A couple of months into my first real job, they held something
called Mind-Swap. Everyone near us in the org chart went out to
a resort in the San Juan Islands to talk about programmer
productivity tools. They had Power-Point about instrumenting
binaries, they had team-building games, they had kayaking, and
gosh golly gee it was all fun, but it was also total bullshit.
MindSwap was what we call an "offsite." Offsites are supposedly
about breaking free of the office environment. In reality,
they're about feeling important enough to have to break free of
the office environment. Mind-Swap was a chance for us to
convince each other that automated test-case generation tools
were so important, so creative, that we needed to get out of
our spacious offices in order to brainstorm about them.
The World Economic Forum is an offsite. Sure, it issues
pretentious statements about "Re-evaluating Leadership and
Governance," but so far as it's about anything, it's about
tossing back drinks with the guys in the hotel bar and trying
not to get stuck with the tab. The only thing that keeps the
WEF from being just another self-indulgent offsite is that the
guys in the Waldorf-Astoria bar this past weekend were a
representative sample of the world's richest, most powerful, and
most amoral individuals. They may not work all that much evil
at the WEF itself, but when they go back to their spacious
offices, they work an awful lot of it.
That's why I was out in the streets Saturday and Sunday. I was
an independent observer, gathering evidence for potential legal
cases against the police. More precisely, Gus had a video
camera and was filming arrests and scuffles and I was there to
watch her back and alert her to anything dramatic happening
outside her viewfinder. It was my first major protest, and it's
going to be with me for a long time.
What you never realize without being there is where the bad
vibes come from. On Saturday, they came from the cops. The
marchers had puppets and a samba band; they ranged from goofy to
cynical, but their mood was upbeat. The police -- well, it may
have been exhaustion and it may have been fear or it may just
have been been the contemptuous loathing it felt like, but every
time tempers flared, every time things got grimmer, it started
with someone in blue scowling or puffing up, provoking a
There's something they do that's disturbing in its effectiveness
and also in its callousness. A couple of detachments will
surround a group of protesters, giving contradictory orders.
Disperse or you will be arrested. Don't go this way, don't go
that way. They close in a little, tighten the catch-22, act
deaf to the questions being asked of them. And then they
"relent," a passage opens up, and the demonstrators flow through
it. "Relent," that is, because, when you think about it, whose
idea was it, really, to go that way single-file?
Sunday, we were tailing the (Animal/Earth) Liberation Front, and
at one point the demonstration passed a Starbucks. An officer
at the front called out to his fellows to form a line between it
and the marchers. He laughed, a little, and so did the crowd:
it was a joke and also not a joke. There's a secret
cat-and-mouse complicity between adversaries at moments like
that: they inhabit a cartoon world of outsize drama and
incongruous violence incomprensible to the well-dressed woman
with a dog on a leash who demands to know why they won't let her
walk down this block and would they please let someone
that this sort of nonsense has to stop.
But such moments pass, and that was about as light-hearted as
the day got: there were martial drums and a bullhorn and a
smashed window, and then a mass tackle of an alleged
window-breaker and a double-time push out onto Third Avenue away
fromtm the scene, and then it was back to the scowls and the
drumming and the chopper overhead and the half-dozen large vans
moving slowly alongside the the teams of police and the
gathering dusk and gathering ranks of blue and the fear and the
increasingly frequent stops and the growing realization that the
police were going to shut the march down completely somewhere
around the Queensboro Bridge.
Sunday was when I learned my limits. My soul wasn't prepared,
my earthly affairs weren't in order. I was afraid to risk
arrest, and at a key moment, I took the proffered corridor out.
I was running through reasons in my head: I need to drive Sammy
back to Boston tomorrow, I don't have a pen hidden on me, I
don't know the number for the legal pool. But I knew they were
bullshit excuses, like taking a National Guard draft deferment.
The Man's gaze is like the Eye of Sauron: the immensity of being
noticed, even sidelong, hits you deep down with the terror of
your utter powerlessness before it. Since Sunday, I've
been watching my parking meters. There's nothing like being
threatened with arrest for stepping off the sidewalk to make you
prim and proper about all the silly little laws.
Meanwhile, back in Boston, Super Bowl celebrants were rioting.