Wednesday, December 19, 2007

2004: The Year We Almost Changed America

Brooklyn, NY
Approximately twenty-five people filled the space in a small room to watch a storm of images from an 8MM movie camera. The footage was shot in the 70’s and fertilized the imagination of anyone who watched the projector screen. In the opening shot, a man with long hair, a mustache and in nothing but a pair of jeans tightened the screws and bolts of a farm tractor. In another shot, little girls wore dresses and bore little girl grainy smiles while they played together. In yet another shot, men and women plowed the field and planted seeds. These scenes were edited together for a documentary made by two of those little girls who eventually grew up and moved to Brooklyn.

I was invited by one of the filmmakers to attend the screening of the documentary. For now, her name is N. She whispered to me, “That’s my dad,” when the man fixing the tractor appeared. “That’s S,” she said, pointing to a blonde little girl who danced in circles. S had also grown up and was sitting on the other side of the room, whispering to three other people. S probably explained to them what N had told me. S pointed at the projector screen on the wall where the image of a blonde woman stood and smiled into the camera.

These girls were the daughters of parents who had founded a commune somewhere back West in America. The parents were fraught by the society that bred them into a turbulent era of America. These were 60’s kids who were filled with ideas and revolution in the style of Gandhi’s protests of the 1920’s as well as the words of Thoreau and Whitman. “To hell with America,” they said and off they went to establish a new America, which they would propagate with seeds for a better world with soul mates they found on the way. Hundreds of other Americans did the same in the late 60’s and 70’s. N and S was part of these parent's hope and extension of their ideals.

The people who attended the screening had begun to shift in their seats. This was old Dumbo party days when anyone who stepped a foot in that district expected a good time. N and S had organized a few events at that space before to raise money for their film. I tagged along with a friend of mine to one of these events and that’s how I met N and S. I offered to work the door that first night and collect the money for entrance. They didn’t know me from anyone else, however they trusted me enough to safeguard donations for their documentary.

This was early in 2004 – the year that I felt that change was the closest it had come since the 60’s. Protests were a weekly ritual. If you didn’t go, you didn’t care. The people of New York were excited at the possibility getting rid of Bush and ending the war. Parties, exclusively for revelers, became fundraisers for organizations who wanted to fight the administration. Billionaires for Bush, a satiric group of individuals who acted like conservative Americans, performed all over the city, calling New Yorkers to vote for Bush and support the rich Americans. This confused many of our city's citizens. Were they for Bush or against him? That was the inside joke.

Another group called Green Dragon (named after the tavern that the Sons of Liberty routinely met at in Boston) dressed as the Sons of Liberty and paddled a boat across the Hudson River during the Republican National Convention. We always became excited whenever someone we knew was reported in the media. It was common for a group of people who were just hanging out to protest at impulse. People gathered and thought of creative ways to protest. Pirate radio stations, independent media, documentaries flourished as the turn for a new media became necessary to spread the rumor of pending change.

Friends of mine were under surveillance by the city government. Sometimes the police would be present at protest destinations before the protesters. This became more prevalent as the date of the RNC came closer. C.L.A.W or Corporate Lawyers Against the War even showed up. There was another group of protesters that served as the legal team for the demonstrations to ensure that the rights of the people were respected. They were distinguished by their orange vests and were usually found walking alongside the marchers and negotiating with the NYPD.
People of all colors, races, age groups, veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam turned out to protest against the war and Bush’s administration. I had the same smile on my faces as hundreds others when I saw the size of the masses that had gathered. People wanted change and the gap of the 60’s and 2004 had dwindled to only a handful of years between because the age of change is always young.

I once witnessed hundreds of people gather in Washington Square where a march had ended. Police in riot gear had begun to surround the demonstrators and warned them to move and if they didn’t, they would be arrested. People shouted that they were on public property, which was answered by the deployment of more vans to put people in if they misbehaved. Unaware to the police, hundreds more protesters continued to march into Washington Square. The entrances were blocked by the police and the dissenters were forced to surround them. The protesters in the park, who were nervous before, felt empowered and charged at the NYPD. Rocks, bottles and anything else that could be thrown were hurled at the police. There was more shouting. More screaming. “This is our city! This is our city!” The cops had no choice but to disperse and allow the people to stay.

The documentary ultimately ended with the conclusion of the commune. N’s parent’s moved around the country in the 80’s and eventually divorced. I don’t know if N and S ever distributed their documentary or if it was ever finished. I lost touch with them about six months after the original screening. Regardless of the reflection of 2004 in the mirror of the 60's, the war continues and Bush is still in office.

I read once that time is not a linear entity. It is a flat realm that can be accessed through the archive of memory and although the world is currently chaotic, the change we hope for is always coming.

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