Out of the sidewalks, into the streets
I arrived early to the protest at McKesson Plaza, but by ten minutes before noon a small crowd had already gathered, filling most of the tiny space in between intersecting streets. Protest organizers were speaking into a microphone. Members of the crowd interrupted: “People are dying! They don’t have food or medicine!” It was hot and I could feel the sun bearing down on my pale cheeks. Someone was handing out pre-made signs and I took one gratefully. One voice became two, then three, until it overtook us and we were all chanting “Close the camps, close the camps” and then “close the camps now, close the camps now.”
I looked out into the intersection of Montgomery and Market street. Protesters had spilled out a little bit into the crosswalk, and other people with signs had already filled up the sidewalk across the street. “Why don’t we block traffic?” I thought. People are dying. Children are dying. There are enough of us. They can’t hurt us if there are this many of us. I felt agitated, but I was not alone, because the crowd hummed with the kind of righteous anger that is reserved for instances where children are being harmed.
I will say now that I think there are very few times when it is appropriate to express anger. Child abuse is one of them. I am a nanny and I’ve worked with children from the ages of two to eleven. If someone tried to take a child from a stroller under my watch you better believe I would use physical force to keep the child safe. I’m studying to be a marriage and family therapist. In our readings, we learn how crucial the first year and a half is in the development of a child. How being left alone to cry makes children unable to self-regulate later in life. How a toddler’s enthusiasm for flowers and bugs needs to be mirrored by an adult they trust. Without this nurturance and mirroring from caregivers, children are prone to develop mental illness and personality disorders later in life.
A woman with a microphone began reading letters and testimonials from immigrants in the camps. She read about how the lights are always kept on so no one can sleep. She read an account from a mother who begged for diapers for her baby but had to use a sweatshirt instead. As I heard this I felt frustration and anger well up in me. Children are being hurt and I am wedged between protesters in the hot sun with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I spend so much time caring for children, but what about these children I cannot even see? I felt my chest contract and then tears pour down my cheeks.
I looked into the intersection and noticed there were five or six people standing there, blocking traffic. A young woman about my age was screaming, “Out of the sidewalks, into the streets! Out of the sidewalks into the streets!” Without thinking I stepped into the intersection to join her. I felt a rush of energy as I raised my sign above my head and screamed with her, with everyone, as the crowd joined in our grief and anger: “Out of the sidewalks, into the streets!” I thought, if I get arrested now, it will be worth it. I will have resisted what should be resisted and I will have rejected what should not be endured.
The crowd poured into the street, blocking traffic completely. Two older, white hippy ladies were sitting in the middle of the intersection. I stood beside them and screamed as long and as hard as I could. “Close the camps, now!”
Then, to be honest, I went and ate a cheeseburger. Why? Because it was lunchtime and I was hungry, and if I’m going to scream I need protein. Also because I had a date.
When I returned to the protest I saw that, to my pleasure, the crowd had increased and spilled out into the middle of the street, blocking traffic on at least three sides. The police had arrived and were blocking off parts of the street. The energy of the crowd was buoyant. People were drumming and dancing, chanting in spanish: “¡Se ve! ¡Se siente! ¡El pueblo está presente! ¡Se ve! ¡Se escucha! ¡El pueblo está en la lucha!” We are here to fight.
I could see the same original agitators milling around the corners of the protest. Two older women, possible the same as before, were pointing West and chanting “March! March! March” I thought, “Yes!” and went to follow them. But no one else did. The women went off to find other organizers. Five minutes later I could hear people confirming, “Seventh and Mission?” And then the chant started again, “March! March!” and once again we were together in our rage and our love, and it carried us out into the street to face the oncoming traffic.
For what makes someone brave enough to face oncoming traffic if not love? Love so fierce it feels like rage.
This was the first day I have thought it might actually be possible to put a stop to these concentration camps. I have felt so hopeless and useless, but today showed me the power of a righteously pissed off crowd. We can stop this. But it will take more of us, much more of us, and it will take us being willing to put our bodies on the line, to disrupt traffic and business. Forcing. And it will take you, gentle reader. Yes you, hunched over a desk at work or decompressing on the couch scrolling through your phone. It will take normal people demanding that this end.
I’m telling this story not to feel self-congratulatory. I am actually a pretty bad activist. I’m an introvert and don’t do well in groups, so I don’t belong to any non-profits or organizations. I rarely march. I have major depressive disorder, so I often can’t even make it out of bed, let alone out of the house. I am embarrassingly terrible with using they/them pronouns for people who request it. It’s something I’m working on. I put my foot in my mouth all the time. So I’m writing this story not to toot my own horn but to let you know that if I can do it, so can you (yes, you). But you will need to actually go. You will need to get out of the sidewalk and into the street. Or, more accurately, you will need to get off the internet and out of the house, then out of the sidewalk and into the street, and then we will take apart these camps with our own hands, brick by brick if we must.
I remember the day in high school history when my teacher, who was Jewish, taught us about the Holocaust. He drew a timeline on the board with various events that led up to the Holocaust: Hitler being appointed Chancellor, then being given plenary powers which allowed him absolute control. Later on, there was a state-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses. Then Jews were barred from state services. Then people burned books. Then the government passed the Nuremberg laws, barring Jews from citizenship. And on and until it culminated in the concentration camps.
“When would you have done something?” my history teacher asked. “At which point?” He invited us to make a mark on the timeline indicating at which point we would have taken to the streets.
In high school, we were full of bravado. Many of us asserted we would have objected from the very beginning. A few others more modestly admitted it would have taken Jews being barred from citizenship, others marked down at the book burnings. My teacher baited us, pushing us to think beyond our limited experience. “Really? It’s just a few books burning. What’s wrong with that? And who cares if a few businesses close?” By the end of class, we came to understand the difficulty in drawing a line in the sand.
It feels problematic to equate our current situation with Nazi Germany. We are not Nazi Germany. It is the United States in 2019. We have a particular culture and history. Yet the history of World War II is a good reminder of the difficulty in protesting authoritarianism. It is quite difficult to draw a line in the sand and say, “No more,” when we have jobs and families. White people especially want to maintain the status quo, because we benefit from it. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be fired, don’t want to be arrested.
I know the line in the sand has been drawn for me.
This July 12, protests are occurring across the country. I urge you to join one. I am also attempting to raise money to attend a protest of concentration camps in Oklahoma. Teaming up with Japanese American and Buddhist leaders, we will perform a memorial service in front of a former internment camp that is now being used to house migrant children. But do at least one thing. Do something. Maybe you only feel comfortable standing on the sidewalk, and that is fine. But, if you are able bodied and care about closing these camps, you need to put your body there, with the rest of us, in our anger and love.
When I was sixteen my history teacher asked me to put a mark on the board indicating when I would have started to fight. In the same spirit, I am asking you: when will you draw the line?