Friday March23, 2007 3:59 pm
This is the second time that I am writing this. My misadventures have spread from the District of Columbia to my apartment, where three nights ago I wrote furiously from 11 pm until 2 am, producing what I thought was an excellent post, definitely the longest ever to be put on this blog, and then lost it in an instant when I clicked “Publish” - clearly they assumed that when I clicked publish, I meant that I wanted to completely erase everything I had done, and then just go to bed enraged. Today I have decided that what was written well in three hours yesterday can be re-written better today in two, so here goes. [Note: two hours became three days, but now it’s done.]
Where to even begin? My old friend Kevan Tucker is a filmmaker. He and I used to make movies in high school, and he hasn’t stopped since. He’s working on a movie now that he hopes to send to Sundance next year, and they’ve been shooting for over a year, up and down the East Coast, and part of their shooting takes place at anti-war demonstrations. Shooting at actual demonstrations brings with it a whole host of practical and logistical challenges - not least of which is that the entire cast and crew has to get to Washington DC whenever there’s a protest or peace march.
Last Saturday was the anniversary of the war in Iraq, so there was a huge protest march on the Pentagon, and Kevan was going to be there shooting. He called me and asked me if I was interested in coming for the day to be a production photographer, and with all the complaining I’ve been doing about not having anything to photograph recently, I had no choice but to say yes. Hours after I agreed to go, the producer e-mailed me with an incredibly detailed itinerary. I would receive a call at 4:30 am on Saturday, and then the car would be at my house at 4:40. We would arrive at Union Square at 5:00, 45 minutes before the bus that was taking protesters to DC arrived. The movie needed shots of people getting ready to go to the protest, and I think the actors may have done a scene out on the street. I had volunteered to drive a van that was supposed to follow the bus all the way to the protest (they needed shots of the bus driving into DC). Kevan, the actors, and a cameraman took the bus, because they had to shoot a scene on the bus. The producer left earlier and went straight to DC to scout and get ready for the shoot. It was all impressively organized and surprisingly professional.
So, instead of arriving at 5:45, the buses arrived at 7:30. It was slushy, with temperatures in the low twenties, and while I got to sit in the heated minivan, the cast and crew waited with the protesters and got colder and colder. They ended up all hiding down in the subway station while I saw the sun rise over Union Square - trust me, there are better places to see the sunrise from than in a dirty minivan on the corner of 15th and Union Square East. When the bus finally pulled out I was right behind it, and I think the bus driver thought we were crazy, as we kept speeding past him with someone hanging out the window with a camera. The drive was uneventful save for my almost falling asleep and the excellent lunches that the producer made for us (sandwich, brownie, one piece of fruit, juice, power bar, water). At around noon, we got to the protest.
From the car, the protest was exciting. There were thousands of people milling around, people with signs and banners, lots of police, and a lot of people protesting the protesters. The bus stopped, everyone piled out and grabbed their stuff, leaving myself and Lauren the actress in the car. I was instructed to park the car. Not having ever driven in DC before, I didn’t really know what to make of that. Where does one park in DC? What direction should I set off in? I didn’t know. I asked everyone who came with us, but no one had any idea. They told me to follow the traffic, because certainly everyone was trying to find parking. Lauren and I set out to find a lot. I followed the traffic for about a minute before the little road we were on suddenly passed over a bridge and then turned into a big highway. As we came down off the bridge, I noticed a sign that said “Welcome to VIRGINIA!” In a matter of one minute I had let the protest and ended up in another state.
Lauren and I tried to find a map (there was none) and so we tried to navigate by raw sense of direction. I tried to turn around on our Virginian highway, but that just ended up putting me on another highway going in another direction in Virginia. We drove for about 15 minutes, and I had just found a way to turn around, when my phone rang. It was Kevan, and Kevan was not happy. Kevan was in director mode, which is fearsome thing to behold. Here is how the conversation went:
Kevan: Ben, where are you? We need Lauren here now.
Ben: Kevan, I, um, we’re lost. I think we’re in another state.
Kevan: I don’t care if you’re in another state, Ben. You get Lauren here NOW.
