Friday, September 27, 2013

When K street shut down

In memory of Dan, Marcy and Fluffy.  

“WE ARE THE 99%”
“Say what?!”
“WE ARE THE 99%”
“Say what!?
“WE ARE THE 99%”
“AND SO ARE YOU!”  I throw my head back and scream the words as loud as I can despite the burning sensation in my throat that began two hours ago.  I scream the words raspily, savagely, each one punctuated by a small cloud of steam in the air before me so that it seems to linger, always there.  Rain streams down my face, falls through my chanting lips, down my neck, in my boots, its everywhere.  There isn’t a part of me that isn’t thoroughly soaked anymore.  I can feel even my bra and underwear are soaked.  My leather jacket feels bloated with it.  My elbows are stiff where they interlock with my neighbors, forming our human chain.  I don’t remember their names though they’ve told me.  There’s been too much going on for me to focus on that.  They are nice though.  The one to my right looks to be about in his mid thirties or forties, the one on my left looks about late twenties, maybe, Im never good at the age guessing game.  The chant stops and there’s a brief familiar pause that only ends when somebody starts a new chant.  Sometimes we all jump on one chant, sometimes little groups along the line do their own, all at once, so that it all sounds like some nonsensical tune with a crazed beat.  A little while ago my neighbors and I began singing “Were not gonna take it” by Twisted Sister, complete with what dance steps we could muster being linked by the elbows and all.  We got most of the group singing it for a while too, we were all proud of that.  I whispered to myself then, I'll never forget this, while a line of armored police men astride tall and thick chested Clydesdale horses loom in front of us, extending to the edge of the buildings at each corner of K street so that they form an impassable wall.  They wear grim expressions on their faces, furrowed brows and agitated puffs of steam appearing in the air like bubbles from their horse's nostrils, chomping at the bit.  They have fancy rain gear on, long rubber trench coats and thick plated helmets with the visors in front, shielding the rain though its been so long now it's found it's way down their cheeks and lips and chins as well, uniting us in an erie quiet way.  But they also have gloves on each hand and shined boots, while we hold linked, bare, and calloused hands.  We wear vinegar soaked bandanas to protect us from tear gas, where our bomb proof visors ought to be, an array of dancing, shuffling, fraying shoes instead of steel toed boots.  Some of us have jackets, but barely one lacks patches, hopeful sharpie and paint inscribed slogans, gaping defeated holes.  Our backs and arms say love, freedom and peace, American dream, solidarity.  Theirs say DCPD, To Serve and Protect.  Their horse have thick blankets beneath the padded saddles, shined brass buckles, immaculate coats.  We stand astride our beliefs alone.  They stare, horse and policemen alike, above our heads,  unaffected by our merriment, or questions, speeches about their very own pensions we're fighting to save, or occasional outburst of injustice.  They simply stand their, unfortunately just doing there jobs to provide for their own families, as hermetic as the physical wall they've created with their bodies (stealing our principal of protest, to protest with ones own physical being, a small Asian girl from Wisconsin exclaims!), save for a red gleam of anger, or more subtle to catch (it took me the entire two hours to truly identify) a mix of genuine encouragement and empathy getting all tangled up with discomfort and frustration around the eyes and the corners of their lips.
I'll never forget this.   I whisper to myself again, trying to memorize every feeling, every sensation of this moment.  The chill thats gripping my bones in my water logged clothes, the warmth of the bodies beside me.  I taste the rain on my lips, a lock of my tangled hair caught in the corner of my mouth.  I feel my heart pounding in my chest.  I am afraid, yes.  Don't forget that either, not ever I think.   I let my mind drift out into the commotion around me.  I memorize the way everything is shining with rain, the camera man who's recording our faces, back and forth, up and down the line, back and forth again and again.  I memorize the sound of the voices, mixing together, then separate them out again, a protest chant, a police radio, an idle conversation.   Then suddenly I hear a scream from behind us and a clambering of hooves and feet.  Suddenly the milling crowd around our human chain bursts into motion.  There's another scream, but its more angry than afraid this time.   A horse brays, someone shouts medic, people running.  Everyone in the chain cranes around to see but we can't because of the way we're holding each others arms.  It is ironic, beautiful.  And though our fearful, compassionate, united necks are craned, those mounted policemen remain, their expressions and bodies placid as ever, watching what we can only hear and imagine.  The arrests of our friends.
"Mic check!" Someone screams down the line and we all begin repeating the words as we receive them, so everyone can hear.
"Don't look!"
"Don't turn around!"
"Because they are waiting!"
"For a break in the line!"
"Stay strong!"
"The world is watching now."

Awkwardly I reach my hand in my chest pocket and retrieve my last cigarette with a dripping hand.  My neighbor helps me light it and I offer him a drag but he shakes his head.  
"Last chance." I say grimly.
"Yeah," he laughs. "Thanks, but I quit.  Enjoy, who knows when you'll get to have another."
I nod my head, trying to hide that I really am a bit afraid.  He's silent for a moment and I begin to wonder if he saw my reaction, or was too concentrated on the wall of eyes above us instead, as most of us are at this point.
"Least we'll be outta the rain."  He says finally and that gets a genuine smile out of me.  A few people around us chuckle and murmur the same sentiment.  They're chuckles ring out like a melody against the pitter patter of rain - by now now the commotion behind us has quieted down to sloshing feet and muted radios.  It would be comforting if only it didn't mean they're cleaning up, cuffing stragglers, and our group is next on the day's agenda.  Silently more police appear at either side of the street.  The protests chants die down and are replaced by announcements.  My heart's racing.  Cigarette smoke and rain sting my throat.

