44 School Bags

August 31st, 2018

I helped to unload Bob’s car. Bob was temporarily parked in the center lane of Dearborn, which is a busy, one-way street heading north through the heart of the Loop in Chicago. Bob and Kathy had Bob’s car packed with stuff. There were signs to hold, flyers to hand out, and forty-four blue backpacks.

Forty-four-blue backpacks?

They were small school bags, all identical. They were the kind that a small child would carry. There were exactly forty-four of them because forty-four Yemeni boys got killed in August during a bombing attack. One bag for each of the children.

Note: I just found out that ten of the boys survived. So, there were actually thirty-four students killed in the attack. That is still thirty-four too many.

The United States, for reasons that seem obscure, has been backing a Saudi-based coalition that is waging war against a Houthi-led rebellion in Yemen.  In essence, The U.S. is supporting one side in a civil war in a country that is almost unknown to us. On August 9th, the Saudi coalition dropped a bomb on a school bus packed with children. The reasons for this attack are also obscure. In any case, the kids had been on a school trip. The bus received a direct hit from a five hundred pound bomb that had been manufactured by Lockheed Martin and sold to the Saudis. Photos from after the attack show a bus that has been reduced to a pile of twisted, burned metal. There is also a photo of burned and bloody school bags. Blue school bags.

This attack is only the most egregious example of the crimes that the Saudi coalition has committed during its war in Yemen. For several years this coalition has done its best to create am overwhelming humanitarian crisis in Yemen. People are starving there. People are dying of cholera. For some reason starvation and disease don’t get the world’s attention. A burning bus full of schoolkids does.

We were going to protest against this attack by standing in the plaza of the Federal Building on the corner of Dearborn and Adams. The demonstration was not just about this particular bombing attack. After all, there are bombing attacks going on throughout the world every day. We were protesting the U.S. policy that allows munitions manufacturers in our country to sell arms to people like the Saudis, who then use these weapons to kill civilians. By extension, the United States is complicit in war crimes. The tragedy is that nobody in this country seems to care about that fact, or even to know anything about it.

There is a large metal sculpture in the plaza, called “The Flamingo”. There is also a large flagpole in the plaza, where the American flag currently flies at half mast, to remember Senator John McCain. We decided to place the forty-four bags on the pavement in front of the the flagpole. It made for a good visual display. Bob had placed cans of beans and newspapers inside the backpacks to keep them upright. Kathy wanted the school bags arranged in a neat pattern, like a World War I cemetery in Flanders, or like Arlington.

We had seven signs to hold up. Bob explained to me that the signs had to be in order, because they spelled out our message. He said, “It’s like a Burma Shave advertisement along a highway.” The fact that both of us actually know what “Burma Shave” was, and how their ads looked, should tell you something about our age.

We were generally short handed during the course of the demonstration. Sometimes each person had to hold up two signs. Kathy usually handed out the leaflets. She was good at explaining what we were doing to people passing by. There was a lot of pedestrian traffic on that corner. Some people ignored us. Some people stopped to look for a moment. A few people even stopped to talk to us. I think that some folks showed a genuine interest in reason for the protest. Some others just figured that the circus had come to town.

Demonstrations don’t often change hearts and minds. Mostly, they create a momentary awareness. I am convinced that most of the people who looked at our display had known nothing about the massacre in Yemen prior to seeing us holding our signs. Even after seeing the school bags and reading our signs, many of them may not have cared. I saw a number of people shrug and then go on their way. However, for a minute or two, they thought about those kids. I look at it this way: maybe a thousand people walk past our  demonstration. Of those people, maybe one hundred give some thought to the issue. Of those one hundred people, maybe ten write to their Senator or take some other sort of action to stop the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. As far as I am concerned, even ten people who get involved is a win.

All sorts of people took pictures of us with their phones. That seems to be the way of the world. If a person sees something interesting to them, they take a photo, and then maybe put it on Facebook or Instagram. One young woman approached us while carrying a sketch pad.

She asked us, “Could I draw a picture of you all? I want to remember this scene.”

We eagerly gave the young woman permission to do so. She spent several minutes with her pencil and paper, scribbling as she look at us from the sidewalk. When she finished, she thanked us and showed us the image she had drawn. I wonder how she will post that.

A family walked in front of us. There was a mom, a dad, and two young boys. They read our signs. One boy looked very perplexed. He kept staring at the backpacks. His mother knelt down by him, and she spoke to him about the school bags. She talked with her son for quite a while. When she got back up, she came over speak with us.

She had a Slavic accent. The mother said to us, “I want to thank you for doing this. The bags, they helped me to explain all this to my children. The bags, they are very good. Thank you.”

A guy came up to us, and looked quizzically at the bags and the signs. He had a “Trump” button pinned to his jacket. He came up to me, and asked,

“So, what’s this all about? Do we hate all the Arabs now?”

“Uh no, there a lot of different kinds of Arabs.”

The man went on, “Okay. I just want to know what your message is here. What are you trying to say?”

I replied, “We are against the United States selling weapons to the Saudis so that the Saudis can kill kids in Yemen with them.”

The man told me, “All right. I’m not being critical. That’s good. I’m with you on this.” Then he smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

Another man approaches us. He seemed outraged.

Why isn’t this in the news?! Here we are in the middle of a five day memorial for a war criminal, and nobody even knows about this stuff happening in Yemen! Thanks for doing this!”

Not all our visitors were happy with us. I was standing next to James, when a black man came to talk with our group of sign holders. The man had no shirt. His eyes were blood red and feverish. He held a Bible in his left hand.

“What all this about?”

Bob tried to explain that it was a way to tell people about the killing in Yemen.

The man looked confused. He asked us, “Can I have one of them backpacks?”

Bob told him, “No.”

“You all got a bunch of them backpacks. Can’t I have just one?”

Bob explained that we had a school bag for each child. We needed all of them.

“I only want one!”

The man didn’t get a backpack. He wasn’t happy about it. He walked away.

Later he came back to the plaza. He lied down on a stone bench.

James said to me, “Our friend is back. This time he has on a jacket, and he has a backpack.”

I looked at the man trying to sleep on a rock hard bench. I shook my head. I said,

“He’s just suffering…

“Like we all are”, said James.

Yeah, like we all are. Like the families of those kids in Yemen. Like the homeless people in Chicago. Like every person who walked past us. Every single one of us is suffering.

What do we do about it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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