Sunday, December 7, 2014


6:30 PM
The train had pulled into the Harvard Square station, and I was battling with the front edges of panic that were creeping into my brain, like fingers of smoke curling beneath a doorway. There had been a prayer in front of the station for Eric Garner and for healing. Then we had gone underground to wait here at the side of the subway tracks. A group of law students pushed past me with surgical masks over their mouths that bore the words “We can’t breathe.” Looking at the legend gave me the brief sensation that my own throat was constricting. I suddenly had to face the fact that I had no idea what was going to happen on the other end of this train ride. Any protests I had been to in the past had been carefully orchestrated, staid, and populated mostly by the usual handful of middle-aged die-hards—“Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads and old farts,” as Jessica Mitford would say. You could have brought a picnic lunch. This was going to be something else entirely—massive crowds, civil disobedience, angry police and Boston drivers staring on. My mind began quizzing itself on a dire crescendo of “What ifs.” What if something went very wrong? What if there was a medical emergency? What if I suddenly couldn’t breathe

My mind provides the images – my lungs suddenly and mysteriously give out while I’m out there. I see myself. I’m clawing at my throat, gasping for breath, begging for help. The crowd is too vast to notice. “I’ve got to get to the police!” I stumble through the marchers and fall out of line at the feet of the cops. “I can’t breathe!” I say. They assume it’s a protest stunt—street theater, a dramatic reenactment. They barely look at me. 

I shake my head free of the image and get onboard the train. I’m suddenly and bitterly aware of my status as a sort of outrage tourist. Here I am, imagining impossible hypotheticals in which I can’t breathe, when no one is likely to try to stop me from breathing. No one is going to wrap an arm around my neck and throw me to the ground. Even in my nightmare version of events, I stumble toward the police expecting their help, because that is still how I perceive them, at the most basic level—as people who can be called on for help. I don’t have to dread encounters with police officers the way as a college student I dreaded being mugged—someone has a gun trained on you, there is nothing more than a split second’s decision, an ounce too much adrenaline, a bad day, an argument at home, a hangover standing between you and death. The other person probably will not fire that gun, you think. But he might. And if he does, that’s curtains for you—that’s decades of a human life span choked off in an instant and every memory and thought you’ve ever had gone. "I'd be more afraid of the police than of the criminals" said a friend of Garner's to a Guardian reporter.

I don’t think of the police that way. I’m a white student, who can go home any time he wants and call his parents. And I’m worried on this train that maybe “I can’t breathe”? I’m a fake. A sheltered nincompoop. An iProtester, with my camera-phone and my computer case. I’m going to go home with my pictures and my anecdotes and “blog about it” afterwards.


I had mixed feelings about whether or not to participate in these protests, which I will try to share in this post. I must note immediately, however, that these feelings have nothing to do with any doubts as to the appalling injustice of Garner’s death. As in all such cases, one must enter a caveat that we do not know all the evidence, and should not rush to judgment. But the facts shown in the video, which we have all now seen, are very difficult to dispute. There was evidently no threat to the police from Garner. He was unarmed, and they had him surrounded on all sides. Even if, as Officer Pantaleo has claimed, there was no intention of using the prohibited “chokehold” maneuver against Garner (which seems difficult to credit), the violence required to drop a large man facedown onto the sidewalk, and for nothing more than selling cigarettes, is shocking enough. The frames of the video that are almost harder for me to watch than the chokehold are those that show the officer’s hands pressing Garner’s head into the pavement– it looks like he’s leaning the whole weight of his upper body onto the fragile skull of this man -- the father of six children.

But the evil at the heart of this case runs far deeper than any one police officer. Indicting one man for the crime of Garner's death, therefore, seems at once too harsh a penalty for him, and too easy an escape for the NYPD, for New York state, and for all of us. After all, Officer Pantaleo seems to have been doing what he was trained to do. He had been bid not to use a chokehold, true, but police policy had dictated that he pursue and hassle a man in the first place on a ludicrously innocuous offense, and that he shove him to the ground for the barest show of "resistance." In this, the officer's defenders in law enforcement have been more correct than probably they would like to be. As one told the Guardian: "We’re trained to do anything we need to do to contain a situation. Resisting arrest? We’re gonna bring you down."

