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Faces of Our Enemies: Protesting Walker and the Tea Party in Sacramento
An essay with photographs, this piece describes my experience attending the demonstration in Sacramento on Saturday.
Faces of our Enemies: Protesting Walker and the Tea Party in Sacramento
I saw some new faces of our enemies, yesterday the 26th of February in Sacramento in front of the Capitol building, and sadly, they looked all-too-familiar, all-too-much like me.
This last week I thought I was going to finish the first full version of my dissertation, but when I met with my adviser on Tuesday, we decided it would be better to take a little more time, and so I am planning, now, to finish my draft by the first week of April, with hopes to receive my degree at the end of the school year. I have been working really hard, exerting the extra energy to try and make my dissertation something valuable, giving the writing my best shot, against the odds. You see, the thing is, even when I finish and am awarded a doctorate there are still not many academic jobs available, I don’t have much in the way of resources for performing a search, and there are not any other jobs in the field, readily available. I’ve never done a long stint in prison, but finishing this degree feels something like I imagine that process might be like, at least more so than it should.
There are certain traits that the finishing graduate student in the humanities and the parolee have in common (at least in this historical moment), though, and those areas of overlap are revealing—similarities that motivated my trip to Sacramento to attend a rally supporting the ongoing protests against Governor Walker in Wisconsin. Released convicts and recent graduates both face a set of dire prospects: a bad economy, dwindling support services, and inside knowledge about the corruption of a system that is supposed to provide law and order. Just like ex-felons, the new doctor faces a world where many people will never trust you because of your background, which makes it tough to get a job. In Communist Russia, there were purges. In the contemporary world economy, you don’t have to send the workers anywhere—you just eliminate the jobs from the budget (as many US governors are encouraging) and the workers seemingly disappear, withering up like a cut vine.
The questions are: “Where will we go?” and “what will we do?”
Since I have been studying literature and art I decided that the best thing to do, for now, is to write about the problems, to photograph events, and to begin working on a freelance journalism portfolio. I suppose the model for this kind of work comes from the era of new journalism with writers like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson (and even Charles Bukowski) serving as a kind of alternative press. The reason we need this kind writing, an on the ground, moving through the scenes, investigative journalism, is due to the overwhelming influence that media has on the public, and the overwhelmingly complicit status of the mass media. Nobody in this country can escape our common complicity; therefore, those who cop to their crimes are the only ones who can be trusted, at all.
I don’t mean crime in the usual sense of the word, as acting in violation of a legal code, but in the more general sense—like, George W. Bush is guilty of crimes against humanity. Although, it looks like Bushy is—now, technically--wanted (not just by shoe-throwing heroes) by international lawyers. I mean criminal as complicit through the use of gasoline and US dollars, through the exploitation of our environment, and at the cost of multitudes of distant and unseen lives. Born into this complicity, what are our options? I used to hold the line “if you’re not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem” close to heart, but it is more and more unclear what would actually constitute a solution. This confusion, however, is no excuse for failing to act. Whether we succeed in making it through this transition or not, peacefully, might not even seem a possibility, yet. While it might take a miracle, it is not a flash from the sky that is likely to save us, and waiting around for the pathologies to be cured spontaneously seems misguided, at best.
This essay is my attempt to relate the news from inside the movement.
I almost didn’t make it to the rally at all. I went out on Friday night, and even though I didn’t drink, I was exhausted from seeing old friends and from listening to some powerful live music. The music was inspiring, though. Indeed, music is one of the only redemptive things about this country. We have made some hideous blunders, we have used our power irresponsibly, but we have also consistently expressed dissent through art and music, showing the world that this is a culture split between the people and its rulers. The quality of the music, especially the music of protest, which has issued from the instruments and minds of our greatest artists, is an appeal to the people of the world to see the US American people as separate from the government. The more the people of the world see US Americans as being represented by a band like Fire’s Fury, the more they will come to realize that we are not represented by our government, which is held hostage by private interests. The trouble is, there is such a hugely funded culture industry that panders to these spineless shills of politicians, blocking our view of the true culprits, and it would be extremely difficult for the world to spontaneously realize that there are people in this country who want absolutely nothing to do with American Idol and who think that the Tea Party is an embarrassment.
Not that I’m perfect, myself. I almost didn’t make it to the rally at all, tired as I was from a week of research and writing, capped off with a night of live music. Kaitlin helped me to get up, though. She understood how important it was for me to make it to the event, so she woke early and fixed me some coffee, knowing that is the best way to get me out of my heavy slumbers. I was on the road, momentarily, after stopping to get cash and more coffee. Driving over the 17, I listened to the radio, taking my time with the curves as the sides of the road were dusted with snow and areas of heavy shadow still covered the asphalt, I started thinking about writing this piece. Part of what I knew that I wanted to express had to do with economics. One of the interesting things that I have heard from the protests going on in Wisconsin is the notion that it has been so successfully attended because people were finding a way to work it into their already busy schedules. This is one of the first contradictions a successful movement would have to strategize for: the people who need to protest are the ones who can least afford it.
