Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I attended my first protest in the spring of 1969. I was just starting to grow my hair long. On a chill fall night several months later, I was part of 500,000 demonstrators that marched past the White House as Richard Nixon watched a college football game.
The Vietnam War dragged on another five years.
No one listens, which may explain We the People’s embarrassing lack of participation in the political process. In any given Presidential election, only 6 in 10 of those eligible to vote even bother to turn out. During mid-term elections, a mere 4 in 10 make the effort.
“In democracy we get the government we deserve,” de Tocqueville famously declared. “Government is the problem,” Reagan infamously riposted 150 years later.
My view of life is that we all come equipped with control buttons that are not connected to anything. We press, we press. Eventually, the smart ones figure out that nothing happens and find better things to do.
“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,” Vonnegut’s Malachi Constant told us in “The Sirens of Titan.” Forget about our foolish conceits that we are masters of our own destinies. The wise man and fool suffer the same fate, says Ecclesiastes. Nothing changes.
We know that, but occasionally we do suffer relapses. We delude ourselves into thinking that our control buttons are actually connected to something. This happened to me three years ago when I voted for Barrack Obama. “Oh crap. Obama is still President?” I found myself saying over breakfast two days ago at my good friend’s place.
There is something to be said about depressive realism. I was up in LA, spending a long-overdue weekend, catching up. My friend pointed to an article in the Sunday LA Times. Some trend-setters in the gay community were making the scene in high-heels. Clearly, this was far worse than global warming. “When men wear better shoes than the ones I have on ... “ she exploded.
It will only get worse, I reminded her, ever the depressive realist. Should this trend take off in the gay community, then eventually straight men will copy it. In ten years, I let her know, all men will be walking about in stilettos that will put this year’s Prada's to shame.
Ah, there is nothing like spending the weekend ranting and raving with a dear friend. The day before, she and I and her boyfriend and a friend took the Metro down to Pershing Square where a crowd was gathering for an Occupy LA march that had spun out of Occupy Wall Street and was now part of a worldwide Occupy movement.
I was under no delusions. I was fully aware my personal control button remained unconnected to anything, but I was satisfying an insatiable urge to tap it. For the purpose, I brought along my recently acquired Nigerian talking drum. Okay, the drum was probably made in China.
You sling the hourglass-shaped drum over your shoulder and bang on the top hide with a curved stick. With your opposite elbow, you apply pressure to a superstructure of connecting strings to top and bottom hides, thereby regulating the pitch of the drum in mid-beat. The effect mimics human vocal intonations. West African tribes used to employ this type of drum as a sophisticated method of long-distance communication. This days, the drum is valued as a musical instrument.
A virtuoso drummer can literally make this thing talk, but even beginners are capable of coaxing cool sounds of the thing. Besides, I knew how to count to four.
The crowd was small by protest standards, maybe three thousand. Nearly everyone was carrying home-made signs. My friend's sign was filled with a list of all the countries that had universal healthcare.
“New Zealand,” I banged out on my drum. Soon, I was vocalizing other signs in the crowd.
“We ARE the 99 percent,” I beat out, in sync with some of the chanting. We started moving. I noticed two drummers ahead of me. One, an older Latino man, had a set of bongos strapped to his body. He was using drumsticks to project very staccato retorts that carried above the crowd. The other, a college-age lad, was toting an African djembe, which is the classic West African hand drum.
I moved up to join the two drummers. In nothing flat we were banging out simple stuff together, paying close attention, adjusting our beats to the movement of the crowd and the chanting. I was mostly using my drum as a kind of bass drum, in support of the other two drummers. Occasionally, I would break out into some of my own thunking flourishes. The narrow canyons created by the tall buildings on either side acted as a natural amplifier. We were feeding off of each other's energy and that of the crowd. The sum was greater than the parts. The mystics have many names for this - connectedness works just fine.
A mile or so into the march, my Latino companion broke out his water bottle. He offered the kid a drink, then me. The older guy was named Vinnie. The kid was Danny. We fell back into step and resumed our drumming.
“We ARE the 99 percent.”
Yes, we are.
Near the end of the march, we pulled up in front of the large building housing the Bank of America. Our young djembe-player now had both hands free to bang out a cool beat. Another kid with a snare drum found his way to us. A middle-aged African American woman with a djembe joined us. Now we had a real drum circle going. I kept my beat simple but urgent.
THUNK!-THUNK! I pounded. The other drummers filled in with their much faster beats. A crowd gathered around us. A woman started playing a recorder.
All too soon, it was time to move on. Over on the next block was a small park where a small band of protesters had been camping out in a tent city, literally occupying LA. This is where the march ended. I rejoined my friends. Someone came over and handed me a booklet of his poems. I shook hands with my fellow drummers. Time to catch the Metro back.
I am under no illusions about the fact that my control button is not connected to anything. No one listens. But, on this day at least, someone heard our drumming.