During the last class, on the last day, of Duke Young Writers’ Camp, my students and I gathered around a conference table in the basement of the Lilly Library. Amid art books and chapel lithographs, the high school students chattered about their flights home, new beverages on the market and a pink-haired drama student one of them had failed to meet. “OK, let’s start,” I said. The clamor subsided. “What comes to mind when you think about protests?”
“Crazy,” “counter culture,” “our parents’ generation,” they replied.
Charlie raised his hand. “When there were hippies, everyone was protesting,” he said. “My uncle used to protest. But, now, he’s the straightest guy. He doesn’t do anything like that now.”
“How has seeing the demonstrations against the Iraq war affected your sense of protest?” I asked.
Will responded first. “I think people are pretty disgusted and frustrated but don’t really know what to do,” he said.
Joe added: “With the government’s secrecy, there’s really nothing we can do.”
“I remember when the war was going on,” Samantha said, “and I was doing protests, people would be like, do you really think you can make a difference? I think this new generation doesn’t believe in themselves.”
“We have every reason not to believe in ourselves,” Will responded.
“We have every reason to believe in ourselves,” Alicia retorted.
“Explain,” I asked.
“We’re taught that we’re helpless,” Will said. “The government is going to do what it is going to do. Everything is a step removed from us. It’s hard to believe that you can affect something.”
“That should give you encouragement to do something,” Alicia said. “I don’t feel like I’m helpless. I feel like I’ve been told that I can do what I want to do.”
The class was silent and approaching the well-trodden realist-idealist divide. Alicia’s hopefulness was a good way to segue into the class’ final exercise–a protest on nearby Ninth Street.
For three years I have taught aspiring young writers–who are used to yelling on the page but not out loud–how to stage demonstrations. Every year political contexts change my lesson plans. My most recent curriculum responded to what I perceive to be a danger to democracy–namely, the patriotic backlash against demonstrators. Underneath the United We Stand rhetoric and Trust Our President patriotism, many Americans, I fear, want to quell political debate, do away with protest as a form and end agitation in general. Therefore I’ve tried to convince my students of the historic and inherent role of protest in America, regardless of their politics.
Early in the session, I assigned my students the task of finding a political cause to stand behind. Many proposed abortion rights, a moratorium on the death penalty and ending the occupation of Iraq, but all of them could not agree on these issues. They did, however, unanimously agree to protest against the USA Patriot Acts. It’s a resonant issue for these Columbine-era kids. Metal detectors, clear plastic backpacks and locker searches are familiar to them. They understand, perhaps better than many adults, the tricky balance between group security and personal rights.
Before leaving the classroom, I wanted to set the tone for what we were about to do. “Let me say what protesting is not before I say what it is,” I said. “Protesting is not a mob. It is not a gang ready to rumble. Protesting is a celebration of our freedoms. And it should feel that way. We should give off the energy of a street party, open for all people to join.
“When we get back to class, I want you to write about how it felt. Pay attention to your eyes, throat and skin. Pay attention to what thoughts come into your head. Does that make sense?”
They nodded and, amid more clamor, got up from the table. Jordan and Charlie retrieved the noisemakers they had hidden in the bookshelves. Joe, Will and Samantha got the flyers. Lauren and Megan gathered the posters and approached me.
“What if people say something mean to us?” Lauren asked.
“They inevitably will,” I said.
“You said you wanted this to have a positive energy. What do we do?” she asked.
“Ignore them, smile, or show them a peace sign,” I said.
Megan interjected: “Just say, what kind of American are you?”
2001: A mob apologizes
The first year I taught the class, in 2001, the twin towers still stood. The biggest political crises concerned Florida butterfly ballots and the International Monetary Fund. I suggested a few issues and my students chose Shell Oil’s role in the murder of Ken Sara Wiwa, a Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning activist, as their topic. So, on a sweltering July day, prepared with posters, flyers and chants, my 15 students and I loaded into a van and headed to the Hillsborough Road Shell station.
We parked in a distant lot and shuffled toward the building. Jenny, a student from Sarasota, Fla., entered the office and handed the proprietor a flyer. We faced the Hillsborough Road traffic with signs reading, “No Blood for Oil.” Some posters displayed the graphic of a shell dripping with blood. The kids handed out flyers. They chanted, Boycott Shell!
When we returned to the van, the students were energized. They requested to do another protest. Via a cell-phone call to directory assistance, we found the address of a Roxboro Road station. When Jenny went into the office, the proprietor chased her out. She turned to him and yelled “Murderer!” The proprietor followed her and asked for the person in charge. “Y’all have to leave,” he told me, irate and huffing.
