters puberty, changes into a young man. Someday he will change into a full adult, and he will have a child, and that child will change.
All along the way, however, Johnna could only see the child being forced to deal with the same old systems that have been in the world since day one. The systems that never, ever change. The new child has to work away his youth because of where he was born, into the same system as his father, with the same disadvantages, forced to work within the same lifestyle that her Charlie had been forced to work in. Forced to sit in cages, getting laughed at all day to make rent to live in the slums of the city that never cared for him or his ancestors. And he will change, and he will age, but the system—it never changes.
But that need not be true. Today, it could all change. Johnna’s reaction as she walked down eleventh street and saw Idaho Park was an extreme and intense mixture of surprise, excitement, and anxiety. She would finally be meeting the ones who organized the event. She would be meeting NIANS in person, the people she had been working with, the ones who had mobilized spectators in a manner that she had not believed to be possible.
Next to her, Charlie was just as surprised by how full the park was. He hadn’t known much about the event going in, but he knew it was important to his mother. He also knew that if it was successful, he might not have to play MineShaft any more. At the very least, he wouldn’t have to play it as much. The game had never been particularly fun to Charlie, but after Christmas, he found himself repulsed by the thought of going in. It was nearly impossible to get in the mindset that this was a video game, and that he could have fun playing. He hated to feel ungrateful for what he was given in life. He tried to accept that what he was dealt was simply God’s test to him, that he could “rejoice inasmuch as he participated in the sufferings of Christ, so that he may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” When he was completely honest with himself, however, he did not want to play MineShaft at all.
Johnna turned onto the lawn, approaching a foldable table to the left of the stage. The table was covered with an orange cloth. Stenciled in black on top of the cloth was a large black fist, with the letters N-I-A-N-S around it.
Johnna approached the table and spoke with the petite woman standing behind it. ‘Hello!’ The woman said as Johnna approached. She looked like she was registering Johnna for a 5K, not a political protest, but her bubbly attitude did help Johnna feel more at ease. ‘Are you here to volunteer?’
‘Yes!’ Johnna exuded. ‘Johnna Johnson. And this is my son, Charlie. We’re members of NIANS.’
‘Oh, yes! Johnna! Thank you for your work with our Christmas Project. I remember seeing your name on the volunteer list. That was so important for our turnout today. I’m happy to finally meet you!’ The woman extended her hand toward Johnna, who took it without hesitation. There had been few times in her life that had made her feel as welcome as this. It was as though the woman behind the table was looking at her as a real human; like she didn’t see Johnna just as her weight, or her house, or anything else that she often felt defined by. She certainly wouldn’t be asking Johnna “how she got to be so fat”.
‘Feel free to come back behind the table,’ the woman said. ‘You can meet your fellow members and grab a sign. We’ll be starting up the protest very soon.’
Johnna went behind the table with Charlie and stood around awkwardly, not sure who to speak to. Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait long before another member of the organization walked up to greet her.
‘Hello!’ the woman said. It was another skinny white woman, but this one looked taller, older, and more serious than the one who had checked Johnna in. ‘And what is your name?’
‘Johnna Johnson. This is my son, Charlie.’
‘Johnna! Nice to meet you. My name is Paula Genoflaxis. I’m very happy you could make it. I’m the one who put this event together.’
‘Wow,’ said Johnna. ‘I’m amazed you got so many people to come out!’
‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ Paula said, ‘and it certainly wasn’t all me. The secret is really two words that were quite popular some decades ago: Collectivism and intersectionality.’
‘Collectivism and intersectionality,’ Johnna repeated, as if she had to remember this for an exam.
‘That’s right,’ Paula continued. ‘The goal of all this is to appeal to the collective nature of human beings. To make them feel like they all belong, and that they are fighting a common cause. That’s the collectivism. In order to foster their collective spirit, it’s important to talk about where the journeys and worries of all these people intersect.’
‘I think I get it.’
‘I’m sure you do. After all, what do all these people have in common?’
Johnna thought about it. ‘I’m guessing maybe socioeconomic class?’
‘Very close,’ Paula said. ‘Everyone here, regardless of anything else, has a shared distaste for oppression. Many of those you see protesting have either been oppressed or are aware of people who are being oppressed. It’s less common than you might think that many of these protestors feel oppressed as individuals. There’s something deep in the American psyche, as sad as it may be, that every individual has the opportunity to change his or her life. Every American seems to want to view him or herself as a superhero. Well, ask these same individuals to zoom out. Ask them to look at the others in their community. Often, they won’t see the vast majority of these others as superheroes. Once they realize this, and they realize that they are a part of the group, their collective nature kicks in. They don’t want their group to fail.
