The last time I engaged in a protest was the first and only time I was arrested. I was sixteen, fresh from my first trip to Léon, Nicaragua, in the middle of that sham of a revolution; the contra war. We all know who the contras were really fighting for. Reagan was president. Fucker. Perhaps most importantly, I had fallen in adolescent, closeted, clumsy love with an 17-year old Nicaraguan boy named Alfredo during my trip; a boy who spoke no English, who would tell me stories through a language made up of the Spanish I knew (not much) and charades, of a sort.
Added to my confusion was a sense of disgust and displacement upon arriving back in the States from a Third World country, and all of our dizzying, neon-lit abundance. Barbara Kingsolver described it well in Adah’s return to the U.S. from Africa in The Poisonwood Bible:
It is impossible to describe the shock of return. I recall that I stood for the longest time staring at a neatly painted yellow line on a neatly formed cement curb. Yellow yellow line. I pondered the human industry, the paint, the cement truck and concrete forms, all the resources that had gone into that one curb. For what? I could not think of the answer. So that no car would park there? Are there so many cars that America must be divided into places with and places without them? Was it always so, or did they multiply vastly, along with telephones and new shoes and transistor radios and cellophane-wrapped tomatoes, in our absence?
I was immediately homesick, not for home, but for my exchange family in Léon, who had been far more affectionate than my own family. I spent my entire high school years looking to belong in something. I tried Nicaragua, I tried high school rebels, I even tried hanging on the outskirts of the Disciples street gang my senior year. Nothing would really quite fit until I left home, and came out of the closet. But I had felt a sense of belonging in Nicaragua. Add to that my first full-blown infatuation, and all I could think about, write about, talk about, was going back.
While I saved my money for the airfare, the U.S. continued to fuck things up down there. I had never met anyone in Nicaragua who felt like the contras were fighting for them. Everyone I knew had sons drafted into the war against the contras; they had dead sons and brothers and husbands. They all asked me, all of them, to come home and tell Reagan to please, mister, cut it out.
I did my best. I gave educational lectures in schools around the area…I had a slide show set to a Cat Stevens song (oh yes, I did) that made everyone cry.
I went to protests. There were so many that spring. After all, the U.S. was threatening direct intervention; they were going to set up camp in Honduras, right across the border from Nicaragua. They were going to save the world for democracy. They were going to save us from the socialists.
It was just another protest, for me. Downtown Minneapolis, after school one evening. A street blocked off in front of a federal building. Someone got carried away; a glass door was shattered, and within minutes a black line of police, clad in riot gear, stretched across the street a hundred yards away, like a line of poisonous insects. They advanced towards us, slowly, and who knows why I stayed there, with my friend Jenny, while all of our other friends drifted out of the way, up to the sidewalk. Someone grabbed my arm and we all linked together, and sat on the ground. I was in the first line of protesters, and the police were just a few feet away, riot sticks out. I watched, dumb-founded, as one cop struck me in the belly with his stick, as if in slow motion. Then chaos, me on my face on the street, hands looped together in a hard platic cord behind me, thrown into a dark van with others. Michael? Jenny called. Yeah, it’s me, I told her.
My father was not happy.
The world did not change after that. It only continued, and I learned a lot that spring and summer about politics and disillusionment, about feeling mute and powerless. Before my return trip to Léon, Alfredo was drafted into the war at the age of 17. During his first week his convoy was ambushed by the contras, and he was killed.
I had a hard time believing in protests after that. It was easier not to care.
I could have stayed home on Saturday, or gone to a movie. But I’ve been waking up every morning for awhile now and reading the headlines. Just when it seems like Bush has done the most outrageous offense ever, another morning comes and he ups the ante and everything is worse. And the papers and the news are all owned by the same three men, and we are being sold this war and told that if we don’t believe in it, then we are traitors. I don’t know yet what I can do, but I knew on Saturday that at least I could be a body. Someone I love said recently we are all needed, all of us.
And oh, how many bodies there were!
And while there were moments where I winced: thirty-year old chants, patchouli, incense, Joan Baez singing in Arabic…there were other moments where I felt alive and not alone…not crazy. I saw Martin Sheen and Amy Brenneman and Bonnie Raitt and Barbara Lee. I saw no end to the mass of people surrounding me; I saw people in trees and helicopters circling and tables of free organic food, with everyone respectfully taking their turn in line. I saw people winding their way through the crowd to get closer to the stage, saying excuse me, excuse me. I saw goofy hand-made signs and cops on the surrounding rooftops. I saw women climb on the shoulders of their friends, look back at the crowds behind them, and say Oh my God! You should see this.
I’m not crazy, I’m not alone. I could risk it; I could care again.
We do matter, all of us.