Last Saturday night, hundreds of people stood around in the Mission Plaza holding sleeping bags and pillows, grouping together for pictures and greeting one another with hugs and smiles. As the last few rays of light passed out of the sky, a young woman took up a bullhorn and instructed everyone to start walking to Santa Rosa Park and to obey traffic laws. We filed through downtown, lugging our sleeping gear and smiling at those we passed by. Nobody chanted any mantras exhorting our cause, and there were only a couple of people holding signs.
What kind of demonstration was this? Not any kind I’d heard of.
The quietly climactic Global Night Commute gathered thousands of people together in 130 cities across the nation to walk to a central area in their community to sleep outside for one night to raise awareness of the plight of children in northern Uganda. Every night thousands of these African children walk from their villages to local towns to find a place to sleep, safe from abduction by the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Once they are captured, these children, some as young as eight years old, are plunged into learning guerrilla war tactics. If they survive, they grow up knowing no other life than that of the terrorizing soldiers.
Inspired by the documentary “Invisible Children,” made by three young filmmakers from Southern California about the “Night Commuters” – more than 50,000 people pledged to walk and sleep to draw attention to this cause.
I saw the film at church about a month ago. The terrified sobs of one particular little boy whose brother had been killed are still ringing in my ears. What was one night sleeping in Santa Rosa Park compared to the daily suffering of these people so far from my home?
The number of people who showed up in San Luis Obispo alone was staggering. When the organizers obtained the permit from the city for the event, they estimated that about 150 people would show up. As of last Thursday, the number rose to about 350. As of Saturday afternoon, the Web site listed well over 600.
There were about 10 volunteers running the whole event, corralling the crowd from the mission to the park, filming the event, taking photographs and giving instruction. Each participant was given an “action packet” with guidelines for three tasks to complete throughout the evening: Write a letter to President Bush, write a letter to a senator and create a personal visual art project. The art projects will be collected and compiled for use in other ways to increase the visibility of the issue. With hundreds more participants than they expected, the volunteers weren’t sure how the night would go. Tymari Lore, a wine and viticulture freshman, said she was pleased that all the hard work paid off.
“We were a little worried, but it’s calm and collected,” she said. “I’m happy this many people came from a small community.”
As my friends and I passed through downtown, (some of them who are freshmen joked that they felt like “real” college students now that they were participating in a protest) it was refreshing to see many of my fellow Cal Poly students come out so strongly about an issue. Apathy tends to run rampant on our campus. If you disagree, take a glance at the lonely microphone at “Free Speech Hour” every week. Friends, co-workers and classmates were there. It was a cross section of people from every part of life, coming together for one goal.
But of course, it wasn’t just outspoken young adults at the commute. There were families, high school students and church groups, among others. Each had a different story about what brought them to the park that night, illustrating the grass-roots techniques used to advance the cause.
A gaggle of ninth graders from Mission College Preparatory High School said they were encouraged to come by their English teacher, whose daughter spent two years in Uganda as a teacher. Fifteen-year-old Rachelle Parrish brought the movie to watch in their religion class.
“I don’t think we could see ourselves doing this every night,” Parrish said of herself and her classmates being the same age as the children in Uganda.
Linnea Fritch, a volunteer, heard about Invisible Children through the band Thrice. The band supports and promotes the organization. She watched the documentary and wanted to do whatever she could to get involved, so she started up a MySpace.com account about the local event so she could keep people updated.
Sophomore electrical engineering student Cody Neslen attended the event with friends from church. He talked about the effect the movie had on him.
“It really surprised me. I felt so ignorant that I didn’t know kids were treated like that,” he said. “This is one of the first steps to help.”
After completing my projects and socializing for a little while, I settled into my sleeping bag, thanking God over and over that the foreboding clouds above had only given us a slight mist and no rain. But I only had to worry about it once, unlike the young children I was there to support. I can’t imagine fearing so intently for my life every single night. The only thing I worried about when I was eight years old was whether or not I had the coolest Hello Kitty pencil box in my class.
For more information on this cause, please visit www.invisiblechildren.com.