No Turning Back
“When the president began to speak, I knew it was time. I turned around.”
I passed through the throngs of protesters, past the black bloc with bandanas over their faces, past the hippies and punks holding signs decrying fascism, and arrived that frigid morning in January on the west front of the capitol building. It was 2005, and I was here to attend the second inauguration of George W. Bush.
I scanned the crowd for others like me, undercover protesters crashing the event with legitimate tickets. At the entrance, I entered a distinctly different group: well-heeled people in furs and winter finery, the fog of their breath rising from cashmere scarves. I knew that inside any crisp overcoat could be a secret anarchist, a radical, a kindred spirit. I thought I saw one, a girl with a striking face. But there would be no way of knowing until the moment came, hiding as we must under duress, under dress code, under dress coats.
We were there to stage a massive protest called Turn Your Back on Bush. Most of us that day had gathered at Malcolm X Park for a march or dispersed into groups along the inaugural parade route, planning to turn our backs when the president passed through. Though most protesters around the city would face the possibility of being pepper-sprayed or worse, they would be together. I would be among many yet mostly alone, in with thousands of ticket-holding Bush supporters on the capitol lawn to see the president get sworn in. I would turn my back on Bush during his inaugural address, and only then when more bodies had turned would it become clear who the other protesters were. I imagined we’d then send each other knowing glances and that I would finally have that feeling of being part of something I was proud of.
In the meantime we stood together, all ostensibly the same. Everyone rubbed their hands to keep warm, everyone shuffled uncomfortably through security. Only I rubbed my hands in anticipation. I alone sweated through each checkpoint, though the clandestine things I possessed were not in my handbag but in my head and my heart.
As we filtered onto the grounds and waited for the ceremony to begin, I studied my compatriots from behind. Trite as it may be, I was looking for signs of solidarity, something that could be communicated visually: a defiant comportment, intentionally disheveled hair, a piercing. Not one hair was out of place among the rows in front of me. It was a sea of fur coats with heads so well groomed they could have been wigs on stands. Where are my people? I thought as the crowd erupted in applause for Bush and Dick Cheney.
When the president began to speak, I knew it was time. I turned around.
Have you ever considered what it means to face history? I don’t know what I thought it looked like before this moment, but as I turned around I realized I knew its face. So do you; we see it all the time. It is cold, hard. It is a face whose mind is made up. It looks like a crowd, a mass, a mob, uncountable thousands becoming a single thing one order of magnitude larger and more terrifying than we can grapple with, the infinite minds of an infinite number of people all melding into a single rigid shape.
If I could have looked closely that day, it would have looked like five, fifty, a hundred faces turning their eyes from the stage and lowering them onto me. But I could not see those details. Seeing a wall of faces – a wall of humanity – against mine prevented me from seeing any humanity. All I could see was a wall, a single entity emanating contempt and disgust.
The first minutes were the hardest. Outraged wives nudged their husbands. Mothers scowled at me while squeezing their children’s hands. Nostrils and pursed lips and eyes, eyes, eyes. Eyes wide in outrage, eyes narrowed in scrutiny. Lines on foreheads, crinkled brows, curls at the mouth. I registered no faces, just features in what looked like a horrific cubist painting threatening to come to life.
Eventually the wall resolved itself into coherence and out of it a single face emerged in front of me. It was the girl I’d seen before, the one with the striking face. She was so close that it felt intimate, so close I could see where her breath had dampened her fur shawl, so close I could see the softness of her lip as it twitched ever so slightly with aversion. Perhaps because we were at eye level, perhaps because I’d hoped she was an undercover protester, perhaps because she was my age, the expression on her face struck me.
I winced. My nose prickled. In the biting wind that blew around us I felt my eyes water. I could not turn back around – my pride and stubbornness would not let me lose face. But looking so closely into hers, I felt mine crumble. I took a deep breath and glared at her, into her. She refocused her attention toward the stage with a haughty flick of her chin.
With her eyes no longer on mine, our arresting intimacy vanished and with it the brief mooring I had. My eyes had nowhere else to go, so I returned to the sea of faces in front of me. There is a peace that comes when we stare at the sea; with nothing distinguishable on the horizon, the eye becomes unfixed. When the gaze softens the mind gets a glimpse of peace. I stared past the faces, the features, and into the sea, as did those who stared past me.
But something inevitably forces itself into view. Out of the corner of my eye a guard was gently pushing through the crowd toward me. Then I saw another. They were coming for us.
In that crowd, in that moment, with all of us together, something else was coming into view. A monument. Erected all around us, it is a monument light enough that we each may carry it, durable enough that it outlives generations. It is memory. Yet it is not personal memory, unique to each of us. It is collective memory, a shared story built atop the personal.
