You know full well, that if the protest community, or any members of it, begin to see the Matrix for what it is, see the absurd charade that they are perpetuating with their news-friendly parades and speeches, and decide to step outside the box, go outside the lines of ‘acceptable’ that have been drawn for them by The Man, then…….oh man……then it’s a different story. Then all the friendliness and community-relations and compassionate society and Just Government and all that….just disappears, like a thin puddle of gasoline under a heat lamp.
One thing the protest communities generally know is just how dark the dark side of humanity can be, and how quickly the light can get snuffed out. They know this in a way that the relatively comfortable, or “privileged”, those many people whose knowledge of the world’s suffering largely comes through TV and laptop screens, if at all, can never, quite, understand.
When people talk about “lived experience”, it’s not an abstraction. It’s not up for debate or dissection. “Lived experience” means something different when you have watched children die, or you have been beaten and tasted tear gas, or you have watched your people get assaulted and then watched the very different story that becomes The News, and drives public discusson on…..YOUR lived experience.
People who are not there say things, hear things, conclude things, pass judgement, feed into social discourse and political decisions, and have their effects on the world. And they weren’t there!! They don’t know!! To them, “the consequences” are just an abstraction, like hearing about a car accident in some other country, in some place you’ve never heard of, and some people died, and was it even a car anyway or a bus or maybe it wasn’t even that country it was some other place and I dunno it all kind of swirls together after a while, doesn’t it?
The incredible power of “lived experience” was displayed not too long ago, fall 2018, when medical doctors in the US stood up to the NRA who told them to “stay in their lane” on the issue of gun control. The doctors stood up, en masse, with a huge collective “fuck you”, because they were the ones who operated on the bodies broken by unnecessary bullets fired into a country music crowd, or a classroom, who watched the children bleed out under their own hands, frantically working to save their lives. They were the ones who watched hearts stop beating, who had to shut off the machines and call the Time of Death and go tell the DESTROYED parents and children and families waiting in the waiting room for news of whether they’d ever see their loved one again. They were the ones who smelled the splayed-open body cavities, who worked feverishly to repair shattered bones and spines and brains. “This IS our lane” was the clear message. And you know, if you want to argue about gun deaths with an ER surgeon….well, then I think you’re insane, or at least unbelievably insensitive.
When you were There on a protest line that got violent, or when you sit with those who were, and hear their stories, watch their sharp intake of breath as the emotions of pain wash over them again, watch their gaze jump around, unable to fix on anything for too long because if it does they don’t know how they can hold themselves together in the face of it all, when you can smell the smells and remember what it sounded like in the background, when it’s not “a story” for you but a kaleidoscope of sensations that fracture and spin and you aren’t really all that motivated to put them together, because what’s the point of figuring it all out anyway, when you have felt the clubs, seen the hate, felt the spit, felt your own rage, wanted to lash out, wanted to scream, wanted to smash somebody’s face because fuck them those motherfuckers how could they do this to people, to real people to peaceful people who just care about whales or forests or Saving The World, how could they do this? and your mind whirls and you run because you’re afraid, and you want to turn around but you know there is no point except to get yourself beaten or worse, when you stand afterwards with your knees shaking and your hands shaking and you find it difficult to breathe and you flash back through the people you saw fall, the people huddled and crying, the people staring into nothing and the other people staring wildly at everything and the other people staring intently and piercingly like a predator staring down its prey — THEN you know what “lived experience” means.
And you know that when the people with imperfectly sorted-out selves and messy rooms, but a lifetime of suffering stand up to speak their truth, you should bloody well listen. Even if they don’t follow the same rules of ‘civility’ that you think are appropriate, you fucking LISTEN, man. They have EARNED their place at the table.
Perhaps then, you will start to understand ‘that look’ — that gleam that is so unsettling to the intellectual skeptic or theorist, that unwavering solidity that you see in eyes that are past fear, eyes that have seen so much pain they won’t close to ugliness ever again. When you see the stability in people’s eyes who have witnessed sufficient suffering, you have met a person who can drink in the entire ocean, who can absorb an entire sun, because their hearts are broken into so many pieces they have atomized and become the Universe.
This is what you see, eventually, in the protest communities. You might not believe me, you might have different opinions, you might have known other people. But that’s what I see.
