That which inspires people to devote their lives to social change is sometimes an accumulation of experiences and knowledge, slowly building into an articulate conviction. It may be when resistance takes new forms, new movements develop, an entrypoint becomes obvious. Other times it comes like a bolt of lightening, a sudden shift, a single moment around which a life can be measured as coming before and after. That moment may be an arrest, an action, the destruction of a beloved place, a conversation, witnessing an act of fearlessness, or receiving a gesture of unexpected generosity. It is these times, when the realm of the possible expands, that history speeds up, comes alive, and falls into our hands.
If someone had told my dad hed one day be friends with the President of the United States, he wouldnt have believed it. Fucking moron. I would have smacked her if she had been three-dimensional.
In the library, waiting for the Internet terminal, I picked up the latest issue of TeenPeople, the glossy-paged teen celebrity magazine. I didnt start reading to scope some mega-cute skater sweeties! or dig some lip-gloss likely to get me tongue-kissed after class. Nope - it was lying open where I sat down, and the page facing up was a photo spread of George W. Bushs inauguration.
I had been in D.C. when the president was sworn in. I was curious to see how a magazine that touted shopping and good grades as the answer to every teenage problem would write up an event like our corrupt system reaching new heights of unscrupulousness, and how their coverage measured up to my memory of it.
Not very well. The girl writing the photo captions was the daughter of a friend of Dubya. She got to go celebrate the presidential coup Republican-style, with ball gowns, (I spent about two hours getting ready!) and Ricky Martin shaking his bon-bon and Bush calling out T-Bone! to her daddy, Thats good ol Bushies nickname for him! from the stage right be fore his speech. Wow, I thought. Aint no inauguration I went to.
My memories of January 20 are strikingly different, but no less memorable. I was there as a protester, one of the 20,000 who came to deride Bush and the crooked political system, not dance at the ball. I was a member of the Revolutionary Anti-Authoritarian Bloc. We were the anarchist Black Bloc, the window-smashing flag-burning mask-wearing bad demonstrators.
Theres a photo in my journal - a black and white taken at 14th and K, where police scuffled with protesters - that shows nothing but lights and shadows distorted into a haze of action. Nothing entirely clear, everything moving fast. I saved the print because that was the way it had felt. This was my first big protest, and there was just too much happening - too many chants, too many conflicting reports on the streets, too many cops, too much rain and hunger and exhaustion. I was new to this and a total wimp, and I ran on autopilot.
There was one moment, though, that seared itself into my memory, seizing a handful of brain cells so tightly it will never escape my mind. It was after hundreds of protesters had bypassed the unconstitutional security checks - goodbye, chain link fences - and got all the way up to the parade route we were supposed to be four blocks away from. We stood near Pennsylvania Ave., waiting for Dubyas motorcade to go by. The Black Bloc had converged near a small plaza full of flagpoles. Wed met there for protection - the National Organisation for Women had staked a claim to some of that space, and while police would charge and beat the anarchists, they might not do that to a crowd of feminist ladies. The crowd was thin and we would be close to the street when the motorcade passed, a good thing.
We anarchists milled about, anxious. The flagpoles - about thirty feet high, set in seven-foot concrete pedestals - were the Navy Memorial. Each of them was strung with three long ropes of ship flags waving in the cold wind. I looked around anxiously at the flagpole and the crowd of Bush supporters, NOW womyn, Hail to the Thief-ers, and scrawny black-clad militants, feeling as though my momentary quietude was about to be disrupted.
I was right. A Black Blocer, his face covered with sweatshirt hood and black bandana, ran up to the pole and scrambled up the cement base. Three others quickly joined him, and the crowd began to cheer. They struggled to unravel the ropes holding the flags in place, tearing down the monument. As each length of cloth fell the crowd let out a collective yell of joy, happy to see the symbols of the system they wanted so badly to change hit the mud puddles below. I hollered, Hell yeah! up to the overcast sky, thrilled with the spectacle.
With the flagpole stripped bare, the anarchists ran up their own symbols: the anarchist black flag and the red/black flag. The Republicans standing nearby began to yell, Get down! Get down! as the four kids clinging to the flagpole began to string an upside-down US flag into place. The anarchist kids yelled, Stay up! Stay up! in response. We were louder and more exuberant than the sourpuss Bushites, and the tattered emblem of a state gone wrong rose all the way to the top of the post.
