I attended a protest of the death of George Floyd last month, driving from the white enclave in which I reside (albeit in a basement apartment) to a predominantly black and latino community about a half an hour to the west. I was pleased to see a large crowd that I passed and honked at many times as I searched for parking. Once I did I had a half mile walk to the event.
It was hot. I have an unfortunate mix of factors that contribute to my discomfort in heat exceeding 80 degrees fahrenheit. For one, I’m overweight. This isn’t a sin and I’ve tried to not care about it but no matter what the lifelong shame of being observably heavy makes me extremely self-conscious. It also makes me sluggish in the heat.
I am also an incredibly sweaty person. When I exercise I can ring out my clothes as if they were wet rags. There is an acute emotional discomfort to this that runs in tandem with the physical irritation of my clothes staining with sweat and gradually becoming saturated. It drips off my brow and into my eyes while I wonder how the people around me perceive this. Will they laugh? Will they point? Are they revolted or simply amused?
So, I arrived at the event and there were several hundred people in attendance. They were doing what people do at a protest in the suburbs, lining the road and holding signs, chanting slogans that taper off awkwardly at the end. Regardless, it was impressive to me to see this many people gathered together in the motherland of alienation.
A friend was there, someone I really like, and we found each other. Social distancing was impossible but after several months of deliberately avoiding others there was something nice about being gathered en masse, like being at a church that really hates cops. So I stood at the back of the crowd, holding up a sign that was given to me by an organizer. It read “No justice, no peace, no racist police”. I agree with that sentiment and I appreciated the sign. I’m not the type to make my own. It hangs out in my car now for future gatherings.
Small talk with my friend eventually led him to point out the people he knew at the protest. He is 31. I am 39. I had an acute feeling of being old and of how fast it happened. Despite the agony of the last four years in hindsight it feels as though it ran through my fingers. But despite my discomfort at the idea that I am hurtling towards 40 and about 20% of my life has been spent in a state of disability I was moved to see all these young people stepping into leadership roles in the absence of any formal organizational frameworks. I came to learn that many of them were former DSA members who spun off after an organizational split.
One of these young people was a former partner of my friend and after they talked for a bit he introduced me, adding that I was a veteran organizer. I told her that it had been a long while since I could be considered anything resembling an organizer and the times in which I was such a thing ultimately came at a profound psychic cost, in fewer words of course.
I did a lot of reflection after this exchange. For one, I am unable to accept a compliment or even an acknowledgment of my existence. I feel much safer blending into the crowd. Second, I thought back on my history of being involved in the politics of the radical left. I always tried to hang back but moments of necessity plunged me deeply into the scene. I can remember the oppressively hot protests against the Republican National Convention. After this I spent five days in jail in a holding cell that contained not just me but four other people. There was so little space that we slept in shifts, heads adjacent to the toilet. I was in a state of panic. I thought I had prepared myself for this discomfort but I had not, and when I was finally released I felt near collapse. My employment was likely over with and my girlfriend was likely done with me. I fell asleep in a friend’s van with the windows closed in the oppressive heat and I awoke feeling as though I was suffocating and on the verge of a stroke. I stumbled out of the van, gasping for wet summer air.
It was only a few months later that I realized that I was under FBI surveillance. This became a terrifying part of my life tempered only by the apparent incompetence of the people following me. They would get confronted by neighbors, the suburban impulse to be suspicious of everything working to my advantage. Then they offered a friend money to become a confidential informant and my understanding of what was happening became much more clear.
A few months later I was arrested at gunpoint in an apartment I was renting with a girlfriend. I stayed silent throughout the process, keeping my mouth shut as I was passed through various points in the chain of custody. I ended up in a cell with a young man who was facing deportation proceedings. I wished him luck when the marshals came to bring him before the judge. I was moved into a cell formerly occupied by men who appeared to be part of some sort of organized crime. They were loud and boisterous, confident that their arraignment would end with them getting out on bond. Somehow they got the marshalls to bring them pizza. I pondered the pizza. Maybe it was drugged and I would not be able to maintain my silence, but it was pizza after all and I ate 3 slices.
When my lawyer arrived, fearless and competent, he advised me as to what to say during the arraignment and I was able to follow these directions. I was released on bond. After all, I am a white suburban kid with middle class parents. Driving home with my father at the wheel I started to cry uncontrollably. I continued to sob when I arrived home and I spent the night sleeping on the couch with my sisters and mother. For months I didn’t leave the house and my emergence back into the world was cautious and painful.
I have no glory days, nothing that doesn’t feel like an error or a misstep, but I don’t tell this young woman that. She deserves to feel confident in the path she and her fellow organizers take. If all I can offer are cautionary tales of the misery it is possible to descend into then I might as well shut my mouth. In part because I don’t want to be a downer in this raucous crowd of twenty-somethings- they deserve their moment- and in part because mistakes are contextual. The things I participated in when I was their age might not be errors in the present moment.
So I kept my mouth shut about this history that has lodged itself in my throat. I complimented the organizing. She moved on, working the crowd, and I stood where I’d landed, sweat trickling into my ass crack and my skin growing more pink and then more red as the earth rotated. When I left I was surprised to feel hopeful, the wellspring of youth temporarily flowing into the dry well of my aged, damaged brain.