overhaul / undertow

Friday, April 25, 2003

Die-In At Mr. Noodle

I had never protested before now, but here I was, running down Wilshire at full tilt with some guy I didn't know very well, trying to get audio from a roving breakaway contingent of black-clad protestors at the Westwood Federal Building.

I had been wary of this protest from the beginning. It was at night, unlike the recent marches I'd attended; there had been rising tensions with the LAPD for several weeks now at this location; and for some reason, despite its being the busiest intersection in LA, the cross-streets near Wilshire and Sepulveda seem devoid of the usual safeties afforded by a busy location. Unlike downtown or Hollywood, the buildings and streets in Westwood near the main artery of Wilshire are empty of people when night falls. The marble, metal and granite office-building walls seem to crowd in over the street, making a person on foot feel dwarfed and imprisoned. And if the street is shut down, no one can drive by to see what happens to a little crowd of protestors hemmed in by cops with teargas and rubber bullets.

I told myself this was just some apocalyptic thinking on my part, but nonetheless stopped in at a surplus store and picked up a mask for my eyes and a bandanna, if I needed to cover my mouth. I didn't really believe for a minute that my presence at this protest would make a whit of a difference, but I knew another night of sitting home and hearing reports of impending war would only leave me feeling depressed and impotent. At least I could say I was doing something, I thought, if I went to Westwood.

Once there I almost immediately ran into Brian. Brian works for the same little web-radio station as I, and had brought a mike and recorder for field recordings of the protest, the police (and, it turns out, the sheriffs as well, who had appeared only a hour or so into the event), and anything else of interest. It took us forever to work our way back and forth between barriers, crossing lines of cops and closed streets, to reach the intersection of Wilshire and Veteran where the protestors had congregated.

By this time their numbers had dwindled to a creepy forty or so--creepy because the group looked so small and alone, surrounded by a closing net of police and sheriff officers who clearly outnumbered them. I nervously tied the bandanna around my neck.

Nearby, a balcony of a small apartment building had been hung with a homemade banner reading "Support the troops / Hippies go home."

I do support the troops. I just happen to think a war in Iraq at this time, especially against the expressed wishes of the world population, is bad foreign policy. And I'm not a damn hippy: if I have to hear another fucking off-key rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved" I'm gonna haul off and clock the next pasty fiftysomething schoolteacher singing next to me.

See? I'm not against violence. I just don't think war is a real smart move right now.

As the police opened the intersection the protestors began to dwindle more, and small groups of them began to break off and wander away from the main corner until almost no one was left. Brian looked slightly deflated. He switched off the microphone: no good audio here, with the cars blaring by and no one there.

We walked east on Wilshire. The cops stood around, nervously shifting, holding their long-snouted rubber-bullet guns with both hands rigidly across their chests. There was no sound. Just cars whooshing. Wilshire here is a wind tunnel.

Suddenly fifty walkie-talkies crackled and spat to life and the cops came unglued from their poses as six cruisers shot by us heading east towards the next major intesection at Midvale and Wilshire. Over the hiss of the walkie-talkies we heard "...breakway....front ot theatre...lying down in....now...several..."

Apparently a theatre nearby in Westwood was hosting a premiere; the diffusing protesters had discovered it, regrouped, and were staging a die-in on the street in front of it, stopping traffic and freaking the well-heeled premiere attendees out. Brian's eyes sparkled: here was some good audio.

"You wanna run for it?" he yelled at me over the sound of sirens as two more cop cars careened by us on Wilshire. "Sure," I yelled right back, and we were off. The mask around my neck bounced against my chin with each stride.

I was running down the street in the middle of normal everyday LA.

Cars were trundling past, their drivers staring at us, nonplussed. Somehow all the protestors had found the movie premiere and it was just us left on Wilshire. I abruptly felt very stupid, melodramatic, and...euphoric.

And then I felt winded. I realized I hadn't run anywhere in years. I'm not the running type. For those who like to divide their world into arbitrary distinctions of "types," I've always felt that there are two types of people in this world: those who run, and those who don't. Those Who Run get up at five in the morning, eat enriched corn flakes, drive smart cars and look askance when someone lights up a cigarette next to them. They consider marathons. They grab a bran muffin from the coffee cart at work. They work busily and when the day is over they stop at a California Chicken Cafe and bring home a nice square healthy meal for their kids, who have just been picked up from tutoring and soccer by their equally industrious other parent (second marriage).

Those who don't run are...well, like me. Face it, people. Running is undignified. We've evolved for aeons to a place where we no longer need to run to ensure our survival. Let's embrace that. Let's go with it. Yay for Darwinism, for enlarged cranial capacity, for more walking and less frenetic spinning of our spindly little legs which, if you've ever seen a cheetah or a horse at full tilt, you will notice are clearly NOT MEANT TO RUN WITH.

I mean, come on, people. As I've always pronounced, The only time I run is if something big is chasing me.

And here I was, running. What on earth was I thinking? My feet suddenly were bricks in my heavy-heeled boots. I found myself slowing against my will. A sharp pain stabbed me in the left ribcage. Not wanting to appear less than fit in front of Brian (who was still sprinting ahead), I kept panting on. We were almost to the corner. I could feel my brain rattling around against my jaw with each jarring step. These running-types--they must be insane. This is not fun. How is this fun? There is nothing good, nothing "zen," about this. It's miserable. I can't breathe, people.

We are now the only visible activists left on Wilshire and, as such, are vulnerable. I look positively disturbing and Black-Bloc-ish in my black bandanna and goggles. A gargantuan forest-green Cadillac Escalade slows as it passes and the man inside leans toward us to shout out his passenger-side window. The Doppler Effect morphs his voice as his speed picks up: "Fuuuuccckkkkk yoooo-ooo-ooo-oo-o!" From a distance he gives us the finger. I feel angry and infantile all at once.

I stopped at the corner. Up the block, back toward us, bravely marched the dinky little batallion of remaining protestors, waving their flags and hand-printed signs, shooting back insults over their shoulders at the cops behind them, further down the street. I notice abruptly the remaining activists--now parting ranks as they swarm around us, apparently headed back where we just ran from--all appear to be under 20.

I stand there panting, my shoulders feeling twenty pounds heavier than they usually do. Brian has vanished. I am worried about the police and do not like that I am alone. I join the crowd and head with them up Midvale into Westwood. At least there are plenty of people here, a factor that seems to dull the agressiveness of the cops.

Brian materializes somehere about a block and a half up. We are quiet as we watch the kids, primarily little punk types, dressed in black with patches pinned to their clothes and inauthentically shiny and clean Doc Martens, mill back and forth in front of a few other theatres. Someone still has a bullhorn and is shouting commands and protest rhymes, but the whole crowd begins to fracture as college students in front of restaurants and bars pass, looking nonplussed.

When the few remaining protestors stage a die-in in front of Mr. Noodle, I look at Brian. He looks at me. "I'm ready to go if you are," he says. "I think it's time," I agree, eyeing the kids as they gingerly get down on the street in front of the noodle house, and the diners sitting at cafe tables out front stare at them, horrified.

I give Brian a ride home and we sit silently in the car as I drive east on Sunset. I pull off the bandanna and mask. I was glad I went. It got me out of the house, gave me something to do other than just sit at home. I am reminded once of how a friend mentioned his assessment that people's political beliefs mirrored their own emotional issues and ways of handling authority.

I wonder what audio Brian got.

I hope it was the Cadillac driver's "fuck you."


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