<phone call ends>
With a renewed sense of urgency, Lauren and I tried to find our way back to the District of Columbia. 15 minutes of frantic driving and cutting off poor Virginians as we tried to get the right exit, Lauren and I were back in DC. She was annoyed, I was lost, and we were driving in circles around the Washington Monument. We spotted the protest way in the distance, but didn’t know how to get to it. Finally after making a few right turns from the left lane, and then some left turns from the right lane - we made it back to where we had started. Lauren jumped out of the car and sprinted to the shoot, and I was back in front of the protest, alone in the car, still needing to park. I told myself that I would not go into Virginia again, and set off.
As I signaled to the right at the last turn before the dreaded Virginia highway, I noticed a solid line of police officers blocking that road and signaling that I should continue straight. So straight over the bridge I went for a second time, gripping the steering wheel extremely tightly and swearing. I thought I would be better off the second time through that terrible state, but every turn I made put me on a new highway that at first appeared to be driving back towards DC, but then would pass under some other road and then be heading god knows where. Virginia is for lovers, and also for people who made a wrong turn in DC. While I was driving, I gave up hope. I called people back home and told them that it had been fun, but that I would probably never return. I started sightseeing, because I had no idea which exit would take me back. After about 20 minutes, I saw a sign for Washington, and I headed for it. I crossed a bridge, saw that I was back in DC, and parked. It was odd though, because while I expected a mob scene of hundreds of cars trying to park, the first lot I found was nearly empty. I should have noticed that, but just then I was so happy to find parking that nothing else mattered. I backed into a wall, pulled forward a bit, grabbed my camera and kit and got out of the car.
I had no idea where I was, I didn’t know where to go, and I was pretty annoyed at Kevan for planning every moment of the day except for parking the car, which they left to their photographer. I wandered a little bit, and got more and more worried. I noticed that the people who were walking around were not the protesting types at all - when I had dropped off the crew it had been groups with banners and signs and bumper stickers on the cars, and wherever I was, it was all groups of kids and young couples shopping at J.Crew and Pottery Barn. I called Brendon, who had once lived in DC. I gave him my address, and asked him where I was. After a moment of thinking, Brendon said (and I quote) “Oh my god dude, you’re in Georgetown.”
Such is my ignorance of Washington DC that I had no idea what that meant. Was I near the protest? Was I in the right state? Had I made a huge mistake? With Brendon’s help I got myself pointed in the right direction, and started walking towards the monuments, where the protest was. It was a long walk, and about half an hour later, I still hadn’t found the monuments. I kept going. You’ll notice there are no pictures now. That is because I was not so much thinking about what I wanted to photograph, and more how I wanted to strangle Kevan. Every once and a while someone on the crew would call me to ask where I was, and I would always tell them what intersection I was at, and they would pause and say “…well, I don’t know where that is - good luck!” After another 20 minutes of walking towards a sound I thought was the protest but was just a St. Patrick’s Day party, I called Brendon again. I guess that somewhere I had made a wrong turn, or had not made a turn, but I had gone about twice as far as I needed to, part of the time in the wrong direction. I was on the brink of despair when Kevan called to push me all the way in. He told me that the march was actually over, and that the group had reached the Pentagon. Could I make it to the Pentagon? I gave Kevan a few choice words, and then hung up on him. I didn’t know where the Pentagon was, and so I called my man Brendon again.
(Really, there will be pictures soon. I swear)
It turned out that the Pentagon was in my favorite state - Virginia! The state that I had been walking away from for about an hour. Brendon gave up navigating, and I gave up walking, and I found a taxi. I told the taxi driver that I needed to get as close to the Pentagon as possible. We were off and I was finally feeling a little better.
That didn’t last long though. As we went over the bridge to the Pentagon, my taxi driver informed me that all the exits on the highway that passes by the Pentagon were closed, and so he offered to drop me off on the side of the highway, and all I had to do was “just cross the road, and then jump over the barrier.” As he pulled over on the hard shoulder, I started to wonder if running across a highway was a good idea, or even legal. I asked him. “Oh sure, it’s no problem.” He said. “Just be careful.”
