Birth of a Protester: Days of Rage, Nights of Press Comps

Back in February, the war was imminent, and the anti-war movement was booming. The baby boomers had crammed the 60’s down our throats when we were growing up, and now, it seemed, we’d finally have our own generational badge of civil disobedience. So one Saturday, I trudged the frigid streets to the U.N. to participate in what I was told was the largest demonstration ever against a war before it actually happened.

By the time the sun was setting on that massive rally, I found myself thrown against a wall and threatened by policemen a few blocks from the U.N. because I said “Fuck you!” to a belligerent doorman. I felt degraded and more than a little shaken up, but I also felt exhilarated. I turned 30 a few months ago, and I’ve always looked to my baby-boomer mentors-with their rent-controlled apartments, tenured jobs and memories of Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East-with more than a little generational envy. Many of my fellow marching Gen-X’ers were similarly afflicted (and I was sure that 60’s activists were not comparably fixated on the 30’s). Nevertheless, I was proud to be initiated, boomer-style, as a dangerous rabble-rouser. Roughed up by the cops as an estimated half a million New Yorkers shut down the East Side, I had my leftist bar mitzvah. Decorated with buttons advertising my rabble-rousing cred with just a touch of postmodernism-a”NoBloodforOil”peacesymbol commemorating the date of the N.Y.C. rally, and a N.O.W. button with “Do Me” scrawled in the center-I fled to Le Bateau Ivre on East 51st Street, where the maître d’ greeted me with a ” bon soir ” of solidarity, and where I downed a Muscadet while gaining sympathy from my fellow drinkers for the uncivil treatment of my civil disobedience. It wasn’t exactly café society, but as the press corps scribbled and commiserated in a corner-the graying socialist from La Repubblica sniffed at the sprightly neocon from the New York Post -I was arguing a world of my own. I had press-comped my way through the Zeitgeist , flashing credentials and passing police lines to hobnob with the Radical Chic of the 21st century.

Compared to the radicals of the 60’s, we were operating at broadband speed. It took about four years for the ’64 signing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to explode into the radicalism of ’68. This time around, urban-unresters were hitting the streets faster than a Google search, protesting a war over a month before it actually began. The city’s avenues were Dante-esque circles of activism, and I descended into their depths, past the rope lines and farther east into the bleeding heart of the left. The Village Voice did its reporting from Third Avenue, relegating all duties to one overworked staffer who had too many protest stories to cover to get into the tent behind the stage. (In days of yore, they would have sent 20 reporters to cover the event.) Many older lefties stuck on Third Avenue told me they saw mostly creaky Trotskyists old enough to remember the El. But if Third Avenue was for the AARP subversives, Second Avenue was for scrappy college kids, and First Avenue was for the diehards. And the stage and its makeshift tent was for the stars. What I saw in that V.I.P. section was a combination of young gate-crashers and a cross section of the new kind of black power, including Mos Def and groupies, Danny Glover and family, Harry Belafonte and entourage, Al Sharpton and image consultants. I warmed my hands on hospital-style complementary coffee and got a raspy laugh from Mr. Belafonte when I told him he could call Colin Powell anything he wanted. Octogenarian folk sage Pete Seeger told me he saw more black people in the crowd than he did at the March on Washington 40 years ago. Reporters stuck on Third missed out on that story, but then they couldn’t be everywhere that day.

In a day that began with an A-list reception and ended with a very mild flirtation with police brutality, I had to be honest with myself and question whether I was in this for a political awakening or just to meet celebrities. What, exactly, was I risking? Was I really going to get an F.B.I. file for noshing on bagels with the co-star of Lethal Weapon ? Sure, I was against the war, but that was hardly a controversial view in this town. Most people I knew opined somewhere between David Remnick’s reluctant liberal hawkishness and Noam Chomsky’s conspiratorial lunacy. When even those counterculture icons Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore said we should give inspections and the U.N. more time to work, and should perhaps focus our military efforts on Al Qaeda, being against this war seemed pretty mainstream.

But then again, I’m not a foreign-policy expert. I identified with other literary folk who share my lack of Realpolitik , but who sign petitions and make proclamations anyway. Two days after that rally, I braved a torrential snowstorm to engage in more solidarity and stargazing at a Lincoln Center poetry reading sponsored by Not In Our Name, a group that made a little blip on the news crawl when the poet Sam Hamill was disinvited by Laura Bush from a White House–sponsored symposium on Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Mr. Hamill may have started a movement for a moment, and he received a standing ovation at Avery Fisher Hall for doing so, following it up with some enjambed ruminations about coffee-drinking and the plight of Palestinians. But there were some poets I actually admired at the event-especially Ann Lauterbach, Galway Kinnell and the splendid performance songstress Lee Ann Brown-and I wanted to know how a signature from John Ashbery on a New York Times petition could have really inspired George W. Bush to rethink his war plans. I posed this question while sitting in the green room with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, in an exchange sort of like The McLauglin Group meets My Dinner with Andre . “Some people could see Ashbery’s name and say, ‘I love John Ashbery. This is like a friend telling me I should read more and think more about this subject,'” said Mr. Shawn. In that green room, I played piano with Odetta and sat between Arthur Miller and Stanley Kunitz as they reminisced about the last few times the world ended.

And if I make it that far, that will be me. I’ll be that old man telling youngsters about my adventures in activism, remembering New York when it really sizzled, when the cops had me against the wall and I drank my vintage French fermentation like a tonic of activism. The truth is that if you’re able to tell your tale of the apocalypse, it didn’t exactly happen. The world did not end, and you survived to hold court with the young and the uninitiated and tell them tales of how it really went down. One cold day, the dawn of a new millennium brought a new war. Before the first bombs were even dropped, you went to a rally, hung with movie stars and folk singers and poets, and even ran into a little smidge of trouble. You felt invincible.