Garner was stopped under New York's "Broken Windows" policy, which, from its very first enunciation, made no pretense of treating offenses proportionately and fairly. The idea was, in Michael Greenberg's telling, that police officers need to throw their weight around as much as possible by pursuing people on countless small charges-- selling loose cigarettes, carrying marijuana, drinking in public, petty shoplifting-- if they are ultimately to discourage more heinous crime. Just as if one window is broken in a public building, and remains un-repaired, soon every one will be, the thought was, so too if tiny offenses are allowed to slide then soon people will descend into greater ones. It was a policy designed by and for people who knew they themselves would never be targeted by it-- because no one on earth would accept such invasive and omnipresent policing if it was applied to their own neighborhood or children or friends. It was not meant for the wolves of Wall Street, who might progress from cocaine inhalation to stock fraud if left unchecked. It was meant for people on the other side of the tracks, who were thought by policy-makers to need a special degree of oversight. It was a public instantiation of the "give 'em an inch an' they'll take a mile" ethic that has informed every wielder of arbitrary power over a subject population throughout history.

The policy from its very origins showed few scruples about civil rights. In fact it was intended as a means of circumventing them. Greenberg writes in the New York Review of Books, speaking of the two ideological progenitors of the "Broken Windows" doctrine:
"The objective wasn’t law enforcement, but order enforcement. What Kelling and Wilson did not want was for police to be 'governed by rules developed to control relations with suspected criminals,' because the police actions they advocated 'probably would not withstand a legal challenge'—apparently they were referring to unwarranted searches and roughing up those who resisted. In other words, show them whom the streets belong to and let the niceties of constitutionally protected civil liberties fall by the wayside—and do it on the street itself."
Greenberg goes on to write that whatever brutality this doctrine might seem to sanction, at least it wasn't intended in its original version to be a justification for massive arrests and incarceration (hence: "do it on the street itself"). But New York, like the rest of the country, seems ultimately to have plumped for the worst of both worlds. The policy now is to drop people face-down on the ground for "resisting" -- and then to lock them up for years of their lives. We got "broken" windows and barred ones too.

It seems to me that there would have been something disgraceful in Officer Pantaleo's indictment by a criminal justice system that itself had created the policies that placed him there on that sidewalk and effectively asked him to "drop" an unarmed and mostly unresisting man, while the latter was surrounded on all sides. A society and its legislators cannot be allowed to wink knowingly at the violation of civil rights for years and then hold people accountable for those rights when it is expedient for them to do so. Perhaps you will say I am making a William Calley defense here, and perhaps I am. I does seem to me that, for the same reasons it is wrong to arraign a single soldier when the entire military of which he is a part has sanctioned atrocities against civilians; so too it seems unfair to ask one employee of the city to throw a man to the ground on the slightest pretext, and then to press charges against him for the inevitable consequences of that policy.

I went to the protest Thursday night not to press for the indictment of one individual, therefore, but to press for an overhaul of our law enforcement and criminal justice systems as a whole. It is in the nature of protests that one cannot perfectly craft one's individual message, however, but must join with the collective expression. Hence my mixed feelings.

7:00 PM
As predicted, the mood is very different from the last time I stood at a rally in Boston Common. That one ("Jobs Not Jails") had been attended mostly by a lot of black families with their children, plus career activists and organizers and the usual Quaker and Unitarian Universalist church groups, along with circulating members of the local Maoist personality cult, who are still predicting revolution the way Heaven’s Gate predicted starships. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we listened to a relay of speakers from a central stage, before calmly going home. 

This crowd is not exactly like that. Younger. A lot of students. A large proportion are white, of those I can see from my vantage point. These are veterans of Occupy, rather than of Vietnam. More disconcertingly, there is nothing to do, at this rally. No speakers, no stage, nothing to listen to, in our allotted corner of the Common. We chant various slogans, but this can only keep us busy for so long.