Not being able to afford it is the reason we have to do it, but it also means that we will need to work carefully to come up with a pragmatically oriented plan. I understand that there is some contradiction in my driving alone some six hours round trip to attend an one-hour demonstration, and the improvement I would like to make, in the future, is to use public transportation to get there. I was not that well prepared for this moment, though, coming as it did on the week when I was trying to finish my dissertation. Still, I somehow managed to arrive in Sacramento city limits, with the Capitol in view minutes after our meridian had entered its noon hour. Gobbling up my medicinal cookies, I plugged a few quarters in the meter, and began getting my camera ready.
A handsome later-middle-aged African American couple had parked right behind me, and the gentleman asked me: “Are you here for the event, today?”
“Yes, sir, I am.” I responded.
“Going to get some pictures, I see. That’s good—it’s an important event.”
“Absolutely. It is a shame what Governor Walker is doing.”
As we walked along I spoke with both of them about the developments in Wisconsin and California and what it has to do with the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. When they asked where I was from and I informed them that I had driven up from Santa Cruz they were delighted.
“Well, congratulations, then. That really is something.”
At first, I was puzzled by the congratulations. Then I realized what they were recognizing. In this moment, having made it to the rally, I was no longer an ostrich hiding from the blades of fate. It had never occurred to me that victory could be so simple, or so sweet, even if it was only a partial victory. We shook hands, exchanged salutations, and I set up for my first shot of the day. Already, I had a really positive feeling, the kind of energetic buzz that you get when you are traveling, even just for a day trip, and everything that you see is new, and none of the people are familiar. This initial encounter was uplifting, and I saw a large crowd assembled in front of the Capitol, and on the lawn in front of me, there were people busy with making signs.
I had been photographing the group for a couple of minutes, paying more attention to composition than to listening to what the chants were saying, or reading what the signs had written on them (although I noticed a guy with a Teamsters jacket, standing apart from the group, making a call), but then it all started to filter in, slowly. This first group of these people, standing around energetically, was demonstrating against the protest. I could hardly believe it—the Tea Party. They had come out in a strong showing, to counter the symbolic power of the demonstration with their numbers and organization. This was my first glimpse of the notorious group, and the whiff of evil was slow to hit my nose. Once it finally did register, and people started looking at me funnily, I crossed the street to my rightful side and joined in the chant that was under way.
Help! It is the Tea Party.
“You say incarcerate, we say educate!” Police on bikes and on foot secured the perimeter of the protest, on all sides, seeming to not want to get involved, but definitely a visible presence. In the extreme counterexamples of Egypt and Libya we have seen the importance of the military with regard to which group they support during a demonstration. The people were able to peacefully overtake Tahrir square, because they were communicating with the soldiers, riding on their tanks, giving them hugs, greeting them as brothers. We need to remember that the police are workers too, and they are (in reality) on our side, whether we can get them to take it or not. Tragically, in the case of Tripoli, we have learned that the military fired on the people last week. In each demonstration, in each context, the people need to reach out to the police and military, to remind them that we have their best interests at heart and in mind.
There were chants coming from the other side, too, but they were largely so nonsensical that it would seem like fiction to put them in print. They were saying things like: “You teachers are making us stupider and are stealing our money.” This, of course, was yelled by a woman through a megaphone while wearing a pirate hat and standing next to an elderly guy holding a sign that read: “wer’e not your ATM.” Now, ordinarily, that would be sad to me. Nobody, in good conscience, wants to see that level of ugliness, but something happened when I came in contact with it, this time. It was not so much an infection as it was a kind of allergic reaction, and it made me whoopin’ and scratchin’ mad. I was chanting, with the full force of the deepest bass of my voice, but I was also looking at these people—just the sad kind of people for whom I had cleaned pools in East County San Diego—standing there demonstrating against unions, and I understood how these things can quickly turn violent.
I started making eye contact with individual protesters and then I would laugh at them and wave my hand in front of my nose calling them smelly beasts in a universal sign language. I was reduced to the antics of a kindergarten bully. I’m not proud of this moment, and it is not attractive, but neither is the way your face looks after you’ve caught a bad case of poison oak, and I am trying to be honest. I was blistering and I could already anticipate the oozing. Incidentally, I noticed that the police were also taking a good look at me, too, and not as a potential recruit. Not yet fully knowing which side the police would take, I realized I might be doing more harm than good, so I decided to go seek out some calamine lotion before it got downright nasty.
