Most students rush past the thin, steel peace sign statue near Van Pelt Library. But in 1969, when sculptor Robert Engman built the Peace Symbol, the statue easily fit in with the politically active and anti–war student body. The significance of the statue changed drastically years later — when activist Kathy Change lit herself on fire in front of the peace sign.
On Oct. 22, 1996, Kathy Change committed suicide in front of the Peace Symbol via self-immolation, in her final act of performance protest. Change was a lifelong activist, who stood against nuclear proliferation, the criminalization of marijuana and American involvement in Iraq. She would dress in costume and dance in front of the peace statue to protest these issues. She would also protest at Philadelphia museums and theaters across the city.
The day she decided to set herself on fire, she sent out packets of her writings to various news outlets and friends, explaining the rationale for her suicide: an attempt to bring more attention to her activism.
Over 20 years later, Change’s suicide remains a large part of the Peace Symbol's character. The once somewhat basic message of peace is now complicated by a political suicide. And just as students tended to ignore Change's daily protests, many students now may not notice the statue she died in front of.
As a campus with a fairly politically active student body, there are near constant protests, demonstrations and discussions pushing us to fight for what is "right." To understand what Kathy Change's suicide means, and what it means in relation to the statue on our campus, we need to examine what our actions mean in relation to the time and place in which we live. The way we transmit our message may be as important as the message itself.
This sign is forever characterized by Kathy Change’s actions. While there are no concrete lesson to be learned from her activism, Peace Symbol prompts us to re–think the ways we try to create our own change.
Photo credit: Creative Commons