The real action seems to be happening further up the hill. There, Santa Claus and his elves are engaged in the annual lighting of the Boston Christmas tree. It was a gift, apparently, from the city of Halifax, whose mayor is also up on stage, along with women dressed as Mounties. Something is bound to give, in this scene.

There is a restlessness in the air that I do not trust. People begin darting onto Tremont street yelling “Let’s shut it down!” Then a chant goes up that I can hear but do not understand: “No justice; no tree!” Over and over again.  I see organizers in orange vests and with megaphones come racing through the middle of us, telling us to follow. Then I get it. The whole mass of people turns and starts squelching its way up Beacon Hill. We are going to shut down the Christmas tree lighting. 

This was obviously the moment of decision. I could get back on the train and go home, content I had been here and added my voice and chanted a few things. We were still close to the T entrance. But I didn't. I felt compelled to stay.

All day I had been inwardly gauging my motivations. I knew that if I stayed at this point, I would be doing so partly out of a desire not to seem afraid in front of my friends and colleagues at the protest. It would also be a result of the inevitable group mentality that makes you want to walk in step with the feet around you, wherever they are headed. And last, there was merely the least political sort of curiosity that bid me stay and "see how it all turns out." I was ashamed to obey these impulses—but I decided I would be even more ashamed to give in to the naked physical cowardice that would have motivated my decision to bolt. Because part of the reason I was nervous there was simply the crowd, the noise, the anger, and the fact that I was in technical violation of the law. I wasn’t going to let those things determine my behavior tonight. 

Retrospectively, we like to turn all our choices into straightforward ones between courage and cravenness; and unsurprisingly, it usually turns out in hindsight that we chose courage. But too often, our choices are really made in each moment between rival cowardices. I found tonight that I would be more deeply revolted by myself if I ran from physical danger than if I followed the crowd, especially when that particular crowd might have justice on its side.

I dither and show uncertainty while running through these inner calculations, but my friends look entirely purposeful, so I follow them and don't ask whether they feel any similar trepidation. Our sign ends up in my hands and I’m chanting away. The Boston police department seems entirely impassive through all this. They prevent the crowd from getting too close to the people watching the tree lighting, but other than that they seem to let the crowd of protesters flow where it wants to. At one point, officers walk through the mass just ahead of me carrying bicycles, but they barely look at me or anyone else. People start up the first explicitly anti-police chants of the evening, around this time. “Hey hey, ho ho; you racist cops have got to go," they call.

“It’s not just the cops though…” a friend of mine notes, and then tries to start a different chant: “Black Lives Matter.” Another friend had said something before we got here that now comes back to mind: “There’s something really problematic,” as she put it, “about seeing a bunch of white protesters yelling at black cops at these things.” It’s especially troubling when those white protestors are hurling the specific charge of “racist."

Perhaps the argument I made above is not a convincing one. We may say that Officer Pantaleo "took his blood money and his impious risks" (MacDiarmid) by signing onto a police force that implemented these policies, and he must now bear the consequences.

Besides, the grand jury that absolved him was not even tasked with determining his guilt or innocence—its role was simply to determine whether or not there was sufficient doubt of that innocence to merit a criminal trial. By failing to indict, it essentially declared that it saw in the video and other evidence (whatever it was) no reason at all that the officer’s guilt should be assessed by a trial. Millions across the country find it very difficult to believe that such a decision was made without bias.

This is particularly so, given the treatment most civilian defendants, especially those of color, receive at the hands of our state prosecutors-- a point worth dwelling on at length.