Another factor that was immediately apparent to me was the dwindling power of my camera’s battery, and my remembering that the backup one was already dead. Consequently, I decided to find a spot to charge my battery before I got too involved in the rally, which was now under way, with speakers delivering orations against injustice and the crowd responding with heartfelt cheers. The only place I could find nearby, though, was a Sees Candies. Inside the sweet smelling store, I was met by a suspicious look from the clerk.
“Can I help you?” she accused.
“Well, I hope so,” I said. “You see, my battery is dying, and I need a place to charge it.”
“Oh, is that the case? Well, okay, fine. I thought you wanted to take pictures in here, and you cannot do that.” I looked around at the candy store. It would be a cool place to take pictures, I guess, but I also found it funny that I would be allowed to charge a battery for free—adding a small amount to their energy bill—but I would be forbidden to “take photos,” which would cost them absolutely nothing. It didn’t surprise me, though, since there really is not much logic to the way corporate entities function in the world. Plugging my battery charger in the wall, I thanked her, kindly.
“Oh, you are most welcome. Would you like to try a sample before you go?” She waved her hands, like a magician’s assistant in front of the display case.
“What would you like?”
“Caramel, please.” My timing was perfect, my manners impeccable. When it comes to Sees Candies, I know what I like, and I respond to gift horses like a true whisperer. So, you can’t take a picture of the sweets, but you can eat some, for free.
“With or without nuts?”
“Sane caramel, please.”
“I’m sorry?” The graceful moments of Valerie’s (from her name-tag) hands jerked to an abrupt halt. “What did you say?”
“Sane caramel—you know, like no nuts, as in not crazy.”
“Oh, I get it. I thought you were talking about a café, or something. That is a pretty good one. Here you go.”
Walking back to the protest savoring three discs of caramel coated in dark chocolate I couldn’t help but smile about how mixed up, how nuts, the day already had become, and how I was once again dangerously near the territory of Forest Gump. I wondered if I would make it back to pick up my battery or if things would devolve into a violent scene, with arrests, which would not be a huge concern in some circumstances, but I don’t know when I would be able to afford another battery charger or what would happen to my truck, so it was on my mind. Now I approached the demonstration from behind where the microphone was set up, so that I could get some shots of the crowd. I did not catch the names of the speakers but the message was clear. We are pro-democratic, pro-union, and we are not going to take this without a fight. From what I heard during the speeches, as I was “trying to get the shot” there emerged a set of patterns, or themes. The first is the connection of the attack on the unions with the continued power and growth of the military industrial complex. Murmurs of “I like Ike” rippled through the crowd.
The second was a reminder of the important role that unions have played historically in defense of workers. My sense of the general consensus is that a union without collective bargaining power is meaningless, and that the American people (one third of its workers and all of its service providers) are under attack. The most spirited speeches came closest to the language of street violence, “we are going to take this fight to every corner,” and the crowd was inspired to respond with great enthusiasm. I also noticed that some speakers made the crowd self-conscious, and didn’t generate as much of a response, but possibly had more thoughtful contributions to make. I think that both ranges of voice are important and appropriate for this kind of event, since both thoughtfulness and the motivation to act and to fight are badly needed.
The third message was a call to bring more people to the next rally, and to spread the word. There was the sense that the media will not report our side of the struggle, being in the pocket of the corporations who are profiting from the looting of the public fund. That, of course, is why I was there, and why I am writing this, now. I hope that maybe you will attend the next rally, and that we will have much greater numbers, or that we will have more rallies closer to home. I had hardly made one lap around the large, stolid, group before I was surprised to hear that they were wrapping things up, thanking the speakers, and asking that people leave peacefully. “We were only able to get this much time for the permit, so we are asking you to leave, now, please.”
This was something of a shock. The demonstration had only lasted one hour. I started photographing people leaving, trying to use the blooming fruit trees to frame them, and then a guy wearing a V mask came strolling by, and I asked him to stop. The mask looked great, and gave our side of things the menacing touch that I think it sometimes needs, since there is a bore-me-to-death NPR-style possibility for the demonstration to wimp out at all times. I liked the look of the mask and the grip of the man’s anonymous hand as he shook mine for taking his photo.
Then, the battery finally started to die, entirely. So, I went and swapped out one battery for the other, managing to communicate with the teller (she was so busy that day) that I would still be returning, and went out to where the counter-demonstration was yet in full force. Now that the group had disbanded from directly in front of the Capitol building, there were greater numbers on our side of the street. Things had already escalated to physical violence as a small scuffle had ensued, and the police showed up on horses and in greater numbers to protect the Tea Party people, flanking them on their side of the street.