I explained that the sidewalk was public property and we had no intent of leave. “Then I’m calling the cops,” he said and stormed off.
He went inside the office and returned to pace in front of the pumps. One of his staff members jumped into a tow truck and started it idling.
When we made our way back to the van, I had the assistant teacher start it up. The angry proprietor followed in the tow truck. “Who are y’all with?” he asked, getting out a pad and paper. I gave him a fake number. He scribbled it like it was the start of his retribution.
As we drove away the Durham police pulled into the station. The children cheered at the windows. They yelled, “We got him!”
After class, I got a pint of Guinness at the James Joyce and reflected on the class. Although the protest had been invigorating, I felt that it had gone horribly wrong, precisely at the point at which Jenny had called the proprietor a murderer. Also the echo of “We got him!” was breaking my heart. I had taught them the wrong lesson. They had learned nothing more than the power of a mob. Furthermore, the fact that the man’s company killed a man doesn’t necessarily make him a murderer. He probably didn’t even know about Ken Sara Wiwa. Was it right, then, to bombard him with outrage? Nursing my beer, I tried to figure out a way to correct the awry lesson my students had learned.
An idea came to me and I drove back to the Shell station. The proprietor was working beneath the hood of a car. The oil and fumes reminded me of the garages my father took me to as a child. “Hey,” I said, “Do you have a second? I want to talk to you about what happened today.”
We walked into the lot. “I’m teaching these kids how to protest,” I explained. “And I think it would interesting for them to talk to you about the protest from your perspective.” He was dismayed but agreed. We set a time for the following day.
During the next class, my kids were ecstatic. They told stories about the man, his anger and our escape. I said we were going on another trip. “Back to the station?” one asked excitedly.
“Yes,” I said, “but to talk, not to protest.”
They looked horrified.
“He’s going to kill us,” one worried.
“He’s not going to kill us. I’ve already spoken with him. We’re just going to talk to him about our demonstration.”
The van ride was quiet. We parked on a side street and found the proprietor in the garage. He wiped his hands on a rag and led us around to the back. We sat in a gravel lot beside a dry transmission. We formed a semi-circle. He crouched. “I’m just trying to feed my family,” he said. “And if Shell has killed some people overseas–which I never heard about–then I’m sorry. But I’ve got a business to run and a family to feed.”
The kids asked him how he could come to peace with the fact that he works for a company that propagates injustices around the world. He responded by referring, again, to his family. “And if y’all think you hurt my business, you didn’t,” he said. “You really think protesting made a difference?”
The kids got back in the van. They looked forlorn, framed by the rearview mirror. “That sucked,” one student, Jasmine, said. “He’s just trying to make a living.”
Back in the classroom I assured them that he was, in fact, wrong about protesting. No car visited him during the commotion and furthermore, for passing drivers, we associated Shell with bloodshed. The more important issue, though, is the question: How do we protest for social change without resorting to a logic in which certain people become necessary casualties? They were quiet but understood the question. “I hope you can figure out an answer,” I said, “because I don’t know.”
2002: Anger is best expressed through a felt beak
By the next year, I still didn’t have an answer. I was preoccupied with another issue regarding my influence as a teacher. Even though my students choose the Shell case by consensus, it was I who suggested it and my position, as a teacher, legitimized it with all the authority invested in that role. I contemplated ways to teach about politics while avoiding the dogmatic influence inherent in my position. I decided to let each student come up with his or her own issue. We, as a class, would support him or her and, in effect, endorse each other’s right to protest.
I was also a bit tired of protest, as a form. I was burnt out from the last year’s intense experience and wanted to integrate humor and surprise into the work. I was increasingly interested in alternatives to traditional protests, like street theater. Therefore, I requested that each student write a site-specific dramatic work that we could all perform together.
When the day came for our productions, it was raining–hard. We drove to the first performance site, the Durham County Courthouse. Grace wanted to perform a lesbian wedding on the courthouse steps. The students brought along white gowns, flower bouquets, bow ties and rice. They formed a gradient triangle on the steps composed of the minister, two girls, groomsmen and witnesses.
The minister asked the first question. “Do you Hallie, take Lydia, to be your unlawfully wedded wife?”
“I do,” she replied. “I, Hallie, take thee Lydia to be my unlawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, although it is illegal. In sickness, I will wait in the hospital while others make our life-changing decisions.”
The minister continued. “Do you, Lydia, take Hallie to be your unlawfully wedded wife?”