‘You see, if I told each individual, “you can’t do it,” half of them would spit in my face, and the other half probably wouldn’t join NIANS either. Nobody wants to hear that they can’t do something. Instead, you must point out that at least most of the people in their group will be unable to change their condition. This way, they still believe that they can do it, but they get to fight for their brothers and sisters who cannot. And, sooner than later, they start to realize they aren’t heroes either. And they are fighting for themselves.’
‘That’s very smart.’
‘Mm-hm,’ Paula said. ‘It was the genius, if I may say so, of getting the FuTech Christians on board. The preacher speaking today, in fact, has plenty of income. Because he understands the plight of some of the members of his congregation, however, he is willing to preach to our cause. At the end of the day, Johnna, the sad truth is, most of these people simply cannot change their situation on their own. It’s not that they aren’t superheroes—I believe most people are, in a way—it’s just that this system is kryptonite. It has made it impossible for us to rise up on our own.
‘Think about it—how many hours of MineShaft would you have to play to earn enough to buy the house that Lex Lucid lives in? It’s not even possible in twenty lifetimes! We like to believe it is possible. We like to believe we are superheroes. But that is sadly just not the case.’ Paula smiled. ‘So, anyway, the goal was to get more and more organizations aware of this fact, aware of these ideas, and once the idea spreads, to get these people out, get them spending a Wednesday afternoon with like-minded people in a protest that just might overturn their misfortune once and for all. Who wouldn’t want that?’
‘Well, Paula,’ Johnna said, ‘I definitely want that! I appreciate everything you’ve been doing. I can already tell I’m learning a lot from you.’
‘Thank you for saying so, Johnna,’ Paula said. ‘I look forward to hearing more from you in future meetings of our organization. This is just the first day of the Revolution. Rome wasn’t brought down in a day.’ She winked in Johnna’s direction.
‘I have one more question before you go,’ Johnna said. ‘What do you want to see happen, at the end of the day? What’s the next step?’
‘It could turn out a few different ways,’ Paula said. ‘Of course, it would be great to get a meeting with Kiyoshi. Hopefully a few of the news sources here kick up enough of a buzz that he has no choice but to meet with us. I imagine we’ll be front page in at least the local rags. At this point, the goal is really just to start a conversation.’
‘And if Kiyoshi just ignores it all?’
Paula’s face grew slightly more grim. ‘If nothing else, there’s a chance we can appeal to the Federal Government.’
‘Wow,’ Johnna said. ‘When I think of it, I can’t actually remember them ever coming to New Idaho.’
‘As far as our records show, they never have,’ Paula said. ‘This place has been suspiciously left alone since its inception. Some real evidence that money talks. In fact, it speaks so loudly it drowns out the voice of everyone else. But with a protest like this, we can get our voice back. Someone will have to respond.’
‘I think you’re right,’ Johnna said. ‘Thank you.’
‘No, Johnna, thank you,’ Paula replied. ‘Now, grab a sign. We should be starting very soon!’
Paula walked into the thrall of the rest of her NIANS members, leaving Johnna and Charlie to prepare themselves for the protest. Much of what Paula had said resonated with Johnna. She no longer felt out of place, even a little bit. It was true, that they were all here with a common purpose. To end economic oppression. Everyone was thinking about the same goal, and that made it easy to get along with anyone here. Johnna wished the whole world felt like that. Maybe then there would be no suffering.
Paula had also mentioned the superhero complex. That was exactly what had made Johnna decide not to take child support from Charlie’s father. She had thought she could do it all herself. In a way, she could. On the other hand, she had felt a constant sensitivity toward the hopelessness of her situation ever since Charlie was born. At the end of the day, she couldn’t do everything herself. She wasn’t a superhero, as much as she wanted to believe she was.
When the crowd started the first chant, it almost felt like it had come from some higher power. It had started from somewhere near the front of the group, possibly with Paula herself. From there, it rippled down until Johnna could make out exactly what they were saying. As soon as she got a hold of it, she started to shout it out. All her shyness had dissipated in a new sense of purpose and community that Paula had helped her to feel. ‘YOU CANNOT DIVIDE US, TOGETHER WE SURVIVE! YOU CANNOT DIVIDE US, TOGETHER WE SURVIVE!’
The chant spread from the NIANS group, on the northwest side of the park, all the way southeast, until the whole park seemed to be booming with the same voice. No matter how many people had been there just to observe, or even to mock, what was happening, the numbers were on the side of NIANS. The volume of the chanting proved it. Johnna felt, for the first time, as she shouted in the same rhythm, the same heartbeat of her comrades, that somebody in New Idaho cared for her.