In 1996, a woman set herself on fire in front of a peace sign on the University of Pennsylvania. It was the last protest of perennial protestor Kathy Change (born Kathleen Chang).
When Kathy Change died, I was in elementary school. I didn’t hear about Change until this year, through a friend of mine who has been involved in Asian American communities longer than I’ve been alive. People seemed split over how to memorialize her. These are the facts:
Kathy Change believed in the need for pervasive social change–that our whole social system was broken and that she needed to do something about that. She believed so much that she spent 20 years staging one woman dance and performance protests on the UPenn campus. Her self immolation was her last attempt to grab people’s attention, because they didn’t seem to be listening. Whether she held a tenuous grasp on reality, or if she saw the world more clearly than any of us is a question I can’t answer. Newspaper pieces about her at the time of her death (like this New York Times piece) used her diary to portray her as a troubled woman who believed that she was the Messiah.
To dismiss her as crazy is too easy. She clearly knew what she wanted– an end to nuclear proliferation, corporate greed, and apathy, and the legalization of marijuana, among them. She determinedly devoted her life and art, and then her life to her pursuit of revolution. And she could see that her protests were ineffective.
Since I learned about Kathy Change, I can’t seem to get her out of my mind. She unsettles me.