The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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This is Marc Polonsky’s second essay on the Great Peace March, the eight-month, cross-country walk for global nuclear disarmament that ended in Washington last November. His first article appeared in Issue 132.
Toward the end of the Great Peace March For Global Nuclear Disarmament, we all anticipated that we would finally be getting plenty of national media attention. It was what most of us wanted all along, but in fact there is something surreal about being a media item. No matter how sympathetic or even accurate the stories about us were, I always felt, “That’s not us.”
Any attempt to encapsulate what we were — especially toward the end, when our numbers had swelled and we were more disparate than ever — seemed like trying to stick a label on life itself, in all its glorious ambiguity. Our reality was a day-to-day affair, filled with high, low, and in-between moments, including mundane and necessary routines. Any “portrayal” of our lifestyle seemed removed in a fundamental way.
We understood it couldn’t be otherwise. But we were concerned with the fairness and the political content of each story, because many marchers deeply believed that the effect of the march depended ultimately on the quality of the media coverage. There were those, however, who felt that the march’s most significant effects were in the actual day-by-day contacts with the people who saw and heard us.
At the end, The Washington Post gave us quite a bit of “positive” coverage, although many of us were displeased with the way they “wrapped up” our story. On November 17, two days after the Great Peace March finished in Washington, D.C., there was a large and emotional protest at the Department of Energy; the issue was that while the Soviet Union has observed a unilateral moratorium on all nuclear testing for more than a year, the United States continues to explode nuclear bombs at the Nevada underground test site. Hundreds of marchers participated in that protest; more than a hundred committed civil disobedience (by blocking the doors into the building) and were arrested. One marcher held up a copy of the morning’s Post to reporters, pointing to a lengthy story about how the march was over now and all the marchers were heading home. “Look at this!” he shouted. “This isn’t true, is it? We’re still here! Hundreds of us are here today!”
I don’t believe there was any conscious attempt by the press to water things down. Rather, they went for the easiest, cutest story, which would be most appealing to readers. Analysis of how the march did not really end when it ended would have gotten cumbersome.
For example, there was the Ellipse encampment, after the march ended.
We obtained a permit to vigil on the Ellipse, just one block behind the White House, for a week. The idea was to maintain a presence that could not be ignored, even to be a thorn in the President’s side.
Our permit allowed us to set up our tents, have our portable toilets, meet, prepare meals, and generally do whatever we liked twenty-four hours a day, except sleep. This restriction was rigorously enforced by the police, who walked around at night looking into tents, making sure no one was catching a nap. The permit also stipulated that we had to leave our tent flaps open, to make it easy for the officers to do this. People did find ways, however, of sneaking cat naps, with their friends covering for them, ready to wake them gently before the cops got there.
As it happened, the encampment permit was revoked after only two and a half days; the justification was that many people had been caught sleeping. In any case, as far as I know, our presence on the Ellipse received absolutely no media coverage.
I didn’t take part in the Ellipse vigil. While I admired the spirit of those who made it happen, there was something inherently sassy about it.
I always perceived the march as a “nice” action; that is, largely gentle, non-confrontative, and non-accusing. I usually assumed I had to be diplomatic with the public, that in conversations with strangers I should always speak in clear, dispassionate terms, keeping my anger, frustration, and despair hidden. But once in a while it occurred to me that this perspective often kept me stuck, alienated from my own sincerity. Ultimately, I think, what matters most is the level of sincerity one brings to one’s activism, whether it be “angry” or “nice.”
One day I walked into a bank in Allentown, Pennsylvania to cash a money order. I was with a friend, and we had been unwinding all morning in a humorous, irreverent way. Also, I had slept only a few hours.
I thought I might have trouble cashing the money order, since it was from out of state. But two kind tellers came to my aid. After giving me the money, one of them asked me whether the peace march was “really going to make any difference.”
“No, not really,” I admitted, because that was how I was feeling that morning. “I think Americans are just too stupid to live. I saw a news poll on television last night which said that fifty-four percent of the public felt that Reagan did a terrific thing in Reykjavik and that Star Wars is a fabulous idea. Twenty-four percent disagreed and the rest weren’t sure. By the way, what do you think?”
They looked unsure of how seriously to take me.
The younger woman shrugged. “Well,” she said, “it was a waste of time.”
“I agree. Do you think it had to be a waste of time?”
“Well. . . .”