Had the grand jury chosen to indict, Officer Pantaleo would still have been rightly protected in the criminal trial by a strong presumption of innocence and a high standard of proof. Similarly exacting standards will probably also prevent a federal civil rights suit from resulting in a penalty, in the view of the New York Times. These are essential legal principles of a decent society. The question that always arises in these situations for me and others, however, is this: if it is truly so hard to secure a conviction under our law, why then are our prisons full to overflowing with convicted people? If the presumption of innocence proves truly so great a protection to defendants, why is it that as of two years ago, 700 out of every 100,000 Americans were in prison? Why is our nation “the undisputed world leader in incarceration,” to quote David Cole? Why are 25% of the world's prisoners incarcerated in the United States? Why is it, that is to say, that when a white police officer causes the death of a black civilian (directly or otherwise), it is impossible to indict him even on suspicion of manslaughter or criminal negligence; yet our system manages each year to indict, convict, and incarcerate more people than any other country in the world— vastly disproportionate numbers of them being drawn from black and Hispanic communities?

Individual acts of discrimination are part of the explanation, but the problem is ultimately more complicated than just saying that the presumption of innocence is selectively applied. For one thing, as Ajay recently reminded me in an unrelated conversation, having a generous presumption of innocence does not mean that a society has a magnanimous set of laws. It may require a high burden of proof to show guilt, but if the crimes that must be proved are an endless series of relatively minor offenses that each bear inordinately long sentences under federal guidelines, then a great many people can still end up behind bars, and for great stretches of their lives. It is easy to prove drug possession, say, beyond a "reasonable doubt." The question there is not whether the innocence presumption is being applied, but whether the crime itself deserves to be punished by jail time.

In spite of this, however, the presumption of innocence remains one of the few real checks on a system that is designed to punish people harshly and for unendurably long times. Part of my reason for thinking this, in fact, is that prosecutors are nowadays so anxious to sidestep it, by never taking most cases to trial. That is to say, it is perhaps the surest sign that our nation’s criminal justice trials might still provide protection to defendants, that our manifestly unfair criminal justice system is increasingly seeking to avoid them. (Though whether it is doing so for cruel or simply lazy and cost-cutting reasons, I will not seek to judge.) It does this by handling an ever greater number of cases through plea bargain-- a pole that has been much greased in recent decades by the adoption of those same sentencing guidelines described above .

Justice Jed Rakoff in a recent article in the New York Review of Books writes that 97% of federal criminal cases now (among those that aren't first dismissed by a judge) are settled by plea bargain, and so never make it to the courtroom. According to Rakoff, vast numbers of people who would probably have been acquitted in a criminal trial, either because they are innocent or because there was not enough evidence to convict them, end up going to prison regardless under this system because they choose to accept the plea. Prosecutors are able to terrify defendants into this seemingly inexplicable choice, because under sentencing guidelines they are able to pile up charges far in excess of what you or I would identify as the “real crime” involved. Rakoff gives a hypothetical example:
"The prosecutor can agree with the defense counsel in a federal narcotics case that, if there is a plea bargain, the defendant will only have to plead guilty to the personal sale of a few ounces of heroin, which carries no mandatory minimum and a guidelines range of less than two years; but if the defendant does not plead guilty, he will be charged with the drug conspiracy of which his sale was a small part, a conspiracy involving many kilograms of heroin, which could mean a ten-year mandatory minimum and a guidelines range of twenty years or more."
The costs of a possible conviction therefore become so terrifyingly high -- more and more years of one's life spent behind bars – that even innocent or probably un-convictable people will plead guilty to a lesser charge and accept jail time.

Prosecutors do not have to do this. They are not obliged to press every possible charge they can find, in excess of the the one that actually corresponds to what everyone recognizes as the real crime. I shared a Thanksgiving meal this year with a retired judge, who assured me, when I asked her, that prosecutors have the “ultimate discretion” in determining which charges to press. Prosectuors' decision to continually heap on greater and greater offenses to crimes that would already be punishable by long jail terms is their own. It is also one difficult to understand on any but the most ruthless or cynical motivations.

