Planet Plague 4: Social Justice Tourist

I was having a Walter Mitty moment:

The dead man’s forehead felt cool against my scrotum. He could have died of AIDS, but it was more likely all those rubber bullets shot into his face by cops at point-blank range. I’m guessing one of them hit his septum square on and drove it up into his brain.

That’s how Nicolas Cage killed a guy at the beginning of Con Air. He didn’t need any rubber bullets because he was highly trained in Special Forces kung fu, but the general idea is the same. Nic Cage kills a lot of people in movies so I know what I’m talking about.

My balls were on his forehead because I was crouched in the bushes trying to hide from police patrols. It was also the only part of his face not turned into cop lasagna by rubber bullets. But why was I dragging sack in the first place? Where the hell were my pants? My mind raced for an explanation, but came up empty and the plausibility of the narrative broke down.

That left me no choice but to pay attention to the protest that was actually going on. It was nothing like my little daydream. On the plus side, the SFPD wasn’t shooting rubber bullets. Then again, it was hot out (by San Francisco standards) and shedding my pants was not an option.

The beginning of the march, before there was any marching, was held in Dolores Park and 18th Street in front of Mission High School. Becca was still at work so I hiked over there on my own. I wasn’t used to being out in the sun. With my shelter-in-place beard, my face under my mask was sweating like a 70s cooch in double-knit panties.

The protest was organized, at least in part, by students at the high school. A young woman was giving a speech and was doing a good job of it judging from the cheers that erupted whenever she paused. Sure, she was playing to a sympathetic crowd, but the reaction seemed heartfelt. However, the PA was unable to send anything intelligible as far back as I was standing so I had to take their word for it.

There were no trees and therefore no shade in the part of the park where I was. Fortunately, I was high enough on the hill to catch a hint of breeze coming in from the west. It also afforded me a good vantage point to see when the march would be getting underway. So far, the big crowd at 18th and Dolores was staying put.

I had no idea what was going to happen after we made the three-block march to the Mission Police Station. There were 10,000 other protesters and I doubt any of them knew either. It probably wouldn’t be anything like the gore-porn fantasy I amused myself with to pass the time.

There might be tear gas. I had some experience with that in Holland back in 2001. An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease kept the monarch from touring the country on Queen’s Day so everybody decided to come to Amsterdam instead. The rail system got overloaded and eventually shut down, stranding a bunch of drunk Dutch who voiced their displeasure by smashing shit.

I experienced two tear-gas canisters that night. The first landed about six feet downwind of me. I watched it fizz and spin until it ran out of steam. I took that one back to the States as a souvenir. The second one came in a half block upwind of me. Its cloud drifted over me and I could barely see from all the tears in my eyes. I made my way to a snack bar and chugged a Coke, which seemed to help.

My takeaway from that experience was that you want to stay upwind to tear gas. Of course, there is no guarantee you have any choice in the matter. Other than that, very little of what happened then would be of any use now.

For one thing, the stakes were not as high. Granted, it’s hard to take the Dutch all that seriously. I never could and I was married to one of them at the time. Beyond that, what happened in Amsterdam was decidedly temporary. The next day, there would be hangovers, broken windows, and a functioning rail system. Life would return to normal.

One could argue that if people here simply returned home, normalcy (or at least a global-pandemic version of it) would return. The problem was that business-as-usual America is a pretty fucked-up place to be. If you’re African American or simply have been paying attention, you knew this already. A bad cop, like any bully, targets those least able to do anything about it. Add systemic racism to the mix and you have police killing POC with impunity until people say enough is enough. Black Lives Matter is people saying enough is enough.

The speeches on front of Mission High were over and the march had begun. Most of the protesters were moving down 18th Street though a sizable number took 19th Street instead. I went that route because social distancing would merely be difficult instead of impossible. Almost everyone was wearing a mask, but that only helped a little.

Becca had messaged me. She was off work and only a block away. Say what you will about smartphones and their alienating effect on humanity. Without that technology, we never would have been able to find each other in that throng. We rendezvoused in front of a corner store at 19th and Guerrero, and took 19th to Valencia. From there, we turned left. The police station was a block and a half away.

We joined in shouting whatever was being chanted as we moved forward with the crowd. Some of it, like “Hey hey, ho ho, racist cops have got to go!” sounded a little silly, like something you would expect the Ramones to say. More effective, at least to me, was the cadenced yelling of victim’s names. “George Floyd!” and “Breonna Taylor!” left little doubt as to why we were so pissed off.

At the corner of 18th Street, we took a knee. I had no idea who decided that. I just saw Becca drop down and I followed suit. I am not as limber as I used to be so I had to put one hand on a street sign for balance and grimaced when my knee came down on the hard concrete. Still, it was preferable to just standing there and looking like a dipshit.

The police station was between 18th and 17th. We skirted the crowd on the far side of the street and found a spot across from the station at the opening to Clarion alley. The alley is famous for its murals, many of which decry gentrification and displacement of the community. Those problems had not gone away.

Attending protests is rarely my thing and being vocal at one almost never is, but this was different. I wasn’t sure if the unrest would accomplish anything lasting, or if it would be quashed with a clampdown or evaporate when a bargain is struck with lip service and bullshit. All I knew was I wanted to do something other than nothing.

More to the point, I wanted to do something and not be a dick about it. I am appallingly self-serving in my outlook. I’ve been like that all my life and don’t think I could change that now. The best I can do is temper what I do so there is some net benefit for people other than myself. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just enough to merit keeping me around.

I was fully aware of my selfish motivations when I stepped out the door. Cabin fever was one. Wanting to raise a big middle finger to the cops was another. My problem with authority was born in childhood (capricious, batshit parenting had something to do with that) and has endured via my refusal to grow up.

Left unchecked, this baggage would make me a liability today. Fortunately, I knew that. This wasn’t The Dave Show. I was fine being a bit player. I would march in the direction needed, shout what needed to be shouted, and take a knee even though my creaky, old bones complained. Personal vindication and unhinged fantasies were kept between the ears where they belonged.

I’m not the one at risk. My privilege is white enough to hurt your eyes. When I’ve misbehaved, the police looked the other way. I don’t consider this fair even though it has kept me out of jail. I certainly don’t condone cops killing unarmed African Americans in exchange for letting me slide. I may be selfish, I’m not that much of a piece of shit.

We remained in a peaceful standoff until around eight. Curfew was starting, but we were not heading home quite yet. Becca, who had been messaging other protesters, had learned the march would continue to City Hall.

We joined the others and walked up Valencia toward Market Street. We chanted. Those who had signs waved them. I felt like a bit of a fraud.