Someone else was about to disrupt the fun, though - a handful of cops, formerly occupying the curb of Pennsylvania Ave., moved into the crowd to end the symbolic dissent with a few beatings and arrests. Three of the flagpole liberators saw them coming, leapt down and ran, hiding themselves in the crowd. The fourth had his back turned, and by the time he saw them it was too late - he was surrounded by angry patriots with pepper spray and batons at the ready. To hop down would be to take a beating and maybe a felony charge, so he did the only thing he could: he breathed deep, lifted his arms and flung himself straight out over the cops and the crowd, stage diver-style. The crowd let out a collective frightened gasp. It was the shocked response of people watching something so daring it looked, at first glance, suicidal. He was Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Evil Knievel, the antithesis of timidity.
My heart stopped too in that moment. It seemed both lightning-quick and eternal, that one second when the flying anarchist hovered horizontal in the air. When he fell to earth, landing in the arms of his comrades and escaping police, everything felt different, like we were living in the pages of history, as though in that moment there was a crystal-clear delineation of past and future. Something had just happened.
But there was no time for the inspired feeling in my gut to move to my left brain at that moment. The cops were advancing, nightsticks swinging. The anarchists panicked a little and retreated, but then the Black Blocs collective mind seemed to go,No, fuck these cops. Somehow, the anarchists turned and linked arms, pressing for ward and shouting at the police. We yelled at them to back up and, their confidence suddenly wavering, they did. One by one the cops began to move back across the curb. It was a retreat no one in my affinity group, with hundreds of protest hours logged among them, had ever seen before. Later, when Dubyas motorcade raced by, SWAT team members in full riot gear advanced on us. We did it again, linking arms and screaming, Cops off the sidewalk! And they moved back. It was a feeling of incredible strength.
Reading TeenPeoples article, I was unamazed to find that there was no mention of protesting. It was as if the day had been nothing but cheerful, waving Republicans and a grinning President, so thrilled to be able to seize power and destroy the country. It reminded me of part of a column from the Washington Post the day after: It felt like the lefty-lefties were a whole lot angrier than the official picture of the day was going to portray them as being. It felt like the right was going to be able to roll their eyes at them anyhow.
No fucking kidding. The history-in-the-making feeling I had gotten at the Navy Memorial was, in the end, only true in the personal sense. It made no headlines, changed no policies, destroyed only a few pieces of cloth - but to me it changed everything. Before Washington I had been to, dig it, two protests. I wasnt an activist and wasnt especially committed to any cause. I was only a voyeur of activism, doubtful of our ability to really change anything. Pre-inauguration, I knew I could walk a way from activism altogether. Afterwards, I felt as though I never could.
When the anarchist leapt and the world stopped cold, my heart ceased for one beat and then start e d up again in a different rhythm. I understood that to.62 turn my back on the worlds problems would be to become an accomplice in their perpetuation, and that changing the way things are now is critical to the survival of the world. I understood my right to say NO, and not consent to living under these rules, and the need to say YES to creating something different. My mind had understood human suffering, injustice, destruction and pain; suddenly, my heart did too, and change be came vital, a part of my soul.
But the problems in the world had looked impossible be fore; it was an uphill battle on a hill too steep to climb. In that incredibly bold leap over the heads of the riot police, the option of saving the world from the jaws of destructive, violent capitalism seemed possible somehow. One quick, bold move - it made other acts of amazing audacity seem possible, which made defeat for the powers -that- be seem possible, which meant that our efforts on that cold day and all the other days when people worldwide had been marching through the streets, struggling to be heard, were not for show, not a battle fought in vain, not a losing proposition. It took my hopes of defeating the forces that beat us down and synthesized them into one metaphoric illustration that said, Yes we fucking can! A seven - foot leap; a leap of faith. When a handful of kids in black sweatshirts told a SWAT team to back up and they obeyed, that feeling was confirmed. If that flying anarchist taught me nothing else, it was that when shit looks absolutely impossible, dont worry. Dont stop to analyze too much. Be courageous. Do what they dont expect. Take a leap. Anything is possible.
I flipped through the rest of TeenPeople, then turned back to the Bush coverage, pulled out a marker, and scrawled FUCK BUSH across one page. On the other, I added a new slogan, often repeated at J20: ANARCHISTS CAN FLY.