Grand Old Protestors

Commentary: In Exile

There’s been a lot of talk about elderly protesters lately. Women, specifically. From Kansas. Midwestern, blue-rinsed, female Medicare-recipients marching with U.N. flags.

It’s a hot time to be of the Priority Seating set. Once decaying in refugee camp-like assisted-living situations, the crinkly aged are now being plucked out for display on the evening news by agenda-pushers everywhere, and the media wants just one more feature on the glaucomic pensioner who walkered all the way from Des Moines to protest the current administration. Not just anarchists! everyone scoops. Little old ladies, too!

Senior citizens lend cred to a movement that, for many, is still defined by a cinder block and a Starbucks window — these now-frail byproducts of pre-cynical America, when government was a big huggy bear that delivered innocuous fireside radio chats, are suddenly directing their naturally cantankerous moods at the president. Something must be up, goes the theory, if the old people are pissed.

I wrote a story on activist newspapers to coincide with the compassionate conservative clusterfuck that came to New York City recently. The story never ran, but I did meet quite a lot of activists. Not the old ones, though. I mean, yes, old ones of the aging anti-nuke-era variety, but certainly no one who’s ever thought of the Italian military as anything more than an adorable idea.

These activists were post-DOS babies with Acutane prescriptions and feisty attitudes toward corporate media, and I couldn’t help but feel sort of helplessly bourgeois interviewing them for a Big Glossy Magazine rather than being directly involved in the protest work myself. At one point, in their makeshift newsroom on East 29th Street, where they produce their non-corporate, non-advertiser-controlled publication, I was talking to someone and taking notes and one of them saw the reporter’s notebook in my hand and said, “Wow. A reporter’s notebook. Professional,” and walked away, as if the notebook were a receipt for the deed to my sold-out soul. As if, when he takes notes, he does it on scrap paper using his own martyr-thick blood.

Clearly, the comment was unfair. Nevertheless, it stuck in my head. At one point in my life, not too long ago, I was more that kid than my current incarnation. Marches and rallies and banners and cleverly worded chants delivered via megaphone. I was a little bit tear-gassed at the big D.C. protests in 2000 against the World Bank and the IMF. Or, at least, I was in the vicinity of tear gas. I think I tried to induce coughing to convince myself that I was, indeed, tear-gassed. In retrospect, I may have cared as much about myself-as-protestor as I did about the protests themselves, just as today I probably care as much about being a journalist as I do about journalism.

These days, my protesting pretty much begins and ends with snarky comments about the GOP. I’m no longer young and un-showered and feisty. I’m not yet old and quietly concerned.

I did go to the march in New York, but more as an observer than an activist. I had no intentions of chanting or carrying a banner with a sing-songy anti-Bush screed. Cynicism won out, and while I did find the prospect of so many people so overtly putting democracy into action fairly thrilling, I couldn’t help but succumb to the this-won’t-change-anything sensation.

Instead, I tried to scare up stories. I thought about tailing the Fox News TV reporter trying to interview demonstrators and documenting each rebuff I was sure he’d receive. Maybe someone would throw an egg at him. I found myself hoping that would happen. That would really give the story a hook, make it more likely to sell. An organic, union-labor-harvested egg.

Never mind that that’s exactly the sort of behavior Republicans had hoped the protestors would engage in. “Kerry Supporters Disrespectful, Insane! Unborn Fowl Murdered by Planned Parenthood Activists!” Still, I couldn’t stop myself from hoping, and I felt a little dirty because of it. And not dirty like someone who’s traveled 1,200 miles by bus to march for what they believe in.

The news is interviewing another elderly person. She’s traveled to New York from Michigan for this. It’s her first time here. She says something about her state’s burgeoning post-industrial service economy.

Who are these alleged little old ladies? And why have they suddenly ventured from the safety of their securely locked homes? They live in Rust Belt states that people only care about once every four years. They ask for subway directions, sometimes timidly, sometimes with almost comical gregariousness. They wear visors and floral-printed sun shirts from Talbots. It’s sort of refreshing to have them here.

I think I’m beginning to see why everyone loves the little old protestors. If ever there was inspiration to put cynicism aside, it’s seeing these people marching up Eighth Avenue, banners in hand. They come from a part of the country where sarcasm is mainly employed by kids talking back to their parents. They’ve made a trip that most of them probably couldn’t have imagined ever making four years ago.

If they’re getting some extra spotlight because of their age, they probably deserve it. I’m not sure they even want it, though. What I think they want is exactly what they say they’re marching for. Not to be protestors by identity, not to come up with a cleverer chant, but to get what they’re not getting. I wish I’d asked them. I probably could have written down their answers in any sort of notebook I wanted, sarcasm-free.

Will Doig writes from his exile in New York City. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.

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