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Inaugurating Liberation

by Yarrow

Recently I've been remembering something George Orwell wrote: "All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure." He was writing in 1944, surely one of the low points for the human race:

"Since about 1930 the world has given no reason for optimism whatsoever. Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are only now entering into the European consciousness." And yet he wrote to recommend action, to recommend taking responsibility.

These days (I think) it's easier to see hope than in 1944; but we need to remember that still, everything we do will fail. If we want our failure to be splendid, or enjoyable, or useful, then we have to allow ourselves to see the failure, to feel confused, afraid, disgusted. And we need to look again, with forgiveness, compassion and love — so that the next failure may be a different one, one that falls short of the goal more splendidly, more enjoyably, more usefully.

One of my Catholic Worker friends made a banner for the 20th: Inaugurate Liberation. When I first heard that, I thought something cynical like "Nice trick if you can do it." But now I really like the idea. Yes, we failed to inaugurate liberation. My friends and I spent a lot of time wandering around, missing a rendevous, helping support other people when the police objected to their wandering around — and yet somewhere in that apparently aimless wandering were moments of splendor, enjoyment, and usefulness for the future.

Seven of us from Richmond, Virginia went as a group on a bus to the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC. We were supposed to meet some other Richmonders who'd gone up early for the direct action convergence, but we got the meeting point wrong by a block. (Note for the future: cell phones!) So we went back to the permitted rally with the rest of the bus. It was rainy, cold, and low energy, until some Black Bloc folks marched through the crowd holding a banner that said "Anonymous Resistance." We followed them for a while — it was good to do something besides stand around. But they were marching out into nowhere — away from the parade route and any focus of resistance. So we huddled for a brief consensus and went back to the rally.

Soon, though, my friends' friends came by to tell us that the police had some of the Black Bloc trapped at 14th and K, and we were needed for support. It was particularly galling because they hadn't done anything but march around: for this action the Black Bloc folks might as well have been using the action guidelines we remembered from the April 16th action against the IMF: no property destruction, with an exception for removing barricades that prevent the exercise of free speech. We marched back out again, after ensuring that we all knew the number to call if arrested: 201-THC-HIPY.

The bus is full of Greens, and communists,
and us: one Witch, two Lesbian Avengers,
three from Food Not Bombs, four RAGN members.
(We overlap: that's seven anarchists.)
We miss our rendevous and droop, dismissed,
around the legal rally's drizzled ember
(with echoes of the fire we remember:
the drums, and the radical cheerleaders' call to Resist.)
Black Bloc! Around the corner, marching out. Okay!
We join them, then we huddle and break short:
We're gonna risk arrest — to march away?
Back to the rally — 'til the next report:
the cops have them trapped at 14th and K,
so off again we go to give support.

At 14th and K we found a crowd of activists confronting a double line of police. The Richmonders we missed this morning were there too, and they filled us in after some quick hugs. The police had about five hundred people surrounded across the street. We later heard that the police had intially trapped about 70 Black Bloc people and were in turn surrounded by folks from the Voter March and the NOW March — quite a striking example of solidarity across the political spectrum. Then the police sealed off the entire city block of people.

The police line was solid around the trapped group across the street. On our side it was much thinner, and the police seemed humanly afraid. That didn't keep them from knocking people back from the street with their clubs. And perhaps doing worse: there were a few scuffles I couldn't see well, but the network news camera crews were jumping with excitement.

My friends, mostly veterans of the action against the Republican National Convention where the police were really rough, gradually worked their way to the front lines, nose-to-nose with the cops. I hung back a little, less brave than they but wanting at least to be at their backs. It was interesting to be that scared and not panic. The cops rushed us, trying to arrest someone up on a light pole with a black flag. We pushed back long enough for the flag holder to climb down. There was talk of trying to break through the cops' line, but then they let the trapped people march away, and we peeled off to join them.

The line of cops is ugly from behind:
we see, in each set neck on each tense shoulder,
remembered arrogance. The mind's beholder
fashions faces for them, grim, aligned.
The other cops (whose faces face us) remind
that they, as we, feel fear and anger smolder;
and in the rain their bodies too grow colder.
One has lost her club. She looks resigned.
Watch out! They're moving in! They push us back —
they're almost to the streetlight where the flag
is waving in the streetlight climber's hands.
She or he climbs down, the flag repacked,
and jumps into the crowd before they drag
her off. We won! Next time, let's have demands.

This time the march headed back to the parade route. We stopped to use some portapotties, and missed seeing the front of the march break through the barricades at one of the police checkpoints to the parade route, where the police stopped and searched all attendees (well, almost all!). We saw riot cops running down the street, but by the time we found an unguarded barricade and went in, all was calm. Protesters were definitely in the majority, though Republicans did wander through. I saw more fur coats in those few hours than I've seen in the rest of my life.

It was splendid to see my friends' courage and beauty and dedication to their ideals. It was enjoyable — well, no, it wasn't very enjoyable to be out there in the cold rain, but there is always something close to enjoyment in doing true work. It was useful because we were part of the largest Inaugural protest since Richard Nixon; and it was useful for the lessons learned. One lesson is tactical: the police were so tied down guarding the parade route that they were unable to arrest seventy people. This time, we didn't have any goals lined up away from the parade — next time, who knows?

The other lesson is the more important one. The real reason the police were unable to arrest those seventy Black Bloc folks is that the Black Bloc had the support of people whose political philosophy was very different from theirs. Friends tell me that afterward, some email lists were full of messages from trapped people who were truly impressed with that solidarity.

It's not supposed to be that way — radicals are supposed to sneer at reformists; reformists are supposed to fear radicals. For that matter, political articles aren't supposed to have sonnets in them. Let's break those rules. Let's use everything we can, from blocking the streets to writing letters to the editor to behaving like decent human beings even under the pressure of a sick society. Let's see the splendor in each other's work (even when it's work we ourselves would not choose to do). Let's enjoy the company of people we disagree with. Let's help each other to do useful work. Let's keep them busy guarding the parade while we inaugurate liberation behind their backs.

Yarrow is a geek priest and activist poet living and working in Richmond, Virginia. He meddles.