From Chapter 8, Trespassers
By Meredith Sue Willis
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We got off the subway at South Ferry, and I was suddenly aware of how many others were getting off too: as if when I hadn't been paying attention, the train had filled with people who were going to the demonstration, including a knot of older people wearing berets and mufflers.
When we were outside, everyone seemed to be moving in different directions at once under a low sky, beside a wall of buildings. "Is this it?" I asked. "Is this the demonstration?"
But no one seemed to hear me. Louie, suddenly wide awake, shoved past me, started whispering to J.C. Shelley raised an arm as if in salute to someone off in the crowd. I had never been in a place with this many people before. What did you do, I wondered, simply stand around till someone counted you, and then go home? Something even darker than the sky hovered overhead— trees that hadn't lost their leaves yet.
While I was staring up, the space filled even more with shoulders, wedges and torrents of hair, sneakers, hiking boots: I tried to stay close to Shelley and J.C., but they were moving ahead, looking for something. I bumped into a boy with a backpack, and by the time I got around him, I had lost the others. No sign of Shelley. Someone with a bullhorn climbed on a bench, and at first I thought from the beard and army jacket it was J.C., but it was someone else. There was some electronic feedback and whistles, and then he began telling people to go across the street, to mass in front of the building with pillars. There would be a rally, he said, and people who were trained in passive resistance should try to block the entrance to the induction station. Men who wanted to burn their draft cards should move to the front.
Who had planned it? How did they decide what to do? Did it matter, I wondered, that I was neither trained nor drafted? Was my protest equal to the others'? The milling and bobbing began to pick up momentum. We moved into a narrower place where buildings pressed us tighter together, and I could see textures of limestone and granite. The sky had turned iron gray, and the people's army jackets and lumber jack shirts were just beginning to show dull colors. I could feel a sharpening of my vision with the added light, and a new excitement, a hum underlying the milling and shuffling when we were halted at a cross street.
"Where's the Induction Center?" I asked a tall red-haired boy. He pointed, but I couldn't see whether his finger indicated a structure or a direction. There was a bullhorn again, from the ledge of a low window now, and this time it really was J.C. He's an important person in all this, I thought, somehow surprised, as if smoking cigars and sleeping at our apartment should somehow make him not a leader. I searched the crowd for Shelley, but didn't see her, and J.C. didn't see me.
"PEOPLE!" he boomed, much louder, much more imperiously than the previous bullhorn speaker. "There are too many of us to go to Whitehall Street! The street is so full they can't get in. The center is shut down!!"
A great roar, and for the first time I was caught up in it, was uplifted, soared with the heavy flight of startled pigeons.
"SHUT IT DOWN!" we screamed. "BRING THE BOYS HOME!"
J.C. shouted, "Okay, listen up everybody, some of us aren't stopping now. We don't have a parade permit for this but some of us want to take it to Wall Street. We stuck it to the army, now we want to stick it to the stockbrokers!" Immediately, a large contingent unfurled a flag of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.
"HO HO HO CHI MINH," they chanted. "N.L.F. IS GONNA WIN!"
They had their faces hidden by scarves under motor cycle helmets, as if they expected to be attacked. Their flag shuddered and undulated and broke away from the main march. I meant to stay with the mainstream, but I was drawn off by the surging crowd that followed the Ho Chi Minh flag. Who were they, and where were they leading us? The new march plunged up a street which twisted deep into the narrow skyscraper canyons. I was near enough the front to see black pavement ahead from time to time, and beefy men in raincoats lining the sidewalks, each raincoat having a little orange button on one lapel.
"They're cops," someone said. "All of the guys with the buttons are undercover cops."
"Commies!" yelled one of the beefy men with the buttons. "Commie faggots!"
Someone shouted back, "Look at the undercover pigs, real hard to spot, aren't they?"
And someone else started screaming, "Pigs, pigs, fuck yourself in the ass, pigs!"
