Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Revolution Will Be Televised (But It Won't Be On Location)

By Kevin Guilfoile

On a sweltering, Texas-in-August afternoon, a justifiably angry, liberal mob wanted to drag me from my car and tear me to pieces.

That story in a minute. First I want to say that if you have time to read just one Outfit post today, go back and read Sara's essay again. That's important and this isn't.

But Sara's bizarre and shocking story about the outrage of Protest Pits reminded me that I was a bystander at what I think might have been the genesis of that idea.

In the summer of 1992 I was working for the Houston Astros when the Republican National Convention rolled into town. We Astrodome employees were exiled to remote parking lots and our subterranean offices were searched by Secret Service agents and teams of dogs, all reasonable precautions, I thought.

At some point it was announced that there would be a "designated protest area," and to my knowledge it was the first time that tactic was employed at such a major event. The media certainly treated it as a novelty. But the brilliant thing about it was this: It was Houston, Texas. In August. Ninety-five degrees and 100% humidity. In the protest area there was a tent and electricity and coolers filled with bottled water. More importantly, because there was a tent and electricity and coolers filled with bottled water, all the television crews were also in the protest area.

So the choice was to protest a half-mile away, at the actual entrance to the Astrodome where the delegates and nominee would actually pass, and where it was unbearably hot and lonely and where no one would record your activism, or you could protest in the designated area where no one actually attending the convention would see you, but where it was both more comfortable and you had a chance to be on the evening news.

As Sara points out, the distant, designated protest area has become a routine part of any event with the slightest stink of controversy and at the time I remember thinking that it was kind of momentous and peculiar and fiendishly clever. And after work I specifically drove around the Astrodome complex so I could get a look at the protesters up close. There was lots of traffic and I cut a few people off getting over to the right-hand lane for a better view.

The protesters were pressed up against the chain fence along the side of the road like prisoners in a riot, hundreds of them with signs demanding the U.S. government stop atrocities in Bosnia and provide more money for Head Start and dozens of other unrelated interests. They were all desperately trying to draw attention to their cause from passing motorists, mostly just folks like me on their way home from work. Somewhere up ahead I was vaguely aware of flashing lights from a police squad car. A traffic stop, I figured. But as I crawled along in traffic, I realized the protesters seemed especially agitated. Even the Head Start woman was screaming, fangs bared, face flush. I craned my neck to see if I could tell who they were yelling at. Traffic stopped altogether and I was stuck, just twenty or so feet from the caged mob.

And that's when I realized they were yelling at me.

These people hated me.

And I couldn't figure out why.

The van in front of me pulled over to the shoulder and made a right hand turn up ahead. I inched up behind an old school bus, painted grey. It had bars on the windows. And across the rear emergency exit was a hand-painted sign that said:


And behind the bars of the bus I saw white sheets and hoods.

I had never seen actual Klansmen outside of the Geraldo show so I forgot about the people yelling at me for a minute and stared in horrible fascination. Then I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a pickup behind me. In accordance with some lunatic group insurance safe-driving policy, the driver wore a sheet but no hood. His passenger was in a suit and tie.

Just like me, except I had an baseball lapel pin and he had a swastika arm band.

Behind them was another pickup and two more guys in sheets and behind them were more guys in sheets and behind them was a police escort and finally it dawned on me that I've driven myself into a Klan parade.

I put on my turn signal and tried to change lanes, but the guy to my left had blocked me in and started screaming at me and swearing. I rolled down my window and desperately tried to explain--I'm not in the Klan, I just work for the Astros!--but he couldn't hear me and was too busy anyhow hurling an Arby's shake at me out his passenger window.

After a few awful minutes with the doors locked the guy ran out of throwable food and headed home. I maneuvered out of the Klan lane and made my way around the bus. A long banner down the side of it said, STOP ABORTING WHITE BABIES and then had a phone number you could call to buy a t-shirt with that catchy slogan.

The convention delegates, alas, saw none of it.


Sara Paretsky said...

Kevin, what a complicated and rich story. You've had enough adventures in the baseball world for a dozen novels and probably a few essay collections. the HeadStart woman, "fangs bared"--we're all so close to giving scope to full-bore hatred and violence--that frightens me more than a lot of other things. thanks for the nod to my post, but not nearly as full a story as the one you're telling, from the Klan to the mob to the "don't abort white babies." Second cousin to the Kansas farmers with their "Combines for the Unborn" parading in Wichita.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks Sara. I started writing that as a comment to your post until I saw how long it was turning out to be. Fortunately I was batting next.

By the way, I don't want to paint Texas, and especially not Houston, as some sort of bastion of anachronistic racism. The people I met there are terrific. It's true that racism is bolder there than perhaps it is elsewhere in this country--I was startled when people I had just met felt comfortable spouting the most casual and shocking kind of hate, as if they just assumed I felt the same way--but I also found more people down there were willing to confront the issue head on. Fangs bared, I suppose.