December 6th, 2017
I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy
To be calm when you’ve found something going on
But take your time, think a lot
Why, think of everything you’ve got
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not
How can I try to explain, cause when I do he turns away again
It’s always been the same, same old story
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away
I know I have to go
-Cat Stevens, from “Father and Son”
Nothing makes me feel old like being in the company of a group of teenagers. I don’t dislike being with them, but it is difficult for us to connect. At least, I find it a bit difficult to do so. It is hard for me to remember what it was like for me to be that age. Hell, it’s hard for me to remember what it was like for my kids to be that age. In many ways these young people are just like I was, but some things really are different for them, and that is disconcerting.
I spent two full days hanging out with a large number of high school students, and a few of their friends who have already graduated. We rode on a bus (actually there were two buses) to Washington, D.C. to join a rally to prod Congress into passing a clean Dream Act. Since Trump discontinued DACA, about 800,000 young people (like the ones on the bus), are now or will be subject to possible deportation. They will also lose their ability to work or pursue an education. About one hundred of us went to D.C. to demonstrate. We did it because, as one of the older people in our group pointed out, “The issue is no longer theoretical”. The longer these youths go unprotected, the greater the chances that they will get hurt.
Many of the young people on the bus were Latino. A few were not, but even they realized what is at stake. They all have skin in the game. Every one of those kids either is undocumented or knows somebody who is. Each one of those teenagers is painfully aware of how important this issue is. They didn’t come on the trip just to get out of a couple days of classes. As one of them said, they came because “it is a noble cause”.
The journey was organized by Voces de la Frontera and its subsidiary, YES (Youth Empowered in the Struggle). All the students were somehow involved with YES. Besides the transportation, Voces and YES made the banners and signs. They also ensured that there was plentiful food and water for the trip. We all got two massive sandwiches, and everyone seemed to have snacks with them.
It wasn’t like everything was completely serious. After all, we are talking about teenagers. There was a kind of wild energy on the bus as we left Racine in the afternoon. There were many lively discussions, and more than enough loud music on the ride. Sleep was optional, at least on the way to Washington. Folks were too wound up, even those of us who qualify as old. A few of the elders were designated as chaperons. Somehow Voces never thought to use me as a chaperon, and I am eternally grateful for that. I’ve spent most of my adult life herding people, and I was very pleased to just be an innocent bystander this time.
I got to know a few of the teens on the bus ride. Anthony and Emelio sat behind me. Anthony is an old hand at this sort of thing. He was in YES for several years, and he worked at the Voces office in Milwaukee. Now he manages a restaurant. Emelio is still in high school. He’s interested in joining the military. I tried to clue him in that there are costs involved with that kind of decision. I’m not sure that he understood, but then how could he? There are things that a person can only learn by experience, and he doesn’t have much of that yet.
Somebody cranked up the tunes as the evening progressed. I was deeply impressed by the fact that the kids sang along with “Killing Me Softly with His Song”. I don’t think they were listening to the Roberta Flack version. I think it was the Fugees cover. However, they knew all the words. Then they played tracks from Kid Cudi. I actually own a Kid Cudi album (Man on the Moon II). He’s not bad at all. Then they shifted over to some Mexican music. Some of riders sang along in Spanish. It sounded pretty cool. After that, they played hip hop, rap, and whatever else they liked. At 11:00 PM the party stopped. The bus was quieter, but not entirely silent. Too much tension.
We had breakfast at Bob and Edith’s Diner in Arlington, Virginia. It’s an old school diner. I really don’t think the management expected to see fifty people walk into their restaurant at one time. However, they handled the crowd well. We all found a seat. I sat in a booth by myself for a while. Nobody wanted to sit with a scary-looking old guy. Finally, a boy named Tyler slid into the booth. Then two girls showed up: Gabi and her blue-haired friend (whose name I have forgotten).
The conversation was awkward. I asked the usual, lame, adult questions. You know, like “What classes are you in?” and “Do you like sports?”. They gave me mostly monosyllabic answers. It was pathetic. The girls were juniors at Horlick High School, and Tyler was a freshman there. I wanted to have a conversation, but it seemed forced. The teens and I were looking at life from opposite ends of the continuum. Besides the fact that we were all motivated to help immigrants, we had almost nothing in common. The gap was just too big.
We got off the bus at Union Station and we all walked to the Capitol Building. Most people carried signs. I helped to carry a big, black parachute which had the image of a mother and child on it. In both English and Spanish, there was the message: “Keep Families Together”. It was impressive to see. It was a bit hard to maneuver with the parachute, but it was fun to flap it once it was all stretched out.
It was cold and windy outside the Capitol. The sun peeked through a grey sky. The crowd was big. There were people there from all over the country. There seemed to be an endless amount of speeches. We stood around for a while, and then moved into a strategic position to get near the front of the march. It’s easier to get media attention if you are in the front.
Civil disobedience was scheduled for 3:00 PM at the Senate side of the building. We were going to march there, and support the people risking arrest. The action was planned well in advance, and was going to be about as spontaneous as a space shuttle launch. That’s just how those things work. A number of people were going to sit on the steps of the Senate wing, and then refuse to get up. The Washington cops would arrest them, and the media would take note. It’s kind of political version of Kabuki theater.
Christine from Voces was one of the folks waiting to get busted. She sat with at least one hundred other people on the stone steps. The police were there, heavily armed and looking all badass and shit. The show would have been amusing if the underlying problem wasn’t so critical.
The people sitting on the steps came in all shapes and sizes. There were members of the clergy there, dressed in their religious garb. Each of them wore neon green gloves, and each one had a green band around their right arm. I found this to be odd. It occurred to me that maybe this was a way to ensure that the group of protesters wasn’t infiltrated by some hooligans. The idea was to have a peaceful, non-violent action. One or two idiots would screw that up quickly.
The police gave the sitters a chance to leave. Nobody budged. Then the cops slowly, but surely, arrested each one of them. From my vantage point, it was really hard to see who was getting busted. The crowd was thick, and people were huddled close together. I tried in vain to find Christine on the stairs.
Al, one of the chaperons, told me, “We don’t need to watch. The kids need to see this.”
He was right. The older protesters in our group didn’t need to watch the event. All of us have either already watched friends get arrested, or we have been arrested ourselves at some point. However, the teens really did need to watch the arrests. They needed to see that there are costs involved in working for justice. They needed to see that free speech isn’t always free. They needed to know first hand, up close and personal, what happens when you buck the system. They needed to be made aware.
When the demonstration finally ended, and we left the park, people were a bit more subdued. We were all kind of tired. The experience was sobering.
The high school students all left that place just a little bit older.