Now, it became pretty clear to me, which side the police would take, and I tried to get a sense of how the crowd felt. This was revealed to me in one particular exchange. The Tea Party Side was still being led by Ol’ Pirate Hat, and she was okay, for a devil--making wildly illogical arguments, but with an upbeat sense of self-confidence that made her wicked pronouncements seem authoritative. I loathed her, of course, but I also pitied her, which balanced things out, a bit. It is one thing to have that ugly of an attitude if you are wealthy, powerful, and (I guess, in a porn-fetish way) attractive as Sarah Palin is, but if you start with shabby clothes, broken grammar, and a horse-faced look and then you add a bigoted and anti-democratic attitude—well, it is just not fair. Some people really just have no luck.
What about our side of the street? It seemed that the magical caramels had cured my poison oak, and I was better able to control my anger, but I still wanted to get a good shot, so I jumped up onto the concrete planter box a good four feet higher than the crowd. This gave me a vantage point to see both sides, and to take note of this heated exchange. The pirate-lady bellowed: “You are socialists! You people are Marxists!” Now, I took that as a compliment, and as an unusually apt moment in her oration, but others in the crowd didn’t like the association as much. Responding with a vitriol meant to “one up” their opponent, I guess, some guys started chanting the word “fascists” over and over, with one fellow even adding a good ol’ Nazi-style hand in the air to punctuate his yells. While I understand it was a satirical gesture, it was an attempt to show them for the racists that they are, I didn’t like this move so much (even worse than my earlier antics), so, I decided that I might need to move on before long, before stupidity overwhelmed us all. The thing about a crowd is, like a wildfire, it is hard to know what it is going to do once a spark ignites things.
Joining me on the planter a Native American guy with a camcorder said hello. “I’m out of tape, but you should have seen it when they were fighting man—I was right there, takin’ pictures and shit.” I looked to where he gestured, across the street and the horses were stepping in place mighty uneasily.
“Well, next time—more tape, huh?”
He looked at me with some expression of confusion and then disdain, but a policeman came racing up on a mountain bike, right then, and panted at us.
“You-you--get down from there.”
I pointed at my own chest raising my eyebrows in question.
“Yes you, both of you—get down. You can’t be up there.”
Someone standing nearby stepped up to give me a hand. I stepped down and then shook it. “Thanks.” I walked down to the end of the line to see if I could get a shot of the entire group. This would require that I stand directly in the middle of the street, right where a covey of bike-cops circled like bmx riders warming up before doing some particularly dangerous tricks. As I approached the edge of the sidewalk, one of the riders peeled off from the formation and stopped me.
“I’d like to get over as far as possible to ‘get the shot.’ How far can I go?”
“You are not allowed to be further than the sidewalk.”
“So, I’m okay right here?”
“No, you’re past the sidewalk.”
I looked down and one foot was on the six-inch strip of curb between the sidewalk and the street. “Seriously?”
“You need to move back.”
I moved back six inches.
“There. No further.” He went back to his restless circling, keeping a wary eye on me. A woman to my left looked at me and smiled.
“What are you doing this for?” she asked.
“It’s outrageous.” I answered.
“Are you working for any news outlet?”
“Really, all by yourself? That’s amazing.” I think she was referring to the size of my camera lens. “Good for you.”
A voice came back on the sound system reminding the crowd that violence would only make it harder to see their point, that it is more important to organize than to escalate, and that Sees Candies gives out free samples. Oh shit, I thought, my battery! Sure enough there was a growing horde at the store, and I retrieved my battery and packed up my camera, collapsing my tripod. I waited for the polite rhythm of customer service to offer a momentary pause between customers, and I thanked Valerie for the use of her plug.
“Oh, you’re quite welcome,” she said, with her chocolate-sweet smile.
I decided to make my way back to my truck on a side street, avoiding an ugly confrontation with a TPer, sure that I must have a ticket, but hoping for the lucky chance. A bigger looking guy walked alongside me and chatted.
“Who are you with?”
“Oh, ok. You goin’ to the next one?”
“Yeah, that was pretty good. Do you know when the next one might be?”
“No, but I went to the last one and we busted that one up pretty quick, too. It was great.”
“Alright, then.” I said in parting, as I turned left at the corner. The inability to tell who is on what side of this struggle is one of the eeriest things about it.
The economics of this protest about economic power always should be brought back into focus. I left yesterday morning around 9 and got back around 6. Today I will have written and edited photos for another full workday. I can’t afford to do this every weekend, but this is an example of what two days of work can produce. Not only did I see firsthand what a large, motivated, and dignified but angry group of people had assembled to support their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin, but I also got to witness the faces of our enemies and to hear their voices, and I am happy to share that experience now, with you. For the next demonstration, I hope that we can reserve more time, to hear more speakers, but the brevity of its statements, the economy of the movement, might be key to its sustenance. With that said, perhaps it is better to build more localized movements synchronized with the national events so that it is more economical to participate. What we do next will be important—we need to build some momentum.
They had to bring out more police to protect the Tea Party after a Teamster got a little too vocal, and things developed into a fight.