The cab pulled away, and there I was. I snapped a picture without looking through the viewfinder, and then started thinking about how to cross six lanes of cars traveling at 60 miles per hour. Behind me was a high metal fence. To my left was a footbridge full of people who were suddenly noticing that there was some dumb guy standing on the road with a camera in hand. I waited for my chance and sprinted across the first half of the highway. The people on the bridge cheered, cars honked and drivers swore at me. I jumped over the divider, waited for the right moment, and ran to the far side of the road. And noticed that instead of protesters, in front of me was a parking lot full of dozens of police officers, all of whom were eying me suspiciously.
They all seemed to be waiting for me to jump over the barrier, so instead of doing that I waved one over. I tried to explain that my cab had let me off on the side of the highway, that I was trying to meet up with my friends, and what should I do. Should I come over the wall? “This is a high-security area.” The cop with surprisingly bad teeth told me. “If you come over this wall, I’m going to arrest you.” I assured him that I had no intention of coming over that wall, and that all I wanted to do was find my friends. He looked puzzled, radioed a little bit, and then told me to walk down the highway about two hundred yards, at which point jumping over the wall would be okay, as it was no longer a high security area. “Just stay as close as to the wall as possible!” He shouted after me as I walked along with the high-speed traffic.
So, about three hours after being sent to park the car, I reached the protest. I was more or less livid, but I met up with the crew and finally had a moment to take in the rally that we were at.
And you know what? It was a huge disappointment. I don’t know what I expected, but when I think about rallies, about marches on Washington, I imagine passionate people marching for good causes. I imagine inspired speakers capturing the feelings of everyone assembled in fiery speeches. I imagined anything other than a disorganized group of people who couldn’t seem to find anything to agree about other than that they disagreed with something. Crowds of socialists were there shooting dirty looks at the anarchists. Behind me was a big group of 9/11 conspiracy theorists shouting that the government had bombed the World Trade Center, and in front of me were the people that wanted to impeach Bush. On stage was an unending parade of speakers, none of whom were good, most of whom tried - more than once, and unsuccessfully - to start a chant for their cause. There was someone going on about a Cuban embassy that was bombed, then someone shouting about immigration, then an angry man who seemed not really to have a cause, but he definitely didn’t like President Bush. The big headliner was Cindy Sheehan - a central figure in the movement - and she was as bad or worse than everyone else. Rather than bringing gravitas and eloquence to the occasion, she made jokes about the weather, told everyone they were patriots for standing out in the cold, and then proceeded to call the war in Iraq a “bullshit war.” What happened to great speakers? What happened to bringing some emotion to your speech? When did this all become a lot of rabble rousing and complaining? The people who were watching didn’t seem to care. I saw two separate groups playing hackey sack in the crowd. Is your urge to hackey the sack so irresistible that even when at an anti-war rally in Washington DC you must make yourself into a dumb caricature of a hippie, you self-obsessed and embarrassing people? You make me ashamed to call myself a liberal.
No one seemed to agree on anything either. Someone would shout to impeach Bush, and half the crowd would cheer. Someone would shout that 9/11 was an inside job, and 20 people cheered and 200 people booed. Everyone else just stood around dumbly. An Iraqi woman got up on stage and talked about women’s rights, and when she gave a shout out (her words, not mine) to the Muslim community, a small group in the back cheered and everyone else turned to see who was cheering. The only thing these people agreed on was not really agreeing with everything that the government was doing, but even in that, they didn’t really see eye to eye.
I was so put off by the protesters and speakers that I wandered off in search of something to photograph. When protesters saw a camera pointed at them, they immediately assumed the fieriest pose they had. It was like photographing hipsters at a party - all these people were thinking about was looking good. Speaking of looking good - why is it that the uniform of liberalism has to be a dirty unshaven face, dreadlocks, old clothes with holes in them, and beaded jewelry? It’s not like the protesters were real hippies living in communes or anything - every faded hemp shoulder bag held a brand new digital camera, in the tattered cargo pocket was an oft-used cell phone - they were like kids dressing up for a costume party. The people didn’t look like revolutionaries, they looked like kids hoping to look good for a photograph.
As I wandered, becoming more and more annoyed at the people all around me, I noticed people running towards a footbridge over the highway. I looked closer, and there was a line of police officers clad in all black riot gear pushing a bunch of protesters back across a bridge. I ran across a field and up a hill to find exactly what I had hoped to find.
