He extends the megaphone out toward me, shaking the damn thing twice. I stare, caught off guard. “Take it, sis. My throat is killing me!” Dude’s voice is muffled under a checkered keffiyeh that winds down his neck. His black shirt has FUND BLACK FUTURES emblazoned across the chest. It takes me a moment to summon the sounds to my throat.
“No no, I’m okay, thank you,” I manage. “This is my first time.” I whirl around, glancing at the moving shapes around me. “I’m meeting up with some people.” He nods in resignation and takes a deep breath before hoarsely plunging into the next round of chants: back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom ...
I have never been to a protest but I have been to concerts, to mass. Even this feels like a kind of worship: a terrible, compelling mystery is in the air, some urgent liturgy of smells and sounds that I haven’t encountered in many months.
Our procession starts as a trickle, and every few blocks, we gain in numbers. Soon we have thickened to the width of the street. The energy rises to a fever pitch as the federal building comes into view, flags snapping brightly in the wind. Around me the crowd is shouting in Tagalog, Arabic, English, Spanish, motley delegations from every corner of the city and probably farther. We step onto the plaza and those already gathered there turn to face us, enthralled by the sound of our voices and drums. We crash upon each other like rogue waves, building even more momentum. Part of me wants to shrink back, thinking I’ve never had so many eyes on me, but I know I am cloaked among so many, and my feet keep carrying me forward.
A thin stage is up ahead, adorned with cloth and wires and youth doing traditional dance. There must be thousands of us now. Even the Bob Avakian people are here. One of them catches my eye and raises his brows, gesturing with a stack of flyers. I smile and wave him away.
• • •
The copy machine wheezes and purrs as I press a tall stack of papers into a manila folder, clipping them neatly. Most everyone I pass in the hallway gives me a slim grimace, averting their gaze. I can’t make out the words, but the sound of raised voices outside is unmistakable. I glance at a security monitor that displays the crowd outside continuing to form, bodies clustered like wiry limbs, drums pulsing out a feral heartbeat.
I take a deep breath and knock sharply. “Yes, yes, come in.” Gerald strokes his mustache absently while reading a white dossier. I notice the stains under his arms. “Before you say anything, yes, I know I look terrible.” I delicately add the stack to his overburdened desk.
“You look the same,” I demur.“So boss, when is the eagle landing?”
He cracks an absent smile. “The eagle ... Cass, only the real spies talk like that. We’re just the help.” He seems to lose his thought as several seconds pass.
“Is that the agenda?”
“Hm? Ah.” He glances at his wrist. “They can never keep him to a schedule. My guess is we’ve got about half an hour.” My eyes take in Gerald’s cramped office, which feels more desperate than usual. Stained mugs and piecemeal notes compete with hardened bread crusts for the precious little open space on his desk. Near the rear window, there’s a photo of a much younger Gerald — head full of hair — with what must have been his graduating class. It’s hard for me to reconcile this man’s bright countenance with the person hunched before me. I wonder if he took this job hoping to make a real change, like so many of us. Gerald is muttering something under his breath.
“Why he wants to visit this facility ... only causing more trouble than it’s worth.”
The crowd is louder now, approximating the forceful hissing of a full stadium. Gerald looks up, half-startled, and seems to take in the noise from the plaza for the first time. He jabs his thumb toward the direction of the demonstration.“Is this what it was like to be under siege in the Middle Ages?”
“I hear the food was better.”
Gerald laughs. “I’m out of credits, by the way. Swipe me in, yeah?”
“C’mon,” I nod, “let’s get some calories in you.”
Gerald clears his throat, looking at me over his horn rimmed glasses. “I don’t think I could keep anything down right now. Only thing keeping me going is coffee and adrenaline.” He lets out a shaky breath. “Let’s get all of this finished, all of this will be over and we can get back to work.” I shake my head and start to leave when Gerald calls out. “Cass? One more thing. Let folks know to look their best. He probably wants to do a photo op. I have the releases somewhere.” He excavates a crinkled packet and holds it out to me. “Sign these.”
