The court has spoken. We can gather on East 49th Street, in the shadow of the UN, shouting our lungs out against the war. But we can’t march beyond that cul de sac. Unless this ruling is overturned—or violated—we’ll be cornered. It’s a good metaphor for my state of mind.
Civil rights, abortion rights, AIDS funding, no nukes, earth first: You name it; I’ve acted up. But this protest feels nothing like the ones I attended on a regular basis back when the world seemed changeable by other than military means. Those rampaging longhairs in films about the ’60s: I was one. You might have found me running with a wet T-shirt around my face to protect me from tear gas. I might have been carrying a placard or a rock. In those days, I never doubted the power of massing and resisting. It was easy to tap my rage when I believed it mattered. Now I don’t. That’s why I’m marching on Saturday.
Allow me to date myself. In the first grade, I got my own dog tag, a prize for being a kid during the Korean War. It was supposed to identify me and my blood type in the event of a nuclear attack. In air-raid drills, the teacher told us to get under our desks and face away from Manhattan. That way, we wouldn’t be blinded by the A-bomb that might hit Times Square, miles from our home in the unimportant Bronx. I did as I was told because it was kind of scary, kind of fun—like reading a horror comic. This was about a decade before students stopped taking cover, as a statement of dissent. Back then, no one marched for peace—or so I thought until I was old enough to travel to Greenwich Village.
Wearing sandals in my neighborhood was a good way to get your feet stomped, so I didn’t put them on until I got to Washington Square. Then I was ready to sit in a café, sipping coffee that tasted like nothing people drank in the Bronx. One Sunday, while getting into my beatnik costume, I saw something weird under the arch: a knot of well-dressed people standing in silence. They looked a little like the space invaders in those movies where you couldn’t tell the aliens from real people. In fact, they were Quakers witnessing for peace at the height of the Cold War.
They were out there every time I went to Washington Square, but I never spoke to them. They didn’t look cool, and besides there was no purpose to their vigil as far as I could tell. No one could stop the arms race; you could only take cover. That’s what I learned from my father. He’d been scarred by the red scare, and as a “federal employee” (actually a postman) he was worried about losing his job if I did anything political. Naturally, I was up for pissing him off.
But I might never have tried if it weren’t for a small band of pinkos who survived McCarthyism in the obscurity of the Bronx. They were a bit like the Quakers, but with flannel shirts and Navajo jewelry—and they were much classier than me. I lapped up their politics like a lesson in upward mobility. As a result I went to my first civil rights march, sponsored by the Emma Lazarus League, long before I heard of Martin Luther King. It drew 3000 people at most. My father glared as I left the house for Washington. On the sidelines, men photographed the crowd. I thought they were reporters, but there was no coverage in the papers. For a week, my father went to work in a panic.
I didn’t realize my most cherished ambition that day, which was to get laid, but I did find a new capacity. It was about protesting as an alternative to puking. Racism, as I knew it, made me nauseous. When I went downtown with my black friends and the cops ordered us off the street, I felt like vomiting. Now there was something I could do about it. Marching gave me a sense of possibility, along with a political button to wear with my sandals. It was the start of a long love affair with Navajo jewelry and agitating for social change.
Still, I never thought my adventures in dissent would amount to anything more than self-discovery. That changed in 1963, when I returned to Washington for another civil rights march, this time with 300,000 people. I was so tired from getting up at 4 a.m. that I fell asleep during Dr. King’s speech. What I do remember is rolling through the white D.C. suburbs in a caravan of buses. All the stores were closed and no one was on the streets. But when we got to the inner city, there were black people in every window waving American flags. They saw the march as a patriotic event, not an exercise in dissent. Something in America was about to change.
I won’t go into the other demos I attended in the ’60s, except to say that a number of them turned violent, courtesy of the police. I saw many more heads busted for protesting than for using drugs. I’m talking hundreds at Columbia University and in Chicago during 1968. I would take off my press credentials in a riot, to lower the odds of being beaten. But the danger was part of the thrill. I was living on adrenaline, from rush to rush. Running from the cops, every hair on my arms stood up and I raced for blocks in what seemed like a flash. It was way better than speed because I was high on my power in the world. Fighting against a war waged by a system run amok. I was sure we could stop it—and we did.
I have no such illusions today. I don’t think we can stop the current war machine. I’m not fired up. I’m pinned down.
Isn’t this the way a lot of people (especially bohos) feel when they get to be my age? I can’t say. I do know that the world I was so confident of creating isn’t the one I live in now. Precisely because it was so real, the revolution had to be rolled back. There’s a special pain that comes with witnessing that sort of defeat. You see what’s missing, and you want to turn away. When I think of the veterans of Vietnam protests who have lately discovered the hawk within I see people determined to escape from loss. They need to identify with the present and they want to be on the winning side.
I can dig it. Status motivated me in the ’60s, though I was no more willing to admit it than these neo-hawks are. After a demo, I always felt horny. I might not have been so eager to get wild in the streets if that hadn’t made me frisky in the sheets. It wasn’t just adrenaline; it was the confidence that came with prestige. In order to get that charge at a demo today, you have to smash a window, or worse. But if you’re peaceful in your protest, you must cope with low status and a general absence of aura. You have to act up without expecting to get off. That’s what it’s like to stand outside your time.
Quakers have the strength for this, and they’re still out there witnessing in Washington Square. But you don’t often see such people on TV. What you see on a regular basis are silver warplanes streaking through pristine skies. You hear promises that Gulf War II will be as quick and easy as a microwavable entrée. Flags flutter perpetually in the corner of the screen. But the triumphant imagery is accompanied by a soundtrack of warnings about terror in our midst. This is the classic rhythm of fear and fantasy that stokes people up for war. It’s very destabilizing, and with enough repetition it can make you forget what you know.
What I know is that this war makes me feel like I did when my black friends got kicked off the street. I realize now why I used to get nauseous. It was my body’s way of keeping me from striking out against impossible odds. Back then I only had cops to worry about, but now I don’t know where to start. I’m afraid of Al Qaeda, but also of the government’s capacity to stage a “terrorist” incident. (Who could resist John Ashcroft’s proposal to legalize secret arrests after that?) And I’m frightened by the willful blindness to the greatest empire-building scheme of my lifetime. How can smart people lose their grasp of political reality? What else might they lose if things don’t go our way? I have found a more adult response than nausea to questions like these. I get depressed. It has the same effect.
These days I often wonder how righteous Germans reacted to the gathering storm of fascism, and how they endured when it struck. I reckon those who couldn’t leave got depressed. It inhibits resistance and can easily be mistaken for consent. Of course, this isn’t Nazi Germany. We don’t have to be passive in order to survive. We have much more responsibility because we can act. It doesn’t matter whether we succeed or not. In a melancholy time, moving is what counts.
That’s why I’m heading to 49th Street on Saturday. I need to kick depression’s ass. I need to connect with people who aren’t burned out. I need to speak truth to power again. And, yeah, I want to get laid. I guess that means I still have hope.
“Don’t Fence Them In: NYC Peace Activists Vow to Face Down Bush’s War” by Sarah Ferguson