A group of maybe a hundred riot police were pushing a smaller group of protesters back across the bridge, away from the Pentagon, and finally, something was happening. In the background, someone was shouting from the podium, but the sound was far away and muffled by echoes. Not being able to hear the speech made it much better, and as I came up to the line of police, all I could hear was the shouting from the protesters.
For a moment, I thought I had found the good part of protests. Here were people, together! Their silly signs were forgotten, and they were all together in their standoff with the police! People were chanting, shouting, everyone was a little scared and no one really knew what was happening. The police were in armor and gas masks, and looked like an intimidating and powerful group. No one really dared to stand up to the slowly advancing line of police, and so I got closer to the point where police met protest.
And what did I find? What were these people unified in? What cause were they shouting about? None. What the people were doing was being as awful as possible to the police. Kids younger than me who had never done a day of hard work in their entire cushioned lives were being as ruthless and insulting as they could to the police, insulting their jobs, their lives, their families, calling them fascists and cowards. People who had no idea what a country that has fallen apart is like shouted that the New World Order was upon us and that freedom was finished (I have it on good authority that freedom is not finished.) People started trying to improve on each other’s insults, and then it was a game of getting up close to a police officer’s face and being as cruel as possible. People insulted the women officers for working for men. They called the men cowards for wearing armor and stupid for not responding to the taunts. They shouted about police shootings and riots, about how much they hated anyone who wore a police uniform, and about how they would be ashamed if their parents were police officers.
Frankly, I was disgusted. I looked from the angry, rude, and disorganized protesters spewing hate to the police - organized, disciplined – consummate professionals. They held together, they reassured each other and backed each other up. They ignored the awful things being said to them, and did their job. At that moment, I wanted them to push the protesters off the bridge. Watching the line of protesters melt away in front of the black line, it was like a commercial for a new type of broom or something - just one sweep and all the hateful protesters are gone!
Even the protesters on the bridge couldn’t agree with each other. Every once and a while someone would shout something in support of the police - “come on guys, they are just doing their jobs” or something - and that person would then be shouted down by the angry voices who had just moments before been deriding the police. I was standing with the protesters while I took photos, but it felt bad to know that in the police’s eyes, I was part of the group of protesters.
Speaking of photographing, that was another disheartening feature of the protest - for every two protesters, there was a professional photographer looking for the good picture. Like vultures, they hauled their cameras around, praying for someone to try something or get arrested so that they could have a good photo to sell. I have less scorn for the photographers, but the whole protest felt like a farce, where every person who took a stand and got right up to the police ended up with five photographers around him or her, everyone trying to get the best photo.
This was the one good thing - this girl. I like her. I like her face paint, I like the fact that she appears clean and has brushed her hair. I like that she’s wearing a nice scarf and that she’s not grandstanding for some camera. I like that she was just calmly walking right in front of the police, but what I like best is that she’s listening to her iPod. What could be more perfect, more appropriate for a protest in 2007 than protesting to your own soundtrack? Everyone else was looking backwards to the protests of the 60s and 70s, but this girl was looking forwards. She didn’t care about the terrible speeches, and so she didn’t listen to them. She wasn’t being mean to the police, and so she put on some music and walked. She realized that just being there was the important part, not being rude or showy or poorly dressed - and so she came and she wore a nice scarf and charged her iPod and more power to her. Pretty girl with the earphones, you are my hero.
It was so good to finally have something to photograph again. After months of just sitting around, taking the occasional photo, it felt great to have things happening around me. It made me think and react quickly and was a great break from the monotony of my routine in New York.
So here are some more pictures I took. Due to the nature of my photos, the police look like a hard and mean bunch, but don’t be fooled. The mean bunch was behind me, screaming venom at a group of professionals who were maintaining peace and order.
These guys especially - they look mean.
I want to be a police officer after this picture.
And that was my day. We got the car from the lot without much difficulty, and I actually ended up driving all the way back as well. We were home by midnight, which made it a 20-hour day. Writing this post has been nearly as trying, but now both the post and the protest are done, and I can move on to more kittens and life in New York. I’m going to take some time off before going to any more protests, at the very least.