As a child I used to think of myself as a rebel or a hero, as many of us are wont to do when we are young and immortal. I thought I was someone who would stand up for what they believed in, no matter what. I would picture myself amongst other elite warriors and revolutionaries, marching on Selma with King, or fighting cops in Watts, running through jungles waging guerilla warfare for freedom. I told myself that if I had been alive back then I would have done this or that, that I would have stuck it to the man. In actuality, the stakes are much higher than a prepubescent me could have ever known. It is so simple to stand up and say no, but also so very difficult. I learned over the years that it takes a lot to get a person to fight against complacency and fear, and it takes a lot to become more than an armchair critic, and that being a revolutionary requires sacrifice that seems as simple as donning a beret when you’re younger.
I was watching a video on YouTube the other day. While surfing the wave of viral videos and new movie trailers I happened upon a snippet of a show on civil unrest. There were angry people accosting the authorities, rough words being exchanged, and then things escalated, someone fired a weapon, and it ended with three dead. The video was riveting, in that grotesque way that human suffering can be, via the long lens, removed by distance and point of view. The video continued. As a result of the violence enacted against the officers the government decided to levy a series of reforms and taxes that caused enough immiseration to drive some citizens to take action. These citizens were young men who decided to dress up and damage millions of dollars worth of property damage. The angered young men caffeinated the Boston Harbor with chests of tea in an event that would forever be known as The Boston Tea Party. I of course was familiar with the Boston Tea Party, and the Boston Massacre that I watched before it; the videos were illuminating mostly because of their context juxtaposed over today’s current protestations. The algorithm providing back-to-back videos was on a roll; the next scene was a video of the Ferguson protest.
I live in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of which Ferguson is a suburb, and I didn’t need to watch the video because I had seen the scenes firsthand. In fact, the protests were part of the epiphany that ended my childish delusions of heroism and revolution. Working in Clayton, Missouri, the city where the Michael Brown investigation was announced, gave me an insider look of protests, protesters, police officers, and how the rest of the city viewed them.
A year ago I was staring out of my office window. The city was waiting with a collective breath on the decision from the grand jury on the murder of Michael Brown. It was a cold day, and my fourth floor office windows displayed a foggy view of the Clayton courthouse where the decision would be made. My co-workers had emerged like groundhogs from their cubicles and were having a lively discussion that would serve as an HR nightmare had anyone spoken up, but the one person who would most likely be offended sat quietly listening in. I had been down the road of free speech with Human Resources at different companies before and had no interest in engaging in a “he said, she said” battle again. So, I sat apart with what I hoped was the best “don’t even think about asking me your asinine questions” body language I could muster. My silence though was taken as acquiescence that their conversations on the merits of protesting were okay.
One girl, not old enough to have ever even voted in a presidential election, was standing on her soapbox explaining why she was tired of the protests, and how her parents didn’t want her to go to work today. It wasn’t as if protests and riots ever solved anything, she explained; she had watched a whole special on the news the other day on how all that damaged property would do nothing to help their cause and the taxpayers like her would be stuck with the bill. She would be damned if she lost a dime over the death of some thug. Our contemporaries all shook their heads sagely at this. Hers was one of the lighter comments uttered that day. My co-workers made calls and made sure to lament to customers all across the country on how scared and tired they were by all of this inconvenience.
Protestors equipped with bullhorns marched below us. I was torn with indecision on whether to skip lunch or to go out and walk through the streets to get something. That’s what I told myself, though my real problem was that I was torn trying to justify to myself why I didn’t go out and join them. Why was I sitting here and not doing something? I was the rebel, the hero, and right then I felt like a coward. There were so many reasons—my job, my family, not being able to afford being arrested, not even for what I believe in. My indecision caused no small amount of dissonance.
Being outside and being black would be a risk because of the overwhelming police presence. I watched as the protestors marched past the glaring eyes of policemen when another co-worker commented on she how she hoped that the police would make these people just go home before they started burning down buildings. That comment solidified my decision; better to face hordes of hostile policemen than to listen to that malarkey.
I walked out of my building and debated going back inside. I had never seen so many police officers in one place. The queue of stern-faced men outside of the courthouse and in front of my building was nightmarish. Some of the officers were cartoonishly clad in oversized aviator sunglasses, and one was even slapping a billy club rhythmically into his open palm, but most looked irate and bored. I felt like Neo in the second Matrix movie when he faced off against a thousand Agent Smiths; it was intimidating to say the least. As I stepped away from the building, pulling my short dress coat around me and fixing my tie, the officers all seemed to snap their heads in my direction at once, like vultures before a wounded animal. I tried to decide if I would further gird myself with the black man’s default offense of a disarming smile or allow my face to remain as composed as I felt, knowing that the latter would be seen as a sign of aggression. The first officer I passed settled the question for me. As I walked past he said, “Keep it peaceful boy, don’t want no trouble out here.” It was as if he didn’t see me emerge from the office building a mere minute ago. I looked up, something acerbic on my tongue, and remembered my wife and son. On I marched with my magnetic smile, disarming the rest of the officers as I walked by.
