When I read that the Southern Republican Leadership Conference was to be held in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel with 2500 hardcore Southern True Believers in tow, I decided to protest the event. If I can sit at the computer in my lounging clothes and encourage others to take action, it was the least I could do to drive downtown and join the hundreds of other protesters certain to be there from all over. I have my priorities of course, and first had to watch the Memphis Tigers win their conference championship. I figured I would catch the Republicans for the afternoon session. But my sign was ready. I had made it the day before with posterboard, tomato stakes, magic marker, and staples. It said "Sheep," on one side and "Fools," on the other. I felt anyone who can still defend this administration is either a sheep or a fool. I added the address of this blog, just in case.
It wasn't the first sign I've made. I wasn't always a protester. In college, I was a raging moderate who believed that whatever the question, the answer was "love." Then I witnessed a peaceful demonstration by students at the University of Tennessee turn confrontational and then violent as a squad of Knoxville, helmeted, riot police charged the crowd in a club swinging melee that sent students scattering down the famous Hill, dripping blood into the new Student Center from their fresh head wounds. I realized that protest was a matter of conviction. Then when Richard Nixon announced he was coming to Knoxville to speak at a Billy Graham Crusade after the secret bombing of Cambodia, it fell upon me as a resident Knoxvillian to physically demonstrate against this political misuse of a religious gathering. That's when I made my first sign. It said "Crusade for Christ," but I had drawn an X through Christ and written "Nixon" below it. We picketed the main drag in front of the campus for the benefit of the afternoon Knoxville rush hour, and just to show that we were there. I didn't ask for it. It came to me. Same thing with the Republicans last Sunday. I was obligated to show my face in the place.
I got into a minor confrontation the minute I arrived. I grabbed my sign and headed for the sidewalk on Union Ave. in front of The Peabody when two policemen told me I could not protest on that side of the street. I asked if this wasn't a public sidewalk and was told, in fact, "no," that The Peabody owned the sidewalk all around the block. I was skeptical but crossed the street. Then as a measure of civil disobedience, I walked to Third Street and down the sidewalk on the Peabody side but the back way where the service entrances are. No one stopped me but the hostility was palpable for a single picket. I decided I would feel better when I found the rest of the protesters. I returned to the Union Ave. entrance of the Peabody, (across the street), and found three others. A young gay man with a back-pack holding a sign that said "Impeach Bush Now;" a young man of college age holding a sign that said "Stop Republican Fascism;" and a former hippie housewife from Lakeland who's sign read "Evildoers." I asked the woman where everyone else was and was informed that this was it. There were four of us.
You could spot the Republicans in a second. Everyone was in their Sunday, go-to-meetin' clothes, and wearing a laminated badge around their necks held together with a red ribbon which they wore like the scarlet letter. No sooner had I staked out my spot when a heavyset, red-ribbon wearing man in his forties walked behind us and paused to say, "Well, aren't you all proud of yourselves?" There was something in his sneering condescension that set me off. I replied vociferously, "I'm very proud of myself for standing out here in opposition to people like you." He said, "It's people like me that guarantee your right to stand out here." I lost it a little,"People like you? I thought the Constitution gave me that right..." and then I called him a synonym for a donkey's sphincter. I was sorry as soon as I said it, but the guy froze and looked at me very hard. I thought, "My God, I haven't been here five minutes and I'm about to be in a fistfight." Thinking that the best defense was a good offense, I immediately said in my best Chuck Norris, "You better just keep on walking, mister." The fat Republican looked at the ground and shook his head, paused for a second and walked on. I was relieved not to have to throw or duck punches. I apologized to my fellow demonstrators and told them it had been a long time, but now I remembered that if you plan to demonstrate where you are not in the majority, you can prepare to take a little abuse.
I had no idea how much abuse could be packed into a few hours, most of it drive-by name calling, some of it confrontational. The ugliest remarks were from the Republican women. Although, Kathryn Harris had cancelled her appearance at the shindig, most of the women I saw looked like Kathryn Harris impersonators, only longer in the tooth. They had that 60s Mary Tyler Moore hair-do shellacked in place, deep lipstick scars on their faces and lots of cosmetic surgery. What looked like startled shock on one woman's face was actually a brow lift gone terribly wrong. She said to the protesting housewife, "Is Osama Bin Laden your best friend?" (BTW, just writing that name gets me on a list somewhere), to which the protester replied "What the hell does that mean?" There was a tense stand-off until the GOP women remembered their dinner reservations.
I tried to time my protest to be there when the Republicans ended their afternoon session. They were all there. Frist, Hastert, George Allen, Mitt Romney, Trent "Highty Tighty" Lott, and the rest of the contenders. When a girl came up to me and asked what I thought of Mitt Romney, I replied that I liked his Daddy because he was a Democrat. When the three o'clock hour arrived, no grand poohbahs came out of The Peabody, but we caught the delegates' eye. The four of us posed for photographs for the next half-hour. We were indeed a collective curio. One guy even had me put my arm around him and hold the sign on the "Fools" side so his wife could take the picture. And dozens of cell phone memories were imprinted with our images. I reminded my fellows that someone among these happy few was from the FBI. They looked alarmed but being the oldest, I chuckled and said with false bravado, "they can just dust off my old picture from the 60s." Then several carloads drove by shouting "Faggots," and the antiquated "Commies." I laughed at that one thinking the closest Commie to Memphis was an old man in Cuba. A smaller number of drivers honked in support or gave the thumbs-up sign, but although there were numerous black Republican delegates in attendance, every African-American that drove by, without exception, honked or waved in approval. I forgot to mention that I was also wearing my "George W. Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump" tee shirt.
Chris Matthews from "Hardball," walked outside and looked up at our signs. I waved to him and he smiled back and removed his sportcoat. For a moment, I fantasized about arguing my position with Matthews on MSNBC, being the oldest of four demonstrators, but Matthews asked a policeman which way to Beale Street, then turned his back and walked in the opposite direction. The crowd thinned. The Republicans were eating and resting up for the evening session and we were discussing calling it a day when a homeless black man wearing a choir robe with a velvet collar and a broad-brimmed Jack Abramoff hat approached. He thanked us for being there and said even though he was homeless, he kept up with the news and knew that the Republicans under Bush were not looking out for the poor. I asked him if he had heard what Rev. Joseph Lowry had said at the Corretta Scott King funeral, and to my astonishment he told me he was at the funeral and proceeded to quote from the various speakers at length. He said that an elected city official looks after him sometimes and gave him the money for the bus ride to Atlanta and it was one of the greatest events in his life. Just when I was beginning to feel good about that, from the corner of my eye I saw a rough looking man in a dirty shirt and an unkempt moustache rushing towards me. I braced myself and turned to confront this wild man when he handed me a fountain coke with ice and a straw and said, "thank you for doing this." I was glad that I did and would do it again if some others would join me.
That's why I want you to know about the March for Peace, Justice and Democracy sponsored by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. People will gather at the First Congregational Church at 1000 S.Cooper at 1PM, this Sunday, March 19th and walk somewhere. It marks the third anniversary of "Shock and Awe." I felt better after having exercised my right to freely assemble and protest my government's policies, and you can probably be home in time to watch the Tigers in the NCAA Tourney. Before our merry band of four protesters at The Peabody finally parted company we shook hands all around and agreed to meet at the Peace March. I said to them in closing, "We didn't do much, but at least we did something."