“It was a history that neither owed nor paid him any attention.”

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

The gnashing of teeth, teeth wet by tears, pulpit-promised to the damned, though it is, God-damned as he does, also describes the mastication — the toothsome sucking of sorrow into sweetness — of a righteous anger. Just as it takes more than a single tooth to chew, such an anger, to be more than a nip attended by a protested spittle, needs a crowd.

Protests are those gatherings we attend or avoid, with political ends usually left unachieved. Protests are planned, their signage stapled or taped across town before and after. People of vaguely like-minded intent meet at protests; sometimes they fall in love, other times they just fuck. Mostly, though, they end up forgetting. “I was there, too!” they’ll say seven years later. “Those were good times,” they’ll agree. “We tried, but alas,” they’ll shrug. There is a class of “professional” protesters — people who somehow make it to every action, Johnny-on-the-spot and on time, pamphlet-informed, equipped with goggles and a milk of magnesia concentrate for tear-gassed eyes. Protests are peopled by those on every stage of an activist life-cycle — naive hope; enthusiastic promise; success so close; success so far; promise broken; hope bludgeoned — with a few jaundiced zombies here and there, usually near the curbs.

People and placards gathered as quickly as the suspicions that the fire had been no accident. Crew-cutted white men had been seen, empty gas tins found. So-and-so said so. Threats, scrawled, screamed, and scowled, had framed the background of the church’s very existence for so long that no one noticed when it had advanced to the fore.

Every protest has within it an embryonic crowd that its slogans, signs, intentions and goals cannot contain.

Every protest has within it a conflict, for it is of at least two minds.

Every protest has within in it a threat, that itself threatens the protest.

Every protest has within it a crowd it, in varying degrees and moments, suppresses and unleashes.

The crowd outside the church, viewed from a safe distance, was unwieldy. Neither their signs nor the chants, often one and the same, tunes as catchy as a cold, were the message. They had become a complex, multi-limbed body akimbo and splayed, learning to walk. Clumsily at first, it moved through the streets, from project block toward condo project, furious with a message R. could not make out over the din of its movement. There was no spokesperson that he could see. Pastor Troy had flung himself into the sea of bodies his cries and phone calls (and evening television appearance) had pleaded for, and he’d been swallowed. He would emerge a few hours later — R. would say three — answering the classic journalistic W’s  — the What’s and Why’s — with an anonymous “We.”

Crowds are buoyed by contradictions — vengeance and forgiveness, rights asserted and wrongs forgotten — and peopled by an assortment of bodies whose purpose is never so much forgotten as held momentarily at bay.

Crowds are subject to symbols — fire and broken glass, nearly without fail; laughter, at things later unfunny; fear, for oneself and others. Anger and joy are never so far apart in the crowd as they are in the protest

Crowds are such that their stories are not the sum of their plot.

On the street from his safe, well-lit post, R. watched as a certain history of the world passed. It was a history that neither owed nor paid him any attention. There is a temptation to think such crowds have become rare. Or that if they are common, they are to little effect, due to our modern, technological yearning to self-narrate a story that adds up. Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, though, by whose reason would it be exorcised?

Of course, not all crowds are equal. Some, as another history has shown, and would yet again soon enough, are born of a desire to deny another crowd from occurring again or at all. These blaze, according to untold histories imagined and true, into controlled flames called arson and extermination.

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