In 1968 I was in the eighth grade -- too young to be a part of the massive student protest movement that swept the nation. By the time I was old enough to participate, most of the serious protesting had been quelled by the ignominious end to an unpopular war. Although I was only a witness (and a young one at that) to the furor of the revolution, I yearned to be a part of it. I still get tears in my eyes when I hear the song “Woodstock.” Because of this imprinting, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with unions, with eco-vandals, and with the various legions of the discontented.
However, aside from sending an occasional check to a candidate and writing a few letters to the editor, I’ve not necessarily exhibited the courage of my convictions. I only went to one anti-war protest during the Iraq debacle. I stood around with a handful of people who were all my age and wondered where the youthful outrage was. Later, I was sympathetic to the Occupy Movement and invited some of its members to come talk to my college students, but no way would I be camping out on the courthouse lawn for weeks at a time no matter how much I detested the bloated banks, the insurance execs with their gold-plated dinnerware on their private jets, the Koch brothers, and Citizens United.
But when I discovered a large “March on Wall Street South” would originate one block away from my home in Charlotte, NC, in conjunction with the upcoming DNC, I realized I had no excuse not to attend. I donned my protest outfit: brown shorts, a plain t-shirt, sneakers, straw sun hat, and gobs of sunscreen and went down to the park where the march was supposed to begin. I thought about wearing my peace sign earrings, and then decided not to. This wasn’t a costume party, after all.
The crowd was projected to be in the thousands. Sadly, such was not the case. When I arrived at the park, several hundred people milled around, many with signs touting one cause or another. A stage had been set up and impassioned speakers got up to bolster the small but enthusiastic crowd. At first it seemed there were more reporters than participants, but eventually the crowd began to grow.
One of the speakers, the leader of the chants, happened to be friends with my daughter. She stood up and proclaimed that she was “loud, brown, and don’t give a shit.”
But she did admit that she was nervous sharing the chants with this intergenerational crowd, some of whom had sung them before she was born. And this was one of the best things about the gathering -- the old, the young, the in-between, the queer, the straight, the black, the brown, and the white.
And yet I wondered how it could be a really serious movement when it did not draw a larger crowd. Not a single one of my many progressive friends was there. My daughter and her other friends were not there. The only people, other than these protestors, who seemed to care about the whole thing were the press and the thousands of police officers lining the street.
Jon Stewart commented that the heat in Tampa for the RNC was like a gorilla’s anus. So it only seems fair that the heat for the DNC was just as gorilla-anal. People moved about leaving sweat puddles. “Drink water,” the leaders exhorted us. “But don’t throw away your water bottles.”
The messages of the protestors varied: a moratorium on foreclosures, ban fracking, ban the use of drones, get rid of coal, abortions on demand and without apology, freedom and education for immigrants, the abolition of capitalism, vote for Pony or Teeth or something.
I took lots of pictures. In fact everyone was taking pictures. People were taking pictures of people taking pictures. I posted updates to Facebook, but quite honestly I felt more like an observer. I didn’t have press credentials and didn’t want them, but I’d worked in journalism and I felt more natural with one of those little notebooks and a pen, asking questions.
When it came time to start the march, I wasn’t really sure which one of these causes would be my cause du jour. I’m not an immigrant, a lesbian, a union member, or a card-carrying socialist. I hadn’t lost my house or my job to corporate greed, or a child to the war. I was too old to get pregnant so I wasn’t going to need an abortion any time soon. Of course, the heat nearly suffocated me this summer so I could join the climate change contingent. Eventually, someone offered me a placard that demanded a moratorium on foreclosures. That seemed as good a cause as any.
I’m not saying you need to be directly affected by an issue in order to care about it. I care about every one of these issues, but perhaps I’m not impassioned about a particular one. My job, as I have seen it, is to be open-minded and compassionate, to learn what I can about the abuse of power and the unnecessary suffering of others, and to inform my students and readers whenever I can. As a creative writer, I try to render these issues in such a way that readers might gain insight into them. I think of it as consciousness-raising. But sometimes you have to get out in the fray and see what’s going on. So I held my placard and took my pictures and listened to the music and chanted and sweated and walked and stood and listened.
We walked through a blue tunnel of cops lined on either side, some of them with bikes forming a barricade. I observed the helicopter that circled above and the stony faces of the police.
I comforted myself with the thought that Power did not want a replay of 1968 and damn sure didn’t want Charlotte to be the Tiananman Square of the 21st century. I knew that our courageous band of protestors probably didn’t mean “they say cut back, we say fight back” literally. If they had tried or if the Power really thought we were a threat, we could have been slaughtered in an instant. No, today everyone would play by the rules. Protestors would yell when we passed Wells Fargo: “Wells Fargo has to go!” They would shake their fists at the monolithic Duke Energy Building. They would wave their signs at the Bank of America stadium. They would dance and sing and bang their drums. Then when it was over we’d all go home.
I got into a conversation with a reporter from Op-Ed News Organization. He thought there could eventually be a full-blown revolution if the Republicans managed to obliterate social security and medicare and ship the few remaining jobs overseas. He didn’t see much difference between Obama and Romney. He listed numerous instances of Obama’s over-reaching for power. He mentioned the 1700 Wyoming wolves that Obama traded for one vote and the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which as the ACLU notes codifies “indefinite military detention without charge or trial into law.” A scary proposition indeed.
I passed the reporter some of my water and watched the police efficiently cordon the marchers along the route. I admire the people with their signs and slogans, speaking truth to power and all that. And I believe it’s absolutely necessary for them to do what they do. In the end, however, I think truly addressing the imbalance of power will require a tsunami of love. The days of rage are over. Fire will not be extinguished with fire.
As the line of people serpentined back toward their origination point, four hours after we first gathered together, I slipped past the police line and headed home for a hot bath.