In third grade, after "several complaints from parents," my school placed a ban on dodgeball playing in school. Administrators claimed the game was "just too violent for elementary school students to play" and it put certain kids in uncomfortable situations. Just like any angry 8-year-olds in America might react, two of my friends and I organized a petition to bring dodgeball back during free periods on Fridays. Our petition was successful enough -- with hundreds of signatures -- to earn us a meeting with the school's principal. We presented Mrs. Burnbaum our nuanced argument for the reinstatement of dodgeball in the clearest way possible. But, ultimately, in spite of our grassroots activism, she had the audacity to leave her ban in place (even during free periods on Fridays!).
My friends and I were recently reflecting on the event and agreed that, to this day, Mrs. Burnbaum rejecting our petition remains pretty much the biggest injustice we've ever faced. Even though we were kidding around, in light of the Pussy Riot arrest and sentencing in Russia, it's clear that my friends and I are nowhere close to understanding of how great our privileges really are. We couldn't have had anything similar to our "Dodgeball Reinstatement Petition" experience in many other places in the world ... and it's not because they would have brought back dodgeball in other countries.
Let's start with the fact that my principal took the time to sit down with 8-year-olds. There are dictators throughout the world (including Vladimir Putin) who don't just ignore the opinions of their smartest constituents, but actively punish citizens who disagree with their views. Three grown women were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison after calling for the end of the Putin regime (having to hear their sentencing from an isolated glass box), whereas my principal made sure to justify her dodgeball ban in great length to three kids who weren't yet legally allowed to sit in the front seat of a car.
As you probably know by now, the issue of limited freedom of expression goes well beyond Pussy Riot and the dodgeball petition. In the last two years alone, thousands of innocent citizens have been killed in Syria for protesting the Assad Regime, thousands of others were murdered in Libya, and hundreds were killed in Egypt for fighting for their freedom as well. All the while, Americans legally protested Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union stripping law and rabidly filled the streets of American cities fighting for equal economic opportunity during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Sure, these protests weren't without controversy. People were - justifiably -- outraged about the fact that police pepper sprayed protesters at UC Davis for protesting on private property. But compared to citizens in all of these other countries, most Americans are obscenely privileged in their rights as protesters. I don't have to think twice before writing an angry tweet about a government official or writing a blog denigrating Paul Ryan (working on that...). The Internet went absolutely bonkers over the idea that the government might try to regulate internet piracy, of all things. Obviously, there were flaws in SOPA and PIPA, but compared to other countries? That was nothing. Russia recently passed a bill that could potentially lead to dissent of the government being taken off the web, and China doesn't allow its citizens to use Facebook or Google.
Several years after my "Dodgeball Reinstatement Petition" failed, when I was in seventh grade, I began seriously practicing Brazilian jujitsu. A year later, I felt my jujitsu skills were strong enough to make me a productive member of the school wrestling team. When I found out my school didn't have a wrestling team, I was outraged. But this time, when a PE teacher told me that the possibility of starting a wrestling program was unrealistic, I didn't even bother with a petition. I felt the costs of protesting PE outweighed the benefits. The genocide in Syria and the sentencing of Pussy Riot have shown me how ridiculous that assertion sounds. There were no costs! So, today, in light of the Pussy Riot sentencing, I ask that everyone reading this joins me and takes a step back from your day-to-day struggles to appreciate the freedoms we have as Americans.
(For the record, though, I maintain it's a major injustice that my elementary school doesn't let kids play dodgeball. During free period on Friday, no less!)
Follow Sam Koppelman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sammykoppelman