As I got off the bus, I noticed a congregation of people just out of view in the alley across the way. They were all chanting in unison, and their bombastic voices blended together so that I couldn’t tell what was being said, only that it was some sort of catchy slogan. One of them, a child on the outer rim of the circle, was jumping and wildly pulling at limbs. He was trying to pinpoint the source of the ruckus.
The crowd was so thick and tightly enmeshed, people interlocked and it appeared to me, and the child, as a non-descript curtain of flesh and clothes. The child was clearly as desperate as I was to join the ranks of the group and learn their beliefs, but we could only gawk and let our imaginations turn the event from a simple protest into the feather that sunk the cargo ship.
Noticing that I was late, I hurried off to my day’s business, but could not put that congregation out of my mind. I could not help but suspect that the streetscape was lying to me, as though some fake designer handbag that one could devalue simply by spotting the loose thread under the logo. So too did the cars that stopped at red lights even when there wasn’t another car or person in sight seem to me irrefutable evidence that somebody was trying to get one up on me. “What a fantastic thought”, I exclaimed, and seeking approbation from another I called my friend to describe the revelation I had just had.
“Hey, it’s me… no don’t talk, just listen… before I forget why I called. Earlier today I saw this group of miscreants protesting something, but I couldn’t discern what exactly it was they were opposed to. It was the most bizarre thing. They were holding placards and making loud rhetorical jabs, but they might as well have been speaking another language, and perhaps they were, for I came away with no conception whatsoever of what they wished to change in the world, just that they were unsatisfied with the way things were this morning.” He told me I should keep my ear to the grindstone—or was it to the Earth? He definitely told me to keep my ear to something.
The next evening, around ten at night and through empty streets (the sweeper trucks had clearly been at work) I walked along the same route I had taken the previous morning and discovered that the protesters were all gone, and all that was left was a pile of inanities written in marker pen on wet, soppy cardboard.
While it is by no means unreasonable for protesters to disband after a day of unrelenting protest, I nonetheless felt that they had undermined their cause. I went to examine the signs and discovered them to my disappointment even less intelligible than they had been that morning.
Legible signs, I mused, are an essential ingredient for effective protest; protesters are invariably ‘big picture’ people, and will always in their haste forget the details of the issue they protest. Thus they need their signs, like lazy students needs their crib notes, to remind them of what they can’t help but forget.
I must have spent an hour wading through and sorting the mess of signs, trying to get to the root of it all. I only stopped when a man tapped me on the shoulder. He was an old man, with drooping, dog-like jowls and a lonely wisp of hair.
“I’m afraid the protest is over”, he said nostalgically, as though it had ended several decades ago and just not that morning.
“But what in the devil were they protesting? I am dying to know.”
“I’d say you know the answer, or at least suspect what it might be—why else would you be here in the middle of the night, knee-deep in stale rhetoric?”
“It must have been a great injustice. Of this I was convinced by the way they yelled and fused together, like a cistern overflowing with individual raindrops in a storm.”
“It was the greatest injustice that they were protesting, in this you are correct. I fear, however, that you will be disappointed with me, for the greatest injustice is not something that can simply be written on a sign, or penned in a manifesto. Many a man has given himself an aneurism trying to articulate that ineffable bitterness, why he felt cheated, why he feared falling asleep—like he could hear a hungry nun in the next room sharpening her knife, waiting for him to doze off that she might cut his throat.”
“You would have me believe that the enlivened protest I witnessed was simply a chorus of cynics holding desperately on to their last shreds of idealistic vigour. You say it had no clear object, no unity save for the fact that each person felt equally cheated, equally manhandled, by abstract notions of Payment and Retribution?”
“I detect in your disappointed tone that you yourself are one of these people, and that you are realizing the Truth far too late in the day.”
At this point I became incensed and spoke to this venerable old man with perhaps too much familiarity.
“And you would so candidly present me your truth, that dusty collection of gems you have hoarded over your eighty or so years?”
“In spite of your youthful irreverence I will indeed let you sample the bitter fruit of foresight, for I see much of myself in you: It is as you say, in old age comes a dulling of the senses, and with it the sad realization that you are no more than a racehorse in the fabled human race, which is just that, a race, and the five senses, no more than a riding crop. Protest, reform and revolution, these are simply words describing what happens when deluded youths like yourself reach the unnamable Wall. They cannot, that is to say refuse to, think of a way to surmount it other than pounding and kicking against it until their fists are bloody and their knees trembling. In this manner they will proceed until the day that they are prepared to accept that the wall has not moved an inch, nor has one stone been dislodged by their noble tantrums, but is still the same Wall.”
Then his expression, which had been stern and authoritative, became plaintive and soft. “My father once told me about the time he ran from the bulls in Barcelona. He told me how he could feel their hot breath on his back even when he was a hundred feet away and they were still in the stalls. In his terror he had bowled over an elderly plumber who was attempting to flee as fast as his swollen, rheumatic knees would allow. As you might expect, the bulls paid no heed to the injustice of this act, the innocence of the plumber, nor to the cowardice of my father. They gored this hapless old man for no other reason than that they had the horns to do it.
When my father would tell this story to people, no one ever criticized him for his cowardice, for in the same breath they would have to censure the Bull for having horns as sharp as flint.”
The man looked at me with understanding, nodded his head, and walked away as silently as he had approached me. I realized instantly that the protestors hadn’t been united at all. Far from it, they had each one of them been protesting the other protestors for drowning out the sound of their protestations, believing their cause the only righteous one.
I laughed myself all the way home, seeing the world as one great shouting contest, where ironically all had gone deaf long ago.