“I do,” she said. “I, Lydia, take thee Hallie to be my unlawfully wedded wife. For richer, although you cannot have my Social Security, and for poorer.”
They held hands and announced to the crowd, “We’re off to start our illegal family!” They ran down the stairs through the rice, cheers and rain.
Other theater pieces that day dealt with anti-abortion issues (staged in a playground), U.S. military involvement in Latin America (staged in a downtown alleyway), sweatshop labor (staged in front of a Gap), cloning (staged amid the Untidy Museum mannequins) and medical malpractice (staged in a mock office). One of our last pieces took us to a McDonald’s drive-thru. Jesse and Cliff wanted to host a Jerry Springer show there about hormone injections. They put a podium and three chairs over the yellow drive-thru arrows.
“Today we are going to interview some chickens who say their farmer pumps them full of hormones,” Cliff said in his best announcer voice.
The audience applauded.
Two students, wrapped in white gauze and pillow stuffing, and wearing yellow felt beaks, waddled to the chairs. “I’m sick of being obese,” one of them complained. “Whenever I lay eggs I crush them.”
The crowd mumbled in shock. Another chicken waddled out. “We’ve been in the same pen for a year,” she reported.
“Well, chickens, we have your foreman here,” Cliff said. “And he had something to say before the show.”
Off to the side, Jesse wore a plaid shirt with ripped sleeves and green hat. “Yeah, I feed them chickens hormones,” he said. “Tim, I only do this because I need the money. If they don’t like it, they can die!”
The crowd jeered. The chickens ba-gakked. Jesse walked onto the drive-thru yelling, “Y’all don’t know me!” swinging his hands in a dismissive motion. The crowd ganged up on him with criticisms. One yelled, “You need to show these animals respect!”
2003: Support our students
When my 2003 class arrived on Ninth Street, the first people to stare at us were scaffolders. We walked under their rigging and headed toward the corner of Main and Ninth streets. Sam started a chant: 2-4-6-8, We don’t want your police state! Drivers rounded the corner and ducked to see the commotion. The students held signs reading, “Have You Seen My Rights?” and “The Patriot Act is Unpatriotic.” We marched down Ninth Street.
Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! These Racist Laws Have Got to Go! Will’s throat trembled. Jordan yelled like he was in a hip-hop video. I clapped to keep the kids in rhythm. Dana moved to the side of the group, tossing her hand on her hip like she was at a pep rally. Charlie placed flyers under windshield wipers. Alicia called her father, who is a federal intelligence officer. She yelled into the phone, “Can you hear us?”
People came out of stores to watch. A barista waved. Two men walked outside of a grill and stood beside a six-foot wiener, spreading ketchup on itself. An American flag was pasted on its bun. One of the men told my students to “keep walking.” Three sprite girls danced in the street toward us, clapping.
What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now! We made our way back to the corner of Ninth and Main. My students were in a full roar. A woman in a blue car, idling at the corner, started to chant along. Her backseat window open. A kid in carseat looked on. Charlie saw an opportunity, walked toward the car and handed the kid a flyer.
Abstract citizens don’t protest long
This year, in an awful French accent, I told a group of students that we were going to a coffee shop to write manifestos. It made me laugh to think of these gangly high schoolers as quarrelsome beatniks arguing about existential issues. So we headed to the Mad Hatter coffee shop. Their assignment was to describe a good citizen’s actions, using only concrete details. They worked diligently and when they turned in their drafts, the writing was awful. “A citizen should help the homeless,” one wrote. I looked through the other manifestos: all of them contained scores of these predictable, passionless lines. I was perplexed. It was as if each of them had written a short story about a hexagon. I suspected that the assignment’s starting point, the idea of citizen, zapped the children’s brains and prevented them from writing anything concrete, creative or conflicted.
This experience bears important weight on the effort to teach kids how to protest. It is not enough to appeal to them as Americans–as I did this year–or even point out that our country’s democracy depends on every citizen’s participation. The most persuasive argument, I believe, lies in the notion that protesting, as an act, conjures up an important array of emotions not experienced anywhere else.
The exercise in which my students paid attention to their breathing and bodies was intended to familiarize them with this emotional array and make them bear witness to their own diversity. The act of walking, and yelling, in a group against a common foe, calls forth conflicting thoughts and emotions. One is revelrous and welcoming, militant and embarrassed, desperate and dignified. It is with these thoughts and feelings that a protestor can testify to her diversity. She may lay these things bare, see them as human. A student may even use these insights to understand, and bolster herself against, the very injustice she is protesting.