The last time I was in any kind of political protest was in 2004.
I used to be a little more active – not hugely so, but I was in a few marches in the 90s and early 2000s; something about unemployment in ’92, an anti-war march in October of 2001, another couple more in 2003. In 2004, I joined the big march outside the GOP convention organized by the group United for Peace and Justice. Most news about that particular march noted that it was one of the biggest such marches ever; and that it was largely peaceful, except for one little thing. As Wikipedia notes:
“The only major incident during the march occurred when some individuals of unknown affiliations torched a large dragon float between Madison Square Garden and the Fox News building. The float turned into a huge fireball, and the march was halted until firefighters were able to clear the street of debris.”
As it just so happened, I was twenty feet away of that dragon float when they set the fire.
I was there with my friend Colin, who’d joined a loose group of fellow Green Party members. We’d all noticed the dragon float in the crowd as we’d been marching – it was a huge papier-mache sort of puppet thing, beautifully decorated, carried by a group of about 20 people dressed all in black. But it was one of a lot of other things we’d been looking at as we marched, and didn’t pay it much mind. The march had started down on 14th Street and we’d just made it all the way north to 34th, Colin and I making a point of looking for a news camera and hollering towards it as we passed. The crowd was thinning out just after the convention center; the route turned east and then continued back downtown at that point, but a number of people were dropping out. Colin and I had gotten separated from his friends and were discussing how to find them back at Union Square – the march’s end point – when we started smelling smoke.
I turned around and saw the flames leaping out of the crowd behind me about three or four stories high. “HOLY God,” I blurted out as Colin turned to look too. It was the dragon puppet we’d seen at the start of the march. A number of cops peeled away from the barriers and ran for the fire. People were all asking each other what happened. “They set it on fire!” one woman exclaimed, running past us, and I first thought she meant a counterdemonstrator attacking us. But Colin said he’d seen the people carrying the dragon suddenly crouch down and cover themselves over with a whole bunch of umbrellas and banners; “I figured they were up to something,” he said.
We were drifting around the corner, eyeing the crowd carefully. I looked back to the path ahead of us, and suddenly saw a flying wedge of cops in riot gear heading right towards us — while Colin, blissfully unaware, was looking back at the fireball and chanting, “THE ROOF! THE ROOF! THE ROOF IS ON FIRE!”
OH sweet JESUS.
“Okay – Colin?” I barked, grabbing his arm. “Colin? Come on. This way. NOW.” I tugged him away from the cops, further up the street. I let go once the cops passed us; then even more cops in riot gear started coming up through the crowd behind us, joined by the rest of the crowd finally breaking out of their daze and starting to stampede away to safety. I started a run-walk up the street myself, wanting to get out of the way but not wanting to lose sight of Colin either, and finally broke and ran myself. Someone ran past me hollering, “The edge! Head for the edge!” and I took his advice and moved towards the sidewalk (even in the midst of my panic, I was gibbering “pardon me, excuse me” to people as I passed them). I slipped through a gap in the barricades just under one of the awnings for Macys and huddled there with three other strangers, catching my breath. I waved Colin over when I saw him again, walking calmly but briskly away from the chaos; he chided me a bit for running, but then apologized when I saw how freaked out I was.
We waited there a moment longer until we saw a crowd of at least 20 people heading back towards the cops, legal-aid advisors in green baseball hats and marchers with black bandannas covering their mouths and noses. A team of riot cops was heading up the street towards them, another couple of black-bandanna’d marchers running alongside and catcalling them. Behind them, another team of cops was repositioning the barricades to bar the rest of the crowd from moving onto the block. Colin had already started shepherding us up the street as the two groups met in the middle of the block, and then further on again as team of mounted officers suddenly swept into the intersection behind us, shutting police barriers behind them with a clang. A couple of Colin’s friends found us at that point, and we completed our share of the march together, the five of us walking down an eerily-deserted stretch of Fifth Avenue as the police held everyone back behind us. Colin had proposed getting ice cream after the march, but I left as soon as we got to the park, heading straight for home – staring up at a quote by Yeats on the bus:
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
I did not join any march of any kind after that. I’d been invited to – Colin asked me along to several – and there were several causes I supported which held them. But I’ve always bowed out, and if pressed, I always explained that this was why. Starting a bonfire in the middle of a huge crowd of people is a tremendously stupid and fucking dangerous thing to do. I’d rather keep myself safe, thanks, and since protests are clearly going to draw the kind of people who do think torching dragon puppets in the middle of crowds is actually a good idea, the best thing would therefore be for me to keep myself away from protests. QED. I once got a scolding from someone who said that they’d heard about the incident and that it was a police-operative undercover double-cross sort of thing; I didn’t care, I said, because who did it, and for what cause they did it, didn’t so much matter as that they did it.
So at first when I saw a march was starting up tonight, in support of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my initial reaction was to think “good, but I’ll sit it out.” Best to go home and stay away from an unsafe place. And then it hit me that – I have the luxury of having safe places. Sterling probably thought he was safe where he worked, and Castile probably thought that his own car, with his wife and child, was also a safe place.
Or maybe they didn’t. My workplace and my car would be safe places for me – but they weren’t safe for them. My “safeness” is only due to the color of my own skin. My sitting out the march tonight is only going to underscore the fact that I have the privilege of having a safe place inside my skin, whereas Sterling and Castile – and Treyvon Martin, and Mike Brown, and so many others – have no safe place.
So I’m going to be joining the march tonight. It might be dangerous, but not as dangerous as it was for Alton and Philando to be black men in the United States. I can’t not be there.