We make it feel like a quick decision. We make it look like an impulse. We don’t take signs, and I don’t own a pussy hat. On those occasions when we do make plans to attend a protest, we almost always find an excuse not to go at the last minute.
That’s how we got ourselves out to the Vienna Metro when the fascists came by bus to grab a train to the #UniteTheRight2 rally in DC. The rumor was that the bus was hired by a Virginia pastor, and driven by his nephew, a college student who went by the handle “Lion of God 1488.”
We’d just gone to the gym, I’d just walked the dog, and my husband casually said, “Oh hey, let’s drive by the metro and see what’s happening.” Never mind that the calendar has had “Punch a Nazi Day” scrawled on August 12 for weeks.
We knew the event was going to be a bust, and that most of the major white nationalist groups and figures had decided to stay home, but social media was panicking about the low turnout of counter-protestors at the station. What we didn’t know was that the police presence was enormous. Their vehicles lined the long curving drives leading to the station, and there were various teams of enforcement, ranging from officers in helmets and body gear, to ones with bikes and reflective vests. The gates to the North entrance were closed, and a few metro riders trickling in and out. Inside there were a couple of young rally-goers, and Julie Carey from NBC News was trying to interview them, but they weren’t talking.
Outside, it was mainly press and a few counter-protesters. There was also a group of men in matching black shirts and brown khakis who turned out to be a reporter, his video crew, and security. They would not reveal their affiliation, but a couple of them had undercuts and a man who was with them but not in uniform wore a t-shirt with a Russian beer logo on it. Interesting choices.
In the large DC demonstrations of the past year, if you were on the ground you had little to no information, limited ability to move, and unless you were right in front of the speakers, you couldn’t hear a thing. It was frightening and claustrophobic, so everyone had to trust each other. And they generally did.
But in this small crowd, the trust was rationed. A couple with signs walked right up to us, and the woman announced, “We’re going to stand next to you.” Meaning, she recognized that we were there for the same reasons she was. As our small crowd grew into a modest one, a man said to me, “You really can’t tell what side people are on if they don’t have signs.”
Really? I wanted to point out to him that he wouldn’t have been talking to me if he couldn’t tell. Because you can tell. And let’s forget the clothes and the haircuts. Those are the cheap clues. You can tell by how a person stands and interacts, especially when in a small gathering. You can tell when a person is just off.
There were a few off people at the metro that day. Men alone, away from the group, staring. We were paying special attention to the guy we were already calling “Bowtie,” because of the Chevy logo on his shirt. He was on his own and obviously anxious. He seemed to have expectations.
Finally, the police marched a tiny parade of fascists towards us. They were carrying flags on poles that they would have to surrender inside the station. Many did not have metro cards. Eventually, the group would be loaded into their own exclusive train car and led to Lafayette Square where they would be dwarfed by thousands. But for now it was just us, a wee collection of counter-protesters that still out-numbered them. We chanted and shouted as they passed--which lasted 41 seconds according to the crummy video I took--and just before the last of them went inside, Bowtie spat on two troopers. The cops brought him down in an instant, just about two feet from us.
It was an explosive though minor event. There are conflicting reports as to his ideology, but I don’t think it matters if he ever claimed to be a liberal, a conservative, or an extremist of any flavor—if you spit on an armored cop in front of dozens and dozens of armored cops, you’re asking for something awfully special from the cosmos. And in true Fairfax County style, many of the counter-protesters were politely embarrassed for the guy.
After they hauled him away, I saw a young Latina mother and her son, who couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7. They were holding anti hate signs, and the boy was in quiet distress. I asked if he was okay, and his mother said, petting his hair, “Oh, it’s a little scary. But that’s how things are, now.”
I said to him, “Well, you’re a hero for coming out today.” His mother agreed, but I don’t think he was buying it.
I can’t imagine what the day looked like to him.