"Mic check!"
"If you do not have a bandanna!"
"Or have not been sprayed!"
"notify a medic!"

I see Liza, one of the people from Occupy Pittsburgh who I came with, and call out to her hoarsely.  I think its funny how she yelled at me at first, for disobeying The Unions orders and taking to the streets with a small surviving cluster of original Zuccatti Occupiers, carrying a large yellow Occupy Wall Street banner, leading to all of this.  I still bear their sign, I stand with them.  Front of the line cause we started it.  No, they did, but at least I was first to join in.  But I don't dare to mention that, my amateur scrap of pride.  Liza is as strong willed as the old vets in camp with twice the energy and three times the anger.  Not only that, but her protest experience is far beyond anything I've ever achieved.  She's not a force I'm apt to reckon with.  She doesn't hear me at first, despite all I'm still despairingly quiet and shy, so I call out again, a little louder this time.  She turns around, nods, then comes jogging over to me.

"What's in the bottles?" I ask.
"It's just vinegar and water."
"What's it for?"
"It breaks down the tear gas." she says casually.  "Nobody's ever told you?"
I shake my head no.  Suddenly her eyes fill with realization and she shakes her head.  "Fuck.  You don't even have a bandana."
"That's for the tear gas too isn't it…" I say quietly, starting to be ashamed of my own naivety despite being an activist for the past two years of my life.  She sighs, takes off her own scarf and ties it around my face.  "But what about you?" I ask, muffled through the multicolored fabric.
"I'll be okay." She says. "Your standing up for us.  Just get it back to me later."  I nod, she sprays me in the face with vinegar water, than walks off tending to other occupiers from around the country, linked in our human daisy chain. 

"Mic check!"
"If you are in this line!"
"you will be arrested!"
"This is your last chance!"
"To leave!"
The man to my right grumbles and apologies, he has a warrant out in Maryland and has to leave.  A few others on either sides of us leave too but I can't see very well.  The chain gets smaller, we grip each others arms tighter, the police increase.

"Mic check!"
"We think it would be more effective."
"If everyone sat down."

Awkwardly we all lower ourselves to the ground.  It's cold and the puddles fill my clothes, saturating them even more than before, if that's even possible anymore.  We press our shoulders to each other for warmth but it's awkward and difficult, and for some reason the whole chain seems to want to lean back, making it hard to sit up right. This seems to be noticed unanimously and soon there is a Mic Check suggesting we all lie down.  Then I'm back flat against the concrete with a hundred strangers, blinded on either side.  I hear and feel the anger of an era around me, but all I can strain to see is the endless world above me.  So I pull it close like a blanket, and give all that fear and shivering to the falling rain, cause I know what I'm doing is right.  I know being heard is never easy, life has taught me that at least. 

It felt like forever then.  I stared up at the cold grey sky, the rain like needles burning my eyes, while countless faces passed above me, a camera back and forth, still back and forth.  After awhile somebody puts a warm beanie on my head.  "Philly stands with you." whispers a voice, then clasps my shoulder gently.  A little later I feel a space blanket being draped over me and tucked beneath my legs.  Idly I begin to wonder how cold it is, how long I've been outside now.  It's early January, I know I should be colder than I am in just my leather jacket and jeans, but adrenaline chases the thought away.  Still I stare up at the cold gray sky, the rain looking like those little stars on computer screen savers, stretching into infinity.  

I begin to think of [R], 5 years ago in the Catskills, in the backyard of his country house.  We were graduating sophomore year of high school, or at least he was, and It was the last time in my life I'd get to be a kid.  Child services put me in a program the following Sunday night.  But I didn't know that then.  All I knew was I was finally someplace safe, and I was with my best friend who I adored, finally getting to play in the woods together like we always talked about day dreaming in the library.  His mom was sitting outside with us, maybe on a porch, I don't remember if there is one, doing something quiet and peaceful like reading or meditating, as is her way.  Suddenly a summer storm came up and I began to curse and head for the back door.  [R] began to laugh and cheer, then grabbed me by the waist and swung me in a large circle on his shoulder.  I screamed and the rain began to pelt us both.  He stopped suddenly and dropped me to the ground so that I stumbled a few steps then fell in the wet grass.  He doubled over laughing at me and angrily I jumped up and pushed him down too.  Then finally I began laughing as well.  We went back and forth like that for awhile, playing tag and tackling each other in the grass, until we both were bruised and breathless and he finally coaxed me into a hug (I was suspicious and thought he was tricking me into being tackled again.)
"See Em?" He said softly, with his arms still around me.  "This is why I love the rain.  It's like infinity, you can lose your self in it."  He stepped back from me and pointed up, his head craned towards the sky.  I did the same then quickly looked down and shook my head.
"I can't see it." I complained.  "It burns my eyes."
"Ignore it." He said.  "Just look, like this." Then he began to spin slowly with his arms out, head still pointed to the sky.  I did the same and finally I could see it - the way the drops came at you and spun.  It felt like it could wash away anything, like I could lose myself in that expanse of sky and follow the rain backwards to that far away place from which it came.  I stared up and spun till I couldn't take the burning anymore. When I looked back, [R] was standing smiling at me.  
"Now you don't hafta be afraid anymore." He said.

Suddenly all the commotion around us stops and a loud voice comes on a megaphone.  There is no Mic Check or preamble this time, it's the police.  I don't remember what they said, it was a list of rights similar to the Miranda Rights but unlike anything I'd ever heard before.  Somebody told me later that it was The Riot Act.  Shields go up, the mounted officers lean back ever so slightly.  The voice counts down through the megaphone: "10, 9, 8, 7, 6…."

"WE ARE THE 99%"
"And so are you.