And with a kind of explosion, as if they'd been waiting for this chance, a crowd of the undercover cops, maybe as many as the militants with the flag, knocked their way into the crowd, grabbed the tall red-headed boy I had spoken to before, pulled him out of the march.
"He's not the one who said it!" I yelled.
But a boy with a helmet came running up and shoved me back into the line of march. "Don't fall for their trap! They're looking for an excuse! Don't fall for their trap!" I kept moving, faster, and began to be afraid: I could hear thuds of fists beating someone. I looked back and saw only the knot of undercover police, nothing of the red headed boy. The march seemed to pick up speed, and then, at a cross street, slowed down, folded us back on one another, and I saw that our way was blocked by police barriers and blue uniforms.
I felt a kind of falling away of my blood, a chill. The police began to march toward us. I'm afraid, I thought. From a side street came a precise, repetitious clopping sound that was at once familiar and menacing. I looked around. Who were these people I was about to die with? The red-haired boy was gone. Beaten to a pulp as far as I knew. These were people who might have been my friends, but were not. The police were walking toward us from the front, and I heard the menacing sound to one side. And something very clear clicked in my brain. It's one thing to die with your friends, I thought, but not with strangers. I started to make my way sideways.
"Excuse me," I said firmly, "Excuse me, please. I'm coming through. I have to go to work."
The crowd's churning had become a retreat, but I tacked sideways, toward the buildings, slithered between a belly and a back. "Excuse me," I said to one of the thick men in raincoats and orange buttons when I got to the perimeter. I found a double-headed standing pipe behind the plainclothes officers and clambered up to see what was happening and choose a direction for my flight. There were horses. The menacing clopping that had set off an alarm in my head had been mounted police. Very high above the crowd, very large horses. Tall, strong policemen with tight pants and boots astraddle big bay and chestnut horses. Morgan horses, I identified. My favorite breed when I was ten years old because they had the same last name that I did, and because they were calm and versatile, and, yes, I remembered, the choice of the New York City Mounted Police. Trotting lightly now, cutting between the foot police and the demonstration. There was a swaying at the front of the crowd, a pulling back from the horses, and, as the horses picked up speed, a stampede with shouts, a sudden swipe of a stick from atop a horse, a boy grabbing his head, falling sideways and screaming.
"PIGS!" yelled a voice. "PIGS!"
But they're horses, I thought, stunned, pressing against my wall. One coming my way now, the big barrel chest forward, knees lifting smartly, people screaming, fleeing, the officer with goggles on, mouth straight and still, swiping at random with a club: clunk, smash, another shrill scream, and people running for my wall, trying to climb it. I lost my footing, slipped into the tiny space between the pipe and the wall, twisting my ankle, and for a moment was caught there, cheek against stone, dark shapes rising jaggedly around and above me, the leaping banners, the curses, the sound— I heard it clearly— of the horse snorting, hooves on open space again, echoing through the canyon. The pressure eased momentarily. I struggled from behind my standing pipe, found that my ankle could be walked on, found stairs, got high enough for a last look around: the crowd retreating down the street, individual knots cornered and chased by the horses, and individual people being arrested by the foot police and plainclothes officers. One group of rain-coated police were holding down a girl, one for each of her limbs, and she was twisting and bouncing on her butt on the street as they carried her away to a van with its mouth opened, and something about those open doors like the gates of Hell, a place you could step in and disappear.
Something in me went very single-minded, and I began to walk quickly again, staying behind the police, avoiding their attention, and I was lucky, because they seemed already to have selected their targets, and I struggled unmolested around the edge, almost stumbled on some heavy wires that turned out to be attached to television cameras. Someone yelled at me to watch where I was going. I made a quick turn, down an alley with no demonstrators, no police, and, when absolutely no one was near me, I started to run, fleeing until heat rose in waves from my body and I had to open my coat, and finally stopped with my throat rasping raw, and I looked at my watch.
It was not yet eight o'clock in the morning.