Collective memory allows us to consider an event and agree upon its meanings. It is a basic building block of our humanity, allowing us to identify and bond. But it does this by supplanting our individual recollections, unifying them into one memorial. In this way, collective memory is the mob of the mind. It transmutes the infinite complexity of individuals’ memories and concretizes them into a single discernible shape. That shape is one of great comfort for some. For others, it is an ugly thing imposing itself on the horizon, a form whose only function is to prevent peace. I am staring into a wall of people, but to them I am that thing, an obelisk of obstruction.
The girl in the fur will feel her heart swell as the leader of the free world speaks. I will feel rage. She will hear the word democracy and be reminded perhaps of her brother, the hero who died in Afghanistan. I will hear the word democracy and be reminded of how far our state will go to legitimize imperialism. We will hear the same words but will ascribe to them different meanings, meanings exclusive to our group. We will forget the complexity we once perceived and will instead see one story. It is always a story that favors us and draws a line between us and them. It is a story that functions as a wall.
She turns her eyes back to me. She and her eyes are one: cold. They probably match mine. There is not even the fire of hatred to warm us. There is only disdain.
In opposing the girl in front of me, I have made her draw a line. The line will bend and continue as she draws it around me, putting me in a box. The same line, drawn to distance me from her, becomes the uneasy edge of her own. I have made her square herself against me. I am the party crasher. I am the ghost at the feast. I have made myself the other, and she, just by standing there, now must stand against me. She did not come here to oppose anything, but now she has been forced to. Adding to the disdain she already felt for me, there is now resentment.
How did this happen? In any other arena I’d have probably tried to befriend her, but here that notion is laughable. And maybe that’s just it. This isn’t the capitol lawn: this is an arena. Here the battle lines of partisanship have already been drawn. Even if she and I have the emotional depth to make a nuanced assessment of each other, it will not happen here. The environment is too charged, the hostilities too high.
Arenas are made for fighting, for pitting side against side. Even if we have no side, the political arena forces us to take one. For self-preservation, we seek out our side, our gender, our race, our creed, our subsets of the infinite ways we are arbitrarily divided. Over time, it becomes automatic, and as we face constant clashes we become more brutal ourselves – and start to notice how much we are rewarded for it. The logic of the arena leaves us little choice: one side wins only by beating the other.
And herein lies our mutual problem. We have turned nearly every place into an arena. Social media is either a safe echo chamber or a grisly cage match ending in death threats. Any city street is a potential arena for brutality, and the clashes are getting worse and more imminent. Polarization has reached a fever pitch, thanks largely to partisan media outlets that profit from making civic life a permanent arena. Perhaps a result, perhaps the cause, despite all this engagement there is a deep lack of understanding. Most often there is not even the attempt to understand; what passes for discourse is often just people hurling their monuments at one another. I shudder to think what that day on the capitol lawn would have looked like if it were not just Bush supporters but Trump supporters I was facing down.
On that cold day, my face-off ended when the president finished speaking. Rather than turn around and look into the faces of my fellow protesters, or wait for the guards to shunt me out, I walked toward the gates and left. Remarkably, in the crush of people filtering out into the streets, I ended up next to the girl in the fur. We walked alongside each other in the trash-filled road as protesters waved their signs and shouted at us.
At one point some people on the sidelines started spitting and throwing trash at the well-dressed masses as they passed, like a no-holds-barred second round of the parade. It was intense enough that at one point she and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. Walking from the capitol with my fancy coat, the price tag still attached to the label, there was no way for them to know I was one of them. But then again, after being subjected to worse by them than I had been all day, it was hard for me to be sure myself. I took my coat off and covered my head with it. What had once helped me sneak into one group was protecting me from the other. I couldn’t help but laugh at the juxtaposition. We all want to win, no matter whose side we’re on, but no one is going to win today. Not here.
In the course of one day, it became plain to me why we don’t understand one another. The situation has devolved too far. There’s too much disdain on each side, too much latent rage and outright hatred. We drag the logic of the arena around with us everywhere we go, making every place too hostile for dialogue let alone forgiveness and reconciliation. It may be that this is the only way, as people like me continue to crash the party and force the other side to at least reckon with the fact that there are malcontents. But if in so doing it only leads to a further breakdown of discourse, we will eventually face the complete breakdown of trust. Perhaps we are already there, here in the last moments of civil society before fascism takes over. I wonder if we’d even know it when we saw it, whether we’d recognize its face. It will be a face like the ones we’ve seen, a face with its mind made up. It will yell and scowl and tell us a story like all the other stories, a story like a wall, a definitive divide from which there is no turning back.