That prosecutors have this kind of power flies in the face of our popular conceptions of our justice system. One of Rakoff's fellow justices, for instance, wrote a question-begging rebuttal to his essay in the NYRB, in which he declared among other things that "[c]ontrary to Judge Rakoff’s misstatement that prosecutors always have the upper hand, defendants do have a strong weapon. It is called 'the presumption of innocence' and the corollary requirement that the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt." Rakoff meets this with the obvious rejoinder, namely: the whole problem is of course that the innocence presumption is avoided by plea bargaining. The presumption is an important tool for defendants, and this is exactly what is so questionable about the plea bargaining system. This was, after all, rather the motivation for his essay.

The fact that prosecutors want so much to avoid settings in which there is a presumption of innocence, suggests to me that the latter is still robust in our system, for all that system’s other failings. It is a strange and backhanded compliment that retribution pays to redemption, that it is so desperate to avoid tangling with it. I note likewise, for instance, that our immigration system seeks generally to process cases in civil immigration courts, rather than criminal ones, in large part to avoid the high standard of proof in criminal law. As I have written before on this blog, there is an especially cruel irony in the fact that it is because our law, as written, does not regard residing in this country without documentation as a bad enough action in itself to be a crime, that undocumented people have fewer protections against being punished for it!

All of this is to suggest that the behavior of the prosectors in Missouri and New York has been totally out of keeping with their usual policy, which is to press charges harshly and far in excess of the crime. The suspicion that they are applying a different standard to white police officers than what they apply to black and Hispanic defendants seems to be confirmed. It is a savage injustice indeed that the same prosecutors who are willing to pile on ever heftier charges to poor or black or Hispanic defendants—to exhaust, in short, every possible avenue at their disposal to get a guilty plea—are the same prosecutors who are now failing to present a coherent case to a grand jury to suggest that the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings merit indictment.

But here arise again  my mixed feelings about the protests. What is so unjust about this whole story is the obvious disparity of treatment between white police officers and innumerable black and Hispanic defendants; but such a disparity can be resolved in either of two ways. Either white police officers could be treated as harshly and brutally as black defendants. Or the latter could be treated as leniently as the former. And in truth, I would much prefer that the disparity be resolved in the second way.

You will say that I have set up a false dichotomy. Neither one person nor another needs to be treated “leniently” or “harshly” in all cases. There is still the possibility, even in our debased society, that every person could be treated fairly, depending on the nature of her or his actions, and nothing more.

I find this argument very difficult to dispute. And yet, rehearsing this whole account of the savagery of our criminal justice system (and the account could of course be far longer and include far more egregious examples)—well, typing it all out only, I confess, makes me more ill at ease with the thought of ever finding myself in the role of pressing for indictments or convictions for anyone -- even for someone seemingly guilty of police brutality (on the limited evidence that has so far been made available to the public). If our system of punishment itself is arguably what led to Eric Garner’s killing, by criminalizing incredibly minor offenses, by attaching harsh penalties too them, by over-policing poor, working-class, and black neighborhoods, and putting into place the “broken windows” policy, then I find it hard to ask for the punishment of one person in response to it.

The view from a "die-in" at Government Center

7:30 PM
Through all of this, the elves continued – I take it – to frolic and be merry. We were too far away to observe events on stage, but the Boston Globe reported that the Mayor of Halifax went on with his speech despite the chanting. The tree was lit and the children saw Santa, so any qualms I might have had on that score were unnecessary. Besides, the protesters quickly decided the State House needed to hear our message rather more than the Mounties. 

We flood onto Beacon Street – a street I have never once seen free of cars before -- a street I had looked over beseechingly countless afternoons as I sought for the slightest opening through which I could cross. And now I, along with thousands of other people, am standing in the middle of it and blocking traffic. 

Again, the BPD appears to have decided that it is better to dredge a canal through Boston's streets and redirect the protester's flow through it than to stymie the flow entirely. They form a fierce protective belt around the front steps of the State House itself, while various suits look down at us from the upper balconies. State legislators? Plainclothes detectives? Snipers? Inconvenienced tourists from Western Mass? Who knows. 