“I think President Reagan blew his chance to go down in history as a historic peacemaker,” I said. “And as much as I loathe and despise the man, I do wish he’d risen to the occasion.”
“Hey, take it easy,” said the other woman. “I kind of like old Ronnie.”
“Me too,” said the younger one. “I think he’s the one guy that’s got the guts to stand up for us and say what he thinks.”
“Look,” I said. “Did you know that Ronald Wilson Reagan is an anagram for ‘Insane Anglowarlord?’ ” I took a piece of scrap paper and proceeded to prove it while they looked on, astonished and slightly bemused.
“Now do you think that’s just sheer coincidence?” I demanded. “What do you think about what happened at the summit in Reykjavik? Are you glad that our president stuck to his guns? Does the idea of a trillion-dollar computerized laser beam missile defense system in outer space make you feel more secure when you go to bed at night?”
The younger woman shrugged again. “Well . . . they’re not going to stop it!”
“The arms race. It’s just going to keep going. They’ve tried to stop it before and it’s never worked.”
“Really? Then what will happen? Will we have a war? Or will the tension just keep mounting forever?”
She shook her head. “There’s probably going to be an accident. And that’s what will make them stop.”
She seemed so blithe and unworried that I wondered if she had ever considered that the “accident” could happen near Allentown, Pennsylvania.
I do not remember much of what I said after that. I know I blathered on about Cruise missiles in Europe, Pershing IIs deployed in West Germany, and hey, do you think we need to eat Nicaragua so the commies don’t get too close? I was simultaneously serious and not serious, acting out a kind of improvisational theater as much as giving a lecture, injecting some sort of bizarre random whimsy into every other sentence so that, by the time my friend took my arm and led me away, the two women were still paying very close attention. They were not frightened but were mildly on edge, trying to figure out whether I was really wild or just kidding. I think my last words to them were, “Think about it!” I wondered just what it would take to make good, conscientious, intelligent people like them think about it.
I had been genuinely angry, but my anger was straight from my heart. Anger does not have to be violent. It is good to note, though, the difference between anger from the heart and anger from the stomach. This latter kind of anger rose in me on the night of November 17, after a party for the marchers in the ballroom of the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency. As I boarded the shuttle bus to go back to the encampment in Takoma Park, I realized I had left my sweater downstairs in the ballroom. “I’ll just be three minutes,” I said to the driver.
I went back inside, but now there was a wooden barricade and four security guards in front of the down escalator. It was past 1 a.m., the agreed-upon time for us to leave.
“Excuse me,” I said pleasantly, “I just need to go down for half a minute and get my sweater.”
“No,” said one of the guards flatly.
“But. . . .”
“You can’t go down, sir.”
Instantly, my blood rose. “Why not?”
“Because you cannot, sir.”
“I just need to. . . .”
“The answer is no, sir.”
“Well, then how and when can I get my sweater — sir?”
“When is that — sir?”
“Maybe when everyone else is gone,” murmured one of the others, not looking at me.
I looked at the four of them. The temperature was going to dip below freezing again that night, and I needed my gray cotton pullover sweater. I could have explained, but I doubted that would make a difference.
I looked at the first guard who had spoken to me and the words on the tip of my tongue were, “How come you are being such a dipshit — sir?” But I didn’t say it because I knew I was representing the marchers, and that such words would serve to discredit us all. So instead I just glared, and then walked to the up escalator, walked down it, and got my sweater. None of the guards tried to stop me, nor did they say a word when I got back. But I had one more glare left for the jackass who had tried to spoil my lovely evening.
Now this is what I call anger from the stomach — because I felt it in my stomach. It was connected, largely unconsciously, to experiences I had as a child, when authority had been exercised over me arbitrarily. Back then I’d been helpless; now I could get mad. But the similarity was that I felt threatened, perhaps on the level of survival. Hence the fear, the loathing, the objectification of those I perceived as “enemy,” even if just for a moment.
In retrospect I can see the guards had a legitimate point. It was their job to make sure that all the marchers got out of there as quickly as possible. They were also probably tired, cranky, and perhaps even vaguely disgusted by the heedless informalities and casual intimacies of our strange group. They felt threatened.
But all I’d perceived in my gut was a malicious intent. That was a distorted perception, obviously, but the point is that maliciousness never exists without fear, pain or rage to inspire it.
