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Neighborhood: Chelsea

(Following is an excerpt from “Chapter 15: Prelude to Battle” of “Now is Not a Good Time,” a book-in-progress about (among other things) progressive patriotism, the antiwar movement during the first term of the Bush administration, and one woman’s attempt to learn to love her country and its people—if not its government—in complicated and troubling times. The setting is a Civil Disobedience Workshop in an art gallery on the western, not yet gentrified edge of Chelsea. It is the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention.)

“Hello to all the undercover cops in the room,” beamed Sarita, the plump Southeast Asian woman and leader of the workshop, her hot pink ponytail swinging as she spoke. The remark didn’t seem directed at any one of us thirty or so activists seated on the honey-hued hardwood floor in a circle around her, but rather to an anonymous interloper lurking among us. “The NYPD is sending its officers into protester trainings all over the city to spy on us, to try to anticipate what our tactics will be. No doubt one or two are here tonight.”

Sarita scanned the group. Everyone in the group eyed each other—from the lanky, pale, androgynous twenty-something with dainty sideburns and nametag that read “Logan” to the bearded sexagenarian in the woven Guatemalan sweater whose eyeglasses hung around his neck and thwapped against his chest every time he moved.

Oh God, I thought, they probably think I’m the narc.

“So we’re going to start by going around the circle and introducing ourselves,” Sarita continued as she paced in front of an easel at the head of the makeshift classroom. “Please say your name, what your preferred gender pronoun is (if you have one), what brought you here today, and whether you are a police officer or government official.”

“What our preferred gender pronoun is?” echoed an older woman with a Greenpeace tote bag, a perplexed expression on her face. Thank God she asked; I’d been reluctant to betray my ignorance.

“Yes,” Sarita answered matter-of-factly. “Whether you prefer to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she.’” Her response left about half the group unfazed. As for me, I feigned nonchalance, I was beginning to wonder whether I could endure two consecutive nights of Sarita’s hyper gender consciousness. The first intrepid soul to introduce himself was a young white man—probably about twenty—with a nose ring, a decorative plug in one earlobe, and olive canvas army boots. His black denim cutoffs revealed a tattoo on one calf that read “Never trust a Yuppie.” I instinctively found myself wondering if I, in my comparatively tame anti-Bush shirt and Gap jeans, might be considered a Yuppie.

“My name’s Dan. I sure as hell am not a cop or government official. I go by ‘he’ but you can call me anything you want. I’m here because I’ve had to deal with so much shit from cops at protests—being beaten, being locked up—and I want to learn how to better protect myself.”

The gray-haired woman with the Greenpeace tote bag sitting beside him went next. “My name is Roberta and I’m with the Older Women’s League. I go by ‘she,’” Roberta added slowly and deliberately—no doubt the first time she’d ever uttered that particular sentence. “I saw an ad in the Village Voice that said, ‘Be heard without being hurt.’ That’s why I’m here. Oh and I’m certainty not a cop or government official.” “My name is Erika and I’m with Queer Fist, a group of radically queer cheerleaders,” the fiery teenager with naturally blonde dreds declared. “I go by ‘she’… usually. I’m not a government official or a cop.”

When my turn came, I said that I went by Jessica, that “she” was my pronoun of choice, that I was neither a government official nor a cop, but that I was there as both a protester and a writer, transparency being at the forefront of my mind. No one seemed to object.

An hour later, after much debate about the media presence at protests and the meanings of civil disobedience, we entered the physically active segment of the workshop, in which we learned how to protect ourselves from a line of baton-wielding police. The police, we were told, were apt to hold their batons diagonally across their bodies, thrusting them outwards to push back an encroaching crowd. Lined up in rows of six, we learned how to retreat slowly en masse, with those in the front line shielding their heads with their forearms in such a way as to avoid head injury. At a certain point, the front line would fall to the back so that the next row could practice facing the cops.

It occurred to me as I shrank back alongside the other workshop participants, the trainers role-playing the police, that we were essentially a retreating army, reluctantly but not without dignity acknowledging our fate and giving way, ever so slowly, to the stronger side. For the sake of our country, for the sake of what we held dear about it, for what it had once been and for what we hoped it would one day be, we were eager to defend it. It was for our country that we would be putting our bodies—our male and female and androgynous bodies—on the streets, on the line. Our individual motives for protesting were not uniform, what we held dear and what we sought to defend differed from one individual to the next; it was simply our will to resist that bound us one to the other. I was also struck by the thought that many of the soldiers in Iraq were putting their bodies on the line for love of country, for the sake of what they held dear about the nation. There was something about the earnestness with which most in this workshop, and those that I’d met at protests and political gatherings throughout the last year, that matched the earnestness of the few military recruits I’d interviewed and the many I’d seen interviewed as they went off to Iraq. Men and women my age and younger, who, in the aftermath of 9/11, felt compelled to go fight to protect, so they thought, the people and the country that they loved.

Admittedly the risks to which the soldiers’ bodies were being subjected were far graver than those our bodies would face in four days of protest, but for some reason I took comfort in the fact that for the first time I could isolate a point of convergence, however tenuous, between them and us, between soldier and outraged civilian.

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