In Friday's entry about the ROTC, I mentioned that I haven't participated in a protest rally in over fourteen years. Let me explain why with this little story:
I grew up in a small, safe, resort town of fewer than 5,000 people. To put it mildly, we didn't have protests. In sixth grade, I decided I was a Communist after listening to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (another long story). I began to subscribe, while still in junior high school, to a variety of Communist and Socialist newspapers. I joined the Socialist Workers Party, and supported Mel Mason's campaign for governor in 1982. I read about riots and demonstrations, and wished that something would happen in sleepy old Carmel. I tried to start an activist group on my high school campus, but that went nowhere. I dreamed of going to school at Berkeley, which I had visited often enough as a child, where protests were continual and where I would at once find many fellow radicals committed to building a more just and peaceful world (and so on).
As a college student, I took part in lots of demonstrations of the sort I described on Friday. After my frosh year, however, I grew more cautious about taking part in violent protests, and as my Christian faith grew, I became less and less comfortable with confrontation. But in 1991, I had a disturbing flashback to an earlier way of life:
I vividly remember the night in January when the bombing of Baghdad began. My wife at the time and I were living in UCLA grad student housing down in Mar Vista, and in the late afternoon, we got a knock on the door. We were told a major anti-war rally would begin that evening at the busy intersection of Veteran and Wilshire near the UCLA campus. We hopped in our little car, drove as close as we could, and joined a large and angry crowd standing in front of the Federal building. We milled around and chanted, and I could feel myself getting more and more angry; angry at the government, angry at the police, angry at everyone. Someone asked us to go into the intersection to block traffic; I grabbed my wife and we waded in.
My wife (this was my first marriage) was not the protesting type. She'd never taken part in any demonstration in her life. She was 5'2" in heels, and she was absolutely terrified. As we ran onto Wilshire Boulevard, she clung to me and said "Please, Hugo, don't." I ignored her, half-dragging her with me. I was so focused on doing something tangible to confront what I saw as the interconnected establishment (the Pentagon and the LAPD were often linked in leftist rhetoric) that I was utterly oblivious to her fears. I was chanting and yelling just as I had back in 1985, lost in my own self-righteous rage and the madness of the crowd. My heart was racing, the blood was pumping; I was having an almost out-of-body experience.
The cops waded in quickly, and started dragging people out of the street. They were not interested in having traffic stalled in rush hour. I couldn't even sit down before my wife and I were shoved forcefully by several officers herding us towards the curb. I started pushing back at the cops, and they started using their batons. My wife stumbled as she was pushed hard by one officer, falling out of her shoes. I grabbed her before she fell to the ground, and we made it to the curb with only minor bruises. She was sobbing. If I had been drunk on rage just moments earlier, I was now sober and horrified -- horrified, not at the police, who were clearing the intersection, but at myself. I had heedlessly, needlessly, dragged my spouse into danger. I helped her back to our car (she never got her shoes back) and we drove home. I've never participated actively in a protest since.
I suppose after all these years, I still don't trust myself. I doubt very much I'll ever again block an intersection to protest a war halfway round the world. It's not that protests don't have a value; they do. I'm just afraid, honestly, that in the heat and the excitement, I may do something that I might very much regret. I'm one of those otherwise rational people who doesn't tend to cope so well in crowds. My ex-wife's terrified and tear-stained face still come to mind whenever I think of civil disobedience, and to this day, that memory holds me back.