The truth, which you see in the raw on the front lines of a protest that is teetering on the brink of violence, is that civilization is a thin veneer. The horrors of history, the Gulags and Holocausts and Killing Fields and all the rest of humanity’s terribleness, are not “the horrors of history.” They are a hair’s breadth away. It can only take a moment of anger before The Beast comes out. It’s like we live on a bubbling volcano that can blow at any moment. Hurricane Katrina showed us that, with helicopter crews heroically lifting patients and nurses and doctors out of ruined hospitals while, astoundingly, people hidden somewhere in the abandoned streets fired assault weapons at the helicopters. Police forces were overwhelmed by gangs of armed men in trucks. Many career police turned in their badges for good. This took less than a week, in the 21st century in the so-called most powerful country on Earth.
Humanity’s worst is not far away. People can be heartless and cruel and terrible. And the switch, from Civility to Chaos flips terrifyingly fast.
By no means have I seen the horrors of war. I’ve heard about some of them from my grandparents. I’ve heard about what it feels like to cower in a haystack while SS soldiers search for you a few feet away, knowing you could be shot at any moment. I’ve heard about what it feels like to live day after day after day as a young woman in a house full of enemy soldiers treating you like their slave. I’ve heard what it feels like to be tortured, to fear that you will be maimed forever, but if you speak, if you tell them what you know, your own family will be killed, and you probably will too, so you insist you don’t know and you resist with all your desperate Love while your body is taken to places bodies should never be taken. I’ve heard what it feels like when the shards of pain cut through your mind in a way you cannot comprehend and you leave your body and look down on the inhuman-humans who are doing this to you, and you can’t believe that This Is Your Life. Everything is Screams, and you know it’s all you.
I have seen, in tiny glimpses, how closely people’s ugliness lurks under the surface. I remember standing in the rain, shivering and handcuffed, fingers completely numb, having to pee really badly after not being able to for about eleven hours. I’d been talking to my companion-officer; it was a 1-to-1 ratio of police-to-prisoners in the line-up of shivering handcuffed protesters.
My officer was a decent enough guy; he had come in from Brampton for the extra pay. He wasn’t worried about any violence. He kind of laughed and said the police had things under control. He had a wife and young kids. He was 11 years on the force. About the same amount of time my dad had been on the force when I was a young kid.
Then, about twenty feet away from us, this tall, slim guy in a rainjacket and shorts started swaying noticeably. A few seconds later, shouts erupted as he went down, hard, cracking his face on the pavement.
The next few seconds taught me a great deal about Humanity. I’ll never forget it.
As this man fell, a few shouts of — “Look out!” “Hey!” “That guy’s falling!” Then Crack! Gasps from up and down the line, groans, and laughter. It was very clear who was gasping in empathic pain, and who was laughing. I’m not passing judgement here; this is merely “the facts” as I experienced them. ….Immediately, shouts of anger, “is he ok?”, “somebody help that guy?”, “JESUS CHRIST what the fuck man???” Maybe 30 awkward seconds passed, the guy lying face down on the pavement in a puddle, not moving. There are some skirmishes in the line; the handcuffed protesters are pissed and some of them are trying to do something but really, there’s nothing they can do with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The police officer chaperoning this guy was hard to interpret; there was a lot of shouting between him and someone I couldn’t see. No officers stepped from the line, not a single one, to help that guy.
Eventually, some new officer came from somewhere in the rain, and helped this guy’s ‘chaperone’. The two of them picked the guy up partway off the sidewalk by his armpits, one on each side, and half-dragged him a few feet down the sidewalk and sat him in a slumped over sitting position in a doorway, hands still cuffed behind his back. He was clearly unconscious. The officers talked for a few seconds, and then the second one went back into the crowd, and this guy’s ‘chaperone’ just kind of stood there. He looked insecure for a second, like a McDonald’s worker with no customers. It was almost funny, his sudden insecurity. He was looking at the line, catching the eye of other officers. Nods, smiles, laughter, the Thin Blue Line giving him moral support. More shouts from the protesters, “Hey, fucking assholes!” “Is he ok?” “Somebody help that guy?” “Is he breathing?” My guard-officer mostly looked at the pavement and shook his head. When he looked up I was looking at him, and he laughed, nervously, like he wanted to break the ice with humour — “I guess people are going to think twice about coming out next time they’re told to stay at home eh?”
I know for sure my eyes widened with surprise. I was not in a mood for humour. But hey, I’m always in the mood for Psychology…..I remember my reply — “No man. The police should learn more about social psychology. You have just guaranteed that almost all of us here WILL show up next time.”
You HAVE TO stand up, when you know what’s going on. You have to speak out, or you are complicit. History does not look favourably at Adolf Eichmann.
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”