Today San Francisco hosted its anti-war protest to mark the 4-year anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. Similar events are taking place concurrently across the country and world; they will continue to do so in the coming days. I feel a persistent and rather torturous sense of ambivalence toward street protests and San Francisco alike. While one is a type of event and the other a city, both make me feel a bit out of place in ways that I can’t seem to articulate. And I rarely lose words.
Historically, I believe that this discontentedness stems from my own tendency to slip into a practice of visually scrutinizing rather than directly participating in protest activities. I memorize the faces of the police that line the streets: I remember their badge numbers and monitor their body language. I look to see whether they’re strapping the regular repertoire or the riot gear. I arrive alone. I dress simply. I chant rarely.
Photo by John Han courtesy Indybay.org
Yet my impression has always been that collectivity and noise are the most valued aspects of protest, and I now realize that I have engendered my own foreignness through these very suppositions. By entertaining a largely singular concept of what it means to be “politically active” or to “participate” I have prohibited myself from fully contributing to a project that extends well beyond a single event and into the everyday. Is there a possibility for “radical looking?” There is, I think, though it depends heavily on what one does with what one has seen. (A discussion reserved here for another, less off-the-cuff missive.)
I joined the march on my lunch break from work, and I noticed small details:
I saw SF Voice for Israel wave the Israeli flag alongside placards calling for peace. Two fliers sat next to one another on their table: One proclaimed no position on the war before listing statistics on the Arab-Israeli conflict that led me to believe otherwise. The other denounced ANSWER, the main organizer of today’s protest. Its headline screamed:“THINK YOU ARE AT A PEACE RALLY? THINK AGAIN!”
I saw two beautifully messy looking little girls wearing yellow sandwich boards made of poster paper. They read: “GEORGE BUSH DIDN’T LEARN ANYTHING IN KINDERGARDEN.”
I saw lots of folks carrying small inflatable dolls of the Bush, who sprouted a Pinocchio nose and wore a military uniform with the words “IMPEACH ME” emblazoned across the chest. One older woman danced slyly up to a man and attacked his doll with hers, forcing the two to embrace in a passionate kiss.
I saw the Code Pink brigade, decked out in full regalia. Ballerinas, fairies, and girrrrly girls, oh my!
I saw a young man dressed in Army fatigues, his face smeared with the camouflage paint used for jungle combat (not desert-based warfare, if accuracy matters here). He stood solemnly at the curbside, holding a modest, hand-scrawled sign: “I’M SOLIDER # (dog tag number). I JUST WANTED TO GO TO COLLEGE.”
I saw a Korean drum corps drumming mournfully by.
I saw the five-oh lolling around in the park, looking bored. I also saw a fleet of paddy wagons prowling behind the parade as it advanced slowly up Market Street.
I saw everyone: the veteran San Franciscans who have devoted their entire lives to this stuff, the suits from the financial district, the L. L. Bean model look-alikes from Marin. I saw the hippies and the punks and the tourists and the anarchists and the voyeurs and the violently passionate and the utterly disinterested. I saw the random, rag-tag band that makes San Francisco what it is, clichés and all.
Martha Rosler spoke at CCA last week, and the discussion following her talk focused intently on the political present. While describing her involvement in and support of Artists Against the War, a collective that formed in 2003 in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she addressed the problem of protest. And I use the term “problem” specifically, because it seems as though others feel as I sometimes do—overwhelmed, and at a loss for what to “do” about it. Martha delivered a pointed reminder straight out of the Vietnam era: protest is an everyday practice that must be repeated regularly in order to gain momentum, to multiply into a larger force. One body, one letter…
In expressing my anguish over my own place within the system, I once confessed to a friend that I simply didn’t feel moved by street protests. His response? “Maybe you haven’t been to the right one.” And I don’t think that I have quite yet. So I’ll keep looking.