I am standing in the cold December air, beneath the under-lit gaze of Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, and Horace Mann, whose statues grace the state house lawn. To those same calm faces I have directed the gaze of many a tour group in the past: “all three of these men were Unitarians and the building itself was also designed by a blah blah blah.”

We carried on down the middle of Park Street. We are in violation of God knows how many laws and zoning ordinances, but the police are evidently set on not making massive arrests. I think their philosophy is that it will only get worse if they try to fight it. The chief of the Boston police had apparently expressed approval for the protests in advance, and simply bid us not to get in the way of children seeing Santa Claus, which we had not been able to do anyways. 

My voice and legs, which had seemed likely to give out a couple minutes before, now fall into a hypnotic rhythm. I am barely noticing the chanting or the marching, I am just marveling at the fact of being in the middle of a downtown Boston street with hundreds of other people. I’m unsettled by my own delight in the bare fact of numbers and of strength and of official transgression. “Of course we would all like to ‘believe’ in something, like to assuage our private guilt in public causes” – Joan Didion’s stern insinuations come back to me – “like to lose our tiresome selves […] and of course it is all right to do that, […] so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why.” Okay, so what am I doing here tonight? And why?

Didion here is more wrong than right. Her essay goes on to denounce “morality” in all but the most elemental—almost tribal forms. To her, any statement of abstract good, meant to apply equally to all lands and all people, will inevitably bear within it the seeds of totalitarianism. “[T]hen is when we join the fashionable madmen […] then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land […]" and so on. “It is difficult to believe that ‘the good’ is a knowable quantity,” she says. The irony is that this is itself one of the most abstract, categorical, and absurdly over-generalized claims there is. Like all the other abstract ideas Didion is combatting, it breaks down entirely when regarded at the individual level. When applied to cases like the prolonged violation of people's civil rights in our justice system that plainly seem to cry out for conscientious dissent, it rings entirely hollow.

But the truth behind her words is that people massing in groups, all utterly convinced of the justice of their claims, convinced likewise of the near-inhumanity of the opposition, are unedifying spectacles, to say the least. The moment of conscience that leads people to take part in these protests is such an individual thing, that requires one to take a courageous stand against the view of the mass; but once you’re in the thick of it, there is a new majority around you, with a new orthodoxy and canon law and ecclesiastical court – this is so even if all three will evaporate by the end of the evening, and you will go back to inhabiting a world in which you are alone, and the courts and canon laws, if they exist, are no longer in your favor. You want more of that fleeting loss of individuality, that remission from the pain of personhood. “Not having any ideology yourself, you might wonder what the Party offers,” intones a young Maoist whom Didion encounters at his “Party headquarters” in Southern California. “It offers nothing. If offers thirty or forty years of putting the Party above everything. It offers beatings. Jail.” Didion wryly notes at the end of this speech: “But of course that was offering a great deal.”

When one is quite sure that it is one’s own group that is the underdog, and that all the power belongs to the pigs, then it is impossible to see oneself in the role of potential oppressor. But we all are potential oppressors, and on some level, we all know it. It is some dim inkling of this knowledge, in fact, that makes us all want to rush to judgment of the “pigs.” We see more of ourselves in the terrible actions of other people than we want to think possible, and we flee from the knowledge. We try to draw boundaries around our selfhood. We try to show just how unlike them we are by seeking their punishment at our hands. Ironically, yet unsurprisingly, it is this very desire to separate ourselves off from the “oppressors” that makes us oppressors ourselves. We actually erase the line between ourselves and the horrendous actions we are condemning in the very act of trying to draw it more forcefully. 

“Hey hey, ho ho, you racist pigs have got to go!” I’m hearing a lot more of that chant now, and it is always 'pigs’ rather than ‘cops' now that the evening has worn on. The mood has soured. The crowd seems to be getting bored again. The BPD is still ignoring us for the most part and cycling alongside us. I suspect some of the people here came for the commotion, and have been disappointed so far.