As a matter of fact, here’s how I would define “enemy”: one who is angry or afraid, and would therefore do or wish harm on whoever inspires that anger or fear.
For example, I was angry with the security guard, and therefore wanted to cause him some discomfort by calling him a “dipshit.” On a small scale, I would say that would have been an act of enmity.
There are those who say that we must learn to look at our fear and self-distrust, and work through these in order to carry on our most effective political work, in a spirit of love. I agree with this, although I don’t think anyone should wait for enlightenment before choosing to be active. But what I think disturbs many activists about this notion is that it can be mistaken for, or distorted into, cowardice; that is, fear of making enemies.
There are a lot of fearful souls out there and they are easily enmitized, so to speak. Fear is the great enmitizer; everyone carries some fear, but particularly those who wield or seek power. Such people are naturally going to feel threatened by those who demand fundamental and sweeping change. It is a serious thing: enemies can be truly dangerous. The sincere activist must be willing to accept this danger, to accept, ultimately, the possibility of losing his or her life.
One primary challenge of sane activism is to accept that one probably cannot avoid making enemies, but must strive not to become an enemy oneself.
This much is clear to me: acting from enmity, I will cause harm or pain which I am bound to regret sooner or later. But the most shocking thing to me is that I am capable of being an enemy not only to those who are on the opposite side of the political fence, but also toward people I care for a great deal. Such is the power of fear.
I felt hurt and rejected by a friend on the peace march, with whom I had been close for a brief time, but who seemed to have lost all interest in me. She didn’t even seem to want to speak with me. Four days before the end of the march I saw her, and asked her for a hug. She just looked at me, stone-faced.
I was furious. “Fuck you!” I wanted to say, but I knew it would hurt me more than her, so I just walked away, and inwardly I gave up.
To my chagrin she was at the party in the Hyatt Regency a week later. I resolved to ignore her and simply enjoy the celebration with all my other friends in the room. But there was a stubborn sore spot in me. Once again, it seemed, it was going to hurt me a lot more than her.
Toward the end of the evening, Collective Vision, a band made up of marchers, was playing. The performance was sparkling, and deeply sentimental for all of us. As they played one of my favorites of their original songs, I was dancing and singing along passionately: “I don’t want to live at ground zero no more. I don’t want to push war with my silence. I don’t want to love fear or to fear love no more. . . . Ain’t gonna push war with my silence. . . .” Over the months I had often been moved by the stark vulnerability of these lyrics. Now I had to admit that I was indeed pushing war with my silence.
I left the dance floor and looked around for my friend. I just wanted to tell her it had been good to know her, despite everything.
She was no longer in the room. I walked out and caught sight of her riding up the escalator with one of her girlfriends. I caught her eye, and I waved slowly. She smiled brilliantly and waved back.
The most shocking thing to me is that I am capable of being an enemy not only to those who are on the opposite side of the political fence, but also toward people I care for a great deal. Such is the power of fear.
The most shocking thing to me is that I am capable of being an enemy not only to those who are on the opposite side of the political fence, but also toward people I care for a great deal. Such is the power of fear.
Like most of us who grew up in the Sixties or Seventies, I have defined my own peculiar, personal relationship to mind-altering substances. Over the last several years I have found that psychedelic mushrooms will lead me to a place where my heart is open, and I can let go of fear, and I can say things to people that otherwise I could not. On the march I had no access to these mushrooms. But it occurred to me, even while I was most furious with and alienated from my friend, that if I were stoned on mushrooms I would probably want to walk up to her and tell her I loved her, thought well of her and bore her no ill will, regardless of how she felt.
But what would she have been able to do with this information? How could she have received it?
For all the plodding internal work it took to accomplish, the little wave from the bottom of the escalator was worth infinitely more, and she understood it perfectly.
It was like the difference between flying from L.A. to D.C. and walking.
The smile on her face was all I needed and much more. It would have been fine for me never to see her again. I didn’t see how things could get any better, and I would have been frightened of somehow making them worse.
But, to my surprise, we both attended a small dinner party the following evening. She was receptive and friendly, and gave me a hug immediately. She also had a tremendous amount to say — about how things I’d done had paralyzed her spontaneity, how my dreamy childlike neediness had left no room for her to be genuinely vulnerable, how I had belittled myself. . . . I knew, of course, it was all true. I had known it all along, really. What I’d been ignorant of was the amount of feeling she still had for me.
