Saturday, June 6, 2020

Still Life with Robin: What I Learned at the Demonstration

by Peggy Robin
Anti-War March on Washington
(Wikimedia Commons)
It's not often that I get to give young people the benefit of my many years of experience. I'm not prepared to reveal how many is in that "many" - but it definitely goes back to 1969 and includes a few key events in the early 70s, when I was out on the streets of our nation's capital in all manner of demonstrations: anti-war, social justice, anti-apartheid; equality for women -- you name it, I marched for it. In November of 1969 I got tear-gassed. 

So it pleases me to be able to pass on a bit of wisdom -- plus a practical tip or two -- to anyone who's been on the streets and is worried about what harm may come if police use crowd dispersal techniques to clear an area of lawfully assembled protesters. 

First, a bit more about how I came by my knowledge. I was not just a demonstrator, but a trained "marshall" -- that is, a volunteer guide, taught to help keep marchers on the march route, answer any questions, direct people to the first aid station, or the port-a-potties -- and other useful things like that. The half-day orientation session also taught some techniques in peacekeeping, conflict de-escalation, and self-protection. This took place at All Souls Church on Harvard Street -- where, even today, all kinds of protesters and activists today are finding help, comfort, support, and  guidance. 

What specific things do I recall? If they throw tear gas, cover your face with a bandanna -- and wet it first. I think they told us the tear gas molecules were supposed to be blocked more effectively by the wet cotton. Was this true then? Is it true now? I really don't know. I was tear-gassed at the "Student Mobe" anti-war march of November 15, 1969, and it was absolutely freezing that day -- so cold that I was not about to put a wet anything over my face. 

What else? I remember being told not to wear hoop earrings, because a cop who wanted to hurt you could just yank on your earrings, ripping them right through your earlobe. I was told, as a marshall, if I saw any women wearing hoop earrings, to warn them to take them out, just to be on the safe side. (No one in those days considered the possibility that a man would ever wear a hoop earring.)

The last thing I remember about the training is that if you are in a confrontation with the police, look for their badge number. If they've taken off their badges, well, that's a very bad sign -- they've made themselves unidentifiable, and thus, unaccountable. Of course there were no cellphone cameras back then and it was unlikely that anyone in the crowd would have a camera, and even if they did, what were the odds that they would take it out, remove the lens cap, point it at the scene, focus, and capture the moment when the cops are caught doing something illegal? Getting a cop's badge number was seen as the best way for an ordinary observer to document an encounter with a cop. 

I'm sure that's not all I learned at the marshall's session, but that's all I remember.Still, I will never forget the sensation of being tear-gassed. To this day, when I see news reports of people remaining in houses where the cops have thrown in tear gas canisters to flush them out, but they don't leave, I think to myself, "How do they stand it?" The coughing, that sickening, choking feeling -- makes you feel you can't stay where you are another instant.

In '69 I was part of a large crowd of (peaceful) demonstrators when the tear gas was thrown to clear out an area in front of the Justice Department. We all started running away from the gas. A bunch of us ran straight into a People's Drug Store (that's what the CVS chain was called, back in the day). One boy who ran in with the crowd was so soaked in tear gas that he couldn't stand to be in his clothing. So he started stripping, piece by piece -- first the outer jacket, then the shirt, and then when he when he realized his pants were soaked in tear gas, he took off his shoes, socks, and then the pants, and was almost naked in just his underwear. At that point he stopped coughing. And at that point the store manager came out and told him he had to leave -- and threw him outside in the 30-degree cold, all-but-naked, and tossed his clothes and his shoes out after him.

I found a pay phone and called to have my mother pick me up (Metro was still several years away from becoming a reality). The streets a few blocks north of the People's were open to traffic and within 15 minutes, I had a ride and another 15 minutes after that, I was home, safe and warm.  

To all who went out and marched today --or have marched in the past twelve days-- I salute you....and hope you have come home safe at the end of your day. 

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.  

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