During this week, in light of the recent verdict (or lack there of) in Ferguson I will be publishing some excerpts from my Cool Disco Dan journal from my early years in Washington DC. The series describes two visits to the city by the KKK in September and October of 1990 and my witness to, and learnings from, those events.
Sunday October 28 1990 (continued)
We knelt by a tree and prayed. Then we heard a roaring sound and suddenly the place was filled with cops on motorcycles and on foot. We found ourselves in the midst of a war, as the protesters turned their frustrations and missiles on these newcomers. Most had gotten off of their bikes, but one was whizzing around chasing people on his, going up and down steps. Rocks were smashing into the parked bikes and cars and onto the street. We backed away slowly and calmly and were not touched (a tiny sapling is not much protection). We took up a position across the street. The cops began chasing down and arresting specific protesters.
From our position, we saw a black man in handcuffs being led past us to the paramedics van. He was bleeding in the mouth and from the head, a very bright red blood. Across the street we saw cops chasing a white protester who had been throwing rocks, swinging at him with their batons. He stumbled against a building and three or four officers jumped on him and literally beat the shit out of him with their batons. He lay face down on the pavement next to the building. I could see blood on the pavement. Five cops quickly stood around him and would not let anyone come close. They chased a reporter away. (By the way the event was a media circus. They were everywhere and it was sickening). Then a man tried to get close and they wouldn’t let him near either. He started hollering, “But he’s my son! He’s my son!” We moved back across the street to see if we could get closer to see if he was alright, but we only made it to our sapling. More cops came, handcuffed the young man, and lifted him up. Except for some bloody spots on his face, he looked okay. I was relieved. Then the police asked us to leave and we slowly walked out, weaving in between the motorcycles and cars and rocks in the street.
We started heading towards the Capitol. The back streets were calm with only a scattering of protesters and police. We were walking down one of these back streets and a young white man about our age was walking in front of us smoking a cigarette. Some black guys came around the corner and one bumped him purposely and pushed him up against a car. Another kind of kissed him on his face with his hand. We figured we were next but we looked at them and they didn’t mess with us. We came so close to saying something to them but we didn’t. I don’t know what would’ve happened if we had. We were just a couple of white guys in baggy pants and caps. Who knows. Anyway, the guy was leaning up against the car, stunned and hurt. I touched his arm and asked if he was okay. He nodded and then walked away, talking to himself. I hope he doesn’t carry the scars all of his life.
We came to a street with a few cops and one car and started to cross it. After a while, we realized somebody was hollering at us. “Hey, you with the caps!” We turned around and a black police officer was coming toward us, telling us the street was closed. We said okay and apologized. Ben reached over and shook his hand, told him thanks, and that we understood. He relaxed immediately and it was almost as if he breathed a huge sigh of relief. I shook his hand too and told him that we understood how tough it was for him to be here. He thanked us from his heart and the appreciation was written all across his face. I felt like we had bridged a huge gulf. I think he was pleasantly surprised at these two gentle, cooperative protesters. We left him feeling happy with ourselves and continued on our strange mission.
We arrived at the park across from the Capitol and the protesters were pretty rowdy. Several were hanging back, chunking rocks at the police. In the distance, we could barely see the Klan on the steps. We walked around in the crowd for a while, praying and wondering if there was any way we could confront the rock-throwers and gently ask them to quit. The majority was black and we felt like at the time that it wasn’t appropriate for a couple of white guys like us to say anything. We didn’t agree with the rock throwing but understood the anger. However, as we were walking to a tree, a couple of white guys picked up some large seed like things as big as baseballs to throw. I looked at one of them and said, “Don’t throw it. It’s not worth it.” We walked on by and he just stood there. Then someone came up behind him and he let them take the thing out of his hand. He said something to the other guy and he dropped his on the ground where it had been. Then they walked away. I think they left. The probable “missiles” stayed on the ground right up until we left. It felt good, like we did have some influence. The cops got tired of the rocks so they moved in behind, canceled the permit, and said that those who would leave now could. Those who didn’t would be arrested. So we left and headed home. After a while, we realized that we could barely walk, we were so drained.
What was I feeling? Well, it was a whole range of emotions from anger to frustration to disbelief. But the one I was feeling more than any other was an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness at how people can hurt each other, at the KKK and their outlook on life, at the division between people protesting against the same thing. I understood the police, they were just doing their job and they didn’t want to be there either. The reporters were doing the same. I understood the militancy and anger of the protesters at the KKK from the history of their repression. I even understood the KKK from the people that I hung around with in Mississippi. I understood all of these things and yet I did not understand a thing. I think I finally know how God feels when his children hurt each other.
I want to start an organization or at least make a suggestion so that when there is a protest, people would be sent to it in pairs simply as witnesses for peace and love among the people there. It amazed me that two guys who weren’t really trying to change anything and had no control over the riot or situation at large could touch the people around us. A black protester. A white elderly couple. A white young man. A black policeman. A white protester. Why do we always feel like you have to do big things to accomplish anything? I thank God that we went.