A great thing about the current protests is the recycled nature of it all: with even the presidency being second-generation, there’s not even any need to make new signs. Just grab the ones you have lying around from 12 years ago and you’re good to go.
The train ride was chaotic; there was no actual need to get a ticket at Ashby, as the kind people of BART had, by necessity, simply opened the turnstiles to let the torrent of rekindled political activism flow through. But I bought a BART card before I knew that, so I enjoyed waiting in the ticket line while a black man was screaming threats into the pay phone: “I hadda gun, I kill you, muhfuga! See, I’m a playa, knowusmayin’, muhfuga?” etc. Then he made some remark about “a bomb in his backpack” and all of us in the line pissed ourselves. Welcome to the New Year, same as the old year. No bomb went off, of course, but the sudden, irrational bout of fear brought on by your average whacked-out street bozo made me realize that it’s getting more and more difficult to embrace weary cynicism, roll your eyes and complain about the crazy world.
I brought my camera and freely admit that I went more for the spectacle of a genuine San Francisco protest rally than to make some deep-seated political statement. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the rally and I think it’s brilliant that there are still people who believe in letting their voices be heard. That, however, is not about to stop me poking fun at them. So lock up your Birkenstocks and hide your macrobiotic foodstuffs!
The Embarcadero was awash with protesters. You could hear the drums and shouting from the subway. None of the people from the Ashby station had passes, as we had all just walked through. The BART personnel had only to hear “Ashby” in order to wave you through nonchalantly. They looked at the gaggle of placard-carrying protesters, commuters caught in the rush and the curious onlookers like myself with a weary melancholy. Alas, so many unsold tickets. Yet, what a meager price to pay to sponsor the dulcet ring of Vox Populi, eh?
You have to love the city of San Francisco. The liberal bastion of the West Coast, and arguably the entire nation, there is always something going on in this place. But on this glorious day, even the beggars had switched their usual signs asking for spare change to peace signs. One bum I passed was busy being interviewed by a camera crew, patiently explaining the difficulties of the current situation as it pertained to the interests of the US and the world at large, given the negative curve of the economic climate and the subsequent re-emerging Reaganism.
Now, I’d have like to have seen this place in the sixties, when there were real protests going on. Berkeley, for example, still prides itself on being a hotbed of radicalism, though its glory days are long since gone. The fact that there is a Gap store on Telegraph that hasn’t been graffiti’d, much less torched, proves that quite abundantly. What greeted me was a mass of people, but orderly, cheerful and far too clean to be any real fun. No chances of things getting out of control, then. As it turned out, the real trouble would take place the next day, when the Oakland Raiders made it to the Superbowl and, by way of celebration, the supporters decided to riot and commit arson. As you do.
I remember going to Paris in high school, as you do; I somehow wandered right into one of those student protests that the French do so well and seem to do whenever they run out of McDonalds’ to trash. You couldn’t tell before you were on the actual street. But all of a sudden, I was sandwiched between French riot police (the average French Officer Plod is bad enough; the Riot police are rumored to shave their teeth) and angry French students. Or maybe they were lorry drivers. Or farmers. Anyway, three guys on rollerblades started towards the cops. They were armed with hockey sticks that they rapped against the ground before launching off. I backed up against the wall, oddly exhilarated, and kept enough wits about me to snap a photo of the guys. I still have it, if you don’t believe me. A few yards away from the police, the Rollerbladers turned and headed back. The police took one step forward, as did the protesters. I decided to make myself scarce and went back through the alley from whence I came. Almost back on the other street, I heard a loud thump; I didn’t look back and that was that. There was no mention of the incident in the paper or on the news. To this day, I have no idea of what it was all about.
However, back to the present: There were banners everywhere decrying George Bush and the current administration, the perennial “US out of ____” placard; some anti-Israeli slogans for good measure and of course, that decade-old chestnut “No Blood For Oil” It was like time travel. I was back in junior high and frankly, I was thrilled.
