The protest burns.
It begins with the innocent parade of angry signs and a thousand boot-clad feet marching to the beat of an anti-government drum. The demonstrators weave their way through ravaged streets, kicking the dust of yesterday’s panic from their path. A burly man line drives an abandoned car tire toward the sidewalk, and it wedges itself in between the light pole to my left and the bench I claimed an hour ago. He doesn’t notice me sitting there idly. No one does.
A few hundred people of all ages, sizes, and shapes with a plethora of different complaints stare straight ahead on their warpath to an assumed victory. I sketch their faces with four strokes each—the grim smile of a man old as dirt who hasn’t been called to action since World War II, the ignorant head bob of a five-year-old girl who has no concept of injustice but bears a sign reading SAY NO TO TYRANNY nonetheless—and every few minutes, I chance a glimpse at their not-so-far-off destination.
The protestors outnumber the soldiers ten to one. The bullets in the soldiers’ automatic guns outnumber the protests by a factor of a hundred. Two rows of black-clad crowd control units lie in wait at the base of City Hall’s cracked marble steps. They show no signs of impending action (or doom), but I can smell the terror in the air. Opposing fronts are minutes from colliding to form the perfect storm, and once the winds begin to blow, the people will either be clinging on for dear life or driven into next Tuesday.
So I capture the moment in charcoal and graphite, sealing with hairspray the sneers and chants and calls for VICTORY on one side of my page and the stoic frowns (masking a foul mix of fear and bloodlust) that top armor-plated bodies on the other. As my fingers finish the last few strokes of the Hall’s off-white columns, the protestors come to a grinding halt. Between authority and anarchy is a no man’s land about twenty feet wide. A silly orange barricade that couldn’t even stop a child rests in the middle.
A warning sign. People moved it there. People can remove it. It has no power on its own. It cannot kill or deter. It can, however, prevent killing and forceful deterrence if the people standing before it are willing to heed its meaning and RUN FAR, FAR AWAY, YOU FOOLS. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about people from observing, it’s that they never listen to anything with less power than they possess.
They also never listen to anything more powerful.
I reach into my bag and pull out a pack of well-used colored pencils, adding the barricade in a few sloppy burnt orange lines. Now the calm before the chaos is complete, and what remains is the inevitable conclusion. For several minutes, nothing happens. The protestors and soldiers (so much alike) hold their breath. The wind stills. The sun shines through thick gray clouds.
Then the world winds back into motion, and four marchers break away from their army. They grab two segments of the barricade and drag them free of the dirty marble steps, clearing the way for death to pass through. A few soldiers—the rookies in the pack—visibly stiffen. Everyone knows what happens next. And everyone will pretend not to know until it happens.
Minutes pass, and when it becomes clear that no one else is willing, a brave sign-bearer in his mid-fifties takes on the role of General. He hoists his sign above his head, a crinkled poster-board sword, and yells CHARGE! CHARGE FOR FREEDOM! CHARGE FOR JUSTICE! Most people in the crowd cannot grasp the basic definition of those words, but they surge forward anyway, determined teenage girls and elderly grandfathers and grade-schoolers who should be on playgrounds swings (not in the line of fire).
They rush the steps, and several startled soldiers stumble back in shock—they came for the glory of killing without believing they would actually have to kill. Children disguised as warriors. Their more hardened peers ready their guns, and even from two blocks down, I can see them tuck themselves into their vest pockets and pull out the monsters they ignore in their bathroom mirrors every morning.
One child soldier accidentally pulls the trigger as he scrambles to his feet. It hits the NO TO TYRANNY girl in the chest, and she crumples. People scream. People panic. People do what people do when resolve is broken and fear comes through. The crowd control Chief barks the kill order from his post—he’s hidden behind a column at the top of the steps.
The protest catches fire. Bullets eat mouths and eyes and ears. Screams are swallowed by grenades. For fifty-two minutes and forty-eight seconds, Hell visits Earth to say GOOD DAY and leaves destruction in its wake. And when it’s all over, when the smoke clears and the blood settles, the victors survey their garden of bodies with looks of overwhelming disappointment: who would’ve guessed winning isn’t always fun?
They perceive a hint of truth and the pain that accompanies it. They do not, however, perceive me. One lone man staggers, weary, toward my bench and turns his eyes in my direction, and for a second, he thinks something is there before logic catches up with him. He sits beside me none-the-wiser and mutters swears under his breath as if the dead can hear. Intrigued, I turn the page of my sketchbook and start a portrait in black pen.
I observe. The protest burns.