The week that the Iraq War began was spring break. I went back to New York for a few days and took the train into Manhattan with some friends for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I knew there would be a lot of people out in the streets so I wore an old tee-shirt and spray painted “No War On Iraq” across the front. I thought it’d be a subtle way to get the message into people’s heads. Lots of other people, drunk at a parade and primed for war by months of build-up, saw it as provocative. All day people caught my eye and gave me dirty looks. A few shouted. “Communist,” and “Get out of the country,” were popular refrains.
As the parade was winding down I was standing on a side street, half a block away from the crowd on 5th Ave. My friend and I were waiting for a few other friends who had gone off to get food. A group of high school kids, about 17 or 18 years old, stopped in front of me.
One boy asked, “Why are you wearing that shirt?”
“Because there’s no reason for war.”
“What about nine-eleven. You think we should just not do anything?” His fists were clenched at his sides. Twelve of his friends stood behind him, crowding around, excited for some action. His arms were almost hairless. His face was pockmarked with pimples.
“Nine eleven was horrible but had nothing to do with Iraq. The problem is—“
Warm saliva splashed across my face. I reflexively wiped my hand across my cheek.
“Hit ‘em. He’s a fucking traitor!” I heard someone yell from the cluster behind the pimpled boy.
My friend jumped in front, trying to defend me, and took the first punch square in the jaw. They swarmed around us, knocked us to the ground and kicked us in the face and chest. My friend got up, connected a few punches and ended up on the ground again, sneakers smacking against his face. I curled up in a ball and covered my face with my forearms. A dozen skinny legs wound up and kicked against the back of my head and my chest. Everything moved in slow motion. I watched the sneakers connect but didn’t feel or hear anything. I felt empty. There was no impulse to grab one of them and fight back. I was oddly calm during the minute or so that the kids swarmed around, kicking their feet wildly against me.
When they stopped and ran off I looked up and saw a crowd of spectators around us. A hundred people had watched and let it play out. My friend was worse off than me. Both his eyes were already swelling, and one of them was filled with blood.
Two days later the US military started bombing Baghdad and invaded Iraq.
I sat down with my parents and told them what I planned to do. They knew I had been active with protests at my university in Hartford and must have expected I would be joining some kind of action now that the war had begun.
“On Monday morning a group of us are going to block the doors to the Federal building in Hartford.”
“And then what?” my father asked. He was a business manager and always calculated everything in advance. “What happens when the police come?”
“We stay. The goal is to stop the government from working that day, at least at that one building.”
My mom, who was a teacher and volunteered at a homeless shelter, leaned forward in her chair. “They’ll arrest you,” she said. “You can keep going to protests and writing letters and all of that but if you get arrested it will stay with you. It will go on your permanent record.”
“I want this on my permanent record.”
On Monday we locked arms and blocked all the entrances before anyone arrived to start their workweek. “Government’s closed until the war’s over,” we told the employees who turned up for work. The police came and dragged us away. I let my body go limp and four officers in riot gear carried me onto the bus. It felt good to so forcefully declare opposition to what was being done in my name.
But it also felt pathetic. Bombs were falling on cities and the best I could do was block a door.
That night police officers brought a boom box down to the holding cells, now filled with anti-war protesters. They played the Star – Spangled Banner on repeat through the night.
That’s the night I decided to leave. I kept going to protests. I kept writing letters and signing petitions. And I kept urging people to vote for good, progressive candidates.
But I didn’t believe any of it anymore.
When I dived into activism I thought we would win. I thought you could follow all the rules, and if you worked hard enough, you would win. All you had to do was work hard, every day, and government would listen, and society would change. Aided by the naiveté of youth, I thought I could change the world . . . until I didn’t.
Once I was released from jail the first thing I wrote was a poem titled “Without Me”:
my country is going to war; without me
my nation is planning to kill; without me
my president has abandoned peace; without me
I didn’t fully understand at the time, but that was the week I gave up.