• • •
The crowd flexes and shifts to accommodate our growing numbers as we negotiate the careful space between safety and distance. There are so many banners and flags waving around us, many more than I recognize. Near Mexico and Palestine there’s a guy selling tamales, or maybe just handing them out. It makes me smile seeing folks stealing bites of their snacks in between chants. There are a few people I know from community events and we wave and nod. I spot an auntie handing out water bottles towards the edge of the plaza. I take one from her and am so thirsty I don’t even mind that it’s warm. I barely wet my lips when I hear my name.
Behind me sways a thin woman with cropped brown hair, dressed in cultural garb and wheeling around a cart full of chips and juice boxes. “Alex,” I manage, “I figured you’d be here! Hey!” I move in for a hug, which I immediately regret but have already committed to. She was not ready for the embrace, and complies awkwardly, tugging on her mask as we pull away. We stare for a few moments. I suspect she called my name out of similar instinct, without taking into account how we left things.
“This is cool,” I say. “So many people are out here!”
“What? Oh yeah, totally,” she agrees. “So many.”
The last time we really hung out was two years ago, when we went out for drinks with friends and I gave her a piggyback ride down some stairs. She wanted to buy cigarettes, and we began to bicker as we stood outside the karaoke bar, smoking.
“It’s just hypothetical, though.”
“I know it’s just hypothetical, I just think it’s a stupid question.” I wanted to go back inside.
“Would you or wouldn’t you take the job?” she repeated, frustrated.
I laugh. “OK, in this scenario, I’m an engineer at a chemical weapons factory? Which, never mind I’m terrible at math. But sure, couldn’t I work against the system from the inside? Poison the middle management, sabotage the production lines, stop them from doing what they’re going to do anyway? Yeah, I guess I would take that job.” Alex scoffed and stomped out her cigarette with a twist of her boot.
“That’s the difference between us, Crix. That you’d even consider it. I’d be out here fucking things up and you’d be neck-deep in the 401(k).” And you’ll live in a thatch hut and shop in a store made out of hemp and be so pure, I thought. Alex pulled my sleeve. “So. Sing a song with me?”
I turn away. “Next time.” Getting on stage frightened the hell out of me. The best part of karaoke night was those one or two times a night when someone would put on a real ballad, one of those ancient crowd-pleasers. Glasses clinked, our voices lifted, and the whole room knit together.
Alex and I stare at each other for a moment longer, the masses throbbing around us. Almost out of obligation, I begin to suggest that we catch up sometime when the crowd stirs.
“He’s here!” someone yells as the red and blue lights of a police escort fill the street. A blocky motorcade sweeps into the concrete maw of the parking garage, as we shout and hope he can hear us damning him. The caravan of cars winds like a coiled viper. A half-thought flickers in my mind, an image of the whole line of cars exploding. Maybe in another world we’d rush the lines, cut off the head of the snake.
I used to joke that if I ever met him in person, I would punch him in the face. Right after they announced the visit, Janus from logistics joined me in the stairwell where I sneak my smokes. “Swear to God, I will refuse to shake his hand.” I hold my cigarette in one hand, and a thermos of hot tea in the other, just like my grandma. Janus raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, and then you’ll end up as some Net GIF or meme. And once you’re doxxed you’ll probably have to move and change jobs,” he considered. “And then I’ll have to smoke alone.”
I quit smoking the year I graduated college, but picked it up after the election. Everyone my boss’ boss and above was edged out, either muzzled or replaced by rote loyalists who have little experience in law enforcement or civil service. I deleted my social media accounts, too. It has become hard to stomach being associated with this administration.
“Naw sis, the move is to say something too clever for him. Like ‘thank you for doing the best you know how, sir,’ or ‘God bless you, I don’t care what everyone says, you’re all right.” I laugh.
“You Midwesterners are like black belts in passive aggression, huh?” I take a deep gulp from my thermos, and begin to imagine what it would be like to tell him off. The thought makes me laugh and a bit of froth dances on my lips. I turn and spit.
“Hey, careful, killer,” Janus takes a joking half-step back and points at the shiny, dark spot on the floor. “Never know what you may be carrying.” It was so easy to forget that our saliva was always potentially lethal, spitting now more assault than insult. “Not that we wear masks around here anyway. You’d be out of here so quickly,” he laughs.