I have been stunned all evening by how little conflict all of this has caused with the city itself. Boston drivers are ordinarily homicidal and vindictive – never more so than when they are stopped in traffic. Like trapped animals, they snarl and claw at everyone around them and howl out their rage. "Idiot!" I was called last week by a driver, after I reversed directions suddenly on a crosswalk. The other day some friends and I listened to a man in halted traffic literally laying on his horn for ten minutes straight, until the device itself sounded like it was going to give out, like a pull-string toy running out of batteries. A beefy and thick-necked individual with cut-off shirt-sleeves got out of the car behind him, and leaned menacingly into his window. The beeping stopped after that. 

And yet tonight, there is not a whisper of a horn in outrage, even while we are marching down the middle of a street between rows of halted cars. Not a single driver bellows at us. No one snaps and decides to careen into the center of our ranks, even though this strikes me as a definite possibility in Boston. Instead, people are utterly calm, despite our shutting down their evening commute or, if they are cab drivers, their means of earning a living for those few minutes. Either it was a show of solidarity, or else they were paralyzed with rage. Or perhaps transfixed by curiosity. One guy behind the wheel had his phone out and took a video of the whole thing.

The only people who aren’t calm, in fact, are the protesters. 

Either we have walked an incredible distance by now, or Boston is a tiny city-- or both; because we have reached the bridge to Charleston and my legs are not even tired. There is some talk of trying to march straight onto and over the Zakim bridge, as in, the big lit-up city bridge that spans the Charles River and that is Boston's nearest equivalent to the Golden Gate, but I’m not sure anyone attempts it. The crowd has thinned by now.

The smaller bridge next to Zakim is still within our powers to occupy, however. We walk across it and into Charleston. I have a moment of complete vertigo when I look down, and realize I can see straight down through the grating to the river below. That water would be really cold. And it's a long way down. Someone ahead of me starts taking loud notice of the same fact, which is not helping. I gulp and take comfort in the fact that I am still walking forward, and therefore somehow getting closer to the end of the bridge.

After we get across the river, my friends stop marching and stand off to one side. We confer about whether to stay a while longer or to go home. I’m for staying, so long as we don’t take any more bridges and don’t try to run onto the highway. The others seem to agree. Then one of the most characteristically deadpan friends present asks us all, calmly, “Hey, you guys want to know something scary?” 

“What’s that?” I ask. 

“There are hundreds of people running toward us right now.” 

It is true. The organizers are sprinting toward us, hundreds of others following behind, all moving in the opposite direction they had been headed ten seconds earlier. We dodge behind a wall to get out of the way as everyone sprints past. 

It takes us a moment to decide that no tear gas or rubber bullets had been unleashed—the sudden volte-face had been the crowd’s own idea. Our theory is that the move was intended to fool the police; because shortly thereafter the protestors are climbing over guardrails and cement islands to try to get onto I-93. According to later reports, they managed to close it down for a few minutes, but we didn’t stick around to see it.

On my way home that night, I sit next to one of the middle-aged Maoists on the Red Line. I have the frayed poster-board sign saying "Black Lives Matter" still in my hands. The Maoist is on his way back from the protests, apparently, and gathers from my folded sign that I am too. He seems friendly, and we enjoy comparing notes on the night's events. Despite being a Maoist, he does not object when I assert I'm glad "things didn't get too out of hand." He does eventually start loading me up with revolutionary literature and asking for a donation to the cause, but he kindly does not press the point when I tell him I don’t have anything today. We are quiet for a little while before he tells me that he just can't accept the injustice of what happened to Eric Garner and his family. I tell him I agree with him. 

And suddenly I feel caught between my knowledge that silence on my part would be shameful, and my awareness of myself as an interloper into a private grief. Who am I to run his mouth about all this? But surely it is worse not even to try, not even to show up.

I get off the train in Central Square and find the only cafe that is still open. I eat a slice of cheesecake and sip some hot chocolate. What exactly did I just do, and how do I feel about it? I shake off the thought and, like any tourist, decide to start going through my photos.

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