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Lessons from a First-Time Protester

Lessons from a First-Time Protester

Years ago, some friends and I resolved it would be good to go protesting. Not because there was a particular cause we supported or bill we wanted passed; rather, we wanted to make a mockery of the presidential elections. This was after the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore was said to have lost the electoral vote to George Bush. Folks were plain heated and our state of Florida was considered the country’s inept stepchild.  

Before we left we figured it might be appropriate to make signs, as any seasoned, angry activists would do. We sat for close to an hour, wound up, staring back and forth at one another, uncertain of what to broadcast on our neon poster boards. Whatever it was, it had to pack punch. It had to detail our frustration and make known our tenacity, our demand to see change. Finally, someone yelled, “How about ‘Bring back Arsenio!’ ” Ridiculous—and perfect.

We had big laughs, wondering at our genius, anxious to see how our message would translate to the public and to the governing officials of our great democracy. Would they entertain our request or dismiss us as the pseudo freedom fighters we were? Either way, the voice of the people would be heard. We thought to fashion one more sign and after some moments of deliberation went with, “Blame it on John Rocker,” the Georgia pitcher notorious for curveballs and hateful tirades. “Don’t forget the video camera!” I shouted.

We packed into the Dodge and headed for West Palm Beach, 50 miles north of us where the news people were. During the drive we mused and planned and conducted interviews with one another about how our protests would be felt, our voices weaving in and out from stern commentary to playful tones. This was by far the most absurd thing we’d ever attempted. One of us even went so far as to wear a tie.

But upon arrival, we found ourselves at the very center of a movement, a real-life protest. We thought to abandon the idea altogether but reconsidered once we saw a few people actually snicker at our bravery. Conservatives and liberals lined the streets like trees. A group of police officers laughed hysterically as we walked by them with our bubble letter proclamations, our pop culture wishes. At this point, getting arrested almost sounded novel, charming perhaps, like a story you tell your grandchildren by a fire.

As we approached the news cameras, all attention shifted our way, just as we’d hoped it would but secretly did not. Many of the onlookers appeared to be confused. Others stood militantly as they gawked at us with eyes of disgust, uttering expletives in our faces and beaming red as cigarette tips. Fear settled in. Please God, don’t let me get punched in the mouth, I thought. Then, in a moment of extraordinary courage, I walked directly behind the reporter, "Bring back Arsenio" sign in grasp, as she articulated the night’s events to the families at home. An elderly man cursed my children as he wielded his sign that read, “We demand a recount!”

The night was unexpectedly exhilarating. Aside from the rebukes and gentle death threats, fun was had by all. We surveyed a few good citizens and actually took part in some meaningful exchanges.

The drive home was sultry and thick with reflection. City lights beamed and lingered, much like the traffic and the tall buildings, soaring above us like the resolve of the protesters. I wondered at their passion, questioning my own and asking myself if I’d ever be willing to make a fool of myself for something I believed. Initially, the aim was to make a mockery of all things political. And the scolding we bore, in a way, suggested the accomplishment of our objective. On the drive home, however, a greater truth presented itself. Our comedic display was eclipsed by the conviction of so many. We were, in fact, the ones mocked. We were apathy personified, three clowns passionate about nothing.

Juan Vidal is a writer and member of national recording artists Rhema Soul. He lives in Ft. Lauderdale. 

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