She gave so much then, with her affection and expression of feeling, that later the same night, as I walked alone in front of the White House, my heart was so full that I felt no need to hate the man inside, no need to wish on him any more harm or discomfort than was already his to bear. I began to imagine the size of some of his fears. How wrong to think he ought to be “hurt back” for all the suffering he “causes.”
I reflected on the previous morning at the Department of Energy, when I had experienced tremendous waves of love and empathy for my friends who were committing civil disobedience. I remembered David’s firm and resolute expression as they put on his handcuffs. I remembered the sly, beatific smile Erica had given her arresting officer. These people with whom I had walked, taken meals, been silly — here they were getting into something whose consequences they knew they could not quite foresee. Yet in all their innocence, humility, confusion, struggle, and imperfection, they each felt that someone had to do this thing, and so they were willing. I loved them then because I understood them so well. I wanted them not to be afraid, and to know they had all the support and love of the rest of us. But could I have offered any of these feelings toward the police — the stony law enforcers who were perhaps much more in need of some kind of nurturance than the people they were arresting?
Now, standing in front of the White House, I wanted resolution with everyone. I wanted to walk back to the Department of Energy, to stand there and feel these peaceful feelings. I wanted to walk again on the Ellipse, where that very morning my brothers and sisters had been forced to leave in bitterness. I wanted to walk back to the Lincoln Memorial, where the Great Peace March had officially ended three days earlier, leaving me and so many others with a sense of lofty incompleteness and estrangement. I wanted to walk again by the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building, those prepossessing artifacts which I had previously found so cold and off-putting. Until now, Washington, D.C. had seemed such an unreal place, so frozenly hypnotized by the enormous momentum of its own history, so implacably insistent on its royal identity. But now I could forgive, and even begin to understand the city. I could sympathize with what people wanted it to be, and why they felt it had to be this way for the sake of future generations.
Because I was genuinely high, I felt the urge to walk to all of these places, and bless them all with the peace, understanding, and resolution which was now in my own heart.
But then I heard a voice calling me from Lafayette Park across the street. There were some vigilers there; not peace marchers, but local homeless people who, on their own, had created a tradition of maintaining a twenty-four-hour witness across the street from the White House. They recognized me as one of the marchers, and they wanted to tell me that there was a school bus — one of our march vehicles — just around the corner, heading back to the camp in Takoma Park in just a few minutes. I thanked them and walked over to the bus.
I had mixed feelings. I really did want to make my walk, yet perhaps I could also do it the next day. I’d had little sleep, and a ride back to camp would get me into my sleeping bag a lot more quickly than would a circuitous stroll through the capital, followed by a ride on the Metro. I got on the bus.
There were only a few marchers on board. They had come out from camp to see if anyone might still be on the Ellipse, or in Lafayette Park, and in need of a ride “home.” One of them, Kathryn, asked me where I’d been. I told her I’d been walking in front of the White House and realizing that I didn’t need to hate Reagan. She said she didn’t hate him either; as a matter of fact she even admired him in a way. I squinted at that. She said, “Every human being has some admirable qualities. Don’t you think so?” I had to agree that she was right. In some small part of mind I did admire some of Reagan’s qualities, even while I had wanted to put a brick through the television every time I’d seen his image during the last six years. Perhaps now that it had unexpectedly come to light, this admiration was something to build on rather than deny.
The next day was my last full day in Washington. I spent most of it helping with some work around camp, and only got around to my promised walk in the early evening. By now my heart was no longer overflowing. I realized this while walking on the Ellipse. I saw an indistinct figure, and some steam rising into the air. I thought it must be another marcher, perhaps cooking or contriving some elaborate ritual, and I walked toward him to find out.
He was a forlorn and dishevelled transient, trying vainly to warm himself over a manhole cover. There was suspicion bordering on terror in his eyes as I came up. I gasped, “Oh, I’m sorry!” and skirted away. My own fear told me my heart was no longer open.
I continued my walk and I did take one final look at all the historic sites. It occurred to me that while it was good to be able to feel empathy and compassion for the rich and powerful, it was also surely as important to remember the downtrodden and oppressed. The man warming himself on the manhole cover was no less deserving of fundamental reverence than the President half a block away. I had come full circle.
Many spiritual teachers are quick to point out that working on one’s own inner peace is a balm to the world; I’ve found that working outwardly for peace on Earth is also a balm for my soul.