March 29, 2011

The Day the War Began

Originally written shortly after the protest in 2003, an audio of this was broadcast on KUNM on the year anniversary of the war's inception.

Hopefully, reasons for writing about this will become fewer and fewer.

The Day the War Began.
            Three deep and two dozen across, the Albuquerque police department blocked eastbound Central Avenue. They wore Army fatigues, gas masks and helmets, held black batons, yet had no badges or name tags that identified each as a person, an individual. Judging from the surrounding army of police cars and police horses, and the four cruisers that closed Central further to the east, their function was clear. Not only do the authorities want to silence dissent, but they want to keep those not politically vocal from becoming aware of dissent at all.
            One of the cops held what looked like a toy water cannon and swung it back and forth across the crowd. The gun shook and he looked over to his right and then his left as if waiting for the right provocation.
            Behind me, in the westbound lane, the crowd dispersed, moving off the street and onto the sidewalk. Most of the protesters now lined Central. A few of them, too few, sat down in the street. They looked around, suddenly realizing the support that was there seconds ago had dispersed, leaving them a small half dozen against the line of police.
            To my left, some sort of gas canister rolled into the crowd blocking the Frontier restaurant. With gas billowing from the canister, the crowd ran back away from the restaurant, into the street and onto the other side of Central. A protester, clutching a bandana over her mouth, picked up and rolled the canister back toward the line of police.
            The rain began to fall.
            I walked up to the now lone protester and leaned up to her and said, “You can get off the street.”
            She nodded, but stood there.
            Suddenly, the nervous cop grabbed me and pulled me towards him then pushed to his right.
            I didn’t resist, but moved with him and found myself seeing the protest from his vantage point. The angry crowd yelled and chanted from the side of the street. Whoever had lead the protest had either abdicated that responsibility now or become just another face in the mob. Chants of “Shame on you, shame on you,” emanated from a smaller and smaller crowd. Cops were everywhere, lining Central, blocking off Cornell, barking orders from horseback and waiting. I moved over to the sidewalk and looked out onto the street.
            She was standing alone in the middle of Central when he opened up with the gun. Armed with bean-bag pellets, the cop fired one after another into her body as she crumpled and fell.
            My eyes burned as I stepped out into the street. No one approached me or, from what I could tell, even noticed me as I walked across the street to where she was lying.
            She writhed in pain as I bent down and asked, “I’m Don. Is anything broken?”
            She shook her head “No.”
            “Can you stand up?”
            She moved around and then, grabbing my arm for support, pulled herself up. We walked over to the corner and she slumped under the stoplight.
            I bent down with her. “We’re in front of the Frontier now.”
            I glanced around and stared at the line of police. Blocking the entrance to the Frontier, a small female cop with blonde hair bleeding out from beneath the fatigues, looked around at the other cops.
            She could be my sister, I thought to myself. Having just graduated from the academy a year before, my little sister is a cop in Denver. Certainly she was doing this very same thing, or so I thought.
            Protesters were yelling at the cops, indiscriminately. On the last rainy day of winter, the cops of the city of Albuquerque were an army, and neither of us knew what we were doing or what was going to happen next. The real authorities were on the other end of phone lines, talking to the cops on horseback or standing next to cars, trying to coordinate a situation that had gone horribly wrong. The citizens of Albuquerque were in a stand off with the cops of Albuquerque. Somebody’s brother held a baton. Somebody’s sister yelled, “Shame on you,” and curled her hand into an accusing finger.
            I leaned over to a screaming protester who I knew and said, “They’re just doing what they’re told. Heather! They just want us to go home. We’ve made our point.”
            But had we?
            What I only partially realized last March is much clearer now. In my concern for the lives of innocent Iraqis, I’d taken to the street. And on the street, seeing the show of force by the Albuquerque police department, I’d lost track of the police’s humanity. They became the man, a machine. And, judging by their reaction, I became a rioter, a possible looter, a criminal. I’m still opposed to the war, but find myself making excuses for not speaking out. I’m afraid, and effectively silenced.

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