Oh, there were so many of them: Former hippies, current hippies, Yuppies…old folks and young folks. It was quite a sight. I started snapping photos of the proceedings, moving alongside the great human tidal wave. As I mentioned, they were cleaner and more orderly than I strictly wanted them to be. The chants echoed of the surrounding walls and a couple of drummers kept a steady beat as the earth goddesses swayed somewhat in sync. A girl, late teens, maybe early twenties, was flagged down by a camera crew and asked about her feelings about president Bush. “BUSH SUCKS!” she screamed, and staring down the camera, she continued: “He’s such a mother—”. The camera crew seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly as the air turned a deep blue around the passionate young lady, though I doubt the footage would ever make the news.
So where were we going? I had no idea, so I followed the stream. It took bloody ages to get from Embarcadero to Powell. I was getting tired if Birkenstocks and purple shawls. I decided to stop by Virgin Records. Hey, why not? Gotta stimulate that economy, you know. It was interesting to be in there. I could see the moving masses outside, but there was no sound, except for the usual bland R n’ B moaning on in the background. Should I look for Pete Seeger or something? Nah. Elvis Costello will do the job just fine. I paid and left. The sound of dissent hit me again and once again, the current swept me along. Having reached a saturation point (after all, there’s only so many pictures you can take of a bunch of people who aren’t even thinking of rioting), I decided to spend the last roll of film taking photographs of girls instead. It was less than successful. My lovely, yet unwitting subjects kept getting obscured by well-intentioned protesters.
At some point, there was a guy with a megaphone. There’s always a guy with a megaphone. He was getting properly worked up and I thought “This is more like it.” He sounded like a mix of Zack De La Rocha and Abbie Hoffman and made people sit down for some reason. Probably trying to incite some sort of civil disobedience. He handled the megaphone deftly, with the power and passion of the born rabble-rouser: “Let’s take the power back! Show the fat cats in Washington! We are not mindless sheep!” he shouted: “We are not mindless sheep”, replied the crowd in unison.
At long last, it became obvious that City Hall was to be our ultimate destination, which I should really have guessed. A veritable ocean of people had gathered there, so it was a total pain to move around. Vendors had set up shop, selling overpriced water and greyish hotdogs to hungry and dehydrated idealists. A group of people was sitting around singing “We Shall Overcome” while another bunch were meditating for peace, the sweet smell of pot hanging in the air. Most people wandered around aimlessly, though, many of them twirling their dreadlocks and looking generally confused.
The PA system started blaring and coughing. A guy (was it the same guy?) started talking while everyone around started cheering; he sounded incoherent and bonged-out, so at least that was in the true spirit of the Sixties. After some mumbled exclamations, and some fairly enthusiastic responses, they managed to fix the sound somewhat and I got an icomprehensible earful: “Please give it up for woman warrior poet Bonnie Raitt!” I had no idea if she was actually there or not, but she came on the PA and warbled about how the world could see that not all Americans were gung-ho types. (To be honest, most of us know whenever there is a large demonstration like this, since we read papers and stuff. Some Third World country papers have better foreign coverage than your average US one. No offense; it’s just the way it is.) The song that followed was an egregious, written-on-the-way-over number that went something like “Hey boy / The world isn’t your toy / There’s just too little joy / Waa-aar” It was every bit as rotten as Paul McCartney’s post 9/11-ditty “Freedom”. which is no mean feat. I love McCartney; worship the ground he walks on, as a matter of fact, but that song was just too far a slide into banality, even for me. Following that, somebody painfully respectable that I’ve never heard of came on and talked about fasting, Gandhi, and how fasting for a day and giving the money saved to the good cause could save lives and so on. Just thinking about this made me want to take off and go get a steak and a beer, which was what I eventually did. Joan Baez was apparently there, dancing with passersby: Sadly, I missed that. The march was over: I’d done my part. It wouldn’t change a thing, I suspect: The most perfect expression of social protest would be to overthrow the government, which obviously wasn’t going to happen that day. How would we all get to Washington on that short notice, for example? Still, an even dumber Bush in the White House is a sobering thought and the possible Armageddon even more so. The idea of Saddam Hussein with nukes is pretty scary, to be sure, but let’s face it: India and Pakistan having a few of those babies too isn’t much more comforting. Not all of us can count on being reincarnated, you know (although with the post-Armageddon options being either mutant or cockroach, why would you want to anyway?). “The world is nuts” will be my clever endnote. Then I left the crowds behind for the scowl of an Irish bartender who I apparently didn’t tip enough.