- The Community Chorus
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I hate crowds. I've always hated crowds. That's why, in the late '60s and early '70s when I was involved in the anti-war movement, I had a serious problem: I could not look forward to going to demonstrations.
I'll never forget the first big protest march I took part in. It blew me away.
It was 1968. George Wallace had set up his own anti-liberal American Independent Party so he could run for president. How could anyone consider nominating such a racist...! But if the times had changed, he had changed with them. He was no longer running as a racist, a segregationist; he was running as an anti-Communist. And he had come to New York City to campaign.
We (a coalition of various peace groups) had a permit from the city to march. We had a route laid out for us. (I can't say exactly how many of us there were; our estimates and the official estimates varied, but no one argued for less than eight thousand.) Once we were assembled, however, the cops cordoned us off.
Police barricades were set up everywhere, including right where I happened to be standing. The crowd swelled and pushed. There was no escaping. I found myself pinned up against one of those wooden crowd-control barriers, with nothing to protect me from New York's Finest.
The cops were mounted on horseback, ready to charge. The rifles they were pointing had fixed bayonets. I stood there, speechless. This was not a reality in which I had ever imagined myself. This was a scene straight out of Dr. Zhivago. You know the one: The people march for "Bread and Brotherhood" and are mowed down as so much chaff in front of Yuri's disbelieving eyes.
I thought of all I'd learned and wanted to believe about nonviolent practice. I did my [End Page 32] best to establish eye contact with the cop opposite me. I kept willing him to put down his weapon. I tried to tell him I loved him.
I was eighteen years old, unarmed and unathletic, and I'm sure I looked as soft and nonthreatening as I felt. He could have beaten me, hands down, at arm wrestling. He could have caught me running. No contest. Didn't he have a younger sister or daughter? He looked old enough to be my father. Couldn't he see that brute force was wrong, that he was on the wrong side?
I wanted to reason with him, to engage him in a meaningful conversation. I had two questions I was burning to ask him: (1) If your opponent, antagonist, enemy—whatever you want to call them—isn't using physical force, just an argument, what does it say about you if your only defense is to kill or maim them? (2) What does it say about your cause?
How could these cops, these men, face us? How could they go home afterwards and face their families, their friends? How could they face themselves?
Before the demonstration broke up, I witnessed several other demonstrators—mostly skinny guys with long hair, and a few women— being led away, bloodied, by cops. The cops seemed to enjoy twisting their arms behind their backs and bullying them forward with their clubs. Though they had already subdued them, they continued hurting their victims, causing them more pain.
I was lucky. I managed to get myself home in one piece. My only additional interaction with the cops was a verbal one.
As I was making my way to the subway— along with my friend Nina, whom I had happily run into—a gang of young cops approached. One of them taunted me, asking if I was a boy or a girl.
"If you have to ask," I said, "you'd better get your eyes examined." (I was not the least bit androgynous. If I was wearing a bra, it would have been a size thirty-six C, and the rest...