My grandfather would not have been thrilled that I am out here. He was a radical in his youth. I know he was involved with a takeover of a local seminary until they agreed to provide fair housing to poor folks they were pushing out. But after a while, he said he started to feel like a voice shouting in the wind. I asked him how he felt about the land protectors a few years ago, and he said that they didn’t know what they were doing. He hadn’t been to a protest in a long time, and built a deck on the back of his house.
Grandpa was always religious but he grew in his faith as he aged, and he could be insistent about his convictions. He would speak with a quiet, unbroken passion. “We are a part of a great chain, Crystal,” he’d intone, “something powerful that can never be broken.” Gods, angels, plants, animals, all of humankind, each like roots, branching through the soil, reaching out to touch all others, to receive nutrients and to give as well. “We are all part of the same body, different parts. Without one, everything falls apart.”
There is a group of women near me holding up signs with pictures of people I don’t recognize. An elder, an adolescent, a man holding a young child. Block letters below their visages read: WHERE ARE THEY? These womens’ silence, their tearfulness, is a marked contrast to the energy around us. But I feel connected to them all the same.
One flame flickering in a gale may not survive on its own. None of us may persist in this way for too long. My grandfather burned out in this way. But pubs, concert halls, churches where other voices carried my own, wept and fought for me when I could not, these were my inheritance as well.
I catch the eye of the dude from earlier. He appears weathered and coughs into his hand. This time he doesn’t need to ask. I wave him over and wipe down the megaphone. He hands me a crib sheet full of chants, written in a number of scripts. He points to my grandparents’ mother tongue. He pulls down his scarf and shouts: “Can you speak it?” I nod. I take a deep breath and lift the thing to my face.
My parents said that I wanted to be a singer when I was a kid. No child even knows that my job exists. There was someone recruiting at my polytechnic, and I applied and it’s been the same for years until now. In the early weeks of this thing, we kept going into work when everyone else stayed at home. I would take the train and notice that all the white people had left. I could feel this nervous electricity in the air, curled tightly, like some giant slumbering snake. I feel that same buzzing right now in my gut.
After a tepid introduction from a suit, the man stands outside in the circle courtyard rattling his usual lines. None of us are paying much attention. What great service you all are doing. Never forget. We’ve made so much progress. Gotten rid of so many of them already. Couldn’t have done this without you. He concludes to polite applause, and we are instructed to queue up.
My uncle used to tell me stories about the war. How the guys on the other side when they were captured would always say that they were only farmers and teachers, that they were just following orders. “Are your hands any more clean than mine?”
Janus shakes his hand several feet away, smirking: “Sir, don’t listen to the hubbub out there, I know you’re trying your best.”
This man has caused so much pain. So much loss and terror. People hate us. I didn’t do anything myself that I can’t live with, we really are just one part of the chain. But there are things I’m sorry for. People are not here anymore because of me. Gerald is a few paces ahead of me. I didn’t have bad intentions. He shakes his hand and turns blandly for the photograph. I step forward and feel his eyes on me, crawling over my skin. I can hear the crowd throbbing outside. He extends his hand with visible pleasure, pulling me close as we make contact. I can almost taste his breath.
I hear the drums and my own heartbeat. This one second lasts forever, it has to. I lift my face.
The megaphone is slung over my shoulder now, and I’m right in the middle of the crowd. My leg vibrates, and I raise my palm. The crowd is buzzing around me. Were those fireworks? People are shouting around me. I stare at the screen in my hand, scrolling until I find it. The grainy video loops on repeat. He’s shaking hands with a line of them, all in gray, smiling that awful smile. A woman is in front of him. He wheels back as if slapped, touching his face in dumb surprise. I’m not sure what happened but they are on her in a second, a bundle of knees and elbows. “Sir, sir!” someone shouts. The woman on the ground is completely still.
I hold the phone to my ear so I can make out what someone is screaming, a rail thin man in wire glasses, lone voice, cracking, pleading above the fray. “She’s down, she’s down. Stop. Stop! She’s one of us.”