After eating I walked back to my building to find media vans and trucks everywhere. Like locusts the cameramen and police covered everything in sight. Some officers had gathered protestors together and redirected them away from the courthouse. Evidently protesting, no matter how peaceful, was only allowed on certain streets. As I walked past I heard an officer’s walkie-talkie go off saying that the governor and National Guard were inbound, and I knew two things: what the decision would be, and that the protestors wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the courthouse. It was hours after I left work when the grand jury’s decision was made. The way those protests that night were framed, the way those people were treated and their anger dismissed, is something I’ll never forget.
In June 2015, the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the last game of the Stanley Cup Finals, 2-0, winning the series 4-2 to win their third title in six seasons.
The crowd went wild. I sat once again in front of my computer and watched as windows were smashed, light poles, streetlights were climbed, and drinks and fun were had by all. People chanted and gathered in alarming numbers; there was a veritable sea of people stretched over six different blocks surrounding the stadium. Debauchery and shenanigans ensued. Cars and buildings were damaged up and down the streets.
The scene was referred to as an epic celebration, and #Brovolution, and mostly peaceful. The mostly peaceful was an interesting embellishment considering the toppled street lights, damaged and delayed cars, and repressed police presence. At one point a man climbing a pole was told by police to get down. When they pulled him down another man from the crowd tried to intervene. As the pole-climbing offender was cuffed this newcomer decided to interrupt by choking one of the officers. This young man choked the officer and the mostly peaceful crowd watched and snapped pictures with their cell phones. Another officer pulled his baton and got the assailant to let the officer go. After that the young men were arrested and taken safely into custody. I was amazed at the seemingly inhuman amount of patience and tact used by the officers in dealing with such a violent offender in light of everything that we’ve learned recently about stopping threats and the ways that police officers are allowed to defend themselves. No one was called a thug; no one spoke out about the violence and property damage. No activist or athletes were called on to denounce the actions of the fans. The overall consensus by the media was that these were rowdy teenagers and youngsters acting out and celebrating. They spun the “boys will be boys” angle.
The media has condemned the protests; they show the protestors as violent, and act as if the destruction of property is worse than then the problems the protestors are trying to change. There is no distinction between protestors and looters, and somehow the protesters are supposed to control those who would loot or riot or their cause loses its validity. The irony that those who revolted and protested to create America founded a culture and country that condemns protests and revolutions set me to no end of chortling, but the amount of perspicaciousness needed to grasp this concept made me simultaneously despondent and awed by the power of the media.
Over the last year I have heard countless times on how protests have nothing to do with property destruction, and that people are just using these events as an excuse to steal or destroy property for their amusement. Yet, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, and many protests against the British sovereignty destroyed property.
Historically this country has a long history of leading protests and having riots and they have actually changed the status quo. Americans are quick to forget their own history or to enact selective memory when it suits them. The Haymaker riots in 1886 to organize trade unions are one example; the coal miners’ rebellion for better working conditions is another. Food riots happened more than once during the Great Depression and helped inspire the New Deal. The Stonewall riots helped to create many gay and lesbian organizations, founded the Pride parade, and could be argued to have helped lead to the more recent successes in the LGBTQA movement. Marching, protesting, and the destruction of goods have led to not only changes but also the actual funding of this country. Protests and riots that have a long tradition of getting the attention of the government seem to be no longer acceptable, but I’m starting to wonder if they’re just unacceptable for certain people. Perhaps those rights are still there, and all men are created equal. Perhaps the question isn’t whether only certain people can protest, but rather are certain members of this society being presumptuous when they think of themselves as people?
I’ve begun to question my place in society, my place in a country that wants me to remain silent. Mostly, I question my choice to remain silent. I used to think that I was a revolutionary, bold and brash, that I would stand up for my beliefs. I recently thought of myself as a coward, too shy to stand up for my beliefs, but I now know I’m neither of those things. Adult practicality has caused me to seek other ways of challenging the status quo around me, and I’ve decided to end my own protestations about protesting and let my voice be heard. I can still be revolutionary.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.